Not all well-known women reject love out of a tragic past, some do it out of disillusionment. When Ismat Chughtai, the celebrated Urdu feminist author met the well-known actress Suraiya who was a darling of the masses of her time, she wrote the following words about Suraiya’s disenchantment with love. Suraiya simply did not believe in love because she had been mouthing those ‘love’ dialogues from her very childhood.
Ismat Chugtai wrote “I first saw Suraiya at the gulposhi (adorning with flowers) ceremony of Mumtaz Ali’s eldest daughter. She sat demurely behind a bunch of girls and must’ve been around thirteen to fourteen years old. Wearing ordinary clothes and sporting a stretched braid, there was enough worry in her rather large eyes, the appropriate se of which she hadn’t learnt as yet. Had she not appeared so petrified, I wouldn’t have noticed her much-all the more because her mother Malika appeared to be the toast of the party and when compared with her, Suraiya looked like a mouse.
Beloved of the universe
Shortly afterwards, Suraiya took a big leap and became a film star- one who sparkled so brightly that for a while even Nargis paled before her.
She achieved heaps of fame and as someone said, she became the ‘mehooba-e-aalam’ (beloved of the universe). There was a time when her admirers could be found in every nook and corner, and no other heroine could ever attract such attention. She was still young when she was stuffed and padded and made to play the heroine opposite Saigal and Prithviraj. More than her acting skills, it was her magical voice that people found so endearing. Lata hadn’t become the phenomenon as yet, and it was Shamshad Begum’s voice that was heard the most. Suraiya and Noor Jehan were two actresses who sang their own songs, and soon they zoomed ahead of Uma Shashi and Kanan Bala in popularity. These two were also singing-stars and ruled the roost once, but over a period of time, the appeal of Kanan Bala’s voice was on the decline.
Noor Jehan left for Pakistan after Partition and that effectively made Suraiya the only singing star in the country. There came a time when as many as five of her films would play in tandem at the theatres. She featured in all the posters one could see-she was omnipresent. It was almost dreadful.
Around the time Suraiya was in her prime, when producers and directors met up, her name would inevitably crop up after a few rounds of drinks. Alcohol along with zikr-e-Suraiya – to hear all that, it seemed as if much like alcohol, her body, and voice were also meant to mislead people. There was tremendous sex appeal in her flexible voice- upon hearing it , instead of soaring to the heavens, one’s emotions were rather drawn towards the soil. Possessing the power to completely take over the senses, it carried daawat-e-gunaah – an invitation to the path of sin.
When a bunch of men sit down to drink, their talks rips women to shreds. Yet, the manner in which Suraiya is cut to smidgens is beyond compare. She might not have heard it in person but she would’ve certainly seen its reflection in all those gaping stares.
That’s why she could never surrender to love unconditionally. She could never love anyone passionately enough to renounce all she had- her home, her mother and her maternal grandmother. Made to hear as well as mouth romantic dialogues since an early age, love started to appear as something ridiculously to her. For her, whilst the asinine act is valid on the screen – provided it could help the film to succeed – it was pointless to accommodate it in actual life.
And how could it be possible to not fall for Suraiya? Nearly all her directors were captivated by her. So, it’s not hard to imagine the kind of regard that she must have felt for them and also how ludicrous the entire concept of love must’ve come across to her.
It was routine for her to dress up as a bride, get married and then it was time to take the make-up off. No wonder life starts appearing like a grotesque piece of farce. It gets difficult to segregate reality from fiction and it results in shaking up one’s ability to take decisions.
No, Suraiya doesn’t intend to get married – she dreads the very thought of it.
Although she didn’t name them, I could identify all her suitors, as they would often narrate their stories of heartbreak to me- I knew the silly lengths they could go to in their pursuit.
“There was a gentleman who used to light candles at the shrine of Sai Baba,” she chuckled. I immediately knew whom was she talking about.
“A hero would threaten to jump off the terrace.” The hero is alive and kicking and continues with his habit of leaping about, albeit in films.
“Then there was this man who stationed himself outside my flat and after persisting for many days, eventually consumed poison. A fair bit of trouble later, the police took him away.
Money minting machine
The tale of Suraiya is identical to that of any film star who is forced to turn into a money minting machine while still at a tender age. Stardom was instantly handed over to her on a platter and she didn’t have to slog it out to earn the success. Consequently, she never cared for the easy fame. Had she faced rejections and disappointments before making it big, perhaps she would’ve valued it more. Acclaim and prosperity were shoved down her throat and she forever longed to spew them out. Her prestige became the staircase to success for others, climbing which they amassed wealth amassed wealth and filled up their coffers. Piggybacking on her name and skills, people turned millionaires, while she, on the other hand didn’t give two hoots for the riches. Spending money requires time, and Suraiya barely had any time to even breathe. She was burdened with so many contracts that most of her days and nights were spent shooting. She would manage a quick nap somehow and then be back to the dreary film scenes, the same voices of “Lights on! Lights off!”, the unfamiliar heroes and besotted directors.
Quitting for good
“I have absolutely no regrets about quitting films. The entire process just got to me,” Suraiya’s voice had turned bitter. “I was sick of shooting all the time. For years I hankered for adequate sleep. I couldn’t even eat properly because I have a tendency to put on weight very quickly. I could only dream of getting to watch films or not shooting. It’s a terrible thing to say but I would be ecstatic when someone in the film industry passed away and the shooting was stopped. I would fervently pray that may someone die every day and the entire industry get ruined and destroyed. Tauba-tauba! I don’t know what had come over me. Now I can catch up on all the sleep that I can, I go out to shop and have a great time. Though they are few in number, I have some very dear friends. I eat all that I want to and love spending time at my bungalow in Lonavala.”
“Do you still sing?”
Maybe Suraiya still hasn’t been able to disconnect songs from films. She could never embrace acting as a part of her soul like Meena Kumari, whose singular interest in life is acting-for the love of which she came back from the jaws of death. Had Suraiya wanted, she could’ve come back to films too but then there is seldom a cure for fright.”
-(Neend Ki Maati, published in Naqsh [Karachi]– November-December, 1973
(Excerpts from “Yeh Un Dinon Ki Baat Hai” by Yasir Abbasi)
–To be continued