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She transported one to a bygone, beautiful era

Suraiyya receiving the Sahitya Akademy award from the Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in this December 1998 file picture.

MUMBAI, JAN. 31. Once labelled as the country's most enduring female singer, the passing away of Suraiyya in Mumbai today marks the end of a golden era.

The highest paid female star of her time, Suraiyya's singing generated mass hysteria, with fans clamouring for a sighting of the singer-actress ouside her house, `Krishna Mahal' on Marine Drive in South Mumbai, often bringing traffic to a halt.

Suraiyya was neither a classic beauty nor had training in classical music but the charming actress with a honey-rich voice brought a wide range of emotions to her singing and performances.

The diva quit the film industry in the early '60s and became a recluse, maintaing a low profile till her demise today at the age of 75.

The actress leaves behind a repertoire of lilting songs and an air of mystique, heightened by her self-imposed exile.

The last time she was seen in public was two years ago at a Rotary Club function here, held to felicitate her.

At the time she had refused to give in to requests to sing a few lines from her golden melodies. ``I have given up acting and singing'', was her firm but polite answer.

Even though time had taken its toll on this fair maiden, her almond-shaped eyes could still touch the heart-strings of her admirers, transporting one to a beautiful bygone era.

She leaves behind a vast legacy of films from her first `Taj Mahal' to `Station Master,' `Hamari Baat,' `Phool,' `Tadbir,' `Samrat Chandragupta,' `Anmol Ghadi,' `Dard,' `Afsar Dastana,' `Mirza Ghalib,' `Waris' and her last `Rustom and Sohraab.'

Some of her famous songs were `Man leta hai angdai' and `Socha tha kya, kya ho gaya' in `Anmol Ghadi,' `Door hote nahin jaan dil mein raha karte hain' and `O door jaanewale rahi matwale' in `Waris,' `Dil-e-nadaan' and `Yeh na thi hamari kismat' in `Mirza Ghalib,' `Man mera huo matwale' in `Afsar,' `Milne ka din aa gaya' and `Jaag e sonewala' in `Tadbir, `Kuch phool khile armaan ki' in `Jeet' and her superhit in `Tu mera chand, mein teri chandni' in `Dillagi.

A star is born

Suraiyya Jamal Sheikh was born in Lahore in 1929. Brought up in a conservative family, the young Suriyya was the apple of her father Aziz's eye. He and mother Mallika though did not take too kindly to their daughter wanting to make a career out of films till her maternal uncle, Zahoor, a character actor, convinced them to let her do a few films as a child artiste. Thus, a star was born.

Suraiyya made her debut in 1941 as a child prodigy in `Taj Mahal.' Then came `Tamanna' and `Station Master' in the following year and `Ishara' in 1943.

At 13, she lent her voice for K. Asif's `Sharda,' the music of which was composed by Naushad. Still a child, she had to stand on a stool to reach the mike. Mehtab, K. Asif's wife and the lead actress, did not know about this new singer and declared that she did not want the unknown singer to lend her voice. But when she heard Suraiyya she was so impressed that she decided that only Suraiyya would sing for her. But, somehow, the Suraiyya-Mehtab combination did not last long.

A full-fledged career

Her full-fledged acting career began as a supporting actress to star Noorjahan in `Anmol Ghadi' in 1946 and to Munawwar Sultana in `Dard' the next year. She soon graduated into lead roles. She had the great fortune of starring opposite K.L. Saigal in `Tadbir' (1945), `Omar Khaiyyam' (1946) and `Parwana (1947). The 1948-49 phase saw her rise to her peak with `Pyar Ki Jeet' (1948), `Badi Bahen' (1949) and `Dillagi' (1949).

In the 50s, Suraiyya hit the headlines for different reasons. Her much-publicised romance with co-star Dev Anand, India's Gregory Peck, hit the gossip magazines but came to an end when Suraiyya's grandmother put her foot down.

Suraiyya rebelled by renouncing films altogether. While Dev Anand, who had even adopted the mannerisms of Gregory Peck, Suraiyya's favourite actor, married his `Taxi Driver' co-star Kalpana Kartik, Suraiyya remained single till the end.

She returned to films some time later, but the magic was gone. In 1944, `Hamari Baat' saw Suraiyya emerge as a singing star following which was K. Asif's `Phool'. In 1945, Suraiyya was paired with the legendary singing star K.L. Saigal in `Tadbir'. It was Mehboob Khan's `Anmol Ghadi' with Noorjehan that made Suraiyya the singing sensation of the era.

Heartthrob of millions

Heartthrob of millions, at the peak of her career she daily received around 7,000 letters from fans. By the time she signed Chetan Anand's `Afsar,' Suraiyya was the reigning box-office queen.

Suraiyya's only rival in the late '40s was Nargis. This race of one upmanship continued till the mid-'50s.

However, though most of her 50s films flopped till she made a short-lived comeback with Sohrab Modi's `Mirza Ghalib,' in which she made vivid the role of the married Ghalib's lover. Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had praised her performance saying, "Tumne Mirza Ghalib ki rooh ko zinda kar diya.'' (You have brought Mirza Ghalib to life).

However, by 1955 Suraiyya was falling behind. The Nargis-Lata combination was igniting the silver screen and all her films were failing to get the cash registers ringing and so in 1963 she acted her last role in `Rustom and Shoraab'.

She was fondly called `Kallu' by a young Raj Kapoor when the two started out by doing children's radio programmes for All India Radio (AIR).

Famous for her personal fancy for glittering diamonds, she had acquired a professional singing repertoire of shimmering gems too. Among her famous fans is Dharmendra, who walked miles to see her `Dillagi' 40 times.

Till her last breath, the unmarried Suraiyya remained ensconced in her Marine Drive flat. The eternal elusive Cinderella. — UNI

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