Suraiya: India’s First Female Superstar

Last Updated: Mon, Feb 02, 2004 05:58 hrs

Many years after Suraiya became a singing-acting sensation, Sulakhana Pandit tried to make a career in singing and acting. She made no headway. In fact there has been no female singing-star in Bollywood since Suraiya.

What made her so special? First of all it was Suraiya’s indomitable beauty. Born in pre-partition India at Lahore in 1929 , Suraiya Jamal Sheikh made her acting debut as a child in Taj Mahal in 1941. Soon after she also became a playback singer for more senior actresses. But after her launch as a leading lady in Hamari Beti in 1943 Suraiya sang only for herself.

For a while she was neck-to-neck and throat-to-throat with that other singing-star Nurjehan. The two acted in a very successful film Anmol Ghadi together in 1946 where they played rivals in love. Soon after the film directed by Mehboob Khan was released, Nurjahan migrated to Pakistan leaving the coast clear for Suraiya’s uninterrupted run at the top.

Her most prominent role as a singing-star was the historical Mirza Ghalib where Suraiya not only enacted the part of the the Urdu poet Ghalib’s beloved but also got the privilege of singing some of the finest poetry by Ghalib.

The 1950s also saw Suraiya participate in filmdom’s first glamorous romance. Her fondness for the debonair Dev Anand was said to have its roots in his resemblance to the Hollywood Gregory Peck whom Suraiya had met and taken quite shine to. The Indian Gregory Peck, Dev Anand is rumoured to have become enormously fond of Suraiya. The two did several films together, like Jeet and Afsar. Legend has it that Suraiya was forced to fling a ring given to her by Dev Anand into the sea at the say-so of her disciplinarian grandmother.

In the same year as Afsar Suraiya also did the mammoth musical romance Dastaan where she was paired with Raj Kapoor and sang all her songs herself.

Her last film as an actress was the pseudo-historical Rustam Sohrab in 1963 where she co-starred with the mighty Prithviraj Kapoor, father of Raj Kapoor who played her lead in Dastaan.

Life had come a full circle for the actress. Like Vyjanthimala, Suraiya cut loose from celluloid at her prime instead of hovering at the fringes to play supporting roles. She made rare public appearances right until her death, her face immaculately made up with a mask-like imperviousness. Unattached and reclusive Suraiya was the eternal bachelor girl. No one was good enough to marry her.

Though she shunned the limelight Suraiya remained the consummate star to the end. As an actress she didn’t achieve the acme of stardom. But her songs like Tere naino ne chori kiya and Tu mera chand will continue to reverberate across the universe.