This article is written by Film historian, Author and our mentor Arunkumar Deshmukh ji. We are thankful to him for writing this article for us.
In the Hindi film industry history,there have been many brother and sister pairs who worked in films. However, there were only 2 cases where 3 sisters worked in Early Hindi films as Heroines. The first ‘Triplet’ was Zubeida (Alam Ara fame), Sultana and Shahzadi,who all operated in the 30’s. The second ‘ Triplet ‘ was Zohra, Mushtari and Anuradha (real name Khurseed Akhtar), who worked in Hindi films from the 20s to the 40s. Mushtari died in her teens, after doing just 8 films as Heroine, and the other sisters migrated to Pakistan after partition.( In later times, I believe, some more Sister triplets appeared in Hindi films, like Travancore sisters)
Miss Zohra Jaan or Zohra is not known to most people. She was one of the most successful heroines in the 30’s, having her first 5 films declared as Hit films, in the early era of Cinema. Let us know more about her.
Zohra was born into a famous courtesan’s family of Delhi. Originally from Punjab, the family had shifted to Delhi for better prospects. She was trained in Dance and Music in Lahore. They were 3 sisters-Zohra, Mushtari and Khursheed Akhtar ( screen name Anuradha). Zohra, as a young girl, was very naughty and mischievous. She had learnt Urdu, Punjabi and Pashto languages, with excellence.
One day, while on an outing with father, in Lahore, Zohra saw a shooting on the road. This was her first encounter with a film shooting and she was terribly impressed. A.R.Kardar had started a small studio ‘ United players’ Corporation’ in Lahore and he was doing the shooting. He saw the sisters and was keen on taking them in films. Next day Kardar, along with a common friend, went to Zohra’s father and made his offer, which was outrightly refused by her father.
After a few days, her father took the family to Bombay, in 1928, for some work. They rented a beautiful bungalow in Chaupati area. Zohra was quite grown up now.she sang very well. She did some Mujra programmes. At that time her Mujra and some devotional songs were recorded by The Twin Records company.
Neelam, a singer known to the family, took the girls to see a film in Imperial Talkies. Ardeshir Irani, who saw them there, was impressed.Along with Neelam, he went to meet her father, next day. He offered Rs. 500 for each sister- Zohra and Mushtari- per month if they agreed to work in his films.In those days, Rs. 1000 was a huge amount and it did the trick . With father’s permission, Zohra was very happy. She did 2 silent films- Nand kumar-1929 and Radha Krishna-1930.
When the Talkie films started, she did Anang sena-31, Niti Vijay-32, Dagabaz Ashiq-32 and Bharati Mata-32 with Imperial. However, due to her command over Urdu language and good acting, all these films being Hits, she started getting offers from other producers. She got an offer of Rs. 2500 and she left Imperial. Mushtari continued at imperial. Mushtari,who was in her teens, did only 8 films. She fell ill and was removed to Lahore. However Mushtari died on 8-6-1934 at a very young age.
Zohra became very popular and went on from 2500 to 5000 rupees per month. She was a very calculated person and saved quite a lot of money. She went on doing films after films. In the beginning of her career she had married Rafique Ghaznavi, who was making a career in films as actor,director, singer and Music Director. He had earlier married Anwari in Lahore but divorced her after a daughter was born.
In the film industry, Zohra was known as ‘Marlene Dietrich’ of India. From 1931 to 1943, she did 31 films and had sung 44 songs in 15 films. Unfortunately none of her records of film songs are available,as most song records were not made commercially. Her private NF song records may be available with some Record Collectors of India or Pakistan. Her last film in India was “Shakuntala”-43. She was further engaged to work in Shantaram’s next film ‘Parbat pe apna dera’-44. At that time the winds of Partition were blowing and some communal riots also took place. Zohra was scared and she left for Lahore.
Meanwhile Rafique Ghazanavi had divorced her after 15 years of married life. He married Zohra’s younger sister Anuradha. After migrating to Pakistan, he divorced her also and married someone else. Their daughter Shaheen was young now and ready to enter films. Zohra married director A.M.Mirza.
