Saira Banu, among the highest paid stars of the 60s, who gave it all up to singularly become Mrs Dilip Kumar | Bollywood News

Saira Banu, among the highest paid stars of the 60s, who gave it all up to singularly become Mrs Dilip Kumar | Bollywood News

Actor Saira Banu’s Instagram bio reads, “Hindustan ke ‘KOHINOOR’ Dilip Sahib ke liye 💞 (For India’s ‘Kohinoor’ Dilip Kumar).” The former actor has had no qualms in defining her identity by the person she married (Dilip Kumar). She would never take offence in being referred to as just Mrs Dilip Kumar.

But it is also true that she was among the top actresses of the ’60s era. She, in her own way, wooed and entertained the cine-goers in an era that revelled in colour, optimism and flamboyance.

At 16, she stepped into the world of Hindi cinema with Junglee (1961), opposite Shammi Kapoor. Her debut coincided with the onset of coloured films and as she once said, “It was a film that put Kashmir on the map”. As much as the audience admired the lush locales of the Valley, they couldn’t stop raving about the elfin looks of the debutante who danced merrily and proclaimed herself as “Kashmir ki kali”.

But, director Subodh Mukherjee, probably just focussed on Saira’s pretty face, mahogany eyes and enviable figure, because in Junglee, she couldn’t prove her acting mettle. In fact, she admitted to knowing little about acting during the film’s shoot and was shouted at by Shammi Kapoor when she failed to give a perfect shot despite many retakes.

Being a shy and reserved person, Banu got nervous on seeing huge crowds that gathered to watch the shooting. “When I was in Kashmir for the shoot, there were many people on the set. Since childhood, I was very shy. I would go and hide whenever someone came home,” recalled the actor in an interview.

“I had to turn and sing ‘Pyaar pe gussa karte ho, tera gussa humko pyaara hai’. But every time I would turn and sing, my lips would flutter. This happened so many times that an exasperated Shammi Kapoor walked up to me and said, ‘Kya hai ye, kaam karna hai toh theek tarah se karo’ (What is this. If you have to work, work properly). At that moment, I felt like disappearing from the Earth and I started crying,” narrated Banu. At another moment, he also told her to “wear a burqa for the shoot” if she is so shy about people watching her.

Naseem Banu felt her daughter Saira Banu was not meant to be an actor

Seeing her daughter in tears, Banu’s mother Naseem Banu, a celebrated actor herself, often referred to as ‘Pari Chehra Naseem’, told Saira Banu to pack her bags and return to London. She told her, “This is not a place for you.”

This was not the first time Naseem Banu tried to dissuade her daughter from becoming an actor. At 6, when Saira started “taking fancy” to her mother’s “ghaghra and lipstick” and started dancing to the tunes of her film songs, she got her enrolled in London’s elite school, Queen’s House.

saira banu shammi kapoor Shammi Kapoor and Saira Bano in Junglee. (Express archive photo)

“For her, academics were more important than films. My grandmother, mother and my brother Sultan lived with me so that I could concentrate on studies,” the actor once told The Hindu. Since Saira was good at studies, Naseem wanted her to be a doctor or lawyer. Little did she know, her daughter has not only chosen her profession but also a life partner (more on it later).

After being scolded by Shammi Kapoor, Saira Banu told him, “Shammi ji, I will never work with you until I learn acting a bit more.” And, she worked not only on her acting skills but also took professional training in dancing.

Upon its release, Junglee became a silver jubilee and Saira got flooded with film offers. “Never ever I went to any producer/director for films and I never accepted a small role in any film following ‘Junglee’. I worked for only four years (before marrying Dilip Kumar) and became the topmost heroine of that time,” the actor told The Hindu. As per a few media reports, she even became one of the highest-paid actresses of her time.

Saira went on to work in a number of successful films, such as Bluff Master (1963), Ayee Milan Ki Bela (1964), April Fool (1964), Shagird (1967) and Padosan (1968). The success of Aayee Milan Ki Bela established Saira and Rajendra Kumar as a hit on-screen couple and led to them being cast together in three films in succession: Aman, Jhuk Gaya Aasman and K Asif’s incomplete Sasta Khoon Mehnga Paani.

Their on-screen romance also led to rumours of their off-screen love story. In Seema Sonik Alimchand’s book Jubilee Kumar: The Life and Times of a Superstar, Rajendra Kumar confessed there was some truth to the rumours. He said, “Saira was a lovely girl and we liked each other a lot”. But the actor, who was married at the time and had two children, also clarified that they never had “an illicit affair”. In fact, he said he always ‘prayed’ for Saira to get a suitable life partner. “And see, my wish came true; she married the legend of Indian films, Dilip Kumar,” he mentioned in the book.

Saira Banu and Dilip Kumar’s love story

But the story of how Saira Banu managed to woo Dilip Kumar is quite filmy. While she was being offered films, the actor had only one wish, to get cast opposite Kumar, whom she fancied since she was all of 12 years old. She became a fan of him after watching him in the 1952 film Aan. To stand out from the pool of girls who loved Kumar, Saira even learned Urdu and Persian.

