Noor Jehan – Mallika-e-Tarranum
Childhood and stage career
From an early age, she displayed signs of having a melodious voice, which became more apparent by thetime she was four or five years old. She could pick up just about anything – be it a folk song or a popular number from a theatrical drama – she could imitate it to perfection. Realizing her immense talent, her mother began to believe that her daughter had something exceptional to give to the world. So, her mother arranged for her to begin her training in singing and dancing alongside her elder sisters, Eidan Bai and Haider Baandi.
She received early music lessons under Kajjanbai (a singer between 1920 and 1930) who made her do "riyaz" up to 12 hours a day. After her morning "riyaz", a teacher would come to help her learn to read and write. She received early training in classical singing under Ustad Ghulam Mohammed who instructed her in classical music and voice production within the framework of classical forms of thumri, dhrupad, and khayal. In around 1930, she won a part in a silent feature film called Hind ke Tare (1930) made by Indian Pictures, Calcutta. Thereafter, the family moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) where she made 11 silent films in 1931, launching herself as a top child star during the 1930s in both silent and soon sound films and where her elder sisters, Eidan Bai and Haider Baandi began their stage careers.
Her first talkie feature film was Sassi Punnu, released in 1932. She joined Kohinoor United Artists and appeared in some of their films. Later, she was employed by Seven United Artists and played the lead in some of their films opposite Khalil. She took up singing at six years of age and started making stage appearances with her elder sisters for rural theatre companies called the Taka Theatre. Later, she joined Sharda Film Co. and has played important roles in several of their films. She did not sing original songs but the famous hits of the day. She went to Lahore with her sisters and took part in zinda nach gana (live song and dance) which usually preceded the actual film show. She was only nine years old when the great Punjabi musician, G. A. Chisti introduced her to the stage in Lahore.
He composed some ghazals, naats and some folksongs for her and she got 7 1/2 annas for each song. She also received some classical music lessons under Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. During their stay in Calcutta, Mukhtar Begum, the sisters' ideal and a famous singing star in the 1930s, encouraged the three sisters and recommended them various producers. She also recommended them to her husband, Urdu drama writer, Agha Hashar Kashmiri (1879-1935)'s Maidan Theatre, where she got the stage name Baby Noor Jehan. In later life, Noor Jehan adopted Mukhtar Begum's style of performing and wearing of a sari. The sisters got permanent jobs with one of the Seth Sukh Karnani Companies, Indira Movietone. Their popularity grew as they became known as Punjab Mail.
Career as a singer/childstar in Pre-Partition India
At this time, director K.D. Mehra, was in the process of making a Punjabi film, and persuaded his producer to cast the three in Pind Di Kudhi (1935). At this time, Baby Noor Jehan was beginning to be known as a singer/actress of some merit. In this film, Baby Noor Jehan sang and recorded her first film song which was Lang Aaja Pattan, Channa Da Yaar. She next acted in a film called Missar Ka Sitara (1936) by the same company and sang in it for music composer Damodar Sharma. Baby Noor Jehan also played the child role of Heer in the film Heer Sayyal (1937). The role of Heer in this film was played by Balo, mother of famous Pakistani actress Sabiha Khanum. After three years in Calcutta, back in Lahore in 1938, it was Master Ghulam Haider who spotted her immense talent as a singer and composed songs that made her famous overnight. Baby Noor Jehan hit the nationwide with Gul Bakavli (1939) for renowned Bombay producer Dalsukh M. Pancholi where she recorded her first hit film songs, Shala Jawaniyan Mane and Pinjray De Vich. Baby Noor Jehan's first box office hit was the Punjabi film Yamla Jat (1940). M. Ismail played the title role and it was one of his best roles. M. Ajmal got his first significant role in this musical film. Chaudhry (1941), though not as successful as Yamla Jat, followed. Revolutionary musician Master Ghulam Haider introduced Baby Noor Jehan as a playback singer in Pancholi Art Productions' film Khazanchi (1941). It was the first film which was without actress Noor Jehan on screen and her songs were picturised on other actresses.
Baby Noor Jehan's appeal changed from a child struggling to play bit roles into a young woman with immense potential ready to take off and launch her singing and acting career. When it was decided to cast her as a heroine the basic problem with the producer and director was how to erase the impression of her being a child in public perception. They feared that she would not be accepted as a heroine by the audience that had billed her a few years of being a child star. The first step was to remove the "Baby" prefix from her name, and though she was young, she was burly and appeared older than her age. Her image on screen posed no problems to the director, and so was born Noor Jehan, set to enter the adult world, barely in her mid-teens.
