Dev Anand, the heartbreak Suraiya could never overcome

Farhana Farook
·Contributor
·9-min read

… and Suraiya died unwed…

Ye na thi hamari kismet ke wisaal-e-yaar hota (A union with my beloved was not in my destiny)

Agar aur jeete rehte yahee intezaar hota. (Had I lived more… it would have been the same wait)

When singing star Suraiya rendered this legendary ghazal of Mirza Ghalib for Sohrab Modi’s film on the bard in the early ’50s, she perhaps drew from the recesses of her ravaged heart. That alone validates the gravitas and grief she lent to the refrain.

After an intense romance, Suraiya and Dev Anand were forced to part ways thanks to her domineering grandmother, who scuttled their inter-faith alliance.

While Dev Anand, initially shattered, picked up the shards of his life to court superstardom, Suraiya withdrew behind the filigree curtains of her sea-facing home to face a lonely life and an even lonelier death.

And to think that during the ’40s and ’50s, her bungalow, Krishna Mahal, at Marine Drive would be swamped by admirers. While one fan had apparently gone on a fast so that she agrees to marry him, another had gate-crashed with band, baaja and baaraat

With several houses on her name, sadly Suraiya never could build a home of her own. Behind the baroque sarees and bejewelled façade perhaps lurked a solitary soul… ‘a bird with a broken wing’…

Suraiya Jamal Sheikh was born in Lahore on 15 June 1929. Once, as a girl, she accompanied her maternal uncle/actor Zahoor on the set of Prakash Pictures’ Taj Mahal (1941). The producer, Nanubhai Vakil, found Suraiya’s gentle face ideal for the character of young Mumtaz Mahal and signed her.

When just around 12, she played the heroine opposite ‘Papaji’ Prithviraj Kapoor in Ishara (1943).

Her singing talent was appreciated when she sang Naushad’s Panchhi jaa for A.R. Kardar’s Sharda (1942). “Uski awaaz mein gharelupan tha,” said the maestro, who went on to compose her songs for Dillagi, Dastaan and Anmol Ghadi.

Suraiya and K.L. Saigal in Parwana
Suraiya and K.L. Saigal in Parwana

Suraiya’s acting career soared after legendary singer/actor KL Saigal visited the sets of Jayant Desai’s Samrat Chandragupt (1945) and heard her rehearsing a song. Saigal asked Desai to cast Suraiya opposite him in Tadbir (1945). Later, the duo did Parwana (1945) and Omar Khayyam (1946).

The songs of Pyar Ki Jeet (1948) - Na tadapne ki ijazat hai, O door janewala, Tere nainon ne chori kiya – were so popular that crowds would gather outside Suraiya’s house to catch a glimpse of the singing star. Peeved residents of Marine Drive complained to the Chief Minister about the traffic jams caused by fans.

Similarly, her track Woh paas rahen ya door rahen in Bari Behen (1949) pulled audiences to the theatres. Just as Mast aankhon mein and Dhadakte dil ki tamanna ho mera pyar ho tum composed by Ghulam Mohammed and sung by Suraiya added value to Shama (1961).

Sohrab Modi's Mirza Ghalib (1954) won two National Film Awards. Reportedly, Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru told the songstress, “Mirza Ghalib ki rooh ko zinda kar diya!” Truly, Dil-e-nadan tujhe hua kya hai, Nuktacheen hai gham-e-dil, Ye na thi hamari kismet… rendered by Suraiya popularised Ghalib for young India.

Her swan song was Rustom Sohrab in 1963, when she was 34. Her track, Yeh kaisi ajab dastan ho gayi hai, was the highlight of the film. To her credit, without any training in music, Suraiya held her own among singers like Noor Jahan, Khurshid, Zohrabai and Amirbai.

ILL-FATED ROMANCE

Her professional glory aside, the Dev Anand chapter in Suraiya’s life was a defining one. Dev was a struggler when he met superstar Suraiya, who was also older than him. Between 1948 – 1951, the two paired up in seven films –Vidya, Jeet, Shair, Afsar, Nili, Do Sitare and Sanam.

Revealing the moment, she fell in love with Dev Anand, Suraiya said in an interview, “We were shooting (Kinare kinare chale jaayenge for Vidya) in a boat when it capsized. Dev saved me from drowning. I told him, ‘If you hadn’t saved my life today, it would have ended’. He said quietly, ‘If your life had ended so would have mine’… That’s when we fell in love.”

