The Legend That Was Suraiya

Much has been speculated and somewhat recaptured about Suraiya after her death. Much truth will remain buried with her in her grave. Born Suraiya Jamal Sheikh in Lahore in 1929, she moved at the age of four into the ground floor apartment of ‘Krishna Mahal’ on Mumbai’s famous sea face, Marine Drive, and continued to live there until a fortnight before her death on January 31, 2004 after a brief illness. And buried unsung the same evening. She lived often staring by herself at her own and framed family pictures undusted together with bookshelves, chest of drawers, a huge chandelier, out-of-fashion discoloured pieces of furniture, and much else besides in the inner chambers that were out of bounds for anyone that one knows. None from the industry had really stepped into that apartment for decades.

                                Suraiya Jamal Sheikh was spotted by Nanubhai Vakil and cast as young Mumtaz Mahal in his under production Taj Mahal. The skinny girl was barely ten. Things hadn’t altered much two year later and had to be padded all over when she was cast as a heroine opposite the imposing and ageing Prithviraj Kapoor in Ishara. It is said that she had to stand on a stool to reach the microphone, when Naushad got her to sing for Mehtab in AR Kardar’s Sharda. And although the mentor advised the untrained prodigy to forget acting and concentrate on her singing alone because she had a ‘mellifluous voice’, she did exactly the opposite in an era of singing stars. Sureeli, as Naushad always fondly called her, almost immediately carved a niche for herself and never sang for any other heroine.

                Her ride to unprecedented success that began with the role of a supporting actress to Noorjehan in Anmol Ghadi soon made her the highest paid actress of her times. A wealth that has become the bone of contention after her death in state. She had achieved the pinnacles with films like Pyaar ki Jeet and Badi Bahen. There was no looking back really till the age of 29, when she chose to retire before fading in the wake of successive flops in the late fifties. And even though she briefly returned to sing and dance her way through Ramsay Productions’ flop Rustom Sohrab in 1963 (with Prithviraj Kapoor and Prem Nath essaying the title roles) it somehow became her swansong. The film is still remembered for the melodious number Yeh kaisi ajab daastaan ho gayi hai, chhupaate chhupaate bayaan ho gayi hai.

                The famous melody queen, the woman who became a singing legend, and eventually died unsung in her loneliness, will be eternally remembered for two distinct reasons. For her unfulfilled romance with Dev Anand, and her outstanding renditions of Ghalib in the 1959 film. Although there is no authentic record of her starrers, she is believed to have acted in 40-odd in a career spanning about two decades. And while the emerging male stars like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor were in no position to demand a price, Suraiya commanded the highest, almost double of what her contemporaries like Nargis and Madhubala got, by the early fifties.

                Despite the infamous incident of Suraiya’s maternal grandmother Badshah Begum having thrown the diamond ring that Dev Anand had given her, into the Arabian sea in front of the house, and restrictions imposed on her movements the singing star hadn’t lost all hope. The news of Dev’s marriage seemed to have served as a shattering blow, which first resulted in a sickness because of which she had to opt out of prestigious assignments like Devdas, Baiju Bawara and Nagin, and pave way for the fading out. So strong had been her love and fascination for Dev that she vowed not to marry anyone else. And in defiance of social and religious sanctions, she sported a bindi prominently on her forehead. The uncelebrated refrain of her life remained buried in the immortal melody from Badi Bahen: Woh paas rahen ya door rahen, nazroon mein samaye rehtein hai.

                Dev Anand blames “a particular lobby” for intercepting his romance with her. “It soon became touchy and thorny issue for the self-proclaimed suitors of Suraiya, who came and sat every evening in her drawing room, each luring her family into a proposal for marrying her, and also poisoning their minds against me, giving our affair a communal tinge…Suraiya’s mother was sympathetic to our cause and did not disapprove…She secretly liked and admired me…But hers was a lone voice in a babble of tongues that wagged in the evening get-togethers…I realised I was no longer welcome and that Suraiya was a silent prisoner in her family’s hands…I became an unwanted visitor and stopped going there altogether…I devised a plan of writing to her…” and the narrative goes on in his autobiography according to which it was Suraiya and not her granny who threw the diamond (engagement) ring into the sea, and she out of his life…forever. When this columnist asked him how he felt, days after her funeral, as he sat soaking in the sun on the roof of now extinct Anand Recording Studio on Pali Hill, he said: “Nothing”.

                If Tadbir (1945) was the first milestone and Anmol Ghadi (1946) the first take-off point of Suraiya’s career, Mirza Ghalib (1954) would really be described as the signing-off post, though technically it was the 1963 Rustom Sohrab. Both Anmol Ghadi and Mirza Ghalib were made memorable by some melodious numbers. Her rendition of at least three Ghalib ghazals so moved Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, while watching the film, that he complimented the singing star, saying: “Tumne to Mirza Ghalib ki rooh ko zinda kar diya”. And that became the high point of Suraiya’s short but eventful film career. From Socha tha kya kya ho gaya and Main dil mein dard basa la aayee in Anmol Ghadi, and in between a variety of soulful numbers in hits and flops like Dard, Dillagi, Dastaan, Pyar Ki Jeet, Badi Bahen, Afsar, Shama, Waaris to Dil-e-nadaan tujhe hua kya hai and (‘Yeh na thi hamari kismat’) in Mirza Ghalib, from the age of 15 to 24, she had quickly travelled the long distance from nowhere to the top.

                She was quick to recognise that from thereon it could be a disgraceful downhill journey, with the love of her life in another woman’s arms, and lustre missing from her performances in successive flops, it was time to quit quietly while still reigning supreme in viewers’ minds. She did try once more in Rustom Sohrab to find solace in the arch lights. But clearly her heart wasn’t in it, though pain is what lends melody to the adieu song Yeh kaisi ajab daastaan ho gayi hai, chupaate chupaate bayaan ho gayi hai. In Suraiya’s case it will, probably, be a while before it actually gets written. No Bollywood celebrity, except Dharmendra, attended her burial ceremony.

By Suresh Kohli

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