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'My Life Was In Danger'

April 22, 2024 14:18 IST

''I received many threatening calls and letters.'
'A fatwa was issued against me.'

IMAGE: A young Salma Agha. Photograph: Kind courtesy Salma Agha/Instagram

She became a household name in 1982, after the release of her debut film, Nikaah. It turned the spotlight on triple talaaq and sparked off a huge controversy, but then went on to bust the box office.

Thirty-seven years later, this practice, which had ruined the lives of so many Muslim women, was declared illegal and void.

Salma Agha raised her voice in support of the ban and invited death threats. But there was no keeping her down.

More recently, speaking to Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya, the actress-activist reveals, "I want to get back to acting, both in films and OTT, and have lost 15 kilos. I also want to start singing again and there are plans to open a production company in Mumbai."

It's been over 40 years since Nikaah released and Dil Ke Armaan Aansoon Mein Beh Gayi still resonates.

Yes, and you will be happy to know that I am planning a remix of Dil Ke Armaan.

Also, Dance Dance from Kasam Paida Karnewale Ki, with my daughter Zarah S Khan, who incidentally has borrowed the 'S' from my name, Salma.

We are planning these two songs as singles, with videos.

God has blessed me with two beautiful and talented children.

I'm currently spending time with my son, Shahaan Ali Khan, who is studying at a premier international institute in Himachal Pradesh.

Shahaan is also a music producer and sound engineer, training to be an actor. He should also come out with his own single by the year-end.

Zara was adjudged the Most Promising Young Talent of Bollywood at the Filmfare Middle-East Awards last year.

Her award must have brought back memories of your Black Lady?

Yes, despite being a debutante, I was nominated by Filmfare in the Best Actress category for my performance in Nikaah.

While I did not win in this award (it went to Padmini Kolhapure for Raj Kapoor's Prem Rog), I took home the trophy for Best Playback Singer (Female) for Dil Ke Armaan Aansoon Mein Beh Gayi.

That year, I had two more nominations for Dil Ki Yeh Arzoo Thi Koi Dilruba Mile, a duet with Mahendra Kapoor, and a solo track, Fazaa Bhi Hai Jawan Jawan.

(Laughs) It was my first Bollywood award and this time, the aansoon were tears of joy.


IMAGE: Salma Agha in Nikaah.

Apparently, there were many who tried to persuade Nikaah's Producer-Director B R Chopra against using your voice.

Yes, there were many in the unit itself who did not want him to use my voice which was very different from the popular voices of the time.

Asha Bhosle had given playback for his films regularly and they wanted to take Ashaji for Nikaah as well.

But when the film opened on September 24, 1982, during the first show itself, people were showering coins on the screen when Dil Ke Armaan played.

It became such a craze that people watched the film multiple times just for this song.

I will always remain grateful to Choprasahab for standing by the promise he made to me.

I had categorically told him I would only act in the film if he let me sing too.

Music was my passion and I wanted to be a singer.

Reportedly, B R Chopra met you at a song recording for a film, Chanakya Chandragupt.

Yes. I was recording a song with Naushadsahab for Chanakya Chandragupt featuring Dilip (Kumar) sahab and Dharmendra in the title roles.

He had earlier given the music for A R Kardar's film, Shahjehan, one of the top grossers of 1946, which had starred my mother, Nasreen, as Mumtaz, and was known to the family.

Since Choprasahab was making the film, he had come for the recording and as soon as he walked into the studio and saw me, he said, 'This is Nilofar.'

Surprised, I told him quietly, 'No, I'm not Nilofar.'

When he repeated his statement, Naushadsahab laughed and told him that I was the singer, Salma Agha.

That's when he explained that he was making a film titled Nikaah whose lead character is called Nilofar.

Looking at me, he reiterated, 'She's the one, I've found my Nilofar.'

I wasn't interested in acting, but Choprasahab convinced me to meet him the next day.

I had always been something of a social activist and when he narrated the script of Nikaah to me, I knew I had to do this film even though I had never acted before.

IMAGE: Raj Babbar and Salma Agha in Nikaah.

How did your family react to the decision?

Choprasahab knew my maternal grandfather, Jugal Kishore Sharma, from when he was a journalist and my nana was the director general of All India Radio.

