In September, the expatriate Pakistani community in Norway honoured 70-year-old actor Bahar Begum with a lifetime achievement award for her contribution to the Pakistani film industry. Today, she is just as committed to acting as she was when she started her acting career in 1956, as a 14-year-old star in Chan Mahi.
Bahar’s name is tied to over 600 Pakistani films, but she gained widespread recognition for the roles in which she played legendary actor Sultan Rahi’s mother. Her film career is divided into two phases; her roles as a lead heroine and those as an emotionally strong mother. Her performances during the ‘70s, where Bahar played the matriarch, are culturally an important development for the trajectory of mainstream Punjabi cinema. Her most recent role was in Syed Noor’s family drama Shareeka, in which she played an urban mother. An eloquent speaker who speaks fluent English, Urdu and Punjabi, Bahar tells The Express Tribune that she’s still very much in the game.
While she grew up in Lahore, studying at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, she was given many roles in which she played a loud, unsophisticated rural woman. “Work, work, and more work made me a Chaudhrani,” says Bahar, referring to the characters she played.
“Sultan was around the same height as me and we could look into each other’s eyes,” says Bahar, as she recalls some of her films such as Sher Khan, Kaley Chor, and Maula Bakhsh. “Sultan Rahi and screenwriter-director Nasir Adeeb played a huge role in making my dialogues work,” she adds.
Bahar appreciates the feedback of her audience. She recalls that while she was shooting in remote villages in the 1980s, people would call her “Maa ji”, “Khala ji”, or “Chaudhrani”. It was just one example of how much she was adored by the audience.
She admits with pride that her personality has developed in a certain way because of the years she has spent in Lollywood, which she considers to be a part of her. “Whenever I am asked if I have left the film industry, I reply by saying that I could never leave; it’s in my blood,” says Bahar.
Bahar left a lasting impression on her audience with her presence on screen, even in supporting roles. She attributes this quality to the studio system that was in place at the time which helped her build her career. She lauds the professionalism and quality of the films made and produced.
“Earning Rs10,000 to Rs12,000 was a big deal for a heroine when I started,” she says, talking with pride about how business went about in her prime. “My contract with director-producer Anwar Kamal Pasha was for three films. At that time, we did not get involved with money or contracts directly. Our families handled these things.” Lamenting the non-professional attitude of people in the film industry today, she adds: “Speaking about these things today is considered bad; these are the wrongs we made right, and everything went to the dogs.”
“During the second phase of my acting career, I developed a love for acting. Without that interest, one cannot improve,” says Bahar.
When you eat, breathe, and sleep Punjabi films for 56 years, it becomes a part of your anatomy. “I have absorbed the role to such a degree that when I walk into a house, I speak loud just like my character!” she laughs. “The industry temperament had become loud; it came to represent the culture of Punjab. When I would go to villages for shoots, I noticed women in those areas really did speak that loud, it was a part of that village atmosphere.”
When she returned to the film industry in the 1970s, Bahar said the scene had changed into a one that was ‘louder’, which then translated on screen in Punjabi films. She played the role of a strong and boisterous Punjabi mother, traits that other eras had failed to touch upon.
Bahar explains that old directors such as Aslam Dar had worked on stories in which the mother’s role was powerful. “Directors such as Aslam made it possible because of their emphasis on details,” says Bahar.
Sultan and Bahar had developed a unique rapport which was favourable for both. “The big skill for an actor is to look into a fellow actor’s eyes and then deliver a dialogue,” says Bahar. “It’s the difference between making something realistic or not.”
Published in The Express Tribune, December 8th, 2012.