Career as a singer/actress in Pre-Partition India
Noor Jehan was first cast as a heroine in the Urdu film Khandaan (1942) opposite Pran (who later became one of India's most popular villains) as the hero. The film was also a debut for director Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi. Pancholi had recently involved Rizvi in the editing of Gul Bakavli (1939), Yamla Jat (1940), and Chaudhry (1941). The songs of Khandaan (1942), composed by Ghulam Haider became instant hits and established her as one of the four leading singers of films in India (the other three being Kanan Devi, Shanta Apte and Khursheed)
Khandaan's success saw her migrating to Bombay, where she shared melodies with the singing star Shanta Apte in Duhai (1943). After that, there was hit after hit with songs from Naukar (1943), Nadan (1943), Dost (1944) and Lal Haveli (1944). By now her popularity outsripped all others. She was the darling of masses, recognized and adored both for her singing and acting. After taking the leading role in Nadan (1943), she was presented with second lead in Naukar (1943), while Shobhana Samarth took the lead opposite Chandramohan. Dost (1944), directed by Rizvi, had the extremely gifted Motilal as the leading man opposite Noor Jehan with Rizvi playing her brother. It was in this film that Noor Jehan lent her voice for the second time, to another actress named Husn Bano. It was in Lal Haveli (1944) that Noor Jehan starred opposite singing star Surendra (they later made Anmol Ghadi (1946) together). Lal Haveli was also noted for the fact that Meena Kumari then a child star, played Noor Jehan's role as a child.
The year 1945 was a turning point for Noor Jehan. In Master Vinayak's Badi Maa (1945), she played lead with "Baby Lata Mangeshkar" and "Baby Asha Mangeshkar" in supporting roles. During breaks in shooting, she would ask the then unknown Lata to join in, in impromptu singing sessions. Once at leisure, after having Lata sing a song she had immortalised, Mere Liya Jahan Me from Khandaan (1942), Noor Jehan said to Master Vinayak, the director of the film, Meri baat note kar leejiye. Iss ki yeh alag tarike ki aawaz ek din poori duniya se apna loha manvaayegi. Noor Jehan's influence on the early songs of Lata are still discernible. Lata has always respected Noor Jehan and considers her one of her favourite singers. In fact, Lata (Noor Jehan's dearest "Latto")'s early singing was inspired by Noor Jehan, though the latter's weighty vocals were far car from Lata's sweeter and lighter voice. The year 1945 also brought Noor Jehan her first superhit in Bombay, Zeenat (1945). It was her inimitable rendition of the music that gained her the title Mallika-e-Tarranum or Queen of Melody. She dethroned reigning singing star Khursheed and rendered the obsolete nautch girl style of Zohrabai Ambalewali and Amirbai Karnataki. She also achieved another milestone, when she sung a Qawwali with Zohrabai Ambalewali and Amirbai Karnataki which was "Aahen Na Bhareen Shikave Na Kiye" – the first ever Qawwali recorded in female voices in subcontinent films.
In 1946, Noor Jehan acted in the enduring classic Anmol Ghadi (1946). The title was a fitting description of the magical moments in this film with superhit songs composed by Naushad making her the undisputed queen of films if there was any doubt left about her being a diva. Composers and lyricists vied to have their creations rendered by Noor Jehan. In the film Anmol Ghadi (1946), she played a poetess named Lata (going by the name Renu) caught in a love triangle, featuring the other two singing stars of the era, Surendra and Suraiya. So popular was the film that Noor Jehan's other three films released that year, Dil (1946), Humjoli (1946), and Sofia (1946) were pale in comparison. In Jugnu (1947), she starred with the then rising star Dilip Kumar. The music of the film catapulted the then struggling Mohammed Rafi. Noor Jehan had very few duets as her voice did not require the support and enhancement of others. Her effortless emotive capabilities and fluid grasp over the substance and essence of the lyrics is amazing, even to this day. Noor Jehan's last film in India was Mirza Sahibaan (1947) which starred Prithviraj Kapoor's brother Trilok Kapoor opposite Noor Jehan and the film brought some of her last musical hits.
