Noor Jehan (1926-2000)
The after-dinner chat threw up myriad memories. Huma suddenly made a remark, “I think no Subcontinental figure will ever be able to lead a life like her’s.” She then looked at us as if daring us to disagree, but of course we knew that that indeed was the case. With her passing, the Melody Queen has deprived us of a talented and flamboyant star who was one of the few iconic links to pre-Partition South Asia.
While she had a religious following among the older generation of South Asians everywhere, I have often wondered why Noor Jehan held such a hold over the populace of Pakistan. True, she gave us beautiful numbers, but this doesn’t explain the volume of tears that flowed on the day of her passing in the holy month of Ramadan, on 24 December 2000. It must have had to do with the persona she exuded, one that was fiercely patriotic. The day the India-Pakistan war broke out on 6 September 1965, the singer defied a curfew and drove alone to record her “Mere Dhool Sipahiya”—a beseechingly patriotic number.
When PTV ran “Tributes to Madam Noor Jehan”, the producers were paying as much of a homage to the soulful voice as they were to the woman who was one of the pioneers of Pakistan’s film industry. Noor Jehan was born Allah Wasai in 1926 at Ferozepur in undivided India. It was her mother who believed that her daughter had something exceptional to give to the world, which is what gave birth to a career beginning at age seven.
Ferozepur seemed no place for a budding star, so in 1930 the mother shepherded the entire family into Calcutta. The only notable milestone of those years in Calcutta was that Allah Wasai got her legendary name—Noor Jehan (then called ‘Baby’ Noor Jehan). Though the touring drama company that Noor Jehan joined in the city was doing decently enough, her mother was not satisfied, and so in 1937 it was off to Lahore to try their luck.
In Lahore, Noor Jehan met the man who changed her life. Film producer Dilsukh M. Pakoli roped her in as the leading lady in Khandaan, the movie that became the biggest grosser of 1941. This success opened all doors, and soon Noor Jehan was churning out money-spinners like Naukar, Village Girl and Zeenat. Khandaan also gave Noor Jehan her first romantic obsession, the director Shaukat Hussain Rizvi. The marriage took place soon enough, and the couple was to weave a professional chemistry that had people rushing to the turnstiles. It was while in Lahore that Noor Jehan recorded hits like “Naacho Sitare Naacho” and “Kisi Tarah Se Mohabbat Mein”. It was in Lahore that she provided the public with some glimpses of the singing sensation of tomorrow.
During Partition, the husband-and-wife team decided to opt for Pakistan. It was an excruciating decision, and many thought that it could only spell doom for Noor Jehan’s career. It did not happen. In the studio set up by Rizvi, Noor Jehan acted and sang in Chann Wey, which ran to full houses in both India and Pakistan. This was Noor Jehan’s first appearance in a Punjabi film as a heroine. The success was soon repeated in Duputta, Anarkali and Intezar.
Even as her career achieved new heights, Noor Jehan fell out of love with Rizvi. She had fallen for actor Ejaz Durrani, but the marriage that followed had a rider to it. Durrani wanted his lover to quit acting, a demand to which she acceded. Rather than marring her career, this decision actually enabled her to excel in what she was best at. As a film star, Noor Jehan had not had the time to devote to singing, and a film career would hardly have allowed her to render the 3000-odd songs that places her among the world’s singing greats.
Noor Jehan was born in undivided India, and she died a Pakistani. As many old artistes like her fade away, it is important to remember the particular gracious ease with which they managed to retain devotion of the masses across time and space. Noor Jehan died a Pakistani, but it was a whole Subcontinent that was the poorer for her passing.