Naseem Banu was one of the most beautiful Hindi film heroines ever. The original beauty queen with perfectly yet delicately chiseled features and large magnetic eyes, she was known in her time as ‘Pari Chehra’ or having the face of a fairy. In spite of a carrier comprising just about twenty odd films, she still made a huge mark on film going audiences. In fact, Banu had a long career lasting almost two decades as a leading lady till she was well into her 30s and she even played the heroine opposite younger actors like Rehman and Shyam mighty convincingly.
Naseem was born on July 4, 1916 in Delhi to courtesan-singer Shamshad Begum, better known as ‘Chhamiya’ and rich Nawab, Abdul Waheed Khan. She did her schooling at Queen Mary’s High School there with her mother harboring ambitions to make her a doctor. However, she was a big fan of the movies and actress Sulochana in particular. So after a family visit to Bombay, now Mumbai, in the 1930s, Naseem decided to make the movies her career. It was not easy. She had to fight hard with her mother to get her way, including, it is said staging, a successful hunger strike along with many tears!
Much of Naseem’s early work came at Minerva Movietone, owned by the great Sohrab Modi. Modi introduced Naseem on the silver screen in his adaptation of Hamlet, Khoon Ka Khoon (1935). Sadly for Naseem, the film flopped at the box-office. To make things worse, she had to discontinue her studies as as her education institution asked her to leave since acting was considered a lowly profession in those days. She then re-entered the film line and appeared in a series of films, mostly socials for Minerva including Divorce (1938), Meetha Zahar (1938) and Vasanti (1938) before hitting the big time with Modi’s epic historical drama, Pukar (1939).
Pukar was a landmark film not just for Modi in terms of its making but a triumph for its entire lead cast that included Chandramohan, Sardar Akhtar and Modi himself besides Naseem. The film is set in the court of the Mughal Emperor Jehangir (Chandramohan) and is based on an incident, which is perhaps historically untrue, to highlight Jehangir’s fair sense of justice. Many of the key scenes were staged in the magnificient courts and palaces of the Mughals that gave the film an authenticity that studio built sets could never achieve while the oratory dialogue by Kamal Amrohi with its literary flourish and innate grace ensured the film’s huge popularity. The film, in particular, makes splendid use of Naseem’s regal bearing casting her as Jehangir’s wife, the Empress Noor Jehan. It remains her most most well-known performance and one where she sang her own songs as well.
Following the success of Pukar, Naseem and Modi parted ways, and based on her strong impact as the Mughal Empress, Naseem signed two films with a rival studio to again play famous queens – Cleopatra and Mumtaz Mahal respectively. Both films, however, failed to take off. But by now she had several well-known admirers including the son of the Nizam of Hyderabad.
In this period Naseem also met childhood acquaintance Mohammed Ehsan who had returned from abroad armed with a agree in Industrial Chemistry. He launched a production house, Taj Mahal Pictures, with the film Ujala (1942) starring Naseem and Prithviraj Kapoor. Through the course of the film and thereafter, Ehsan and Naseem fell in love and got married. Naseem then moved to Delhi along with Ehsan. The couple had two children, daughter Saira Banu, who also went on to become an actress and a son, Sultan Ahmed. For a while it looked like Naseem had bid adieu to films.
However, S Mukerji, who worked at Bombay Talkies and was now part of the breakaway group that established Filmistan, convinced Naseem to come back and star opposite Ashok Kumar for Filmistan’s maiden production, Chal Chal Re Naujavan (1944). Though the build up for the film was huge, it only did moderate business at the box-office. More importantly though, Naseem was now back in the film industry for good. Ehsan and Naseem restarted Taj Mahal Pictures which would produce films starring Naseem. Some films produced by the banner include Begum (1945), Mulaqat (1947), and Chandni Raat (1949), the last also directed by Ehsan.
Two of Naseem’s best performances came in Mehboob’s Anokhi Ada (1948) and Sohrab Modi’s Sheesh Mahal (1950), re-uniting her with Modi after more than a decade. In Anokhi Ada, she plays a poor woman who is presumed dead after a train accident, loses her memory and is wooed by both heroes – a rich man (Prem Adib), with whom she had fallen in love and a professor (Surendra) who does his best to stop her from regaining her memory. While not one of Mehboob’s best, it nevertheless has its moments with some fine music composed by Naushad. In Sheesh Mahal, Naseem played the daughter of a Thakur (Sohrab Modi), who has lost his riches and house – the grand ‘Sheesh Mahal’, and works as a maid to the new owner in the house to help the family get by. Many critics regarded Naseem’s performance as the young woman struggling to live a life of dignity as the best and most in-depth of her career.
Naseem’s last lot of films include the swashbuckler Shabistan (1951), during whose filming leading man Shyam lost his life, Ajeeb Ladki (1952), Betaab (1952), which was her last film of note as a leading lady, and the stunt films, Sinbad The Sailor (1952) and Baghi (1953). Thereafter, she was seen in Sohrab Modi’s Nausherwan-e-Adil (1957), where she impressively played the Empress of Iran.
By the time she completed Ajeeb Ladki, the last film made under the Taj Mahal Pictures banner and also directed by Ehsan, Naseem’s marriage to him was on its last legs. Ehsan migrated to Pakistan on his own taking with him all the negatives and prints of the films produced by Taj Mahal Pictures. He had these films screened there, making her an extremely popular actress across the border as well.
Naseem then moved to England for a while as she sent her children to a day school there to give them the best of education. But finding England cold and aloof, the family finally returned to India.
Once her daughter, Saira Banu, entered films, Naseem, who ironically was dead against her joining the movie industry, designed clothes for her including some trendsetting beautiful embroidered saris in Aayi Milan Ki Bela (1964). And though well in her 40s by now, Naseem continued to get acting offers but refused them all.
Naseem Banu passed away in Mumbai on June 18, 2002.