Suraiya: The Last Singing Star
Suraiya is regarded the last illustration of singer-actor in Indian cinema, before the advent of modern-day playback singers
I got acquainted with the singing star through a fruit seller. You must be wondering how? In the early fifties, when Suraiya was at the peak of her music career, the vendor was selling watermelons in her name, "Le lo babuji ye bade meethein hain, Suraiya ke khet ke hain!" What he meant was that these watermelons were as sweet as Suraiya's voice. In the forties, the trinity of Shamshad, Noor Jehan and Suraiya was adored by millions of music lovers, while Lata was still struggling hard to find a place.
Born as Jamal Sheikh on June 15, 1929, in Lahore, Suraiya moved to Bombay later. She inherited music from her mother Mallika Begum. KL Saigal, Khurshid and Kanan Devi's songs were very popular those days – baby Suraiya would listen to these singers intently and sing their songs all day. Soon, she started singing at private parties and public functions. At a tender age of 12, she met producer Seth Nanu Bhai Vakil, who was producing a film Taj Mahal. He was impressed by this prodigious girl and introduced her as a child artiste. Apart from singing, she was also interested in acting.
Naushad spotted Suraiya and gave her the maiden break to sing the song Boot karun main palish, in the film Nai Duniya. In the movie Sharda (picturised on Mehtab), Panchhi ja peechhe raha hai bachpan mera, gained immense popularity. Remembering the playback of the song, Naushad recalls, "Suraiya could not reach up to the microphone, so I made her stand on a stool and sing." He made her sing again in Kanoon (1943), wherein Suraiya sang a solo, Ek tum ho ek main hoon, and three duets with Shyam (not to be confused with actor Shyam) – Aaye jawani jaaye jawani, Ek dil tera ek dil mera and Toot gaya ektara. Even in Sanjog, Suraiya sang six songs and two duets with Shyam.
Suraiya was already singing and had begun making cameo appearances as a child artiste in Station Master and Hamari Baat. She made her debut as a lead in the film Ishara with Prithviraj Kapoor. She was barely 14 and Kapoor was 37. The film was directed by JK Nanda and Suraiya's solo, Panghat pe muralia baaje re, composed by Khursheed Anwar, made her a singing sensation.
In Tadbir, directed by Jayant Desai, she sang two duets with Saigal – Rani khol do apne dwar and Chahe to mita de, composed by Lal Mohammad. The film proved to be a path-breaking milestone in her career. Suraiya did two more films with Saigal – Omar Khyyam and Parwana. Her solo, Jab tum hi nahin apne, composed by Khursheed Anwar became extremely popular.
Suraiya got an opportunity to act in Anmol Ghadi (1946) with singing stars Noor Jehan and Surendra. Suraiya was the second lead. Anmol Ghadi is still remembered for its music by Naushad. Though Noor Jehan excelled in this movie, Suraiya's solo, Main dil mein dard basa laayi, Man leta hai angdai and Socha tha kya, competed beautifully against Noor Jahan's numbers . Since Noor Jehan and Khursheed left for Pakistan after the Partition, Suraiya became the numero uno choice of producers and composers.
Another musical hit of Suraiya by Naushad was Dillagi (1949), where she paired with the debonair actor Shyam. Eight of the twelve songs were in Suraiya's voice – six solos and two duets with singer Shyam (who later was seen in films as a villain).
In 1950, Naushad experimented with the western style in AR Kardar's Dastaan. Two foot-tapping numbers by Suraiya-Rafi – Ye sawan tum aur hum and Dhadak dhadak dil dhadak became chartbusters. Other hits of Suraiya were – Ye mausam aur ye tanhai, Aye shama tu bata and Naino mein preet hai.
Deewana was Suraiya's last film with Naushad. Her numbers, Mora nazuk badan, Zinda hun mein tumhare piya intzaar mein, Jeene na diya chain se and Lagi hai man mandir mein aag, became great hits. She also sang a duet with Lata Mangeshkar, Mere chand mere lal tum jiyo hazaron saal.
