“Jahan paida hui wahan hi jaoongi.” I will only go where I was born. That declaration in 1947 by Allah Rakhi Wasai sent shockwaves through the Hindi film industry. At Partition, her native village of Kasur in Punjab found itself in the newly formed nation of Pakistan and Wasai – better known by her stage name, Noor Jehan – packed up her life in Bombay to move to Lahore.
In the 1940s, Noor Jehan, whose 89th birth anniversary will be celebrated on September 21, was India’s most famous singer and actor. She had become a household name with such movies as Khandaan (1942), Naukar (1943), Dost (1944), Zeenat (1945), Village Girl (1945), Badi Ma (1945), Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Jugnu (1947).
After her departure, though, most Indians had little access to her work in Pakistan. Until recently, that is. Now, YouTube has allowed fans on this side of the border to rediscover the magic of “Madam”, as she was respectfully called in Pakistan. With this, it’s become abundantly clear that her post-1947 career was marked by some truly sensational singing, arguably even better than her work in India.
It took Noor Jehan until 1951 to appear in a movie in Pakistan. Lahore had been a prominent filmmaking centre before 1947, but its major studios had been burnt down during the Partition riots, and local filmmakers lacked even the basic equipment to make movies. Noor Jehan’s husband, filmmaker, Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, who had directed her in many of her hits, managed to get the old Shorey Studios allotted to him and Noor Jehan with a claim against the property he had left behind in Uttar Pradesh. The studio was rechristened Shahnoor, and its first production was to have been the Urdu-language movie Nagina, starring Noor Jehan.
However, heeding advice from fellow filmmaker Nazir and his actress wife Swarnalata that a Punjabi film had better commercial prospects, Rizvi shelved Nagina and launched Chan Wey. Since his grasp over Punjabi was poor, Rizvi depended heavily on Noor Jehan’s knowledge of the language, which earned her a credit as director.
Chan Wey was a box office hit and reunited Noor Jehan with her music director from Jugnu, Feroz Nizami. The collaboration resulted in several memorable songs, including Tere Mukhde Da Kaala Kaala Til Wey, which proved extremely popular this side of the border as well.
Noor Jehan’s lucky run continued with her next movie, the Urdu-language Dupetta (1952), which was also scored by Feroz Nizami. Directed by Syed Sibtain Fazli, Dupetta is one of the better made Pakistani films from the period, and was also released in India to favourable reviews.
The track Sanwariya, Tohe Koi Pukare inspired the Tamil song Poomaalai in the iconic Tamil film Parasakti (1952). Another tune Chandni Raatein, arguably the film’s best, became a big hit again in the 1990s, when a remixed version sung by Shamsa Kanwal played on music television channels in India.
Some of Noor Jehan’s best singing has always been in her native language, Punjabi. Her ability to enunciate with crystalline clarity and her skill in evoking the right emotion, especially in her sad songs, is what made her singing so popular. This was evident in the Punjabi offering, Patey Khan (1955). It is said that whenever Hindi film composer OP Nayyar heard Kalli Kalli Jaan Dukh from the film, he would copiously weep.
In 1956, Noor Jehan teamed up for the first time with two of the biggest legends of Pakistani film music – GA Chishti for Lakht-e-Jigar, and Khwaja Khursheed Anwar for Intezar. Lakht-e-Jigar, based on the Geeta Bali-Balraj starrer Vachan (1955), had some wonderful songs such as Woh Khwab Suhana Toot Gaya, Aa Haal Dekhle Mera and the popular lullaby Chanda Ki Nagari Se. However, the film flopped at the box office losing out to another Vachan copy, Hameeda.
It was Intezar, directed by Masood Parvez, starring Noor Jehan as a blind singer, which proved to be one of her most massive hits. Among its outstanding tunes were Chand Hanse Duniya Base. Other great song include Aa Bhi Ja, O Janewale Re and Jis Din Se Piya Dil Le Gaye. The film got her the President’s Award for Best Singer. Lata Mangeshkar went on record to say that Intezar had one of her favourite Pakistani music scores.
Koel (1959), which teamed Noor Jehan with director Masood Parvez once again, was about sweethearts separated in childhood who are reunited as adults. The film was Noor Jehan’s last big success as an actress. It sees her in a glamorous role as the daughter of a renowned classical artist and a singer. The movie integrates music beautifully into an otherwise-ordinary story.
Noor Jehan joined hands again with Khursheed Anwar three years after Intezar, and the duo goes well beyond the earlier film with one great song after another: Rhim Jhim Rhim Jhim Pade Puhar, Sagar Roye, Mehki Hawaen, Tere Bina Sooni Sooni Laage Re. However, there is little to beat this semi-classical track, which challenges Noor Jehan’s voice and singing range to the limit.
