Suraiya was the last illustrious singer actor to play that dual role in cinema before it was seized by the playback singers in the late 1940s. Starting as a child artiste, Suraiya’s career reached its peak by 1950. Her sweet soul stirring songs continue to haunt music lovers even more than half a century later. In her heyday, she turned a legend and the highest paid artiste of her time. She had the unique honour to co-star with K L Saigal, the legendary singer and superstar of those days in three successive films viz. “Tadbir”, “Omar Khayam” and “Parwana”. It is said that Suraiya got a break as a heroine for the film “Tadbir” (1945) at the recommendation of K L Saigal who was impressed by her voice during a rehearsal..
Born at Lahore on 15th June 1929, Suraiya Jamal Sheikh came to Mumbai as a child to live with her uncle Zahoor of Bhati gate group who was working there with Kardar Films. She began her career as a child artiste taking part in the children’s programme of All India Radio. Her first film role was in “Taj Mahal” (1941) as a child actor but it was Naushad, the upcoming music director of those days, who discovered her singing talent and made her sing the ever popular melody ‘Panchhi Jaa, peechhe raha hai bachpan mera’ in the film “Sharda”, as playback for Mehtab, the famous star of those days. She was then only 12 and had to stand on a stool to reach the mike. By the time she was 15, she had made her mark with her performance in the Bombay Talkies’ “Hamari Baat” in 1943.
During the mid-forties the two faces which dominated the film world with their music were Suraiya and Noor Jehan. Khurshid who was the leading singing star earlier lost her position to them. In fact, Suraiya ranked after Noor Jehan and both of them appeared together in that celebrated Mehboob’s musical Anmol Ghadi. Though overshadowed by Noor Jehan, it goes to her credit that Suraiya, even in a supporting role, was able to hold her own and make her presence felt with her evergreen melodies like “Socha tha kya, kya ho gaya” and “Man leta hai angrahi” .
Suraiya was the only singing star who after Partition decided to stay back in India while Noor Jehan and Khushid left for Pakistan. That is how her rise to fame between 1947-50 was indeed meteoric. Though playback system had entered the scene, Suraiya with her distinct individual style, her sweet seasoned voice and direct simple diction succeeded in captivating the listeners and her popularity knew no bounds.
Her biggest box-office hits in quick succession were “Pyar ki Jeet” (1948), “Badi Behan” (1949) and “Dillagi” (1949). The music for the first two was scored by Husanlal Bhagatram and for “Dillagi”, it was Naushad, her first mentor. We can still hear old music fans humming those eternal melodies from these films like “Oh door janewale”, “Wo pas rahe ya door rahein”, “Tere nainon ne chori kiya”, and “Tu mera chand main teri chandani”. It was this hat trick success during 1948-49 that launched Suraiya to the top ladder in the film world. Professionally, there was dignity and grace in her performance and she sang with her heart and soul enriched with the depth of feeling and warmth. She had no challenge from any playback singer of her time.
Suraiya continued acting and singing during the 1950s but most of the films did not do well. She did make a short-lived comeback in “Mirza Ghalib” produced by Sohrab Modi in 1954. Its stunning success brought fresh laurels to Suraiya especially since she had bagged this role when other top beautiful stars of those days like Madhubala and Nargis could not make it. It was not only her superb acting in the role of a professional singing girl as Ghalib’s lover but her lively and enchanting rendering of the poet’s famous verses that won her enormous fame and also praise from no less a personality than Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru.
It was the first feature film to be awarded the President’s medal and the then Prime Minister had graced the function with his presence and is said to have told Suraiya that ‘Tumne Mirza Ghalib ki rooh ko zinda kar diya’ (you have brought Mirza Ghalib to life). No doubt, Suraiya displayed her mastery over marrying music to poetry and immortalised Ghalib’s ghazals viz. “Ye na thi hamari kismet”, “Aah ko chahiye” and “Dil-e-nadan tujhe hua kya hai”. When her later films did not make any mark Suraiya decided to quit while still enjoying popularity with the viewers.
She sang her swan song “Ye kaisi ajab dastan ho gayi hai” in her last film “Rustam Sohrab” (1963) where she co-starred with the veteran Prithviraj Kapoor.
The film sank at the box-office but this song captivated her fans and it figures among her all-time greatest hits. When still in her prime she totally retired from the film world. Unlike Noor Jehan who turned a play-back singer in Pakistan around the same time, Suraiya gave up singing altogether ignoring many tempting offers. So much so that she declined to sing even at private functions.
Romancing Dev Anand
The most striking and much-publicised episode of Suraiya’s life was her romance with the upcoming young actor Dev Anand in the early 1950s. It was then the ‘talk of the town’, the very stuff legends are made of. She was Dev Anand’s heroine in seven films which had moderate success . During the shooting of a film, a boat capsized and Dev Anand saved Suraiya from drowning. This incident was the beginning of their romance. Suraiya fell in love with him and both of them planned to get married but Suraiya’s grandmother opposed the relationship and persuaded her to turn down Dev’s marriage proposal. She chose to remain unmarried throughout her life and died a lonely woman on 31st January 2004.
Suraiya’s career spanned 20 years and she played the leading role with almost every famous star of her time and also sang with the leading playback singers like Mohammad Rafi, Talat Mehmood and Mukesh. This June, she would have turned 88. The unforgettable singing legend’s voice and her vast repertoire of songs will continue to delight millions of her fans everywhere.