When Ranjan Sain was a teenager, he wanted to follow in the footsteps of his uncle, the director K Amarnath, and join the Hindi film industry. Sain decided to enrol for an acting course at the Film and Television Institute of India, but was dissuaded by his family. Sain eventually became a businessman, but he has since found ways to address his passion for cinema.

Sain has published Bhula Nahin Dena, an illustrated biography of Amarnath, who was active between the 1930s and the 1970s, as well as co-authored The Unsung Melodist, about the Hindi film music composer Ghulam Mohammed. These are self-published and self-financed books. They were put together with the sole purpose of documenting the lives and careers of “people who have a big body of work but have not been recognised”, Sain told Scroll.

Sain’s latest book is on Hindi cinema’s singing star Suraiya (1929-2004). Suraiya was at her peak in the 1940s and 1950s. She was renowned not only for her performances but her sweet voice. But as Sain pointed out, there hasn’t been a book on her yet.

The Immortal Queen Suraiya comprises essays written by Sain and fans on the actress, rare photographs, lobby cards and film posters. The book includes a complete filmography and a list of songs.

Once again, Sain self-funded his research, the numerous trips he took to meet various Suraiya fans, and the glossy tome’s printing. “I am a one-man show,” 71-year-old Sain said about a project that lasted a little over two years.

Sain met an array of admirers, some of whom were in their forties when they fell in love with Suraiya. “For them, Suraiya is a goddess, the ultimate star,” Sain said. Many of them shared invaluable photographs with Sain for free on the condition that they were used only in the book. The result is a labour of love that will go some way towards resurrecting Suraiya’s legacy. In an excerpt, Sain writes about how Suraiya became an icon, both for her roles and her voice.

‘A meteor who blazed across the skies’

Suraiya’s golden period began in 1943 with her film ‘Ishara’. She had just entered her teens and there was no looking back. She had one hit after another, and producers started queueing up outside her house to work with her. There was an endless flow of filmmakers waiting to sign her at any cost. Suraiya had 4 or 5 film releases each year, with the numbers steadily increasing as the years went on.

In the mid-forties, the two women who dominated the film world with their singing, were Suraiya and Noorjehan. Khurshid, who was the leading singing star earlier, slowly lost her position to them. In fact, Suraiya ranked after Noorjehan and both of them appeared together in Mehboob Khan’s musical ‘Anmol Ghadi’. Despite Noorjehan’s towering personality, Suraiya was able to compete with her and make a mark with her acting as well as her singing. Suraiya’s confidence and natural talent allowed her to hold her own against Noorjehan in ‘Anmol Ghadi’ and also against Munawar Sultana in ‘Dard’.

Courtesy Ranjan Sain.

When Noorjehan and Khurshid the reigning singing stars migrated to Pakistan in 1947, the field was left open for Suraiya, with no one coming close to her talent as an actor or singer. It was as if destiny set the stage for a meteor to blaze across the skies.

Very soon Suraiya became a huge star, a sensation and the darling of the audiences. Her songs sent audiences into waves of hysteria. Her career graph moved upwards by leaps and bounds, and fame and adulation were accompanied by tons of money. She started leading a lavish life befitting her celebrity status and went on to own one of the best collections of limousines which included a Buick and a Lincoln amongst others.

Courtesy Ranjan Sain.

Suraiya was very disciplined and handled her busy work schedule efficiently. Her day began with recitations from the Holy Quran, some exercise and breakfast, before she left home at 8 am for music rehearsals. Next were shoots at the studios where she was known to be very friendly and treated everyone with respect. She had no airs or demands and would make no fuss about anything, from her hair and makeup to costumes, camera angles, footage or dialogues. She faced the camera with confidence and accepted the outcome with grace.

Suraiya and her grandmother would leave their home, both dressed very stylishly in their fancy limousine. She was always accompanied by her uncle, a make-up man and her maid carrying two thermos flasks, one filled with juice and the other with steaming hot flavoured tea. Such great success and glory in such a short time for a teenager was unprecedented and exceptional.

Between 1947 and 1950, Suraiya had 29 releases including ‘Parwana,’ which was her third film with the great singing star K.L. Saigal, whom she had always idolised. It was his last film before he died in 1947.

Courtesy Ranjan Sain.