In 1959, Noor Jehan married for the second time. Her second husband, upcoming actor Ejaz Durrani, was nine years younger than she was. Since Durrani didn’t want Noor Jehan to continue acting, she made her last movie appearance in Ghalib (1961).
Though she departed the screen, she never stopped singing. Beginning with Zindagi Hai Ya Kisika Intezar from the film Salma (1960), Noor Jehan began a new career as a playback singer. Most of her rivals at the time were being paid about Rs 350 per song, while Noor Jehan commanded an astronomical fee of Rs 2,000.
Salma was not Noor Jehan’s first film as a playback singer in Pakistan. She had previously recorded O Jaan-e-Bahar and Do Rahi Rasta Bhool Gaye for the film Patey Khan (1955). She also recorded Kaisa Naseeb Layi Thi and Na Ansoo Bahe The for music composer Rashid Attre in her ex-husband Shaukat Rizvi’s Jan-e-Bahar (1958). Noor Jehan was supposed to play the lead in the film when her marriage with Rizvi fell apart. She left the production but allowed Rizvi to use her songs.
Rashid Attre composed some of Noor Jehan’s best tracks in her early days as a playback singer in films like Mehboob (1962), Mosseqar (1962) and Qaidi (1962).
Qaidi, with Darpan and Shamim Ara, was perhaps the biggest successes of the Attre-Noor Jehan combination. One of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s best-known poems, Mujhse Pehlisi Mohabbat Mere Mehboob Na Maang, was used in the film. The basic tune was said to be have been composed by Noor Jehan, and Faiz was reportedly so taken by Noor Jehan’s rendering of his words that he symbolically gifted her the poem.
Asif Siddiqi, a chartered accountant whose family migrated to Sindh from Varanasi, recalls in his book Mani & I: Memoirs of a Banarasi Karachiite that when he asked Faiz to recite the verse at an Annual All India-Pakistan Mushaira, the poet replied, “Bhai, ab woh geet mera kahan raha? Noor Jehanka ho gaya.” That song is no longer mine. It belongs to Noor Jehan.
In 1982, when Noor Jehan came to India for the first time since she’d left to participate in an event titled Mortal Men Immortal Melodies to celebrate 50 years of the Indian talkies, Mujhse Pehlisi Mohabbat was among the three songs she chose to perform.
Some of Noor Jehan’s best songs in the 1960s for characters played on screen by Shamim Ara. Besides Qaidi, Noor Jehan’s voice and Ara’s acting skills resulted in memorable tracks from Aag Ka Darya (1966), Lakhon Mein Aik (1967) and Salgirah (1969).
Lakhon Mein Aik, a love story between an Indian and a Pakistani with a screenplay by Marxist writer and filmmaker Zia Sarhadi, inspired Raj Kapoor’s Henna several years later. Nisar Bazmi’s music is among the movie’s highlights.
A composer who was relegated to B-grade productions in India, Bazmi blossomed across the border. Noor Jehan helped him tremendously by putting her life and soul into the soundtrack for Lakhon Mein Aik, and each song is a masterpiece. Noor Jehan even sang a bhajan, Man Mandir Ke Devta, which was banned by Radio Pakistan.
By the 1970s, Punjabi films outnumbered Urdu productions in Pakistan, and Noor Jehan’s vibrant voice featured in the best-known ones, including Heer Ranjha (1970), starring her husband Ejaz Durrani and Firdous. According to Aijaz Gul’s book Mallika-e-Tarannum Noorjehan: The Melody Queen, she initially turned down an offer from composer Khursheed Anwar to sing in the film since her husband was having an affair with Firdous. But when Anwar signed on rival singer Mala, Noor Jehan arrived at the studio on the first day of the recording and sent Mala packing.
By the late 1970s and 1980s, Pakistani cinema was ruled by tacky, easily forgotten Punjabi action films. Many of these films starred Sultan Rahi, Anjuman and Mustafa Qureshi, with music by Rashid Attre’s son Wajahat. These movies contained relatively crass songs sung by Noor Jehan, and they constitute a disappointing phase of her career. Still, she did sing them all her characteristic verve, and some of the better tunes from this period are admittedly catchy and remain popular, such as this one from Sher Khan (1981).
Noor Jehan ended her glorious career after singing the Punjabi song Ki Dam Da Bharosa Yaar in Sakhi Badshah (1996). She scaled unparalleled musical heights in Pakistan, but the debate rages on among lovers of Hindi film music about whether she lost out by migrating to Pakistan. Some believe that she gave up the chance to participate in the sheer variety of music in Indian films, which reflects the roots and regional influences of composers from across the country, limiting herself to the Urdu ghazal and the Punjabi-flavoured tune.
Yet, there is no denying the fact that Noor Jehan shaped Pakistani film music the way Lata Mangeshkar did Hindi film music. The light of the universe undoubtedly proved that melody is indeed queen on both sides of the border.