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Suraiya : A Voice From The Past
(Source: Feminaindia.com, Interview by: Sheila Vesuna)

Meeting Suraiya was like taking a walk back in time.

There was a time when traffic jams at Marine Drive (Mumbai) were caused not due to a long line of cars, but because of a young charismatic actress whose melodious voice had cast a spell on thousands of young Indians. Entering her home at Krishna Mahal on Marine Drive today, instantly transports you into another age and time.

"I WAS 12 AND LOOKED LIKE MUMTAZ MAHAL!"

Suraiya's career as an actress began as a child artiste.

"One day, my 'mamoo' (maternal uncle) Zahoor, who was a popular villian in films, took me along to watch the shooting of Prakash Pictures' 'Taj Mahal'. There, I met the producer, Nanubhai Vakil, who felt that my face was ideally suited for the character of young Mumtaz Mahal and asked my uncle if I could do the film. My mother and grandmother agreed. So, I went off to Delhi to shoot at the Red Fort for 10 days.

"And that was followed by one offer after another.'' And a star was born.

SINGING WAS AN ACCIDENT

"I was never trained in singing. Madan Mohan, who lived close by and Raj Kapoor once dragged me to participate in the children's programme on the All India Radio. Naushad sa'ab, who heard my voice on the radio, got in touch with me to sing for Kardar sa'ab's film, 'Sharda'. And I sang 'Panchi ja peeche raha hain bachpan mera', which was picturised on Mehtab. I was 11 years old then."

"NARGIS ENVIED ME"

"Frankly, I hadn't planned a career in films. I was just lucky to have got good roles. Nargis would always tell me, 'Somehow you get the best roles'," says Suraiya, modestly.

"Most of my roles were simple, but the audiences loved them. And I was lucky to have got simple, melodious and easy to pick up songs to sing, and work with the best composers of the day like Naushad, Husnlal-Bhagatram and Anil Biswas. We didn't even dream of promo videos, ads and all the associated technical wizardry then. But we still caught the audience's imagination."

THE CROWDS WENT SURAIYA-MAD

And how! When 'Pyar Ki Jeet' was released, it drew crowds outside Suraiya's house that had to be controlled by posting an inspector and four constables outside her house.

"When I went for the premiere of the movie 'Badi Bahen', there was such a big crowd outside! As I walked into the theatre, they pulled at my clothes. There was a lathi charge and people were injured. I stopped going for premieres thereafter."

"DEV SAVED MY LIFE"

No Suraiya interview can be complete without a reference to the Dev Anand-Suraiya love story. While Dev Anand himself went on to marry Kalpana Kartik and, later, to romance several other women, for Suraiya, it seems that love began and ended with Dev Anand.

"We were picturising a song in a boat right in the middle of the river, when the boat overturned and we found ourselves floundering in the water. I didn't know how to swim. Dev brought me out of the water. I thanked him, saying, 'If you hadn't saved me, my life would have ended.' He retorted, 'If your life had ended, so would mine.' We were drawn to each other."

"MY GRANNY WAS DEAD AGAINST DEV"

"I worked with Dev in seven films. Inevitably, people started talking about our romance and my grandmother learnt of it. She was extremely angry because Dev was a Hindu and granny was very orthodox."

"WE DECIDED TO ELOPE"

The highlight of this romance was the plan the lovers made to elope. While shooting for 'Jeet', the director decided to film on location instead of erecting a set. Also part of the plan was the summoning of a real 'panditji' to get Dev and Suraiya married during the shot. They would then get into the car and drive away - all as part of the scene, but in reality escaping.

"I BACKED OUT"

Unfortunately, Suraiya's grandmother came to know of the plan.

"Eventually, my grandmother succeeded in separating us. Dev was deeply hurt and offended by my lack of courage. But I was afraid for him. In retrospect, I don't think anything would have happened if I'd been bold enough. But I was terrified of my grandmother. And was heartbroken. But time is the greatest healer."

A practical woman, Suraiya prefers not to be a prisoner of the past. She agrees that had she chosen one of the many marriage proposals that came her way, life would have been different. But, she says, "Who can say what may have happened had I married? I've seen so many friends' marriages crumbling. I've been single and happy, living and doing the things I like, with a circle of close friends. But I'll admit that after my mother expired some years ago, I felt some amount of loneliness creep in."

"PANDIT NEHRU COMMENDED ME"

"I'd been a fan of Mirza Ghalib since childhood. And so when Sohrab Modi sent for my grandmother and discussed the role and other terms with her, I was thrilled.

"It was a very simple film, made in three months. Yet, what an effect the film had! It was the first feature film to be awarded the President's Gold Medal. At a function in Delhi, Pandit Nehru, after watching the movie, said to me, 'Ladki, tumne kya unke (Mirza Ghalib) ghazalein gaayi. Tumne Mirza Ghalib ki rooh ko zinda kar diya.' For me, that was an award better than an Oscar."

"MY TIME HAD COME"

'Rustom Aur Sohrab' made in 1962 was Suraiya's swan song. Why?

"I hadn't been keeping well and had collapsed with weakness during the shooting of the movie. I was forced to take a break and recuperate. During that time, I really enjoyed resting and realised how tired I was with work. I completed the films I had on hand and decided to call it a day. And I've never looked back."

Incidentally, this legendary actress-singer still retains a lovely schoolgirlish lilt in her voice. Time, it seems, hasnt laid its hands on it.

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