Suraiya was perhaps the last of the great female singing stars of Hindi cinema. At the height of her fame in the late 1940s, she generated a hysteria comparable only to that of 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, her biggest fan, recalls going to see Dillagi (1949) 40 times!
Born Suraiya Jamal Sheikh on June 15, 1929 in Lahore in undivided India, her family moved to Bombay when she was just one. Her maternal uncle, M Zahoor, became a recognised villain in Hindi Cinema in the 1930s while Suraiya, herself, would sing in children’s radio programmes along with other friends like composer-to-be, Madan Mohan, and future actor-director, Raj Kapoor. Meanwhile, she attended what is now known as the JB Petit High School for Girls in Bombay. Then it was just called the New High School.
Suraiya began as a child actor in films like Madame Fashion (1936) and Taj Mahal (1941), where she played the young Mumtaz Mahal. As a singer, she did playback when just 13 for heroine Mehtaab in Sharda (1942) under Naushad’s direction. Naushad had heard her singing on the radio and was totally taken in by her voice. It is a well-known legend of Hindi cinema that the barely-in-her-teens Suraiya had to stand on a stool to reach the mike! Initially, Mehtaab was horrified that a little girl was to sing for her but calmed down after hearing Suraiya sing! Suraiya’s solo in the film, Panchhi Ja Peechhe Raha Hai Bachpan Mera, proved to be a hugely popular number and an early musical hit for Naushad.
Suraiya was then seen in a small role in Station Master (1942) before being launched as a singing star in two films in 1943. One was Ishara, where she was cast opposite Prithviraj Kapoor, and the other being the Bombay Talkies film, Hamari Baat (1943). However, the latter film made little impact and today film historians remember it more for it being Devika Rani’s last film rather than Suraiya’s launchpad. One song from Hamari Baat, a duet that she sang with Arun Kumar, Bistar Bicha Diya Hai Tere Ghar Ke Samne, became reasonably popular at the time. Suraiya, nevertheless, labored on and first made her presence felt as a singing actress in a big way in what is regarded as India’s first ever multi-starrer, K Asif’s Phool (1945). It is a film that boasts of a star cast of Veena, Durga Khote, Prithviraj Kapoor, Yakub, Sitara Devi, Mazhar Khan and Suraiya.It is to her credit that even in a film full of such stalwarts, Suraiya more than made her musical mark with her songs like Ab Dwar Pe Aayi Hai and Yeh Dil Gaya Hai.
Suraiya moved on to playing strong supporting second lead roles to Noor Jehan in Mehboob Khan’s Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Munawar Sultana in AR Kardar’s Dard (1947). Though Noor Jehan had perhaps the best of Naushad’s compositions in Anmol Ghadi (Jawan Hai Mohabbat, Awaaz De Kahan Hai, Aa Jaa Meri Barbad Mohabbat Ke Sahare, Mere Bachpan Ke Saathi, Kya Mil Gaya Bhagwan), Suraiya too had her strong musical moments in the love quadrangle with Socha Tha Kya, Main Dil Mein Dard Basa Layee and Man Leta Hai Angdai. If Uma Devi had the best song of Dard (Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon) going on Munawar Sultana, Naushad made sure that Suraiya too had her high points in the film with tuneful songs like Hum The Tumhare Tum The Humare and Beech Bhanwar Mein.
Suraiya was also fortunate to star opposite the legendary KL 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. Talking of working with Saigal, in an interview Suraiya recalled, “Believe me, it was an honor and a privilege to work with him… …In those days, to millions of cinegoers in this country, Saigal was the embodiment of romance, a name they always associated with love and music on the screen. Actually, even though Saigal was very good in some emotional scenes, he felt uncomfortable playing the lover. He was at his natural best when singing. Much of my success I owe to the help and the encouragement that Saigal gave me.”
