Sabiha Khanum was arguably the greatest actress the Pakistani screen has ever seen and is widely and deservedly acknowledged till date as the ‘First Lady of Pakistani Cinema’. Her performances in films like Sassi (1954), Gumnam (1954), Dulla Bhatti (1956), Waadah (1957), Mousiqar (1962), Devar Bhabhi (1967) and, in particular, Ek Gunah Aur Sahi (1975) are talked about in raptures by Pakistanis of the older generation even today.
Sabiha was born Mukhtar Begum on October 16 in either 1935 or 1936 – it’s not clear – in a village near Gujrat in Punjab. Her mother passed away when Sabiha was just six. Her father, based in Lahore, then sent her back to the village where Sabiha, brought up by her grandparents, learned to milk cows, get water from the well, make rotis and churn butter. As she grew up, her father took her back to the city. A friend of his, Mr Sultan Khoosat, took her around to see Lahore and for the first time in her life, Sabiha watched a movie on the big screen. Soon after, Sabiha visited Radio Pakistan, where Mr Khoosat worked, and on the spur of the moment, she got the chance to sing in a live program. A few days later, she saw a play in the theater, where they were holding an audition. Sabiha tried for that part and got it. The rest as they (always) say is history.
Sabiha’s first film was Beli (1950), also marking the Pakistani debut of Santosh Kumar who would go on to become Pakistani cinema’s greatest and most popular leading man. The film, with the partition of India as a backdrop, did not, however, do well at the box office. Sabiha made it as a star, however, the same year with Do Aansoo (1950), the first ever silver jubilee film of Pakistan in the Urdu language. The film, directed by Anwar Kamal Pasha and co-starring Shamim, Gulshan Ara and Santosh Kumar, looks at how a man inadvertantly ruins the lives of his wife and daughter. In fact, such was the impact of the film that it was re-made twice subsequently in Pakistan as Dillan Da Saude (1969) in Punjabi and Anjuman (1970) in Urdu.
Now a popular leading lady, Sabiha first gained notice as a considerable actress of merit in Sassi (1954) based on the Sassi Punnu legend but even more so in Gumnam (1954) where she expertly played a mentally challenged woman. For the latter film, Sabiha devised a shrill laugh for the character, which she used to practice at home. Once on hearing her practice, a concerned neighbor came over to find out if all was well with her!
With Dulla Bhatti (1956), Sabiha proved she could as easily carry of a Punjabi film on her shoulders as well. The film, costarring Sudhir, was a huge success at the box office. In fact, 1956 was a super year for Sabiha as she delivered success after success. Hameeda, a remake of the Geeta Bali starrer Vachan (1955), Sarfarosh and Chhoti Begum all proved to be huge winners at the box office. Sabiha had become the undisputed queen of Pakistani cinema.
Waadah (1957) and Saat Laakh (1957) are regarded as milestone films in Pakistan, both co-starring Sabiha and Santosh and both being huge successes at the box office. Wadaah looks at a poor, simple man from the village, who loves a police officer’s daughter from the city. The film is known best for Santosh’s sensitive performance as well as the song Jab Tere Shaher Se Guzarta Hoon. Saat Laakh takes off from Mr and Mrs 55 looking at a heiress who has to marry in order to retain her wealth – seven lakhs cash, a bungalow worth seven lakhs and other assets worth seven lakhs. She marries a convict on the run so that she could marry him, go to her hill station house on ‘honeymoon’ and then have her lawyer bring the police there a couple of days later to have the man arrested. Of course, she falls in love with him in this period, of course, the police come and arrest him and he thinks she has betrayed him and his love. He was on the run as he was wanted for murder having ‘accidentally’ killed a man, who was trying to rape a woman (Nayyar Sultana). Expectedly, all’s well that ends well ultimately.
1957 also saw the launch of the Nigar Awards, Pakistan’s version of the Filmfare Awards. While Santosh won the Best Actor Award for Waadah, Sabiha was the winner for Saat Laakh. By now the Sahiba Khanum-Santosh Kumar jodi was talked off in the same breath as Raj Kapoor and Nargis. It was but inevitable that with the numerous films they were doing together and with the on-screen chemistry they shared that they fell in love with each other off-screen as well. This in spite of Santosh being a married man with children. The two, after initial opposition from Sabiha’s father, got married during the making of Hasrat (1958). To quote Sabiha in an interview given to The Saturday Post, “My father was of course completely against the marriage. He couldn’t reconcile to me becoming Santosh’s second wife, while he was still married to his first wife and also had two daughters. But I told my father that Santosh was a true gentleman and there was nobody I’d rather marry. Finally, my father relented. And I’ve never for a day regretted that decision. In fact, Santosh’s first wife and I are very good friends. She is a really nice woman. In fact, the reason that we could make it work was that we both loved Santosh very much and we got along so he would never face a conflict. It’s worked out so well that our children don’t consider each other half-brothers or half-sisters. It’s all a tightly knit family, Masha Allah!”
Sabiha proved a top heroine right through to the mid 60s scoring heavily in films like Naaji (1959), Ayaz (1960), Shyam Dhale (1960), Mousiqar, Shikwa (1963) – winning the Nigar Award for Best Actress, Kaneez (1965), Sawaal (1966) and Devar Bhabhi, yet another award-winning performance. Though by now, Sabiha was getting slotted into the character artist category, she was still getting roles where her role was the pivot around which the film revolved. Some of her popular films in this period were Anjuman (1970), Tehzeeb (1971) and in particular Ek Gunah aur Sahi (1975).
Ek Gunah aur Sahi sees an absolutely sensational performance from Sabiha as ‘Mummy’, an elderly Christian lady with a heart-of-gold who runs a brothel. Based partly on a Saadat Hasan Manto short story, even though the film’s heroine is supposedly Rani in a double role of a mother-daughter, it is Sabiha who keeps the viewer glued to the otherwise ridiculous happenings on screen. Campy, OTT, yet strong and fascinating, Sabiha effortlessly steals the film, which without her would have been simply unwatchable. She went on to win the Best Actress Award at Tashkent for her robust act as well as a special Nigar Award for her extraordinary performance.
Sabiha continued acting into the 1980s receiving a special Nigar Award in 1981 for her 30 years in the Pakistani film Industry. But Santosh’s death in 1982 shattered her. She reduced her workload gradually moving away from the big screen and doing the odd Televison serial.
Sabiha then shifted to the United States to live with her daughter and her grandchildren. Apart from her award in Tashkent and the various Nigar Awards she has won, she has also been honoured with the Pride of Performance Award, the highest Pakistani honor in entertainment or the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz as it is known.
Suffering from renal disease, Sabiha Khanum passed away in the United States on June 13, 2020.