Noor Jehan sang 127 songs in Indian films and the number of talking films she made from 1932 to 1947 was 69. The number of silents was 12. Fifty-five of her films were made in Bombay, eight in Calcutta, five in Lahore and one in Rangoon, Burma.
Career as a singer/actress in Pakistan
The Partition of India was the partition of the film industry. During the partition in 1947, Noor Jehan decided to migrate to Lahore in newly created Pakistan, despite Bombay being the real centre of show business. What was then the heartbeat of India was that Noor Jehan became Pakistani. This must have been a momentous decision for her. She was undoubtedly at the height of her career both as an actress and a singer and she did not forsee any competition of any kind in the near future. The reason she opted to go to Pakistan was because she loved her hometown, Kasur and wanted to be in the country of her hometown. Dilip Kumar told her to stay in India but she said to him Jahan paida hui thi wahan hi jaoon gi (I will go back to the place I was born). Her husband, Syed Shaukat Hussain Rizvi, did not hail from that part of the subcontinent. He was from Uttar Pradesh and there was no compulsion to shift to Lahore.
Many of the Muslim performers who were struggling then to make a place for themselves did not opt for Pakistan and stayed behind in Bombay as it was the real centre for film-making. Many of them flourished in later years and earned the kind of money and fame that would not have been possible in the new country. Movement in the opposite direction was led by Dalsukh Pancholi who had to abandon his beloved Lahore and move to Bombay. Noor Jehan was not a struggling artiste who found her rise to the top blocked by popular stars.
She had found her place at the top. She needn't have come to Pakistan. She could have stayed in India and enjoyed her reign at the top. Yet she opted to come to Pakistan along with her husband to set up Shahnoor Studios in the outskirts of Lahore on the vandalised remains of Shorey Studios. This can only be attributed to her commitment to the new country. After the holocaust of the partition as things settled down, the film industry in Pakistan picked up pieces and made use of whatever was available. With the splitting of India in two, the labour force, many technicians, music directors, actors, and actresses either stayed in India or shifted to Pakistan. The richness and variety of music directors in Bombay could not be matched with the Punjabi dominating directors of Lahore and this was sorely felt as a limiting factor in the growth of the film music in the early years of the country. It also limited the richness and variety for Noor Jehan to exploit. Being a singer of great creative ability, she made a virtue of her limitation and began exploring different styles.
Three years after settling in Pakistan, Noor Jehan starred in her first film in Pakistan, Chanwey (1951), opposite Santosh Kumar, which was also her first Punjabi film as a heroine. Shaukat and Noor Jehan directed this film together making Noor Jehan Pakistan's first female director. The film was a runaway hit. Most of the songs rendered by Noor Jehan and composed by Feroze Nizami became instant hits, not only in Pakistan but also in India. The film itself ran to packed houses in major cities in East Punjab, proving that Noor Jehan was still loved by millions of cinegoers and listeners of film music on both sides of the border. Indeed, the three year gap in her career did not make a dent whatsoever in her popularity. Noor Jehan's second film in Pakistan was Dopatta (1952) which turned out to be an even bigger success than Chanwey (1951). Such was the popularity of musical score that no song based programme on Radio Pakistan, All India Radio or the newly introduced Hindi Service of Radio Ceylon, seemed complete without 1 or 2 of the film's numbers. In 1953 another Rizvi produced film, Gulnar (1953), directed by Imtiaz Ali Taj, though a well made film, proved to be grosser at the box office. However, its songs, penned by Qateel Shifai and composed by Ghulam Haider were highly appreciated by music connoisseurs.
After a years break, Noor Jehan returned with another Punjabi film, Patey Khan (1955) opposite Aslam Pervez, which was another hit. Composer Akhtar Hussain scored some of his finest compositions of his career, all faultlessly rendered by Noor Jehan. In fact, Indian music director O.P. Nayyar was so moved when he heard "Kali Kali Jaan Dukh" that it brought tears to his eyes and he insisted on hearing it again and again. Two films released in 1956 with Santosh in the main lead. One was Lakht-e-Jigar (1956). The film faired below average at the box office but the film's music is considered to be the best of composer G.A. Chisti's long and illustrious career. Composing for a Noor Jehan starrer for the first time, Chisti nonetheless managed to come up with one of the most captivating tunes he ever scored. Noor Jehan immortalised Chisti's compositions. The second Noor Jehan starrer of 1956, was undoubtedly one of the most significant musicals in the Pakistani film industry. Directed by Masud Pervez, Intezar (1956), had music composed by Khwaja Khurshid Anwar who made his first release in this film after he came to Pakistan in the early 1950s. This film was also the first time Noor Jehan worked with the musical giant and what a combination that was to be. Almost every song he composed for her and she rendered became a rage. Lata Mangeshkar, while recording an interview for the Urdu Service of All India Radio in the 1970s, referred to Intezar (1956), as one of her favourite Pakistani musical hits. Small wonder then that Noor Jehan was given the first President's Award in 1957 for best actress and best singer.