The music of Suraiya's films took the entire nation by storm and Pyaar Ki Jeet broke all the box office records, with the combination of Suraiya's voice and the freshness in lilting compositions of Husnlal Bhagatram. They didn't use heavy orchestra, and instead resorted to violins, flutes, Hawaiian guitar, sarangi, harmonium and tabla.
Suraiya's talent was used brilliantly by leading composers ranging from Anil Biswas, C Ramchandra, Sajjad Hussain to Ghulam Mohammad.
She sang some of her all-time greats in film Gajre, Door papiha bole, O dupatta rang de mere rangrez and Jalne ke siwa kya hai yahan for Anil Biswas. Other unforgettable numbers of Anil Biswas and Suraiya are, Chahe kitni kathin dagar ho (Suraiya-Shankar Dasgupta) and Tum meet mere tum pran mere in film Jeet. In Do Sitare starring Dev Anand-Suraiya, she sang Mere dil ki dhadkan mein ye kaun samaya and Mujhe tumse mohabbat hai. Anil Biswas experimented with Rabindra Sangeet in Suraiya-Talat Mehmood starer Waaris, where he composed two versions of Rahi matwale tu ched ek baar man ka sitar in their voices and a solo in Suraiya's voice.
She appeared again with Surendra in film 1857 (1946). Sajjad Hussain's outstanding compositions in Suraiya's voice were Ghame ashiana satayega kab tak and Meri ho gayi unse baat. Her dulcet duet with Surendra produced on of her evergreen songs – Teri nazar mein rahun meri nazar mein tu.
In Duniya (1949), Suraiya-Karan Dewan starrer, C Ramchandra created brilliant compositions in Suraiya's voice. Besides Wo aaye aur dil mein sama kar chale gaye, Arman luttey dil toot gaya, Jis tarah hum barbad huey and Suraiya-Rafi duet, Kismat ke likhe ko mita na sakey her sonorous number was Sach huyi sach huyi mere tere pyaar ki baat with Western orchestration.
Ghulam Mohammad composed eleven songs in Mirza Ghalib (1954), which was his musical tribute to the greatest Urdu poet. Suraiya and Talat Mehmood also contributed with their numbers. Suraiya's solos were Nuqta cheen hai gham-e-dil, Aah ko chahiye ek umar asr hone tak, Rahiye chalkar aisi jagah and Ye na thi hamari kismet. Suraiya-Talat combined to produce a smashing duet – Dil-e-nadaan tujhe hua kya hai. The film won a National Award for its music and both Ghulam Mohammad and Suraiya received a pat from the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru at the ceremony. Ghulam Mohammad composed some more exceptional melodies in Maalik (1958) starring Suraiya-Talat Mehmood. The timeless duet of this film was Man dheere dheere gaaye re maloom nahin kyun in their voices.
Towards the late fifties, the film scenario and music changed drastically with the emergence of actors like Nutan, Vyjayantimala and Waheeda Rehman, and composers Shankar Jaikishan, SD Burman, OP Nayyar and Madan Mohan. Suraiya stopped getting roles. She made her presence in a few films and sang for Ghulam Mohammad in Shama (1961) of which Dhadakte dil ki tamanna, Mera pyaar ho tum, Aapse pyaar hua jaata hai, and Mast aankhon mein shararat became popular. Sajjad Hussain also opted for Suraiya's voice after almost two decades in the film Rustam Sohrab (1963), and her melodious solo, Ye kaisi ajab dastan ho gai hai, became her swan song. Unfortunately, both the films bombed at the box office.
After bidding adieu to the film industry, Suraiya turned a recluse. She was not visible in public, film parties or functions, and was last seen in 1990 at a ceremony to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award.
A heart-broken Suraiya never married after her romantic alliance with Dev Anand, who wrote about the affair in great detail in his autobiography – Romancing with Life.
Confined to closed doors of her flats either at Marine Drive or Pune, she passed away on January 31, 2004, after a brief illness. It was soon forgotten by the industry that Suraiya reigned for over two decades with her stunning beauty and mellifluous voice. The only celebrity present at her burial was Dharmendra. Perhaps, as an afterthought, a road has been named in Pune, as a tribute to this last singing star.