Vol. 5 Num 289 Sun. March 20, 2005  

Shabnam: Sheer magic of the silver screen

It was just the other day while at lunch, my thought suddenly went back to a west end London coffee shop where I was having a bite with a friend. It was a 1984 summer afternoon. A glamorous lady rushed out of a well-known store with her long lustrous hair fluttering in the breeze and soon drove past the two of us. She was Shabnam nee Jharna Basak, a heartthrob and mega star who had a natural yen for setting acting trends in films.

At her prime she was ethereally beautiful, her delicate features giving her a fragile quality which belied her histrionic power.

Literally dancing her way to success from the time she made her debut as a heroine with Mustafiz's Harano Din in 1961, Shabnam with the song Roop Nagorer Raj Kanya exemplified grit with beauty and style. Her dancing skills eventually led her to an Urdu movie Chanda (1962) that was to become her stairway to all-Pakistan stardom. Chanda, a box office hit also fetched her first Nigar--Lollywood's Oscar (best supporting actress). It was followed by Talaash, which was an even bigger hit.

The extent of her talent drew the attention of other directors as well. SM Pervez (Karwaan and Begana), Nazrul Islam (Kajaal and Preet Na Janeey Reet) and Abdul Jabbar (Naachghar). But it was the expert eye of Suroor Bararabankvi who recognised her immense potential and gave her the chance to prove it in Akhri Station (1965). Today, the film is remembered for Shabnam's stunning performance of a dumb and deranged woman who loiters in a railway station. The movie also gave Shabnam her second Nigar (best supporting). Her determination to succeed at her chosen profession was more pronounced in her portrayals of diversified roles in later films. So much so, that she became the first and only actress from Dhaka to hop step and jump Dhaka, Karachi and Lahore simultaneously and hit it big in the film industry.

By 1967, Shabnam's artistic skills were known all over Pakistan and offers came in from Karachi and Lahore. This was also the time when Dhaka was not doing well in films. She sailed for Karachi the following year. In a career that eventually lasted three decades she emerged as the most successful heroine, acting in another 150 films dislodging such luminaries as Zeba, Rani, Deeba, Shamim Ara and Nayyar Sultana. She teamed up with Nadeem to form one of the most romantic and durable pairs in the history of Pakistani films. During this time, Shabnam worked opposite all renowned stars such as Waheed Murad, Md. Ali, Nadeem, Rahman, Razzak, Ejaz, Shahed and Javed Sheikh, producing some of the greatest box office hits of all times. With over 50 hits ranging from a minimum 25 week run to 400 week run, she became an all time legend.

Shabnam received about 10 Nigar awards. She also won three Pakistan national awards. No other actress in Pakistan as of today has matched Shabnam's record.

Did she enjoy your stardom? "Yes, indeed but on occasions it was tiring and sometimes very sad as many of my desires went unfulfilled. For example, like other women I could not shop before the Eid or go to a restaurant and have a meal of my choice."

Was she ever subject to politics in Pakistan ?

"No. Fortunately the Pakistan film industry was free from this or else how could we i.e. apart from me Rahman Bhai, Shahnaz Begum, Runa Laila, Nazrul Islam, Robin Ghosh and Afzal Chowdhury survive so long? And we were all top in our own respective fields," she says.

Shabnam reigned supreme from 1961 to 1987. Her sultry looks and alluring eyes matched her mellifluous and distinctive style to make her one of the greatest feminine icons of her time.

Today, back in her native Bangladesh where she last acted in Ammajan(1999), another super hit, she is upheld as a standard of beauty, grace, and style. Her talent and persona influenced the directors so strongly that they attempted to make other actresses into her image, without success. As one Pakistani critic said, "Bengal has always been magic but Shabnam was sheer magic." Shabnam, who chose London as her place of residence since 1987, now lives a quiet life in Dhaka in the company of relatives and some close friends. Perhaps, she has had enough of media life.