Bollywood Legends - Suraiya
Save for her arresting, almond-shaped eyes, Suraiya was not a classic beauty; nor did she trained in classical music. She still became a superstar singer-actress in the late 1940s and early 1950s.
Suraiya was born in 1929 as Suraiya Jamal Shaikh in Lahore. Suraiya`s tryst with showbiz began in 1941 when she accompanied uncle Zahoor (popular villain) to the sets of Prakash Pictures` Taj Mahal. Nanubhai Vakil took an instant liking to 12-year-old Suraiya and cast her as the young Mumtaz Mahal.
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. Mehboob Khan`s blockbuster Anmol Ghadi, 1946 made Suraiya a draw in her own right despite the fact that she was only the second lead in the film. If Noorjehan had four fabulous Naushad songs in the film including Jawaan Hai Mohabbat, Awaaz de kahan hain, Suraiya had a winner in Socha tha kya, kya ho gaya.
Singing superstar K. L. Saigal liked Suraiya`s voice at a rehearsal and recommended her as heroine in Tadbir, 1945. Suraiya costarred with Saigal in quick succession in Omar Khayyam, 1946 and Parwana, 1947.
When Noorjehan migrated to Pakistan, she inadvertently contributed to Suraiya’s success story. What gave Suraiya an edge over contemporaries like Kamini Kaushal and Nargis was her ability to sing her own songs.
The years 1948-1949 were the best of her career. A trio of hits- 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. 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 remembers walking miles to see Suraiya`s 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.
However Suraiya`s reign at the top was brief. She suffered both professionally and personally. Her films started flopping one after another in the 1950s. She had got involved with Dev Anand and the two of them did six films together- Vidya, 1948, Jeet, 1949, Shayar, 1949, Afsar, 1950, Nili, 1950 and Do Sitare, 1951. They may not have been hits but she had no regrets as their love flourished. During the shooting of a song, a boat capsized and Dev saved Suraiya from drowning. Suraiya fell in love with her hero. Lore has it that Suraiya`s grandmother threw Dev`s ring into the sea. Suraiya remains unmarried to this day.
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 Chaudhvin, the married Ghalib`s lover, a courtesan. She adeptly conveyed pain and longing with eternal classics like- Aah ko Chaihiye Ek Umar, Dil-e-Nadaan Tujhe Hua Kya Hai, Yeh Na Thi Humari Kismet etc. Mirza Ghalib won the President`s gold medal. In fact India`s then PM Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru paid her the ultimate compliment by telling her she had brought Mirza Ghalib to life. (Tumne Mirza Ghalib ki Rooh ko Zinda Kar Diya).
Unfortunately her work thereafter remained largely undistinguished. A spate of indifferent films followed. Suraiya had grew bulkier but her songs were still exquisite. 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.
Today, the still unmarried Suraiya lives alone in her plush Marine Drive apartment. Rarely does one see a bejeweled Suraiya at a party. Even after her strict grandmother, who kept suitors at bay and producers at arm`s length, passed away, Suraiya continued to be inaccessible. Her decision to reside in an ivory tower has added to her mystique, while her resolve to shun character roles ensured that she is always remembered as a heroine. Most quaintly, Suraiya also chose not to sing any new film song in the last 40 years.