Zaira trolled in 2017, Shameema shot dead in 1993, and the show goes on
Over 1,000 Kashmiri women have performed on screen, stage, radio in last 50 years
Ahmed Ali Fayyaz
JAMMU, Jan 19: Around 70 years ago, Radio Kashmir began its broadcasting history with a Quranic recitation by Begum Akbar Jehan, wife of late Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah who became the State’s first Prime Minister after 1947. Cinema, then known as Talkies, had already arrived in the Valley. Television followed in 1972. Breaking societal taboos, the Kashmiri women grabbed their representation on all the three media and entertainment platforms besides the stage.
Retired officials of Radio Kashmir, Doordarshan and the J&K Academy of Art, Culture & Languages believe that the number of the Kashmiri women who performed in fiction and entertainment, including singing and dancing, in the last 50 years, could be well over 1,000. Like in other States, the women performers and entertainers in the Valley were exposed to threats, attacks and social boycott. Yet those hounded, trolled and intimated for the “infidelity” are not even in dozens.
Only one female television artiste, namely Shameema Parveen, lost her life as she was gunned down by unidentified men, widely believed to be militants, in 1993, in her downtown neighbourhood of Safakadal, in Srinagar. Unlike the current victim of the social media trolls, who have got till date the only supportive statement from a separatist women organisation Dukhtaraan-e-Millat, nobody dared to raise a question 23 years ago. It was never made clear by Police or investigated by media as to what precisely led to her assassination but the artistes’ fraternity continues to believe Shameema had received threats for her performing in plays on Srinagar Doordarshan.
In the middle of 1960s, Bollywood director Jagi Rampal, whose Hindi movie Pyaar ki jeet was an average on box office, was hired by Producer Mansa Ram to make some romantic films in regional languages. In association with the celebrated Radio Kashmir producer Pran Kishore and eminent playwright Ali Mohammad Lone, Rampal made the first feature film in Kashmiri titled ‘Maanzi Raath’. A Kashmiri Pandit artiste, whose name according to her contemporaries, was Asha Kaul, played the stellar role. Debutant Hafeeza Kausar, who now lives in United States of America after taking retirement from Doordarshan, became the first Kashmiri Muslim female actor to perform for celluloid.
“It was a taboo to sing, dance and act in a film but it was nobody’s headache. Many of the Kashmiris liked the film which had a powerful script by Ali Mohammad Lone”, said an old cinema buff who insists to remain anonymous. Kashmiris had earlier enjoyed Rampal’s ‘Pyaar ki Jeet, starring Ajit and Suraya.
A couple of years later, acclaimed actor-director Balraj Sahni got his 25-year-old son Ajay, later named as Parikshit, to act as the protagonist in a biopic on Kashmir’s most popular poet Peerzada Ghulam Ahmad Mehjoor. Until his death in 1952, Mehjoor is said to have been in touch with Balraj Sahni. Chief Minister Ghulam Mohammad Sadiq took extraordinary interest in the story on Mehjoor but he died months before the bilingual film in Hindi and Kashmiri was screened in Srinagar.
Director of Education in Jammu and Kashmir, Sajida Zamir Ahmad, who had a passion for theatre, performed as Mehjoor’s mother against Balraj Sahni, who played the poet’s father. Directed by Prabhat Mukherjee, Shayar-e-Kashmir Mehjoor was written by Ali Mohammad Lone. Balraj Sahni, who died in April 1973, also worked on the film’s screenplay. Another Kashmiri Muslim female artiste, Nabla Begum, was also given the role of an extra.
Mrs Sajida, who is currently in Jammu, was among the first Muslim women in Kashmir who did graduation from S.P. College and chose to work as teacher. She was from a humble background in downtown Srinagar but shot into prominence with her marriage to the eminent physician Dr Syed Naseer’s brother Captain Zamir Ahmad who had worked with Peace Brigade against the tribal invaders in 1947. Sajida’s sisters-in-law Mehmooda Ahmad Ali and Begum Jalal-ud-din, besides Dr Naseer’s wife Dr Girija Dhar, were famous in the State in their respective fields.
Radio Kashmir’s propaganda programme “Wotal Buji” ended immediately after the Indo-Pakistan war ended in 1965. Director of All India Radio, Nand Lal Chawla, flew down to Srinagar to find a replacement for the chunk. Producers Somnath Sadhu and Farooq Nazki, besides other officers, proposed a 15-minute daily drama to highlight the developmental and governance issues. A budding female artiste, Maryam Begum, was chosen to play the housewife. A day after the first programme went on air, many of the Radio officers opined that Maryam was “totally unfit” for the role.
