Lost for decades, a treasure trove of Bollywood history

Rituparna Chatterjee
·3 min read
<p>Mehrunnisa Najma (right) in her youth</p> (Sam Jawed)

Mehrunnisa Najma (right) in her youth

(Sam Jawed)

Back in the 1950s, when a young, starstruck woman wrote letters to the biggest Indian movie stars of her time – much to the disapproval of her mother – she would receive signed portraits and cheery personalised notes in return.

The black and white portrait collection — a veritable treasure trove of India’s cinematic history — was recently shared by her niece Sam Jawed, who spoke to The Independent on Thursday after a post about the photographs on Twitter went viral.

Ms Jawed is in talks with the National Film Archive of India, which has offered to acquire and preserve the invaluable collection. Many of the actors Mehrunnisa Najma wrote to in the 1950s and 60s have either passed away or are in their 70s and 80s.

The photos and notes, locked away in a store in the basement of the house of her niece, had missives from big-name actors such as Shammi Kapoor, Dharmendra Deol, Kamini Kaushal, Biswajeet Chatterjee, Sadhana Shivdasani, Asha Parekh, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar, and Raaj Kumar, among others.

The letters — heartfelt, generous and warm — were possibly written by the stars during the initial years of their careers, and hark back to an uncomplicated time when the distance between movie stars and their young fans was bridged through postal communication.

“My aunt used to write to movie stars and collect their pictures and autographs in the 1950s and early 1960s. She must have been in her twenties at that time.

“I really wonder in those days before social media how she managed to get addresses and birthdays and write these letters,” Ms Jawed said.

“She passed away in 2006. She had no kids and was very very close to me. After her death, I got all her photographs and albums. This album we knew of as she had shown to me during her lifetime. It is just that no one in the family took her hobby very seriously or attached any value to it,” she said.

“My dear Najma, many thanks for your very kind letter and I read the same with much interest. I am also grateful for the good wishes sent on the occasion of my birthday and I most sincerely reciprocate the same,” wrote actress Saira Banu, possibly in the early 1960s, according to Ms Jawed. Banu is now 77 years old and is a veteran of some of Bollywood’s biggest hit films in the 60s, including the hugely successful Padosan opposite Dutt in 1968.

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“Please find herewith a photo enclosed duly autographed by me, kindly send your acknowledgement as soon as you receive the photograph,” Banu wrote.

“I am proud to be your favourite film star,” wrote actress Kamini Kaushal in a letter dated 25 July 1953. The 95-year-old actress starred in films through the 1940s to the 70s.

“The album was in my possession since 2006 but kept in a store in the basement of our house. During a recent cleanup it came out again,” Ms Jawed said. Her aunt, born to a Punjabi father and Burmese mother, grew up in Tonk in the northern Rajasthan state.

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One of the portraits Ms Jawed shared is of a popular actress who went by her screen name Tabassum. She responded to Ms Jawed on Twitter, calling the collection “priceless,” and asking her to privately send her the fan letter she had written to her aunt at the age of 16 or 17.