Chic in a trouser-kurti ensemble, former actor and dancer Minoo Mumtaz is completely at ease as she reclines on the sofa in her Pune home. She has a flight to catch in a couple of hours as she heads back to home and family in Canada. “I can’t wait to be with my grandchildren, ” she says excitedly. At 72, she has seen it all – the glory of being a Bollywood diva and its pitfalls. Unlike most of her contemporaries from the golden era of Hindi cinema, Minoo Mumtaz leads a contented life today. “My family is my strength, especially my husband who has never let me shed a single tear in our nearly 50 years of marriage. ”
It is difficult to picture her as the original item girl, who played the seductive courtesan in “Saaquiya aaj mujhe neend nahi aayegi” (Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam), one of the best mujra sequences of all times. But she takes umbrage at being called an ‘item’ girl. “We were not ‘item’ girls, but professional dancers and actresses. I feel ashamed watching them today gyrating in scanty clothes to obscene lyrics. ”
There was something about Minoo Mumtaz, born Malka Begum, that endeared her to millions of moviegoers. It could be the smile, the nakhras, the come-hither look, but her hypnotic grace lingered long after the dance ended. Although she never rose to the height that Madhubala or Meena Kumari did, her presence in a film could not be ignored.
Mumtaz‘s performances were free-spirited and spontaneous, especially her dance numbers. This applied to her classical compositions also. “I surrendered myself to the dance director. I knew no technique but dance came easily to me, ” she says. “I would watch my father (Mumtaz Ali), a very good dancer, and mimic his moves in front of a mirror, much to my mother’s horror because she was dead against movies. ”
Mumtaz grew up in a conservative Muslim household of Nawabi descent. But the family, which once supported at least 35 residents in a huge bungalow in Mumbai, fell on hard times when Mumtaz Ali took to drinking. “I decided to help out financially although I was only 13. Those were the worst two years of my life because I also lost my mother, ” she says.
But she loved life too much to give in. “My sister and I would walk on the railway tracks from Malad, where we lived, to Mohan Studios in Andheri and wait – often in pouring rain – until producer-director Nambhai Vakil took us in. I started off with a substantial role in Sakhi Hatim, my very first film. I was paid Rs 500 for the film and Rs 200 for a dance. My price quickly shot up to Rs 800 and within three months, I bought my first car. ” Within three to four years, Mumtaz had bagged important roles including that of a heroine, with top actors of the time like Balraj Sahni.
It was her professionalism and no-nonsense attitude that took her to the top. “I was not interested in anything other than my role. I would carry my knitting to the studios and once the cameras were switched off, I would knit. Those who came to me with dishonourable intentions were shooed away, ” she says. Moreover, her brothers, especially legendary actor Mehmood, were always around to protect her.
As she speaks, Mumtaz’s slender fingers often curl up in a mudra. “Dance is in my blood, ” she says. “If I get into the mood, I can dance even today, but where are the songs, where’s the music?” She is unhappy with modern Bollywood music. “Hindi film music lacks the lyrical quality today, ” she says.
At the peak of her popularity, she married assistant director Ali S Akbar. “Although we belonged to different Muslim sects, Mehmood Bhai went ahead and organised the wedding. And, he did it in style. Parts of the Sheesh Mahal sets from Mughal-e-Azam were used to do up the wedding venue. But, Bhaijaan forbade me from acting thereafter, ” she says.
It’s been a long time since she faced the arclights, but the memories have not dimmed. “I feel sad for Meena aapa, it was she who rechristened me Minoo Mumtaz. An unhappy and childless marriage led to her collapse, she simply wasted away. She was one of the greatest actresses ever, with no nakhras!”
But she smiles at the mention of Madhubala. “She was like a sister and I was her confidante. When her romance with Dilip Kumar broke off, she turned to me. ” But Mumtaz’s first meeting with Madhubala was not all that pleasant. “She ignored me completely as I waited for our first shot together in Ek Saal Baad. But I walked up to her and asked her why she chose to behave so badly with a devoted fan. Her arrogance crumpled, and we went on to become the best of friends, ” she says.
As for her male co-stars, she has a special corner in her heart for Dev Anand. “He was a thorough gentleman and one of the most handsome men ever, ” she remembers. Guru Dutt is another actor she was very fond of. “Dada was not just a creative genius, he was very humble as a person. Each time I walked on to the sets, he would get up from his director’s chair to welcome me, and I was not even the heroine. ”
The years have flown past and Minoo Mumtaz has accepted all that came her way with a rare grace. As she gets up to leave for the airport, she flashes a smile and says, “I thank Allah for bestowing me with so much. ”