Exclusive: “I’m No Martyr, But I Regret Nothing”, Says Saira Banu
Saira Banu began her career in 1961 opposite superstar Shammi Kapoor in Junglee. She was only 17. Six years later her life changed completely when she married the most eligible man in India, Dilip Kumar. Since then the role that she has enjoyed playing the most was that of Mrs Dilip Kumar, although some of her biggest hits like Padosan, Gopi, Purab Aur Paschim and Jwar Bhata came after her marriage.
In 1977 she quit acting to devote herself completely to looking after her husband, a task that she has fulfilled with exceptional devotion for a good 50 years. The graceful queen gets captivatingly candid with The Quint.
Sairaji, at 72 how do you evaluate your life so far?
I have been singularly blessed to be a granddaughter to one of the most accomplished classical vocalists (Shamshad Begum) of her time, daughter to one of the most ravishingly beautiful actresses ever (NaseemBanu), and wife to the greatest actor. What more can I desire?
I’ve never seen a more fiercely devoted spouse than you...
For me, it was always Dilip saab, no one else. I was his fan from the time I can remember. While still a teenager, I wanted to be his wife. I am very headstrong and once I made up my mind, there was no stopping me. Many legendary heroines, some of whom are still around, wanted to marry Dilip saab. But he chose me. It was my dream come true, and that’s what my marriage has been a perfect dream. Looking after him, his life and his home comes naturally to me.
You gave up a booming career to be Mrs Dilip Kumar?
Saab never asked me to give up my career. In fact, he encouraged me to continue after marriage. But, after a while, my heart was not in my career. I just wanted to take care of saab. Our marriage is the most important thing in my life.
Any regrets about not being a mother? No regrets about forfeiting stardom?
I don’t miss having a child because saab is like a child at heart. I am not being a martyr when I say I don’t regret putting my career on the back burner. I am grateful for every day that I get with the people I love. Every touch and hug that I got from my grandmom and mom was therapeutic. Of course I go through my share of depression, especially now when my grandmother mother and brother are gone. Now it is just Yusuf saab and me. It’s a small but happy family. I am at my best within my family fold. Outside, I am withdrawn, aloof and reserved.
But we stopped seeing you on screen long before we were willing to let you go?
I constantly needed my cuddles and hugs from my loved ones. How could I sacrifice that to work under the harsh lights?
Dilip saab is fortunate to have such a devoted wife...
He could have married anyone, any woman he wanted. He chose me. I consider myself very fortunate. I always call him the Kohinoor of the film industry. I am lucky to be so close to him for so many years. I couldn’t have chosen a better life. I can’t imagine any other life for me. I guess if I was chosen to be his wife, I must be special. Unki biwi hone ke liye caliber honi chahiye (to be his wife one needed to be of some caliber). But seriously, all Indian wives look after their husbands. In my family, I’ve seen women being devoted to their husbands. I grew up watching that.
Are there other prominent roles that you turned down?
As an actress, I always chose unusual projects while my colleagues opted for big banners. I always wanted to be comfortable with what I was doing. When Rajkumar
Kohli made Nagin, he persuaded me for six months to play the title role. I was never convinced I was right for it. When I saw the film, I thought Reena Roy did a far better job than I could ever have. Today Dev saab (Dev Anand) and Vijay Anand would deny it completely, but Guide was offered to me twice. It is a fact that Ted Danielsky (director of the English version) came to me with Guide. At that time I was supposed to start Mehboob Khan’s Habba Khatoon. Mehboob saab required uninterrupted dates in Kashmir. The leading man opposite me was none other than Dilip Kumar. How could I give up this opportunity? Habba Khatoon never got made. (But) when I look at Guide, I realise I could have never done what Waheeda ji did. For one, I was no dancer. (And) I would have looked like a complete misfit as a married woman.
Looking back, what would you like to change in your life?
Except for the fact that God almighty suddenly snatches away our loved ones, I have no regrets. God took away my grandmother and mother and now my brother. But my grief is my own. Life is to stay calm. I throw tantrums only within my family fold. I was taught it is bad manners to throw tantrums outside the family.
Dilip Kumar On Saira Banu (in an interview to me several years ago).
I’m grateful to God for giving me such a girl as a friend and companion, who has given everything to me. I’m indebted to her in every possible way. When anyone calls, when anything needs my attention, Saira makes a note. There’s no aspect of my life that she doesn’t touch with her generosity. No, not possible. Saira keeps me in touch with what’s going on around me. The children of yesterday have grown up. Some know how to conduct themselves well, others not so well. I’ve to deal with both kinds. Saira ji helps me to sift through all the people I’ve to connect with, almost like a woman who separates the wheat from the chaff. She has a much higher designation than a wife in my life. Sometimes she gets angry, with or without reason. Even now she’s monitoring and observing me. She’s constantly making me repay my debts to my audience and well wishers.Dilip Kumar, Actor
(The voice of Lata Mangeshkar and Bollywood cinema have driven Subhash K Jha through the maze of life.)
(This article is from The Quint’s archives and was first published on 23 August 2016. It is now being republished to mark Saira Banu’s birthday.)
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