Except for her arresting, almond-shaped eyes, Suraiya was not a classic beauty; nor did she trained in classical music. Suraiya , the lovely melody queen created aura with her popular numbers like 'tu mera chaand, main teri chandani' ,'dil-e-nadan, tujhe hua kya hai' and 'woh paas rahe ya door rahe' .
Suraiya was born in 1929 as Suraiya Jamal Shaikh in Lahore. In 1941, she visited Mohan Studios where shooting of film "Taj Mehal" was being done. There was a role for a child in this film. The director Mr.Nanubhai Vakil suggested her to perform the role and she agreed to face the camera for the first time. The shot was considered OK.
During her school days she used to participate in "Children Program" on Radio along with Shammi and Rajkapoor. She could sing some popular songs of that time with melody and fidelity. Appreciating her singing talent, a song "Boot karun mein polish" was recorded in her voice by Naushad Sahib in 1942 for the film "Nai-Dunia". In the same year she performed a role in film "Station Master" Other films of her playback singing with music by Naushad Sahib were "Sharda" (Punchi Ja- pechey raha hae bachpan mera), "Qanoon" and "Sanjog".
Her singing career found a mentor in music maestro Naushad. Suraiya had participated in a children`s programme on All India Radio after friend Raj Kapoor and neighbour Madan Mohan had cajoled her. Naushad heard Suraiya on the radio and chose her to sing as 13 year old for Mehtab in Kardar`s Sharda, 1942. Suraiya had to stand on a stool to reach the mike to croon Panchi ja, picturised on the much-older heroine, Mehtaab.
She was effectively launched as a singing star in Bombay Talkies Humaari Baat (1943). She made her presence felt in perhaps India's first multi-starrer K.Asif's Phool (1944) and played strong supporting second lead roles to Noorjehan in Mehboob Khan's Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Munawar Sultana in Dard (1947).Suraiya had her moments with Socha Tha Kya, Main Dil Mein Dard Basa La Aayee and Man Leta Hai.
She was starred opposite the legendary K.L. Saigal in three of his later films - Tadbir (1945), Omar Khaiyam (1946) and Parwana (1947), the last remembered for her haunting rendition of Jab Tumhi Nahin Apne.Her pairing with the then superstar Dev Anand was a huge hit and the two went on to star in many successful movies together - Afsar, Shayar and Jeet etal. They were romantically linked and were all set to marry when her strict grandmother put her foot down and broke their relationship (Dev Anand is a Hindu while Suraiya is a Muslim). The heartbroken Suraiya never married though many leading men of her time were interested in her.Surraiya's idol was Gregory Peck and he visited her by surprise during a night of 1954 while in transit at Mumbai on his way to Srilanka for shooting. He was much impressed by her simplicity.Dev Anand molded himself in postures of Gregory Peck but after long awaiting he married Kaplna Kartak.
The 1948-49 phase saw her rise to her peak. With Pyar ki Jeet (1948), Badi Bahen (1949) and Dillagi (1949) she became the highest paid female star of her time. At her peak, Suraiya generated hysteria comparable only to Rajesh Khanna in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Shop owners would down their shutters to see her starrers on the first day itself, crowds would throng outside her residence at Marine Drive in Bombay just to get a glimpse of her and actor Dharmendra recalls going to see Dillagi 40 times! Her songs from the above films Tere Nainon Ne Chori Kiya, O Door Jaanewaale (Pyar ki Jeet), Woh Paas Rahe Ya Door Rahe, O Likhnewaale Ne, Bigdi Bananewaale (Badi Bahen) and Tu Mera Chand, Murliwaale Murli Bajaa (Dillagi) were hummed in every nook and corner of the country.
Most of her films in the 50's flopped till she made a short lived comeback with Sohrab Modi's 'Mirza Ghalib' in which she played the role of the married Ghalib's lover.She made a short-lived comeback with Waaris (1954) and Mirza Ghalib (1954). The latter saw her finest dramatic performance as she made alive and vivid the role of the married Ghalib's lover, a courtesan. Ghalib also saw some of her finest singing - Aah ko Chaihiye Ek Umar, Nuktacheen Hai Gham-e-Dil, Dil-e-Nadaan Tujhe Hua Kya Hai, Yeh Na Thi Humari Kismet etc. Her singing is till date regarded as the definitive Ghalib. In fact India's then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru paid her the ultimate compliment by telling her " Tumne Mirza Ghalib ki Rooh ko Zinda Kar Diya" (she had brought Mirza Ghalib to life).