“Sadhu Sahab went to Chawla and insisted that a decision about Maryam’s replacement be taken after two weeks. Within two weeks, Zoona Dab became a household name in entire Kashmir and everybody remained glued to transistors to listen to it every morning. Sadhu, the family head, was named as Aga Saab and Maryam Ji, the housewife, as Aga Bai. Zoona Dab went on without break for 25 years and became Radio Kashmir’s most popular programme. Many people in the Valley believed Aga Saab (Somnath Sadhu) was a Muslim. We were told that when he died, people in some villages conducted for him funeral prayers”, says Farooq Nazki, who played the domestic help ‘Ramba’ and also scripted the programme in rotation with with Sadhu and Pushkar Bhan, until he was shifted to DD in 1972.
Phenomenally popular, Maryam Begum, who sported Burqa, till her retirement in Radio Kashmir, and Pushkar Bhan got the prestigious Padam Shri awards for their performances in Zoona Dab in 1974. Nayeema Mehjoor, who retired as a producer with BBC before joining PDP and taking over as Chairperson of the State Women’s Commission in the Mufti Government, played as the Aga couple’s daughter Nanna. In 1977, Nayeema played as the queen’s friend in Bashir Budgami’s award winning telefilm film Habba Khatoon which was also screened at an international film festival in Prague.
Pioneers like Farooq Nazki, Bashir Budgami and Siraj Qureshi engaged a number of Kashmiri female actors in their dramas, tele-serials and telefilms at Doordarshan Kendra Srinagar from 1972 to 1990. While Usha Kaul shot into prominence in Nazki’s serial “Shabrang”, Rita Razdan, Prana Shangloo, Hafeeza Kausar, Nayeema Mehjoor and Gul Afroz dominated television in Budgami’s Habba Khatoon.
Gul Afroz and Sayeeda left indelible imprints with their performances in Budgami’s biopic on the romatic poet Rasul Mir. Later Nabla Begum, Shabnam Lone, Jai Kishori, Rita Jalali, Bharti Zaroo, Asha Zaroo and others became famous for their roles in Budgami’s films ‘Zameen chhe asaan” and “Daag”, besides Siraj Qureshi’s “Arni Maal”. These and other female actors also worked in Nazki’s “Soda Ta Boda”, the first serial on Srinagar DD, “Aab Seemaab”, “Totma” and “Alaav” which had a powerful script by Farooq Masoodi. Towards 1989, Nirmala Dhar emerged as one of the most sought after actresses.
Finally towards the end of the halcyon years in Kashmir, Budgami’s satirical drama serial “Hazaar Daastaan”, in which his brother and top comedian, Nazir Josh, and Bharti Zaroo played lead roles as the king and the queen, broke all records of popularity. “It used to be like curfew. Not a single vehicle would ply. Attendance at the evening prayers in mosques reduced drastically when Hazaar Daastaan used to be on air”, said a shopkeeper at Residency Road. He said that sale of TV sets increased by 1000% because of Hazaar Daastaan in 1988. Daisy Naqaib, debuted, with the popular Bharti Zaroo in the same serial.
Until 1990, eminent drama Producer Pran Kishore, who also remained associated with DD India’s serial “Gul, Gulshan, Gulfaam”, introduced scores of female artists in radio plays.
Incidents like Srinagar DD director Lassa Kaul’s and Shameema Parveen’s assassination put the curtain on Radio, TV and film in 1990-93. All the 15 cinema theatres in the Valley were shut down under militant threats and a campaign by Dukhtaraan-e-Millat. In 1994-97, Nazki as Director DDK Srinagar encouraged a number of private producers to make tele-serials and picturised songs but entire shooting was held in Jammu as not a single female actor in Kashmir came forward to take an offer. Finally the production activity revived in a big way when militancy was wiped out to a large extent in the Valley in 1996 and the militants in following years did not threaten even the young women artistes making video albums throughout the Valley. Thereafter hundreds of young women, many of them from distant villages, performed in hundreds of serials, films and picturised songs.
In the last 10 years, Srinagar DD is believed to have associated over 500 young female artists in its singing competitions. During the same period, over a dozen Kashmiri Pandit female artistes got key roles in Bollywood movies and serials on different entertainment channels.