Noor Jehan was the biggest singing star of them all – the diva of Bollywood in the 1940s till Independence and then a successful singer-actress before becoming a leading playback singer in Pakistan.
Born Allah Wasai in the Kasur area of Punjab in undivided India on September 23, 1926, she was fascinated by singing since the age of six. She idolized Akhtari Begum and Kajjanbai and the former advised her to first learn classical music. Thus, she first perfected her classical singing under Ghulam Mohammed Khan. She entered films as a child artiste, Baby Noor Jehan, in small roles beginning with Sheila: Pind Di Kudi (1935), said to be the first Punjabi film in India, before being seen prominently in other Punjabi films produced by Dalsukh Pancholi, Gul-e-Bakavali (1939) and Yamla Jat (1940). The music for both films was scored by Ghulam Haider, under whom she blossomed as a singer par excellence.
Noor Jehan was first noticed in a big way playing the female lead in Pancholi’s Khandaan (1942), where she was cast opposite Pran. A tale of family honour, this highly popular film in its times, has dated badly. Still, Noor Jehan is not bad at all in the lighter and happier romantic scenes where she shows some spunk. It is the more serious portions where the heavy-handedness shows but her freshness helps her get through. Musically though, she is magnificent. While most of the songs , composed by Ghulam Haider, were popular, Tu Kaunsi Badli Mein Mere Chand Hai Aaja, in particular, became a raging hit.
Later on, she would go on to marry her Khandaan director Syed Shauqat Hussain Rizvi and would work in many of his films like Naukar (1943), Dost (1944), Zeenat (1945) and Jugnu (1947).
Following Khandaan’s success, Rizvi and Noor Jehan shifted to India’s film capital, Bombay. She soon conquered the city with her vibrant voice. She had that unusual combination of a good voice, a style that could be compared to those of good classical thumri singers and the striking stage presence of a good performer. She acted in a string of films – Dhuai (1943), Naukar, Nadan (1943), Dost, Lal Haveli (1944), Badi Maa (1945) and Village Girl (1945), to name some and thanks to them, Noor Jehan became the number one female star in India. Fortunately for her, her timing was perfect. The uninhibited culture of the heroines of the 1930s was drawing to a close and a more conservative heroine was coming to the fore. What’s more, music was one of the reason that audiences went back to see films repeatedly and while not the greatest of actresses, Noor Jehan was matchless in the singing department. In Zeenat, she popularized the qawali as never before with Aahen Na Bhari Shikwen Na Kiye sung with other famous singers of those days, Zohra Ambala and Kalyani.
Noor Jehan reached her peak in India the following year with Mehboob Khan’s Anmol Ghadi (1946) which boasted of three singing stars cast together – Noor Jehan, Surendra and Suraiya. The result was a musical feast composed by maestro Naushad and Noor Jehan’s duet with Surendra Awaaz De Kahan Hai and her solos Jawaan Hai Mohabbat, Mere Bachpan Ke Saathi, Kya Mil Gaya Bhagwan and Aaja Meri Barbad Mohabbat Ke Sahare are hummed and remembered till today. In fact, Lata Mangeshkar’s early singing style was inspired by Noor Jehan even though the latter’s weighty vocals were a far car from Lata’s thin voice. One can see this in films like Andaz (1949) and Bazar (1949), where the composers Naushad and Shyam Sunder attempted to create the Noor Jehan effect through Lata.
Following the filming of Mirza Sahiban (1947), where she played Sahiban to Trilok Kapoor’s Mirza in the well-known tragic love story set in Punjab, and Jugnu co-starring Dilip Kumar, another tragic love story, Noor Jehan migrated to Pakistan following the partition of India. Jugnu, was in fact the breakthrough film for both Dilip Kumar and Mohammed Rafi whose duet with Noor Jehan – Yahan Badla Wafa Ka established him as a leading male playback singer in Bollywood. Incidentally, Rafi also played a small role in Jugnu. Though India’s top star at the time and despite much pleading from close friends in the Indian film industry to stay back in Bombay, she opted for the newly formed smaller nation as she wanted to be with the country where her birthplace, Kasur, fell. It was a huge, huge loss to Hindi Cinema. India’s loss became Pakistan’s gain.
In Pakistan, Noor Jehan had to literally start from scratch as the Pakistani Film Industry was in tatters following partition. It took her till 1951 to come out with her first film there, Chan Way, in Punjabi. She was also credited as its Director since it is said that husband Shauqat Hussain Rizvi was ‘ashamed’ to direct a Punjabi film and was also not as proficient as her in the language, thus becoming Pakistan’s first woman director. Chan Way was a box office smash on both sides of the border in Punjab with the Wey Mundiya Sialkotia song fondly recalled by nostalgic old-timers in both countries even today.
Followed Dupetta (1952), an even bigger success and her first Urdu film, which looked at the value of inner beauty of a person as against mere physical beauty. The music for the film, as for Jugnu and Chan Wey was composed by Feroz Nizami. Songs like Chaandni Raaten, Tum Zindagi ko Gham Ka Fasana, Sanwaria Tohe Koi Pukare, Jigar Ki Aag and Main Ban Patang Ud Jaaoon are some of the most memorable songs in Noor Jehan’s career and the film was a hat-trick of hits with her and Nizami. In fact, Dupetta‘s song gave Indian films stiff competition in the Binaca Geetmala programme, frequently featuring in the top ten countdown. Her following film, Gulnar (1953), however, disappointed at the box office though it did re-unite her with mentor Ghulam Haider and produced lilting songs like Bachpan Ki Yaadgaron and Lo Chal Diye Woh.
