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Dinesh Raheja

Save for her arresting, almond-shaped eyes, Suraiya was not a classic beauty; nor did she trained in classical music.

She still became a superstar singer-actress in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Suraiya Jamaal Sheikh's legend has endured for over four decades after her retirement post Rustom Sohrab (1963). It is fuelled by her one-time Dev Anand association, her repertoire of lilting songs and an air of mystique.

Famous songs picturised on and sung by Suraiya
Song Film
 Socha tha kya, kya ho gaya  Anmol Ghadi
 Tere nainon ne chori kiya  Pyar Ki Jeet
 Likhnewale ne  Badi Behan
 Tu mera chand main teri chandni  Dillagi
 Manmor hua matwala  Afsar
 Tara ri tara ri  Dastaan
 Dil-e-nadaan tujhe  Mirza Ghalib
 Nuktacheen hai gham-e-dil  Mirza Ghalib
 Rahi matwale  Waris
 Yeh kaisi ajab dastan  Rustom Sohrab

Today, the still unmarried Suraiya lives alone in her plush Marine Drive apartment. Rarely does one see a bejewelled Suraiya at a party. Even after her strict grandmother, who kept suitors at bay and producers at arm's length, passed away, Suraiya continued to be inaccessible to the hoi polloi.

Her decision to reside in an ivory tower has added to her mystique, while her resolve to shun character roles ensured that she is always remembered as a heroine. Most quaintly, Suraiya also chose not to sing any new film song in the last 40 years.

Baby Suraiya's tryst with showbiz began in 1941 when she accompanied uncle [popular villain] Zahoor to the sets of Prakash Pictures' Taj Mahal. [Filmmaker] Nanubhai Vakil took an instant liking to 12-year-old Suraiya and cast her as the young Mumtaz Mahal.

Her singing career found a mentor in music maestro Naushad. Suraiya had participated in a children's programme on All India Radio after friend Raj Kapoor and neighbour Madan Mohan had cajoled her. Naushad heard Suraiya on the radio and chose her to sing for Kardar's Sharda (1942). Suraiya had to stand on a stool to reach the mike to croon Panchi ja, picturised on the much-older heroine, Mehtaab.

In 1942-1943, Naushad also used Suraiya's voice in Station Master, Kanoon and Sanjog. Incidentally, Sharda, Kanoon and Sanjog were directed by Kardar. Later in her career, Suraiya and Kardar formed a long association of Ds: Dard (1947), Dillagi (1949), Daastaan (1950) and Deewana (1952).

Mehboob Khan's blockbuster Anmol Ghadi (1946) made Suraiya a draw in her own right despite the fact that she was only the second lead in the film. Suraiya played a rich girl who loves Surendra while he pines for Noorjehan. If Noorjehan had four fabulous Naushad songs in the film (including Awaaz de kahan hain), Suraiya had a winner in Socha tha kya, kya ho gaya.

Nadira, who later costarred with Suraiya in Waris, says, "My father went repeatedly to the theatre to watch Suraiya sing Socha tha kya. He would walk out the moment the song ended."

Singing superstar K L Saigal liked Suraiya's voice at a rehearsal and recommended her as heroine in Tadbir (1945). Suraiya costarred with Saigal in quick succession in Omar Khayyam (1946) and Parwana (1947).

When Noorjehan migrated to Pakistan, she inadvertently contributed to Suraiya’s success story. What gave Suraiya an edge over contemporaries like Kamini Kaushal and Nargis was her ability to sing her own songs.

The years 1948-1949 were the best of her career. A trio of hits --- Pyar Ki Jeet, Badi Behan and Dillagi --- made Suraiya the highest paid female star. Dharmendra remembers walking miles to see Suraiya's Dillagi 40 times!

In both Pyar Ki Jeet and Badi Bahen, she made a team with composers Husnlal Bhagatram. An exquisite collection of songs stand testimony to the honeyed sweetness of her voice: Woh paas rahe ya door rahe, O door jaanewale. Naushad composed Dillagi gems like Murliwale murli baja while for S D Burman she sang a rare classical number in Afsar: Manmor hua matwala.

Breaking hearts and records now, Suraiya could not even attend a premiere --- mobs would descend on her.

She appeared in one film, Dastaan (1950), with her childhood friend, Raj Kapoor. (She had an interesting role as an orphan who invokes the hero's love but his sister's hatred). While Raj teamed regularly with Nargis, Suraiya singled Dev Anand out for her affections. It helped that he was her favourite Gregory Peck's lookalike.

Suraiya and Dev worked in six films --- Vidya (1948), Jeet (1949), Shayar (1949), Afsar (1950), Nili (1950) and Do Sitare (1951). They may not have been hits but she had no regrets as their love flourished. During the shooting of a song, a boat capsized and Dev saved Suraiya from drowning. Suraiya fell in love with her hero. Lore has it that Suraiya's grandmother threw Dev's ring into the sea.

Professionally, Suraiya's Midas touch, despite her inimitable adaas, deserted her in the 1950s. She made a shortlived comeback in Sohrab Modi's Mirza Ghalib (1954), lending voice and heart to Chaudhvin, the married Ghalib's lover. She adeptly conveyed pain and longing with eternal classics like Yeh na thi hamari kismet and Dil-e-nadaan tujhe hua kya hai.

Mirza Ghalib won the President's gold medal. [Then Prime Minister] Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru complimented Suraiya with: Tumne Mirza Ghalib ki rooh ko zinda kar diya.

In Nitin Bose's Waris (1954), Suraiya costarred with singing star Talat Mehmood (incidentally, she played heroine opposite another singer who tried to be an actor, Mukesh, in 1953's Mashuqa, too). With the sonorous melody, Rahi matwale, Anil Biswas and Suraiya proved their continuing relevance in a new age.

A spate of indifferent films followed. Suraiya had grew bulkier but her songs were still exquisite --- Aap se pyar hua jaata hai in Shama (1961), or the serene duet with Talat, Man dheere dheere gaye re in Maalik (1958).

In 1963, to the strains of Yeh kaisi ajab dastaan ho gayee hai, the Sajjad jewel from Rustom Sohrab, Suraiya bade farewell to the studios.

Suraiya's dastaan, ajeeb but fascinating, continues to thrive on lore, speculation and memories.

Suraiya's Landmark Films
Year Film Hero
1946 Anmol Ghadi Surendra
1948 Vidya Dev Anand
1948 Pyar Ki Jeet Rehman
1949 Badi Behan Rehman
1949 Dillagi Shyam
1950 Dastaan Raj Kapoor
1954 Mirza Ghalib Bharat Bhushan

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