Tribute In bowing out of the film industry long before her talents had been fully exposed, the unparalleled singer-actress Suraiya left a void no artist has been able to fill.

What can you say about a lady who was courted by Dev Anand, respected by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru but feared by Lata Mangeshkar! That she was beautiful, talented, adored by millions but died a lonely single woman? Or that she was the best ever superstar singer-actress of Indian films yet walked away to a self-imposed exile at the height of her glory? Yes, Suraiya was all this plus “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma” who resolutely shunned screen and media once she departed from the arc lights.

Born in 1929 in Gujranwala (now in Pakistan), Suraiya came to Bombay along with her mother, maternal uncles and grandparents, and while little is known of her father, it is a fact that she was initiated into filmdom at the age of eight in the film “Usne Kya Socha”. Soon after, she not only made her debut as a leading lady in Nanubhai Vakil’s “Taj Mahal” but also got inducted into playback singing when she was barely 13 and required a stool to reach the mike to record her first song for “Sharda”! Suraiya’s singing over All India Radio had caught Naushad’s fancy, and events proved the great composer was absolutely accurate in his assessment that the untrained singer’s voice had a haunting timbre and magnificent range to attract listeners.

A gifted performer, the teenager played stellar roles with established heroes like K.L. Sehgal, Shyam, Karan Dewan, Motilal and Jagdeesh Sethi, singing some incredible melodies along the way to make the subcontinent swoon to her charismatic charm. Films like “Station Master”, “Tamanna”, “Parwana”, “Yateem”, “Omar Khayyam”, “Hamari Baat” and “Phool” may have earned her sufficient attention but surprisingly, it was only when she played second fiddle to the legendary Noorjahan in “Anmol Ghadi” that she stirred a nationwide hysteria as a star-singer! Old timers’ recount that in spite of Noorjahan’s mesmerising “Awaaz De Kahan Hai” in the main role, Suraiya made a resounding impact with her acting and singing whereby not just the film but she too turned into a cult figure of mass adulation.

Initially a stilted actress, Suraiya’s singing prowess made up for her deficiencies and since her songs propelled her films to box office successes, producers did not complain. Subsequently, she established herself as a fine artiste and it seems poignant experiences in personal life contributed to her sophistication as an actress. Her much publicised romance with Dev Anand may have been nipped in the bud by her maternal grandmother, but its grievous wounds heightened her sensibility, as is evident by her distinguished portrayals in “Mirza Ghalib”, “Shama”, “Waris”, “Shama Parwana” and “Rustom-e- Sohrab” in later years.

Victims of communal passions, Suraiya and Dev Anand were denied domestic bliss even though both looked good and happy in real life as on-screen in “Vidya”, “Do Sitare”, “Nilli”, “Sanam” and “Afsar”. The two had come close after Dev saved Suraiya from a capsizing boat during the shooting of “Vidya” but were torn apart by an unforgiving society, and while Dev escaped the times’ curse with ‘minor bruises’, Suraiya paid a heavy price for the unfulfilled romance. Perhaps as a retaliation to her family’s stranglehold, she retired from filmdom in the mid-1950s but was professional enough to complete several projects that took a long time completing till the beginning of the 1960s.

Suraiya’s premature retirement from the screen may have brought her acting career to a halt but it also meant denial of a meritorious singer to Hindi films, since she even refused to provide playback to other actresses. Many, including Naushad and Sajjad Hussain, believed Lata Mangeshkar would not have had such an easy climb to the top were it not for abdication by three of the reigning rivals of the era. Noorjahan’s migration to Pakistan, the domestic troubles of Geeta Dutt as well as Suraiya’s early retirement made it easier for Lata than what it would have been if the three veterans had remained in the fray. Suraiya’s versatility made Naushad prefer her over Lata since the senior Mangeshkar aped Noorjahan’s nasal style for a long time. And it isn’t difficult to see why Suraiya’s duets with Lata, like “O Pardesi Musafir” (“Balam”) or “Bedard Shikari” (“Sanam”) clearly stamp Suraiya’s superior prowess as “Mallika-e-Tarannum”.

Listen carefully and you realise why Lata was afraid of Suraiya’s compelling range that could have altered the music scene with her distinct and powerful voice. Songs like “Ye Kaisee Ajab Dastaan Ho Gayee Hai” (“Rustom-e-Sohrab”), “Dhadkte Dil Ki Tamanna” (“Shama”), “Wo Paas Rahen Ya Door Rahein” (“Badi Bahen”), “Mast Aankhon Mein Shararat” (“Shama”), “Tera Khayal Dil Se Bhulaya Na Jaayega” (“Dillagi”) and “Tere Nainon Ne Chori Kiya Mera Chhota Sa Jiya” (“Pyar Ki Jeet”) not only give you goose bumps but are testimony to her exquisite skills.

Hear “Dil e Nadaan Tujhe Hua Kya Hai”, “Nukta Chee Hai Ghame Dil” and “Ye Na Thi Hamari Kismat” from “Mirza Ghalib” to realise Pandit Nehru wasn’t wrong when he applauded her for bringing Ghalib’s poetry alive with her rendition. Even duets like “Beqaraar Hai Koyee Aa Zara” (“Shama Parwana”), “Ye Sawan Rut Aur Hum Tum” (“Dastaan”) with Mohammed Rafi or “Tu Mera Chand Main Teri Chandni” (“Anmol Ghadi”) with Shyam are lilting gems that not only remain fresh in our memories but are regarded as one of the finest outpourings of the golden era.

Unfortunately, despite all her compelling talents and charms, this star chose to fade into darkness. While her decision cannot be questioned, it does seem that she had a lot more to offer than what she finally did. Sages say “being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage”. Perhaps, Suraiya was one such courageous lady. She defied convention but wronged no one, even though it led to the death of her own talent long before her mortal remains were put to rest.