|Suraiya in Dastan (1950)|
Always on the lookout for vintage songs, I was addicted to a radio program called Raymond Sargam Smriti (it later became Centura Sargam Smriti) that played rare pieces from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. I heard Suraiya for the first time on this program: the song was "Tu mera chand main teri chandni," a duet with Shyam, composed by Naushad in the film Dillagi (1949). I was struck by the beauty of the song and the simplicity of its rendering. Suraiya, I later found out, was a natural singer; she had not learnt classical music. Yet, her singing was effortless and had a certain genuineness about it. Her voice was not cloyingly sweet.
It rang vibrant, full of spontaneity and life. Her immortal "Ta rari ta rari" duet with Mohammed Rafi in Dastan (1950), where she acted opposite Raj Kapoor, bespeaks that inherent sense of frolic. This Naushad song with the Western classical touch brings to mind a faraway world, a kind of wonderland almost. It is a world I still periodically escape to.
Suraiya was that rare thing: an accomplished singer as well as a graceful actress. I remember seeing some of her films like Dard (1947) and the aforementioned Dillagi and Dastan at the Kardar film festival in Bombay. (A. R. Kardar was a famous producer-director from the 1930s to the 50s.) While Suraiya started as a child star with a small role in Mohan Pictures’ Taj Mahal (1941), she recorded one of her early songs as a playback singer for a Kardar movie called Sharda (1942). The song was "Panchhi ja," and the composer was Naushad. The Kardar-Naushad-Suraiya collaboration resulted in some very memorable movies and songs. After lending her voice to other heroines in the initial years, Suraiya went on to become the biggest heroine of her times.
She also had the rare privilege of acting opposite the legendary K. L. Saigal in Tadbir (1945), Omar Khayyam (1946), and Parwana (1947). With the Partition in 1947, Noorjehan, the other great singing star of Hindi cinema, left for Pakistan. Suraiya chose to stay on and soon became the acting-singing sensation of independent India. 1948-49 was the turning point of her career. Famous Pictures' Pyar Ki Jeet and Badi Bahen, together with Kardar’s Dillagi, all released during this time, made Suraiya a household name. In Badi Bahen, she sang the haunting "Woh paas rahe ya door rahe" for Husnlal-Bhagatram, possibly the first music-director duo of Hindi cinema. Suraiya had reached the dizzying heights of stardom.
After 1952, however, the scene changed. Lata Mangeshkar's arrival a few years earlier had heralded a new era in playback singing. Suraiya’s fortune was on the wane. Her films could not repeat the earlier magic at the box office, and she was also doing fewer films. The songs were still exquisite though, many of them hits. Sohrab Modi’s Mirza Ghalib (1954), opposite Bharat Bhushan, was one of Suraiya's best performances as an actress. She sang the soothing "Dil-e-nadan tujhey" duet with the velvet-voiced Talat Mehmood. Suraiya and Talat faced the camera together in the 1954 film Waris (one of Talat’s rare screen appearances). Two of Hindi cinema’s finest voices sang the lilting "Rahi Matwale," composed by Anil Biswas.
After Rustom Sohrab (1963), Suraiya quit the silver screen permanently. She left movies but did not leave the hearts of her countless fans. For me, Suraiya's songs and movies will always be a reminder of the carefree days of my childhood—of that happy, spellbinding world of old Hindi films. In some fundamental ways, life has not changed.