The young girl who became pen-pal with Bollywood's biggest stars

By Aliya Nazki
BBC Urdu

Mehrunissa NajmaImage source, Twitter/@samjawed65
Image caption,
Mehrunissa Najma (right) wrote to dozens of film stars in the 1950s and 60s

How many times have you rolled your eyes as your grandparents look wistfully into the distance and recall "the good old days"?

Those were the days indeed! No mobile phones, no internet, no social media, none of the modern gadgets and facilities that make life so much easier.

But one viral thread on Twitter has made thousands of people in India genuinely nostalgic for those times.

Alt news is an Indian fact checking website. One of its co-founders tweets as SamSays. Earlier this week, she started trending in India by tweeting a thread about her late aunt.

Mehrunissa Najma died 15 years ago, in 2006. After her death, some of her things were put in storage and stayed there all these years, languishing in a basement somewhere. Recently an album from that basement made its way to SamSays.

Najma was a big Indian film fan, and in spite of her mother's displeasure, would spend all her free time writing long letters to all the film stars of the day.

And the album SamSays found was filled with replies those film stars had written and sent to her, along with their autographed pictures.

Shammi Kapoor, known as the Elvis Presley of India, wrote in English, "I am happy to learn that I am your favourite star". Dharmendra, one of the most prolific actors in Indian film history, sent a hand-written reply in Hindi. Mother India star Sunil Dutt's letter was written in chaste Urdu.

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The list goes on, and includes pretty much every big film star of the day: Kamini Kaushal, Sadhna, Asha Parekh, Saira Banu, Tabassum, Surayya, Rajender Kumar, Raj Kumar...

Imagine one of us writing a letter to, say, Shah Rukh Khan or Tom Cruise and receiving a handwritten reply! Maybe your grandma's been right all along - those indeed were the days!

Before we dive into these letters, though, here's what we know about Najma, whose back story is actually every bit as fascinating as the stars she wrote to.

Najma was born in the 1930s in Delhi. Her dad was from Punjab, and her mum was ethnic Burmese. She had two sisters and a brother. Their father died when the children were quite young.

Her family lived with her father's sister who was married to Saadat Ali Khan - the Nawab (sovereign ruler) of Tonk.

So Najma was raised by her Burmese mother in the Nawab's palace in Tonk, Rajasthan.

As they grew older, her other siblings went to Aligarh Muslim University for higher education, but Najma's heart wasn't really into her studies. What she loved best was to watch movies, listen to her favourite songs on Radio Ceylon, and write long letters to her favourite stars.

This lasted till her early twenties, when she got married. Her letter writing might have stopped after her wedding but her love for films certainly didn't.

Image source, Twitter/@Samjawed65
Image caption,
The palace in Tonk where Najma grew up

SamSays describes her aunt as an extremely loving woman. Everyone knew about her passion for films, film stars and her long letters. She says, "It was only after my thread went viral on twitter that it occurred to me that something all of us knew and took for granted, and paid no mind to - her letter-writing/ picture collecting - it was actually a precious treasure."

After just 8 years of marriage Najma's husband passed away. She never remarried, choosing instead to live with her brother and sisters. She had no children of her own but was extremely close to her niece. And her love of films and cinema lasted well into her old age.

Image source, Twitter/@samjawed65

Let's take a look at Najma's album, then, shall we?

Let's begin with my favourite: Sunil Dutt, one of the biggest stars of the time who did not send her a line or two in reply but wrote a proper letter, in his own hand.

I think he must have been aware that the person writing to him was an impressionable young girl. Keeping that in mind and being the gentleman he was always known to be, he refers to Najma as his sister, not once but many times.

I'm not sure how Najma felt about being "sister-zoned by Sunil Dutt, but it's a precious letter in which the star uses flawless Urdu but also writes down Hindi synonyms for some words alongside.

Image source, Twitter/@samjawed65

Next we have Dharmendra's reply, hand-written again, this time in Hindi, and entirely in keeping with his heartthrob image. It looks like Najma had written to him on his birthday. In his reply he writes, "I received your wishes for my birthday. I can barely explain how your letter made my heart dance with happiness. I'm sending you a picture with my autograph, and my best wishes. Yours, Dharmendra."

We can only imagine how this reply must have made young Najma's heart flutter.

Image source, Twitter/@samjawed65

SamSays says that one of the letters, which she has not made public, from the actress Tabassum, is in fact even more personal, and points to an ongoing correspondence between the two.

Najma was also a big Radio Ceylon fan, and would enter pretty much every competition the radio station ran, some of which she would win. Her collection also includes autographed pictures of some of India's most popular playback singers of the time - all of them won as prizes.

Image source, Twitter/@Samjawed65
Image caption,
Najma, who died in 2006, continued to love film throughout her life

Bollywood fans clamoured to read the letters after Sam posted them on Wednesday morning. Among them was a modern-day film star, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, who thanked the journalist for uploading the treasure trove.

"This is so special," she wrote. "I loved going through her collection. Thanks for sharing."

Sam told us that after her thread went viral on twitter India's National Film Archive got in touch and has offered to preserve Najma's collection.

For now, however, that's a decision Sam will only take after talking with her dad.

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