Munawar Sultana had a short but glorious film career from 1945-50 where she excelled as the ideal self-sacrificing, suffering Indian woman. It is to her credit that even in these highly melodramatic pictures, she was almost always able to give a quiet sense of inner strength and dignity to most of the characters she played. Her fine performances in films like Kaneez (1949), Sartaj (1950) and Babul (1950) bear this out.
Born on 8th November, 1924 in a Punjabi family in Lahore, Sultana was the daughter of a radio announcer. Her initial aim in life was not to become an actress but to study medicine and become a doctor. She began her acting career in a small way in a song sequence (Peene Ke Din Aaye Piye Jaa) shown as part of a stage performance of Umar Khayam in Dalsukh Pancholi’s Khazanchi (1941). In the play within a film, Sultana plays a young girl supplying men liquor in a liquor den who extolls the hero to drink more.
Sultana first made a major mark in producer-director-actor Mazhar Khan’s Pehli Nazar (1945), where she played one of the lead roles along with Motilal and Veena. It was Mazhar Khan, who brought Sultana to Bombay from Lahore signing her for Rs 4,000 a month – a huge amount in those days and that too for a rank newcomer. Though Sultana always considered this, her maiden role as a heroine, her best performance ever, the film is remembered by critics and historians today mainly for the big breakthrough song of singer Mukesh, Dil Jalta Hai To Jalne Do, filmed on Motilal. Still, it did set Sultana on her way as a leading lady in the world of Hindi filmdom. Khan would direct her in two more films, Sona (1948) and Dil Ki Diniya (1949). Both also co-starred in Naiya (1947), directed by Aslam Noori.
An early musical hit for Sultana was AR Kardar’s Dard (1947), co-starring singing star, Suraiya. While Suraiya naturally had her share of some wonderful Naushad compositions like Beech Bhanwar Mein and Hum The Tumhare Tum The Humare, the most popular song of the film, Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon, sung by Uma Devi (Tun Tun), was picturized on Sultana. It also remains the most popular song filmed on her till date. The same year, she also convincingly played the lead role in Mehboob’s Muslim social, Elan. In this film, Sultana plays a young woman who sacrifices her love for the hero, Surendra, and marries his nasty cousin, Himalaywala, instead. The lovers meet again years later where he is a lawyer having to defend her as she is accused of killing her vagabond husband. While Sultana is more than adequate in her role of a typical virtuous wife and daughter, it is Himalaywala who steals the film as her good for nothing husband.
Munawar Sultana hit her peak as an an actress (and star) with Kaneez, co-starring Shyam, and more so, Babul, a love triangle where both she and Nargis fall in love with hero Dilip Kumar. In the former film, hero Shyam is caught between his wife, Sultana, and sexy vamp, Kudip Kaur, who all but destroys his marriage. This forces Sultana to live like a servant in her own house even as she tries to win her errant husband back. While she is fine enough in what is for her a typical performance in Kaneez, one of four films she did with Shyam (Majboor (1948), Dada (1949) and Raat Ki Rani (1949) being the others), it is in Babul that Sultana gives arguably the finest performance of her career. In this love triangle, she plays the haughty daughter of a rich zamindar who softens as she loves Dilip Kumar and who is loved by him in return. However, in the film’s tragic ending, she is made to (yet again) sacrifice her love as she gets married elsewhere. While Naushad’s musical score in Babul was extremely popular especially the wedding song Chhod Babul Ka Ghar, the standout composition of the film is the lovely duet, Milte Hi Ankhen Dil Hua Deewana Kisi Ka, filmed on Sultana and Dilip Kumar as he teaches her singing. Ironically, for someone who made quite a name for herself in highly charged domestic dramas, Sultana always wished she had done films that were more simple and more realistic in nature.
Strangely after Babul, Sultana’s career went into inexplicable decline. None of her films, thereafter, made much of a mark though she continued to work into the 1950s. She finally quit the film industry, getting married to businessman and furniture retailer, Sharaf Ali Bhagat, in 1954 and settling down in Bombay, now Mumbai. Incidentally, he produced two of Sultana’s films – Meri Kahani (1948) and Pyar Ki Manzil (1950). Her last released film was Jallad (1956) co-starring Dilip Kumar’s younger brother, Nasir Khan. After her husband’s untimely death in 1966, Sultana successfully brought up their seven children – 4 sons and 3 daughters – single-handedly.
Suffering from Alzheimer’s disease in the later years of her life, Munawar Sultana passed away in Mumbai on September 15th, 2007.