The 1948-49 phase saw Suraiya rise to her peak. With Pyar Ki Jeet (1948), Bari Behen (1949) and Dillagi (1949), she became the highest paid female star of her time. Her songs from the above mentioned films Tere Nainon Ne Chori Kiya, O Door Janewale (Pyar ki Jeet), Woh Paas Rahe Ya Door Rahe, O Likhnewale Ne, Bigdi Bananewale (Bari Behen) and Tu Mera Chand, Murliwale Murli Bajaa (Dillagi) were hummed in every nook and corner of the country. Crowds gusted everywhere to get a glimpse of her in and off-screen. Suraiya recalled that, “When I went for the premiere of the movie Bari Behen, there was such a big crowd outside! As I walked into the theatre, they pulled at my clothes. There was a lathi charge and people were injured. I stopped going for premieres thereafter.”
Suraiya’s pairings with Rehman (Pyar Ki Jeet, Bari Behen) and Shyam (Dillagi, Naach (1949), Char Din (1949)) were particularly successful. But it has to be said that there was more to Suraiya than just her songs. Over the years, she had more than picked up the finer points of acting as well and she came up with more than capable performances in her films expertly integrating gesture, emotion, music and speech. Talking about her popularity, Suraiya modesty said, “Most of my roles were simple, but the audiences loved them. And I was lucky to have got simple, melodious and easy to pick up songs to sing, and work with the best composers of the day like Naushad, Husnlal-Bhagatram and Anil Biswas.”
However Suraiya’s reign at the top was brief as she suffered big setbacks in both her professional and personal lives. She had got involved with Dev Anand and the two of them did seven films together in the period between 1948 and ’51 – Vidya (1948), Jeet (1949), Shair (1949), Afsar (1950), Nili (1950), Sanam (1951) and Do Sitare (1951) – but her strict grandmother put her foot down, even throwing the expensive engagement ring that Anand had given her into the sea.
The love story started when Anand saved her from drowning while they were filming a song together and the boat they were on, overturned. With her not knowing how to swim, he got her out of the water. It was then that he declared his feelings for her. At one point they had even decided to elope during the shooting of Jeet but it did not happen. The affair and their partnership ended when she could not take a stand against her family, particularly her orthodox grandmother, leaving her heartbroken.
To make things worse for Suraiya, her other films too started flopping one after another in the early 1950s. As her market fell, a number of films announced with her failed to take off or remained incomplete. One such film, which disappointed her much, was PL Santoshi’s Pagalkhana, where Suraiya was playing a mental patient. She had done extensive research for the role and visited mental asylums in Thane and Pune to study the behaviour, actions and gestures of the inmates to make her performance appear convincing in the film.
Not one to give up, Suraiya made a grand though short-lived comeback with Waaris (1954) and Mirza Ghalib (1954). The latter, a National Award winning film directed by Sohrab Modi, 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 Chahiye Ek Umar, Nuktacheen Hai Gham-e-Dil, Dil-e-Nadan Tujhe Hua Kya Hai, Yeh Na Thi Humari Kismet among others. In fact India’s then Prime Minister 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.” That year she also scored heavily as a singer in Shama Parwana and Bilwamangal but the films, co-starring Shammi Kapoor and CH Atma respectively, did not do well. Still, her rendering of songs like Mera Dildar Na Milaya and Sham-e-Bahar Aayi in the former and Hum Ishq Ke Maron Ko proved her singing voice was as good as it had ever been.
Unfortunately for Suraiya, her work thereafter remained largely undistinguished with films like Mr Lambu (1956), Trolley Driver (1958) and Miss 1958 (1958). Shama (1961), co-starring Nimmi, was a musical hit but failed at the box-office.
The last film that Suraiya appeared in was Rustom Sohrab (1963), which also boasts of one of her finest ever songs – Yeh Kaisi Ajab Dastan Ho Gayi. It was an extremely difficult composition by Sajjad Hussain but it is to Suraiya’s credit as to how well she rendered the song, making it undoubtedly one of her best ever.
Thereafter, Suraiya retired from the arc lights and preferred to stay away from the limelight. She was rarely ever seen except heavily made up at select film functions leading her to be known as the Garbo of India.
Suraiya passed away in Bombay on January 31, 2004 following a brief illness.