Suraiya: Hindi films' singing superstar who sent people swooning, was felicitated by two PMs

January 31, 2024
The only Hindi film actress to be felicitated by two Prime Ministers for the same role - with which she performed a salutary service to Indian literature

The only Hindi film actress to be felicitated by two Prime Ministers for the same role – with which she performed a salutary service to Indian literature, she, both on and off the screen, sent audiences swooning, drew a Hollywood star to her home unannounced, and had enterprising fruit-sellers use her name to entice buyers.

Suraiya, who passed away on this day (January 31) in 2004 after four decades in quiet and peaceful obscurity, was the third and last of Indian films’ singing superstars, after K.L. Saigal and Noor Jehan, but went on to outpace them.

In her heyday, she needed a police team deployed outside her home given the crowds thronging the area for a chance glimpse, made fans bunk work or classes to catch the first show of her new films, and had to stop attending her film premieres to avoid frenzied fans.

There was one future Hindi film star who confessed to seeing one of her films multiple times but still not having his fill – Dharmendra.

Born in Lahore in June 1929, Suraiya Jamal Sheikh was just six when she began singing for AIR in Bombay, where her parents had moved in 1930.

Aged just seven, she acted in her first film – ‘Madame Fashion’ (1936), produced by Nargis’s mother Jaddanbai – and had accompanied a relative to the shoot of film ‘Taj Mahal’ (1941), when she caught the eye of the director and was cast as the young Mumtaz Mahal.

Meanwhile, her AIR singing stint had brought her to the attention of music director Naushad, a newcomer trying to establish himself in the industry, and he made 13-year-old Suraiya sing, even though she needed to stand on a stool to reach the microphone.

She also came to the attention of Devika Rani, who gave her a contract and even Saigal, who handpicked her for what would be some of his last films. However, she refused to sing duets with him, believing she was no match for him as a singer.

Suraiya came into the limelight with ‘Anmol Ghadi’ (1946), where she stood her ground opposite fellow singing superstar Noor Jehan.

With Noor Jehan leaving in India 1947, Suraiya not only became a top female star, but also the highest-paid in the late 1940s and the early 1950s. Her looks of unaffected, unpretentious girl next door, with a slight air of naivete, only added to her charm. This was complemented by her dulcet voice, with an undernote of hesitation and tentativeness, but sounding as melodious as tinkling bells.

This was the reason why fruit vendors claimed that their wares came from ‘Suraiya ke khet’, implying they were as sweet.

Yet, at the peak of her career, where she had a close – but eventually star-crossed – relationship with co-star Dev Anand, and had a visiting Gregory Peck look her up at her home and spend hours chatting after her, Suraiya gradually began reducing films and withdrawing from the limelight.

While part of this had to do with her having to abandon Dev Anand due to family pressure where religion was cited as the reason, but the fact that she was the family’s sole-earning member also played a role. The advent of playback singing, the changing rhythms of life and her own ill health too played their roles.

However, she shone in ‘Mirza Ghalib’ (1954), as she brought Ghalib’s ghazals to life for the modern generation and was complimented for it by no less than Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who at the film’s premiere in New Delhi, told her: “Ladki, tumne Ghalib ki rooh ko zinda kar diya.”

Nearly four and half decades later, it was Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee who honoured her for the same role at a special function in Delhi in 1998 to mark the bicentenary of Ghalib’s birth.

However, still in her mid-30s, she turned her back fully on the tinsel world after ‘Rustam Sohrab’ (1963) and spent the remainder of her life, in sporadic contact with some old colleagues and appearing at the odd function but never singing in public again.

However, her memory lives in her 338 odd songs in 67 films between 1936 and 1963, such as ‘Man leta hai angdai’ (‘Anmol Ghadi’), ‘Tu mera chaand main teri chandni’ (‘Dillagi’) – for which Dharmendra watched the film multiple times, ‘Man mor hua matvala’ (‘Afsar’), the gently philosophical ‘Yeh mausam aur yeh tanhai’ (‘Dastaan’), and then ‘Aah ko chahiye umr asar hone tak’ and duet ‘Dil-e-Nadan’ (with Talat Mehmood) in ‘Mirza Ghalib’.

But her swan song – and unintended epitaph – was ‘Ye kaisi ajab daastan’ (‘Rustam Sohrab’), especially when she sings ‘Bujha do bujha do, bujhaa do sitaaron ki shamme bujha do…’

–By Vikas Datta

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