Remembering Suraiya, one of India’s finest actress-singers of the ’40s and ’50s, on her 15th death anniversary today.

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Remembering Suraiya, one of India’s finest actress-singers of the ’40s and ’50s, on her 15th death anniversary today.

It is rightly called the golden era of Indian film music — the fourth and fifth decades of the last century. Indian cinema had talented music directors and singers. The galaxy of singers included K.L. Saigal, Pankaj Malik, K.C. Dey, Raj Kumari, Uma Devi and of course Suraiya, who could sing as well as act. The film “Mirza Ghalib” which starred her and in which she sang Ghalib’s ghazals took her to the peak of her popularity as a singing star. While she played her part to popularise Mirza Ghalib’s poetry, Saigal immortalized these by his golden voice. These two and Begum Akhtar brought poetry of Mirza Ghalib to masses by the sheer magic of their singing.

Suraiya Jamal Sheikh was born on June 15, 1929, at Gujaranwala Punjab, now in Pakistan. The only child of her parents, she got into films when she was eight in film “Us Ne Kaha Tha” (1937). Her uncle was an actor mostly doing the role of a villain. Suraiya would accompany him to studios. In 1941 on one such visit director Nanu Bhai Vakil noticed Suraiya and offered her the role of Mumtaz Mahal in his film “Taj Mahal”. Music director Naushad impressed by her melodious voice persuaded A.R. Kardar, the film producer to take Suraiya as a playback singer for “Sharda”.

It was on the sets of “Chandragupta” that Suraiya met Saigal. Both were singing stars, had millions of fan following. Curiously, both had no formal training in music, yet by their divine gift of singing, they enthralled millions. Suraiya acted with Saigal in films “Tadbir” (1945), “Omar Khayam” (1946) and “Parwana” (1947).

Suraiya remained single all her life. Her name was romantically linked with the matinee idol Dev Anand. In films they were the proverbial jodi number one, the films they acted together were huge hits at the box office. Their romance did not fructify in real life. Suraiya resolved not to marry, though many proposals came to her including the one from producer and director M. Sadiq.

In a career spanning three decades, she acted in a number of films, sang her own songs and lent her voice for playback singing. Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, after seeing “Mirza Ghalib”, was so impressed that he told Suraiya, “You have put life in the soul of ‘Mirza Ghalib’”. Nehru could count millions among Suraiya’s admirers.

Still, in the prime of her life, Suraiya called it a day and retired from the film world forever. Even after her retirement from films at 34, she remained a popular star in the minds of cine-goers for a long time.

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