A Singer by nature, an actress by coincidence, and a legend by her own making; Suraiya Jamal Sheikh was the highest-paid artisan of her time and the last actor and singer in Hindi cinema back in the 1940s before the era of playback singers kicked in. Said to have a voice as beautiful and as sweet as syrup, Suraiya joined the industry as a child artist and then stumbled upon an acting role that set her path for her legendary career.
Born on the 15th of June 1929 in Karachi during British India to Aziz Jamal Sheik and Mumtaz Sheikh, Suraiya moved to Mumbai with her family to reside near Marine Drive at the age of one. She grew up with friends the likes of Raj Kapoor and Madan Mohan, singing children’s programs at the All India Radio. One day she accompanied her maternal uncle Mr. Zahoor to the film set where she coincidentally landed her first film role in the movie Taj Mahal (1941). But her first big break came when an upcoming music director Naushad discovered her talents and made her sing the popular melody “Panchi Jaa Peeche Raha Hai Bachpann Mera” in the film Sharda as a playback for the famous actor Mehtab back in the day. She was only 12 years old at the time and couldn’t even reach the mic without standing on a stool and her voice made the entire nation sing along with her. By the age of 15, Suraiya had made her mark and established her place in the industry with her performance in Bombay Talkies (1943).
Back in the mid-40s, the two faces that dominated the Hindi Film Industry were Noor Jahan at no. 1 position followed by Suraiya. But, during the partition, while Noor Jahan decided to move to Pakistan, Suraiya decided to stay in India, and that marked her utter rise in fame as the most dominant female singer and actress of that time. In fact, Suraiya was the only singing star that decided to stay back. Even with playback singing in the game, Suraiya with her honeysuckle voice managed to captivate and dominate the industry for a while. Even though the films she acted in weren’t big successes, but her singing kept winning hearts to the point where her melodies still haunt the music lovers even half a century later.
Some of her famous performances were Pyaar Ki Jeet (1948), Badi Behan (1949), Dillagi (1949), Dastaan (1950), Mirza Ghalib (1954), amongst others. At one point Suraiya had worked with every popular actor and actress of that time. One of the main ones being Dev Anand. A love that lasted in a lifetime of heartbreak and tragedy.
Suraiya and Dev Anand starred in over seven films together and fell in love slowly after Dev Anand saved Suraiya’s life when their boat capsized during the filming of a scene. They had an intensely passionate romance and a highly publicized relationship. Though due to their opposing religions, Suraiya’s grandmother (the head of the family) opposed her relationship with the actor and forced her to break up with him.
Though Dev Anand wasn’t easily daunted and formally proposed to Suraiya, to which she accepted the proposal but later rejected him when her family threatened to get Dev Anand killed. In an interview decades later Suraiya accepted that she wasn’t as courageous as Dev Anand and maybe it wasn’t in their destiny to end up together. After her heartbreaking romance with Dev Anand, Suraiya departed from the industry as quickly as she had joined it. She cut down her assignments and took a sabbatical, later making a big comeback with her film, Mirza Ghalib.
Her movie Mirza Ghalib was awarded the president’s Gold Medal as the Best Feature Film of 1954. Even the Prime Minister of the time, Jawaharlal Nehru complimented her performance, telling Suraiya that, “her voice brought Ghalib back to life”. In 1956 Suraiya was sent as part of a delegate to the Soviet Union by the Government Of India, where her films were screened. She received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.
In 2003 she was awarded and honored with Dadasaheb Phalke Academy and Screen World Publication at the special function on the 134th birth anniversary of Dada Phalke. In 2013, a postage stamp bearing her image in various roles was released by the Indian Post to honor Suraiya on the occasion of “100 years of Indian Cinema”. She was also voted as the Best Onscreen Beauty for the same occasion.
Suraiya retired in 1963 due to her family and health issues. She spent the next 30 years of her life living alone and she never married anyone else on her own accord. In the last six months of her life, she completely shut out the world, even letting the newspaper and the milk pile up outside her doors. On January 31st, 2004, Suraiya bid farewell to the world after being hospitalized a week prior due to several health conditions. In her last conversation with her friend, upon being asked how is she doing? She replied with, “ Kaisi Guzar Rahi Hai Sabhi Poochte Hai Mujhse, Kaise Guzaarti Hoon Koi Nahin Poochta.” (Everyone asks me how am I doing but no one ever asked how I have been spending my days.)
On the 92nd birth anniversary of Suraiya, Saregama celebrates her life and her contribution to Indian cinema.
Now you can stream and download all your favorite melodies of Suraiya with Saregama Carvaan. Saregama Carvaan is a portal audio player with 5000 preloaded evergreen Hindi songs that you can play anywhere and anytime without ad breaks or internet connection. It also has other features like USB, AUX connector, and Bluetooth connectivity.