Forgotten stories

Remembering Baby Naaz, Sridevi’s voice in her early Hindi films

Despite achieving acclaim early on as a child actress, Salma Baig spent her later years lending her voice to the cinematic dreams of others.

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.

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Boot Polish (1954).

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.

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Himmatwala (1983).

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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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.