She took notes on his likes and dislikes from her mother, who was a friend of Dilip Kumar. But the Ram Aur Shyam actor never paid attention. He noted in his autobiography Dilip Kumar: The Substance And The Shadow, narrated by Udayatara Nayar, that he was “pleasantly amused and delighted” with Saira’s efforts but never gave any importance to “this crush directed at me”. In fact, he told Ram Aur Shyam director Nag Reddy to not cast Saira opposite him and suggested Mumtaz’s name. The incident left Saira angry and she started ignoring him. But the day finally came when Kumar paid attention.

dilip kumar saira banu Dilip Kumar with his wife Saira Banu. (Express archive photo)

In his autobiography, Kumar recalled the day he fell in love with Saira during a party thrown to celebrate her birthday and the housewarming of their new bungalow, “When I alighted from my car and entered the beautiful garden that leads to the house, I can still recall my eyes falling on Saira standing in the foyer of her new house looking breathtakingly beautiful in a brocade sari. I was taken aback, because she was no longer the young girl I consciously avoided working with because I thought she would look too young to be my heroine.”

“For once, she let go of her annoyance with me and looked straight into my eyes and it did not take more than an instant for me to realize that she was the one destiny had been knowingly reserving as my real-life partner while I was refusing to pair with her on-screen!” Kumar noted.

Saira tried to get cordial with Kumar’s sisters but none of them obliged and continued to trouble her. “I wondered how this young person had such patience and forbearance to ignore annoying, trivial issues. In all fairness to Saira, who was at the time a very timid and vulnerable girl, I must acknowledge that she tried to cement her relationship with my sisters with a genuine effort to win them over with love and respect,” Kumar wrote about her.

saira banu wedding photo Saira Banu during her wedding with Dilip Kumar. (Express archive photo)

But, eventually, the stress in her personal life took a toll on her health and she suffered from ‘ulcerative colitis.’ She was taken to the London Clinic for treatment where Dilip Kumar and Naseem Banu did everything in their capacity to help Saira recover.

While she recovered, Saira lost many films, including Rajesh Khanna’s Choti Bahu and Sharmeelee (1972). But Manoj Kumar who had cast her in Purab Aur Paschim decided to wait. “If she did not do it, he would shelve the project, he told me,” Dilip Kumar noted in his autobiography. She finally did the film and it became one of the biggest hits of her career.

Saira also got to live her dream of sharing the screen with Dilip Kumar, not once but thrice: Gopi (1970) Sagina (1974) and Bairaag (1976). While working with his wife, Dilip Kumar realised that Saira had “the pursuit for flawless work.” He noted, “I saw her tenacity and determination to get the nuances and emotional curves of the performance right.” He was so impressed with her work that he found it “criminal” to “abort her career” just to have her by his side.

During her career, Saira Banu was well aware of the fact that she needed to transition from being a simpleton to being glamorous to fit into the times she was working in. During the 1970s, when Sharmila Tagore, Parveen Babi and Zeenat Aman sported their westernised avatars, Saira too didn’t shy away from wearing mini-skirts in Purab Aur Paschim or appearing in towels in Victoria No 203 (1972) song ‘Thodasa thehro’.

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saira banu purab aur paschim Saira Banu didn’t shy away from wearing short skirts or western clothes in her films. (Express archive photo)

Her mother also ensured that her daughter looked nothing less than a fashionista. “In my transition from a 16-year kid who wore her own best clothes in 1961 in ‘Junglee’ to the svelte Western blonde of “PURAB AUR PACCHIM”… I achieved this transformation with the entire help and guidance of the Great Lady that was my mother… Pari Chehra (Beauty Queen) NASEEM BANU ji… who completely designed and sculpted my looks in all my work… at that time there were no designers and hardly one or two “films tailor” establishments were on the scene…” wrote Saira in one of her Instagram posts.

The films rejected by Saira Banu

If she knew how to stay relevant, she also had a keen knowledge of the films she wouldn’t fit in. “As an actress, I always chose unusual projects while my colleagues opted for big banners. I always wanted to be comfortable with what I was doing. When Rajkumar Kohli made Nagin, he persuaded me for six months to play the title role. I was never convinced I was right for it. When I saw the film, I thought Reena Roy did a far better job than I could ever have. Today Dev saab (Dev Anand) and Vijay Anand would deny it completely, but Guide was offered to me twice. It is a fact that Ted Danielsky (director of the English version) came to me with Guide. At that time I was supposed to start Mehboob Khan’s Habba Khatoon. Mehboob saab required uninterrupted dates in Kashmir. The leading man opposite me was none other than Dilip Kumar. How could I give up this opportunity? Habba Khatoon never got made. (But) when I look at Guide, I realise I could have never done what Waheeda ji did,” she told Subhash K Jha in a 2016 interview.

In 1976, while at the peak of her career, Saira Banu decided to move away from the limelight because she “just wanted to take care of” her husband and all that mattered to her was her marriage. She wanted to spend her every day around her loved ones. She never considered herself a “martyr” for putting her career on the back burner. “I constantly needed my cuddles and hugs from my loved ones. How could I sacrifice that to work under the harsh lights?” she asked Subhash K Jha in an interview.

For Saira, there are no regrets about moving away from the limelight to focus on her family. “I have been singularly blessed to be a granddaughter to one of the most accomplished classical vocalists (Shamshad Begum) of her time, daughter to one of the most ravishingly beautiful actresses ever (Naseem Banu), and wife to the greatest actor. What more can I desire?”

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