Compared to 1956, the following year was much less eventful. The one release was Nooran (1957), another Punjabi film, with Sudhir playing the main lead. Though the film had some enchanting numbers, the film failed to click at the box office. The year 1958, brought Noor Jehan two superhits. The first was a Punjabi film, Choomantar (1958), with Aslam Pervez as the leading man, that had excellent songs rendered by Noor Jehan under the direction of Rafiq Ali. The next release was Anwar Kamal Pasha's Anarkali (1958) in which Noor Jehan played the title role opposite Sudhir who played Prince Salim. Despite the miscasting for both central roles, the film went on to be a jubilee hit solely on the popularity of Noor Jehan's songs composed by two music composers. Master Inayat Hussain, the original composer of the film, opted out of the film as the result disagreement with the director after the recording of just three songs. The task of composing the rest of the film's music was handed to Rashid Attre who composed some of the most memorable hits.
Her last films after 1958 were the musical hit Koel (1959), Pardaisan (1959), Neend (1959), Mirza Ghalib (1961), and Baaji (1963). In Koel (1959), a memorable hit is Mehaki Fizaayen (lyrics: Tanvir Naqvi). She struck new working relationships with Master Akhtar Hussain and Ustad Nazar Hussain, among others. Some of her most challenging and beautiful songs of her career as an actress/singer belong to the 1950s. In Neend (1959), she worked with music composer Rasheed Attre for the second time. Songs like Tere dar par sanam chalay aai, demonstrate how her voice had matured. Her daily riyaz and complete dedication to the music shone through. Her penultimate film as an actress/singer was Mirza Ghalib (1961). In this she sang the ghazals of Ghalib, the greatest Urdu poet. This proved to be a bridge between her past and her future. She had developed a love for poetry and now started recording works of leading Urdu poets, classical and contemporary. This contributed to the strengthening of her iconic stature. She gained another audience for herself. Her rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz's Mujshe pehli si mohabbat mere mehboob na maang is a unique example of tarranum, reciting poetry as a song. Noor Jehan last starred in Baaji in 1963, though not in a leading role. She was shown sitting and enjoying the dance in the song – Sajan Laagi Tori Lagan Man Maa, sung by Farida Khanum. She was still looking her usual gorgeus youthful self. Noor Jehan bade farewell to acting in 1963 after a career of 33 years (1930 to 1963). The pressure of being a mother of six children and the demanding wife of a hero (Ejaz Durrani) forced her to give up her career. Noor Jehan made 14 films in Pakistan, ten in Urdu, four in Punjabi.
Career as a playback singer
After she quit acting she took up playback singing. She made her debut as a playback singer in 1960 with the film Salma. Her first initial playback for a Pakistani film was for Jan-e-Bahar (1958), in which she sung the song Kaisa Naseeb Layi Thi, picturised on Musarrat Nazir. She was soon the most famous playback singer through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. She also made albums and even though she wasn't acting, she was still a hit. She received many awards, including with the highest Pakistani honour in entertainment, Tamgha-e-Imtiaz (The Pride of Performance) in 1966, Pakistan's top civil award and countless cultural awards.
In the 1960s, she sang for heroines such as Sabiha Khanum (Mauseeqar (1962), Daman (1963) and Pak Daman (1969). Long after Sabiha retired, Madam Noor Jehan as still singing for debutante heroines such as Neeli and Reema until the 1990s. For this very reason, Sabiha affectionately called her Sadabahar (evergreen). During the 1960s, Noor Jehan's voice was seen evolving. It sounded mature and matched well with the sober performances of heroines such as Shamim Ara. Year after year, they stood side by side on stage. Winning smiles on their faces, shining Nigar Awards in their hands. 1966 – Aaj Ka Darya, 1967 – Lakhon Me Ek, 1969 – Salgirah, Shamim Ara – best actress, Madam Noor Jehan – best singer.