Noor Jehan remained a singing star in Pakistan till 1961 in both Punjabi and Urdu. Some of her well known films included Patay Khan (1955), Intezar (1956), Nooran (1957), Anaarkali (1958), Chhoomantar (1958), Neend (1959) and Koel (1959) before doing her last film as an actress, Ghalib (1961). Of these, special mention must be made of Intezar and Koel, which are still considered among the all time great musicals in the history of Pakistani Cinema. The music for both these films was composed by Khwaja Khursheed Anwar. In fact, Lata Mangeshkar rates Intezar as her favourite Pakistani film, musically. It is not surprising. Noor Jehan was at the peak of her vocal talents in these films with songs like Jis Din Se Piya, O Jaanewale Re, Saawan Ki Ghanghor in the former and Dil Ka Diya Jalaya, Rhim Jhim Rhim Jhim Pade Puhar, Tere Bina Sooni Sooni, O Bewafa, Sagar Roye Lehren Shor Machayen and Mehki Fizayen in the latter. Koel was also her last big success as an actress and she was presented at her glamorous best.
On the personal front, however, by now Noor Jehan’s marriage to Syed Shauqat Hussain Rizvi was over and she married actor Ejaz Durrani, nine years younger than her in 1959. In between she did hit the headlines several times with her numerous ‘love affairs’, in particular,with cricketer Nazar Mohammed. Durrani was not keen for her to act and so with Ghalib (1961), Noor Jehan quit acting and got exclusively into playback singing with Salma (1960) with the beautifully composed song Zindagi Hai Ya Kisika Intezar. Earlier, she did allow ex-husband Rizvi to use her songs on Musarrat Nazir once she opted out of his Jan-e-Bahar (1958) after recording a couple of songs. She also lent her voice to dancer Rakshi for a song, Kyon Udas Ho Rahe Ho, for Neend.
Some great Urdu musical films Noor Jehan sang for include Qaidi (1962) – Mujhse Pehlisi Mohabbat Mere Mehboob Na Maang (poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz was so impressed of her rendition, he gifted her the poem!), Baji (1963) – Dil Ke Afsane, Lakhon Mein Aik (1967) – Chalo Achcha Hua, Salgirah (1969) – Le Aayi Phir Kahan Pe and Meri Zindagi Hai Naghma. In particular, she made a great voice for Shamim Ara, Pakistan’s leading actress in the 1960s.
When the India-Pak war of 1965 broke out, Noor Jehan braved curfew and sang the soul stirring Ae Watan ke Sajeele Jawan and Mariya Dhol Sipaya to boost the morale of the Pakistani troops. Her Punjabi hits of the period in Pakistani films include Mirza Jat (1967) and especially Heer Ranjha (1970), considered one of the finest films to come out of Lollywood and without doubt, one of the all time great musicals from across the border. The latter’s music composed by Khursheed Anwar contains divine compositions like Chan Mahiya, Sun Wanjhli Di Mithri Taan Wey, Chham Chham Nachan and Zulfan Di Thandi Thandi among others.
Noor Jehan’s second marriage, too, broke up in 1971 as Ejaz got involved with his Heer Ranjha heroine, Firdous. This led to Noor Jehan boycotting Firdous and not singing for her, thus effectively ending Firdous’s career. In the 1970s and 80s, Noor Jehan cut down on her Urdu films and concentrated more on Punjabi songs. Some well known songs of this period include Sanu Nehar Waley Pul te Bulake, Tu Weh Mahi Chaila, Neendar Nahin Aandi, Jaa Ajj Tu Main Teri etc. In fact, no Punjabi film was complete if Madam Noor Jehan had not sung in it! But it has to be said here that most of these films in the 1980s, often starring Sultan Rahi, Anjuman and Mustafa Qureshi with music by Wajahat Attre, were awfully crass and tacky action entertainers and though Noor Jehan sang the songs with her usual verve, they are beat-oriented cheap though admittedly catchy songs aimed at the frontbenchers and little more.
In 1982, at a function held to celebrate the golden jubilee of the Indian Talkie, Mortal Men Immortal Melodies, the Mallika-e-Tarannum (Queen of Melody) came back to India and enthralled audiences as she sang Awaaz De Kahan Hai…
In 1996, Noor Jehan recorded one of her last songs in Pakistan, which was Ki Dam Da Bharosa for the film Sakhi Badshah and thereafter stopped singing due to failing health and newer trends in music. She stayed away from the limelight for four years during which she received treatment at various hospitals. She passed away in Pakistan on December 23, 2000 due to heart failure. She is survived by six children, three from each marriage. Quoting a report on her death, “She died in the arms of her loving daughters in Karachi – the daughters she had brought up as a single parent. Leaving behind millions in gold and cash for her children and thousands of immortal melodies for her fans, she had embarked on her last journey. The falling night of December 23, 2000, was the holiest night of the month of Ramadaan, a night when sins are forgiven and when the doors of heaven are flung wide open. Noor Jehan, who never sang in her life without advance payment, was leaving for the Hereafter with booked promises.”
Noor Jehan received many awards, including with the highest Pakistani honour in entertainment, Tamgha-e-Imtiaz (The Pride of Performance) in 1966, Pakistan’s top civil award and countless cultural awards. She truly was one of a kind.