Sridevi was widely appreciated for her performance in her 2012 comeback film English Vinglish, in which she plays a housewife who takes up English lessons to stand up to her family. But there was also a meta quality to Gauri Shinde’s poignant movie: this was a role close to home for Sridevi, who had made a career out of learning to master the art of speaking in a foreign tongue.
Sridevi’s vast repertoire spanned 50 years and several hundred films in at least five languages. But the industry in which she would reach staggering heights was built on a language she was least versed with. Sridevi made her Hindi film debut in the 1979 film Solva Saavan after a successful career in Tamil, Malayalam, Kannada and Telugu films, but it wasn’t until a decade later that she started dubbing for her own roles, starting with Chandni (1989).
By then, though she had made a name for herself in the Hindi cinema, the voice that accompanied most of her power-packed performances belonged to the highly talented Baby Naaz. Though not quite a baby anymore, Naaz, whose high-pitched sing-song voice was the trademark of Sridevi’s early performances, continued to be known by her stage name from her days as a child artist.
For a performer with rare talent and a filmography of more than a hundred movies, Naaz remains woefully under-recognised. Old interviews, blogs and news reports piece together a life of hardship, neglect and lost opportunities.
Baby Naaz was born Salma Baig in Mumbai in August 1944. She started performing on the stage when she was four. By the age of 10, she had become a staple in Hindi films and had even received international acclaim for her performances. For her turn as an orphan who is forced to beg on the streets with her brother in Boot Polish (1954), Naaz received a special mention at the Cannes Film Festival.
After powerful supporting roles in films like Bimal Roy’s Devdas (1955), Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Musafir (1957), Lajwanti (1958) and Guru Dutt’s Kagaz Ke Phool (1959), the child artist seemed headed towards stardom.
But Naaz could not recreate her early success as an adult. Though she continued doing supporting roles in later years, the second phase of her career saw find greater success as a dubbing artist, where she lent her voice to several new actresses, most famously Sridevi.
In an undated interview to the Stardust magazine, Naaz shed light on a traumatic and unhappy childhood, one in which she was forced into the spotlight and turned into the primary breadwinner of her family before she even turned five. Her father had tried but failed to make a career as a screenwriter. It was her mother , Naaz said, who pushed her into show business. She described her mother as overly ambitious, and blamed her for her failure to sustain her success in her adulthood. “I will never be able to forgive my mother nor forget her greed for money,” the actress told Stardust.
In that interview, Naaz recalled how she had tried committing suicide twice by jumping into a well near her house. She was rescued both times by her ayah, she said. Pushed into the spotlight too early, she had to miss out on an education to keep the kitchen fires burning at home. When she would return after a full day of shooting (she claimed that she would be working four shifts at a time), she would find her parents fighting bitterly, leaving them with no time to give her food. She recalled going to bed hungry countless times. Deprived of a normal childhood, Naaz thought she had only one way to escape: through suicide.
Naaz also held her mother responsible for her inability to sustain her fame in the film industry. She had no experienced manager to help her make strategic choices. Her mother, she said, accepted every role that came their way, good and terrible. She had one last chance to make it big, when Raj Kapoor offered to send her to a film school in Switzerland, but her mother refused, Naaz claimed, for she did not know how to manage without her income back in India.
It was with her husband and actor Subbiraj Kumar that she says she found love and acceptance. According to some accounts, it was Kumar who urged Naaz to give dubbing a shot. The two married in 1965 and even appeared in a few films together. But in her later years till her death in October 1995, the closest she came to her early days of stardom was as the voice of Sridevi.
On Saturday, even the most famous embodiment of Naaz’s voice faded away.
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