Suraiya’s suitors

In the 70s, iconic feminist author Ismat Chughtai wrote about the legendary actor for a Karachi-based Urdu magazine. Here is a translation of the piece that talked about Suraiya’s attitude towards love

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 zikre-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 talk rips women to shreds. Yet, the manner in which Suraiya is cut to smithereens 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… There were other factors too that were responsible for strengthening her ideas of love as something awkward and absurd. In those days, film directors were not so burdened with the responsibilities of production as the present-day ones are. It was not deemed odd for directors to get smitten by their heroines… And how could it be possible to not fall for Suraiya? Nearly all her directors were captivated by her… 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. She started laughing uncontrollably at the mention of the wooers.

“There was a gentleman who used to light candles at the shrine of Sai Baba,” she chuckled. I immediately knew whom she was 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. However, nothing could beat what one gentleman did. It was not uncommon to receive letters that contained suicide threats from deranged individuals, or proposals for marriage. One afternoon there was the sound of some wedding band playing in our vicinity. We thought that the sound came from a radio with some wedding sequence from a play being performed. But it kept on increasing progressively and stopped at our doorstep. The doorbell rang and when the door was opened, we were startled out of our wits. There was a dressed-up bridegroom standing right there, complete with a sehra, accompanied by an entourage of baaraatis and platters full of jewellery and ornamental clothes!

We promptly enquired, ‘Who are you?’ ‘I am the bridegroom. Aadaab arz!’ ‘Bridegroom? Listen brother, what are you talking about? Who is the bride?’ ‘Suraiya Jabeen is the bride. The baaraat has come all the way from Jalandhar.’”

And the entire group rushed inside the house. Suraiya hastily locked herself inside the bedroom while her mother was absolutely flabbergasted — they had brought along expensive jewellery worth a lakh or two and umpteen lavish clothes.

“When I told them that we were simply not interested and they should leave, no one bothered to listen and told us that they’ve travelled a long way to reach us,” added Suraiya’s mother. Recalling the incident, Suraiya rolled over with laughter.

“So, what happened then?” I asked “What else could happen? We tried our best to reason with them, but they were just not willing to back off and even threatened to resort to violence. It was only when we summoned the police that we could ward them off. On top of it, the police inspector told us, ‘Why is there such nuisance at your house every other day?’ Great! It was as if we invited wedding processions by design!” said the mother. All this while, Suraiya was in splits.

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… “Which is your favourite among all your roles?” I asked.

“None!” she shot back at once, but after giving it a thought, added, “Actually, all the roles were fine. The one in Parwana was nice, Kajal was quite good too, and so was the role in Mirza Ghalib.”

“I wouldn’t call Papaji [Prithviraj Kapoor] my hero because I was mighty scared of him. He was a brilliant artiste… and I have a lot of respect for him. Saigalji was such a lovely man. He was completely oblivious of how big a star he was. Humble to the core, he would speak with a lot of politeness and affection.”

The cheer on Suraiya’s face wilted away as she continued to wistfully reminisce about Saigal. “‘Suraiyaji’,” he would say in such a sweet voice, “‘Achchhi to haiñ na?’” [“I hope all is well with you.”] “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 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 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 Lonavla.”

“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. As Suraiya spoke, I couldn’t help but recall a story by Chekov. The young maid swings the cradle, but the baby doesn’t go to sleep and continues to cry. The girl finds her whole existence getting engulfed in the howls. Sleep is pricking away at her eyes but it is destined to elude her forever now. As the child persists with the wails, she covers his face with her hand. The baby goes silent and will never cry again. The young maid calmly goes off to deep, tranquil sleep.

Suraiya also suffocated the chronically whining and groaning child. She sleeps peacefully now. Will she awaken from her slumber one day? Will the magic of her voice be re-ignited? Will she come back to life?

Edited excerpts from Yeh Un Dinoñ Ki Baat Hai: Urdu Memoirs of Cinema Legends (Bloomsbury India), translated by Yasir Abbasi