Salma Agha’s acting career was a brief meteoric flare, but her voice has given her an enduring legacy. Her debut film Nikaah (1982), in which she sang the memorable song “Dil Ke Armaan”, written by Hassan Kamaal and set to music by Ravi, fetched her a Filmfare Best Female Playback Singer trophy. Agha had three nominations in the category, including a nomination for Best Actress on that eventful night, and it was clear that she was going to win in at least one of the categories. Her only true competition was herself.
Agha was born in Amritsar in 1956 and raised in London. She was trained as a singer in the Kirana gharana. Agha and her sister, Sabina, formed a group to sing ABBA hits on the album Salma & Sabina Sing The Hits Of Abba In Hindi (1981). Their cover of “Dancing Queen”, called “Mitha Maze Dar”, is a prime example of the sisters hitting higher notes with ease as their vocal pitches are on the upper scale. The album was considered a novel experiment, but it didn’t lead to a future in pop music.
Agha’s first playback break was for the nondescript movie Maine Jeena Seekh Liya (1982), in which she sang “Zara Zara Tu Pyar Kar” for music composers Nadeem-Shravan.
She moved to Mumbai to audition for playback in BR Chopra’s Talaq Talaq Talaq. Chopra asked her if she would act in the film too, an offer she could not resist. The film was later rechristened as Nikaah after clerics took offence to the initial title, which referred to the triple talaq divorce system in Islam. The film was a commercial hit, introducing a strong female protagonist.
The hazel-eyed beauty was hailed for her acting and singing, a rare combination of talents reminiscent of the golden days of Noorjehan and Suraiya. Her next film, Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (1984), presented her disco avatar. The film showcased her versatility as a singer of both sad love songs and disco numbers with equal panache. However, she appeared only in a dozen films since, and nothing matched the success of her first two hits.
Acting wasn’t her motivation for work and her distinctly nasal voice was uniquely suited only to her, which dried up playback offers. Agha began to focus on ghazals and produced several albums, including an unusual collaboration with ghazal maestro Mehdi Hassan called Har Pal (1988). In the song “Saans Bhi Loon”, his mellow voice finds a booming echo in her high pitch.
Here she sings a ghazal written by Mirza Ghalib, “Dil Hai Dil Agar” and if it hadn’t been for the generosity of listeners, few would be willing to look beyond her beauty to pay attention to her shrill voice.