The year 1949 broke all records for Suraiya, with 11 films releasing in one year, something no other actress had achieved. With films like ‘Shair’, ‘Jeet’, ‘Bari Bahen’, ‘Naach’, ‘Dillagi’ and songs like “Murli Wale Murli Baja”, “Wo Paas Rahein Ya Door Rahein”, “Bigdi Banane Wale Bigdi Bana De” and “Tu Mera Chand Main Teri Chandni”, she unleashed hysteria all over the country.

Her neighbours and other residents in the area complained about the inconvenience caused to them while entering or exiting their homes due to the crowds outside her home. Occasionally the police were called to control the crowd that would gather for a glimpse of Suraiya. Some fans would lie down and block the street in front of her car hoping to see or speak with her.

There are many bizarre stories of fans, some of which are recounted here in Suraiya’s own words from various interviews she gave over the years.

“There was this fan who was so much in love with me, that every night he would come to my building and sit on the wall all night until morning. If anyone asked him, he would reply that he had come to see me. People passing by would stop just to see him and it started becoming a kind of tourist attraction to see him sitting on the wall every evening. This became a very disturbing thing, and I did not know what to do. This person happened to be the brother of a famous actress. Some close friends from the industry tried to convince me to marry him but I obviously refused. Finally, this person got tired and went off to Pakistan.”

“There was this girl from Calcutta who came to meet me at my house along with her father. Since I had already left home for the studio, they landed up at the studio where I was shooting for Kardar’s film ‘Diwana’. When I saw the girl, I was shocked to see her condition. Her hands had become cold and dry and, she was looking frail and weak. She had taken a vow that she will not even drink water until she meets me. I immediately asked the producer to call for a doctor who came and checked her. Her blood pressure had dropped very low and she was in a very bad health. I ordered fresh fruit juice for her and spoke to her. After some time, she started recovering and feeling better.”

“There was another character who came all the way from Karachi with some ‘Baraatis’ and created a big ruckus outside my house. With great difficulty and intervention of my family members and friends we managed to control the situation.” “I remember I had a makeup man whose behavior was quite funny and quirky. I had to tell the director that I wasn’t comfortable with him around. Later I learned that this man, whose name was Vinod, after watching ‘Dillagi` a few times, walked all the way from Lahore to Bombay on the railway tracks. After reaching Bombay he somehow managed to get into the studio where I was shooting. He made friends with the other staff and somehow managed to become a makeup artist. He would keep on muttering all the time that he could not believe that he is doing makeup on me.” 

An interesting incident was narrated by both Sadhna Rana (daughter of producer Pratap Rana) and Ami (the daughter of Dhimant Thakker, a chartered accountant who looked after Suraiya and took care of her till her death). Both Ami and Sadhna had the fortune of spending a lot of time with Suraiya.

The story goes that once Suraiya was travelling by train to Ujjain. At one of the major stations where the train halted, Suraiya came out of her cabin and stood at the door to breathe some fresh air. Some people recognized her and mayhem ensued. They tried to come close to her and touch her while someone pulled her dupatta. The crowd went berserk and the dupatta was torn into shreds. People fought over the pieces of cloth just to have something to remember Suraiya by.

Suraiya’s songs became a rage in every city, town and village across India and even in Pakistan where she became a household name. Even fruit sellers used comparisons to her sweet voice while describing their fruit for sale.

Not surprisingly, amongst her suitors were quite a few celebrities eager to marry her. Iftekhar, the brother of actress Veena was one of them. He sat outside her house without food for an entire day and delivered an ultimatum, saying he would not leave until Suraiya agreed to marry him. No amount of persuasion could work and finally Suraiya herself had to coax him to end his ‘dharna’. She told him that if he really loved her then he should stop it immediately which he finally but very reluctantly did.

The list does not end here. Actors Rehman and Suresh and director M. Sadiq were all madly in love with her and believed they deserved to marry her. Most significant was Dharmendra, the teenager who walked for miles from his village Sahnewal in Punjab to a theatre in the nearest town to watch her films. Not once, not twice, he watched her film ‘Dillagi’ (1949) nearly 40 times. Even after becoming a star himself, he was one of the few from the industry who stayed in touch with her till her death.

Excerpted with permission from The Immortal Queen Suraiya, Ranjan Sain. Email ranjansain@gmail.com to buy a copy.

Photo courtesy India Photo Studio.