Features Punjabi Urdu

Take 5: Noor Jehan Across the Border

I’ve always maintained that one of the biggest losses to Indian cinema at the time of the partition in 1947 was that of Noor Jehan. When it was imminent that the sub-continent would be divided, she was clear that she would go where the place of her birth fell. Thus, the singing star opted to make Pakistan her home after Kasur, the place where she was born, came under Pakistani territory.

It was a brave and some thought even foolish move. After all, she was the reigning female star of Hindi cinema – the star of musical hits like Khandaan (1942), Lal Haveli (1944), Zeenat (1945), Anmol Ghadi (1946), Jugnu (1947) and Mirza Sahiban (1947) – when she opted to give it all up and cross the border. There, she had to start her career once again from scratch. Not just her, the Pakistani film industry had to rebuild itself as it had no infrastructure to make films. Both the major studios of Lahore, owned by Roop K Shorey and Dalsukh Pancholi, were razed down during the horrific rioting that accompanied the partition causing both of them to come to India. There was little decent equipment available in Lahore but with little baby steps, the Pakistani film industry finally took birth on August 7, 1948 with the release of the Urdu film, Teri Yaad, starring Asha Posley and Nasir Khan, the younger brother of Dilip Kumar. The film, sadly, flopped dismally at the box office due to extremely poor production values. As the struggling Pakistani film industry slowly started to find its bearings, it took Noor Jehan till March 29, 1951 to finally come out with her  first film Chan Way, in Punjabi.

We look at five songs of Noor Jehan between 1951 and 1961, when she was a singing star in Pakistan. She would subsequently switch to full time playback singing thereafter.

Chan Way proved to be a huge success at the box office and a musical hit as well. The songs were hugely popular not just in West Punjab but in East Punjab – the Indian side – as well. The film’s songs were composed by Firoz Nizami, who had composed for the diva’s Jugnu earlier. While all the songs of the film, all Noor Jehan solos, were hits, one that still stood out was undoubtedly Tere Mukhde Da Kaala Kaala Til Way. The refrain Way Mundaya Sialkotia, in particular, became a popular catch phrase in Pakistan directed at eligible young men from Sialkot! With Chan Way, Noor Jehan was back and how!

Noor Jehan and Nizami followed Chan Way with another musical hit, Dupetta (1952), Noor Jehan’s first film in Urdu. The film remains one of all time great films to come out of Pakistan. It was also technically one of the better films to come out of the country. In the film, Noor Jehan plays a woman whose husband goes missing in action and is presumed dead in World War II. The  songs of the film. all beautifully composed, featured regularly in the top ten of the Binaca Geetmala programme broadcast from Radio Ceylon, giving tough competition to Indian film songs. Again, there is one stand out song in the film, Chandni Raaten, which would go on to be one of the earliest songs to be remixed in the 1990s. Incidentally, the tune of another song, Sanwariya Tohe Koi Pukare, was used in the Tamil film Parasakthi (1952) in the song, Poomaalai.

Following the indifference to Gulnar (1953) and the success of the Punjabi-Urdu film, Patay Khan (1955), Noor Jehan hit her peak in Pakistani cinema possibly with Intezar (1956), her first teaming up with composer Khwaja Khursheed Anwar. The film, seeing her play a blind singer, was a huge success at the box office even winning the President’s Award. No less than Lata Mangeshkar had commented then that it was her favourite soundtrack from a Pakistani film. That year, Noor Jehan teamed with another legendary composer of Pakistani cinema, GA Chishti, in the film Lakht-e-Jigar. In spite of some fine music, Lakht-e-Jigar, a remake of the Indian film Vachcan (1955), flopped at the box office.

After the disappointment of the Punjabi film, Nooran (1957), even though the songs were out of this world, when Pakistan decided to make a film on the tragic Salim-Anarkali love story, it was but natural that Noor Jehan be chosen play the doomed courtesan. While the film itself suffered from poor production values and a rather inadequate performance from Sudhir as Salim, Noor Jehan was in sublime form as a singer. This song, sung when Anarkali is imprisoned, from the 1958 production Anaarkali, proves that few could sing sad songs as well as her. At her best, she was simply matchless.

And finally, coming to her last big success as an actress-singer, Koel (1959), which saw Noor Jehan team up for the second time with Khursheed Anwar and she played a singer yet again in the film. Great as the music of Intezar was, the singer-composer team outdid themselves in this musical hit where in the film, Noor Jehan’s character is bestowed the title of the Koel of Pakistan. This song shows just why she was known as the Queen of Melody in real life as well.

Okay, I had to include one bonus song. Just couldn’t avoid leaving out this wonderful ditty from Neend (1959), composed by Rashid Attre.

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