In the 1970s, she sang for Shabnum in Dosti (1971), and the film is still remembered today for Noor Jehan's memorable songs echoing in the picturesque Kaghan Valley. Dosti was followed by Rani's Anjuman (1970), Umrao Jaan Ada (1972) and Naag Mani (1972). This was the time when Noor Jehan gained weight and her voice started showing signs of fatigue, due to overuse in Punjabi songs, which had to be sung in a higher pitch. Composers like Nisar Bazmi started looking for younger voices such as Runa Laila and later, Naheed Akhtar. Yet, only Noor Jehan could bring to life the agony of a dancing Rani in Umrao Jaan Ada – dressed in black and dancing to set herself free of the binding chains of her ankle-bells in Jo Bacha Tha, Woh Lutane Ke Liye.
In the 1980s, the production of Urdu films declined. Noor Jehan's rejuvenated vocals made all the dancing mutyars of Punjabi cinema, dance their hearts out to her tunes from Anjuman (Sher Khan (1981)), to Neeli (Kale Chor (1991)) to Saima (Sakhi Badshah (1996). Not even the impish Babra Sharif was to be left out (Mukhra (1988)). Rasheed Attre composed the tune of her ever-famous Gayegi Duniya, Geet Mere for Mauseeqar (1962)'s village singer Sabiha. Rasheed's son, Wajahat Attre, composed fast-paced Punjabi songs for her all through the 1980s and 1990s. She sang them in equal panache.
Her popularity was further boosted with her patriotic songs during the 1965 War between Pakistan and India. No one asked her to sing. She herself phoned Radio Pakistan one morning and said that she wanted to go and sing. They did not believe it and just kept asking, "Is that Madam Noor Jehan?". They thought it was some kind of a hoax. Finally, she said, "You think I'm joking with all these bombs falling and these shells exploding?". She first had to get a pass to get out of the house because there was a curfew in the city. When she arrived, they were happy and excited. They kept saying, "It is really you". "Well you can see for yourself", she said. There were no musicians around but she said that didn't matter. She had taken four of her own, one of them was Mubarak, who played the santoor. She set the lyrics to music herself. Merya dhol sipahaya, Mera sonha sheher Kasur ni and Aai puttar hatan te nahin vikday were all her own compositions. It took her literally minutes to compose the tune for Aai puttar.
She was accompanied on the tabla by Sabir and the sarangi was played by Nizam sahib. The recording was done by Azam sahib and there was, of course, Sufi Ghulam Mustafa Tabassum who wrote the words. She used to load her musicians into her car and off they would go to the Mall where the recordings were done. Once, as her car moved into the studio, a shell fell, just killing the sentry that had just waved them in. It could have been her. She had three little girls at the time. They were all ill and there was nobody to take care of them. Hina, the eldest, took care of the younger ones even though she was a child herself. She used to cook for them at five in the morning and then be on her way. When the siren sounded, she would push them into the trench they had dug.
Her musicians used to tell her to get into the trench when their session was on and the siren sounded. She would tell them "If we have to go, let it be in front of the microphone, singing. Think of the boys who are out there fighting." When she sang Merya dhol sipahaya, it was not pre-recorded. She sang it straight into the microphone and it went live because the tape recorder was not working. It was a very poignant moment for her and she cried a lot. Then she sang. Hassan Latif, who was like a brother to her, helped her in those days. He said to her "You have done something beautiful". He gave her a lot of encouragement. He said she was like Umme Kulsum. She never forgot his words for they made a deep impression on her.
The diva revisited India in 1982 to attend a function celebrating the golden jubilee of the Indian Talkie. The Mallika-e-Tarranum, enthralled her fans on this side of the border with her evergreen voice. She was granted an audience by the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at New Dehli's magnificent Rashtrapati Bhawan and was received by Dilip Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar in Bombay. They had kept in touch through meetings at the Wagah Border (1951), London and New York. She performed live on stage for the show Mortal Men, Immortal Melodies. As she sang Anmol Ghadi (1946)'s Awaz De Kahan Hai, all grievances were forgotten and the performer and her audience wept together. That night, she achieved what no ambassador had ever achieved before. She returned home to give glittering performances for PTV's musical Tarranum.