Thursday, January 31, 2013

One day I discovered Suraiya

When Suraiya passed away, I wrote this piece for India Abroad, March 12, 2004. On the occasion of her ninth death anniversary today, I post it here.

Suraiya in Dastan (1950)
When I heard that Suraiya, the singing star of yesteryear, is no more, I felt a twinge of sadness for the lost world of old Hindi cinema. Suraiya's songs are so inextricably intertwined with memories of my growing up years in India. As a thirteen-year-old in Bombay in the late eighties, I had just stumbled upon the magical world of old Hindi films, old being pre-1960 for me. The first movie I watched was Raj Kapoor's Shree 420 (1955). Immediately, I knew I had found my own little dreamy retreat. Black and white had permanently cast its spell on me. With their crackling prints, exquisite songs, and breathtaking orchestra (why do they not use such orchestration anymore?), these films captured my imagination in a way nothing else did. One film led to another, one song led to another, and soon I was cruising along the road of Hindi film music's golden years. Each day would bring the thrill of a new find—a rare Anil Biswas composition, a soulful Naushad number, or a Kishore Kumar song as early as 1948. And then one day I discovered Suraiya.

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.

10 comments:

  1. Nita, I really liked this article. It comes from the heart and at the same time very well researched. Thanks to Linked In , I am seeing this !! Srikant will be very interested in this !!

    Periappa

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  2. Your knowledge and memory of old Hindi films are amazing. I think only Amin Sayani is the other person with so much knowledge.
    P.K.Davda

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  3. Thank you for your very kind words, sir!

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  4. Nivedita, I came here from SoY. Loved the write-up on Suraiya; I notice there are some very interesting posts on pages from Cinema's past, and shall definitely be returning.

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  5. hi can u give translation to Rahi matwale song. looked up in internet but couldnt find.

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    1. I am no expert and had rather not attempt it! Maybe you should check with AK at Songs of Yore blog. If ever I find it, though, I will post it here.

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  6. Your knowledge and memory of old Hindi films and acters are amazing

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    1. Thank you for your appreciation here and on the other posts.

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