When he called my grandfather to tell him he was thinking of signing me for Nikaah, my nana, who had by then settled down in London, replied, 'Do me a favour and don't take her in your film.'

Earlier, his cousin Raj Kapoor had also wanted to sign me for his film Henna, but my grandfather had prevailed upon him not to do so.

But Choprasahab was adamant.

He didn't even audition me even though it was a heroine's role and I was a total novice to acting. Instead, being a knowledgeable and experienced filmmaker, he mentored me patiently.

Before the shoot, there were workshops for two months with my co-stars Raj (Babbar) and Deepak (Parasher) during which every scene was rehearsed.

He would even explain the technicalities to me, like the lens they were using and the lighting, how to move within the field and keep the focus on the camera.

I'm proud to say that most of my shots were okayed in the first take and we wrapped up the film in a month's time.

Nikaah made you an overnight sensation. Then, what happened?

I went back to my studies.

I did return, but the delay affected my career.

No regrets, I never look back on what I have left behind when there is so much more to experience in life.

Today, I can be happy for my daughter who has signed a huge, pan-India film, Mohanlal's Vrushaba, in which she plays a warrior princess from another era.

Zarah will also sing for the film.

Any chances of seeing her mother return on screen?

Yes, I want to get back to acting, both in films and OTT, and have lost 15 kilos.

I also want to start singing again and there are plans to open a production company in Mumbai.

IMAGE: Salma Agha with daughter Zara Khan. Photograph: Kind courtesy Salma Agha/Instagram

When Nikaah released, it was seen as a revolutionary film with Deepak Parashar's Wasim divorcing Nilofar in a fit of anger, then regretting the move and trying to convince her present husband, Raj Babbar's Haider, to give her talaq after consummating the marriage so he can marry her again.

Yes, for decades, Sharia laws has been governing the lives of Muslim women even though nowhere in the Quran is it stated that a man is allowed four wives at a time or that he can discard his wife by saying, writing, even texting or mailing the word 'talaq' three times.

That was precisely my reason for doing the film.

I have to say that it gave Muslim women a voice.

Huge protests before its release forced B R Chopra to change the title from Talaq, Talaq, Talaq to Nikaah and hold a special preview show to appease conservative Islamic clerics.

Yes, 34 cases were filed against the film which was a record at the time.

There were calls to ban the film.

Posters put up outside the theatres screening it, urging people not to patronise Nikaah.

I got a lot of threatening phone calls and letters because many found it hard to accept that despite being a Muslim girl, I was questioning an age-old practice and asserting my right to decide what I wanted from life in the film.

It was unthinkable.

A fatwa was issued against me and for weeks, my life was in danger.

But once the film was released, there was no looking back.

It was one of the highest grossing films of the year.

In some theatres, it ran for five years.

Nikaah gave Muslim women the courage to fight back.

Photograph: Kind courtesy Salma Agha/Instagram

On July 30, 2019, the Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Marriage) Avt was passed, and from August 1, triple talaq became illegal and void, with three years of jail for the husband and maintenance for the wife and children. That must have been one sweet victory.

Yes. Muslim women in India are grateful to our prime minister for his efforts towards giving us equal rights.

The architect of a huge social change, (Narendra) Modiji had met me to urge me to campaign for this Act which I willingly did.

Once again, I incited the ire of certain sections of society.

Like it had happened during Nikaah, they were outraged that a Muslim woman was supporting the triple talaq ban.

Once again, the death threats started.

But 21 countries had already banned triple talaq, so why not India?

After it was declared illegal, the divorce rate in our community has come down by 80 percent.

Any plans of getting into politics?

Elections give you power and a platform, but you don't have to become an MP or an MLA to do good work.

If you are sincere and honest, care for your fellow beings, you can serve them even without being a politician.

I have a charitable trust, 'Being Mother', which works to rehabilitate elderly women who lack family support.

We also campaign against female infanticide.

In so many states, after three daughters, if another girl is born, they throw her into the river.

We have fished out babies from sacks floating down the river, it's horrifying!

I think if every family, who can afford it, adopts a child after two of their own, there will be no orphans left in the world.

What's frustrating is that orphanages will not give up children for adoption to couples from respectable families who can give them a good life because they don't want their funds to dry up.

It's a subject like triple talaq which needs to be raised in Parliament.