Sohrab Modi and Kardar urged her to come back for their films,but she was reluctant to come here due to fear. In Lahore,her daughter started getting film roles.In 1948, Filmistan invited her to act in their proposed film “Heer Ranjha”. So, Zohra came on 3 month’s visa.She immediately worked in a quicky stunt film “Aaj ka Farhad”-48. The news of her coming to Bombay spread and she was flooded with offers. In just 15 days, she made 10 contracts. Prithviraj Kapoor got her 1 year visa, with Morar ji Desai’s help.
During this period some artistes in Pakistan felt that because of Indian films,the film industry in Pakistan was not developing and hence there was an agitation not to take any Indian films for exhibition and distribution. As a reply, India also declared not to take any Pakistani artiste in Indian films. Producers like Jagdish Sethi and P N Aurora hesitated to proceed with their films with Zohra. So once again Zohra went back to Pakistan.
Her daughter Shaheen’s career took off. Several offers came to Zohra also,but she did not want to work with new people. Consequently,offers stopped coming. It was rumoured that Zohra was curt, egoistic and very quick tempered, which was actually true. In reality Zohra could never forget the free atmosphere in India and the work of professionals here. That was also the cause of her career ending Pakistan.There is no information about her after that. In India, Zohara worked with the Best actors, Best Directors and Best banners, at Bombay, Lahore and Calcutta. Zohra Jan expired in Lahore on 22-5-1988.
Hindi film industry is full of unbelievable stories and anecdotes about producers, Directors, Actors, Singers and music Directors. Among actresses,the story of actress Shanta Apte is very famous: how she taught a lesson to Baburao Patel, by beating him with a whip, in his office, for writing objectionable and insulting things about her in magazine Film India. Her name is quoted as an example of Woman-Power, courage and as an act of protecting self respect.
It is unfortunate that an act of similar nature, performed by Zohra in 1934 ( much earlier to Shanta Apte’s act) has remained unknown. She did something to protect her self respect and to teach a lesson for insulting her. Let us know how it happened.
Zohra was shooting for the film ‘Jawani Diwani’-34 in Jayant studio of Jayant Desai. She had sent her driver to bring lunch, but he was delayed. The shooting was going on even after the Lunch period of 1.30 to 2.30. She became very uneasy. Unmindful of the delay, the director arranged for another shot. Zohra told him,” Lunch hour is already over and it is past 2.30.I am going.”
The director said ” you can’t go without doing this shot.”
Zohra was angry and said ” you have been arranging for this shot since the last one hour. I can not wait anymore.”
Director said sarcastically, ” O Bai ji, this is your job, not a joke.”
His calling her ” Bai ji” was very insulting for Zohra. She removed her chappals and gave a solid beating to the director. He started begging for a pardon. This matter went to the owners and the director was removed instantly. You must be wondering how the word ‘ Bai ji’ annoyed Zohra. To understand this,we have to know something. Due to the patronising of fine arts like music and dance by the Kings and Princes, a new class of Nautch Girls emerged in the 19th century. All Nautch Girls were not the same. Author Michael Kinnear, in his book “The Gramophone company’s first Indian Recordings 1899-1908 “, has explained the classification and Nomenclatures of these Nautch Girls. As per that, there were 4 types…
Lowest Class…..IV….Name – Khanki….Prostitutes/Sex workers
Class III Name – Kaneez…. Daasi or servant
Class II Name – Bai ji…. Singing/Dancing in Kothas and
Class I Name – Jaan….. Top class singers only, in Private Mehfils.
They all were called collectively as Tawayafs. The readers will now understand the difference between Amirbai,Waheedanbai,Jaddanbai and Tamancha Jaan, Gauhar Jaan, Malika Jaan, Zohra Jaan etc etc.( This article is based on information from various sources, like Zohra’s interview in Madhuri magazine of 18-12-1981, book ” The lost treasure” by Kamlakar Pasupuleti and Surjit Singh ji, a Telugu article by Ramesh Babu, Screenplay by Isak Mujawar, MuVyz, HFGK, CITWF, shri Harish Raghuwanshi ji and my notes.)