Unfortunately her work thereafter remained largely undistinguished. Shama (1961) was a musical hit and her last film was Rustom Sohrab (1963), which also boasts of one of her finest ever songs - Yeh Kaisi Ajab Dastaan Ho Gayi.
Best Of Suraiya:
Dil-e-nadaan Mirza Ghalib
Phir mujhe Mirza Ghalib
Yeh na thi hamari kismat Mirza Ghalib
Man leta hai angdai Anmol Ghadi
Socha tha kya kya ho gaya Anmol Ghadi
Man mera huo matwale Afsar
Man mera huo matwale Afsar
Milne ka din aa gaya Tadbir
Kuch phool khile armaan ki Jeet
O door janewale Jeet
This superstar singer/actress passed away on the 31st of January after a brief stint at Mumbai’s Harkison das Hospital. But before that since the 60’s when she gave up acting she became a recluse for no better reason than “I’m too fat, I want people to remember me as I used to be.”
As one looks back at the career of this reclusive spirit one hears numbers like ‘nain diwane’, ‘man mor huwa matwala’ the outstanding ‘woh paas rahe ya door rahe nazaron mein samaye rehte hain’; frothy numbers like ‘ tarari tarari’, romantic ones like ‘tu mera chand’, sad numbers like ‘kise maloom tha’, ‘aiso se jee na lagaye koi’. She held her own amongst stalwarts like Nurjehan, Zohrabai Ambalewali, Amirbai, and even begum Akhtar. Her career spanned only 20 years but one is astounded at the body of work she has left.
Music maestro Naushad who has shared a long association with this star recalls: “She was a lively young girl, always ready to burst into laughter, a quality she retained till today. But this singing star of the 40’s and 50’s neither sang nor acted now. The reason for this again was that she wanted to make up for those years and years of discipline she had to go through, when she was at the top. Ruled by a martinet of a grandmother who took complete charge of her life and accompanied her everywhere and never let her out of her sight, she was completely responsible in making Suraiya what she was” says music maestro Naushad Ali.
Naushad Ali recalls how she entered the film industry at the very tender age of 9; literally accompanied by her grandmother who remained a strict and powerful influence and chaperone throughout her career. “We were” he recalls, “making a film for Prakash pictures and needed a young girl to play the heroine’s younger sister, someone who could also sing. G.M. Durrani a singer suggested Suraiya and one day a young girl wearing a frock and holding her grandmother’s hand walked into the office. I gave her an audition. She had no training in music but she was intelligent. She sang 2 songs for the film Station Master-one was a chorus ‘yeh rail hamar ghar ki chuk chuk chuk and ‘saajan ghar aye ayeri aali’, which was a solo number. This was her debut both as an actress and a singer. Subsequently she gave playback for the heroine Mehtab in the film Sharda. From here she became the voice of Mehtaab so successfully that people thought it was Mehtab herself singing.”
“For me she sang in films like Dillagi, Dastaan, Nadaan, Dard, Deewana, Anmol ghadi. Her unsophisticated voice was her specialty,” he analyses. “Her natural tonal quality was very good. She was gifted with a naturally melodious voice. Hers could be called non-professional singing but her pick up was very good and she learnt things quickly. She retired too early, she could’ve sung a lot more.”
But any reference to Suraiya would be incomplete without a mention of their fabled romance. Dev Anand however prefers to keep those beautiful moments in his personal file. “When I entered the industry,” he reveals, “she was already a big star, she was a lovely person, a good singer, very friendly, her singing was effortless. I’m out of touch with her now but I remember meeting her some time back. She starred in Navketan’s first film Afsar. She was very nice but she was always surrounded by this retinue of people.” this last is said without any rancor.
“I particularly recall her singing the songs of Anil Biswas one of the very fine music composers of that time. And I’d sit and listen. I don’t know what to say-what can one say when anyone dies-one feels sorrow.
“I remember I had cried when our relationship broke up. We had lost touch and gone our separate ways and this was a closed chapter in my life.”