Throwing caution to the winds, the conservative but madly-in-love Suraiya created a furore when she walked in hand-in-hand with Dev at actor Shyam’s wedding. Her Nani (maternal grandmother), Badshah Begum, got a whiff of the romance. The matriarch was dead against the inter-faith association. So overbearing was she that apparently once stalled the shooting of Afsar because she found Dev kissing her ‘Baby’s’ eyelashes in a romantic scene.

The harrowed couple took to writing letters, passed across through friends, Durga Khote, Guru Dutt and Kamini Kaushal to continue their romance. They’d meet secretly on the terrace of the studios, sit behind the water tank and chat. Finally, Dev proposed to her on the sets of Jeet (1949) with a diamond ring, which he could ill afford.

The duo reportedly hatched a plan to get married on the set. A real pundit would be brought in for the wedding scene in the film. While seemingly the rituals would be for the film, the two would actually go through them and get married.

But ‘an assistant’ on the film, who had a soft corner for Suraiya, spilled the beans to her grandmother. All hell broke loose and Suraiya was dragged home.

Jeet
Jeet

Infuriated, her grandmother apparently threw Dev’s ring into the sea. But Suraiya’s mother, the soft-hearted Mumtaz Begum, asked Dev to meet her daughter on their terrace one last time.

Dev took an inspector friend along fearing trouble. With a loaded gun, the inspector sat on the parapet opposite keeping a watch on Dev. Suraiya cried bitterly saying she didn’t have the courage to rebel and that she feared for his life.

Dev returned heartbroken. Their love had surrendered to religious bigotry.

Talking about the painful incident, years later Suraiya said, “Eventually, my grandmother succeeded in separating us. Dev was deeply hurt by my lack of courage. In retrospect, I don’t think anything would have happened if I’d been bold enough. But I was terrified of my grandmother. And heartbroken.”

Filmmaker and brother Chetan Anand comforted a shattered Dev and asked him to focus on his career. Eventually, Dev married his Taxi Driver co-star, Kalpana Karthik, in 1954. They had two children, son Suneil and daughter Devina.

BREAK KE BAAD

Suraiya retired after her father Aziz Jamal Sheikh passed away in 1963 and she began facing health problems. She became a recluse except for some rare appearances, where she appeared bedecked.

She became lonelier after her mother’s (Mumtaz Begum) death in 1987, Suraiya became lonelier. “Akeli rehti thi aur deewaron se batein karti thi,” Naushad was quoted saying.

Among her rare appearances was the one at the 25th anniversary party of Navketan in the ’70s and when she was honoured with the Screen Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. Dev Anand skipped the function for obvious reasons, leaving Suraiya upset.

During the last six months of her life, Suraiya lived with lawyer friend Dhimant Thakkar and his family. She was admitted to hospital as she was suffering from low blood sugar and loss of appetite. She passed away on 31 January 2004, aged 75.

Dev didn’t visit her while she was ill to avoid the media hoopla. “He wanted to maintain the sanctity of the relationship and not malign an ailing woman. He didn’t attend her funeral for the same reason,” said close associate Mohan Churiwala.

Journalist Ali Peter John reportedly revealed that Dev was visibly upset when Suraiya passed away. “Dev said, ‘What happened between her and me was a matter between two souls in love, I will never make it a public issue’,” said John.

Tabassum, who worked with Suraiya in Bari Behen and Moti Mahal revealed later, “It’s sad that Suraiya had shut her doors to the world in her last days. Sometimes when I visited her, I’d find papers and milk collected at her door. She never opened the door... I remember our last conversation. I asked her, ‘Aapa kaisi hain?’ She replied, ‘Kaisi guzar rahi hai sabhi poochte hai mujhse, kaise guzaarti hoon koi nahin poochta’!”

Dev always spoke of Suraiya with respect. “I liked her at one point, call it calf love or whatever. And I did not model myself after Gregory Peck for her. I superseded Gregory Peck long ago.. Suraiya was an established star but had no airs about her. I was passionately in love with her… It was my first love and very intense," he was quoted saying.

A superstar once, Suraiya possessed several properties in Worli, Mumbai and Lonavala. After her death, Suraiya’s property at Worli and her house at Marine Drive reportedly went into legal dispute, as she did not leave behind an explicit will.

However, what one cannot ignore is the irony that someone blessed with an abundance of fame and wealth, died emotionally bankrupt.

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