The 1960s, in the history of Hindi cinema, was marked by the advent of colour and Kashmir. The films from that era saw a new definition of beauty with many films, particularly romances, being shot in Kashmir. Into this world, stepped in the beautiful Saira Banu. While scores of Indians today may be familiar with her as the wife and of late Dilip Kumar, in her heyday, she was among the most fancied leading ladies. On her birthday on Monday, here's a look at her life and career in Bollywood.
Saira was the daughter of actor Naseem Bano. As per various reports, her father was film producer Ehsaan Khan, who moved to Pakistan post Partition. What many may not know is that Saira's mother Naseem was a successful film actor in the 1940s and was dubbed 'pari chehra (angel face)' for her beauty. She worked in a number of films by another stalwart of Hindi films, Sohrab Modi and his production company Minerva Movietone. Her most famous film was Pukar, in which she appeared as Empress Noor Jahan.
Naseem wanted her daughter to have a good education. Saira Banu had once revealed how her mother packed her off to London for her education. In an interview with The Hindu, Saira had revealed: "I was studying in Queen's House, an elite school in London. My mother Naseem Bano who was called the first 'Pari Chehra' or beauty queen of the film industry, had taken me to London after she saw me taking fancy to her ghaghra, lipstick and dance to the tunes of her film songs. 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."
Saira's maternal grandmother was a famous classical singer, and hence, a culture of arts was always felt in their household. She continued, "As my grandmother Shamshad Begum was a noted classical singer, who had settled down in London, we used to receive several people from the music, film and literature fraternity at home. People like Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Mehboob Khan, Khwaja Ahmed Abbas, K Asif etc, used to visit us regularly. Then also people like Ramanand Sagar, Kamal Amrohi etc, used to offer films but my mother would tell them "Please don't talk about films in front of her."
But the lure of the silver screen and Saira couldn't have stayed apart for long. Director-producer Subodh Mukherjee (brother of leading producer Sashadhar Mukherjee who was also the founder of Filmalaya studios) was making a film called Junglee (1961) and for it, he needed a 'tender, petite, innocent-looking girl to play the lead', as per Saira.
She fit into the role well. Veteran journalist Dinesh Raheja wrote for Rediff, "Though Saira had spent a significant part of her childhood in London and was a finishing school product, she fit the rustic beauty role in Junglee to a T. Cast as an innocent Kashmir ki kali who reduces the wild city cad Shammi Kapoor to a puddle of devotion, Saira exuded freshness and friskiness."
Saira went on to work in a number of successful films, such as Ayee Milan Ki Bela (with Rajendra Kumar), Shagird (with Joy Mukherjee), Padosan (with Sunil Dutt), Purab Aur Pascchim (with Manoj Kumar) to name a few.
After just about 15 years, she retired from films in 1976. She married Dilip Kumar in 1966, when she was only 22, but continued to work for 10 more years before finally calling it quits.