India split into India and Pakistan and forced people to opt for one or the other. It affected all sectors including the film industry Singer-actress Noorjehan represented the generation that suffered the most After becoming immensely popular across the country in the 1930s and 1940s, she opted for Pakistan after the Partition.
But physical location of artists has often failed to divide them or their fan following. This was very true of Noorjehan. The magical quality of her voice continued to wield a charm on both the countries. Fans treated her as a common treasure and a symbol of shared tradition and values.
She was the most sensational singer-star of the Indian film industry of her time and was often called Mall,ka-e-Tarannum (the queen of melody). Even Lata Mangeshkar, referred to as the nightingale because of her melodious voice, was inspired by her.
She was born in Qasoor (Punjab) of undivided India in 1926. She perfected her classical singing under Ustad Ghulam Mohammed Khan and enthralled audience with her personality which was a rare blend of beauty, voice, acting and success. She passed away in Pakistan in 2000. Her first visit to India after Partition was in 1982, when she was welcomed with open arms by one and all including the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. She was also received by Dilip Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. The audience had got one more opportunity to hear her sing live Awaz De Kahan Hal... Her voice had not lost the magic touch.
The 10,000 songs she rendered in Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi and Sindhi acted as a vibrant link between both sides of the border reminding people of their glorious past.
Her first major hit was Khandaan In 1942, after which she married its director Shaukat Hussain Rizvi and shifted to Bombay (flow Mumbai). Soon followed other hits such as Duhai (1943), Naukar (1943), Nandan (1943), Dost (1944), Bad, Maa (1945), Gaon Ki Gori (1945) and Anmol Ghari (1946). In Jugnu in 1943 her lead actor was Dilip Kumar. In Z9enat (1945) she popularized Qawwali with songs such as Aahein Na Bhari Shikwein Na Kiye.
While her professional side was exemplary, there was turmoil in her personal life. She had a sense of flings, two divorces and many scandals. She was very possessive and thought she could hold people through emotions. Her failure to retain those she considered dear hurt her and left her heart-broken.
Aijaz Gul got his early education at Aitcheson and FC College, Lahore. He did his graduation and Masters in Cinema from University of Southern California, Los Angles, USA. He is a film critic and a prolific writer. A Collection of this article was published in the form of three books: Lights Camera Action (Urdu) in 1991, French Films (English) in 1991 and Dhundli Tasweer (Urdu) in 1992. He also contributed a chapter on Pakistani Films for a book on films from Asian countries published in Delhi in 2002. Aijaz has reviewed films on television. He is a member of Net-PAC (Network for the Promotion of Asian Cinema) and Fipresci (International Film Critics Association). He resides in Islamabad, Pakistan.
If one were to choose a timeless jewel of the Pakistani industry over the last 60 years, who has been famous yet infamous, popular but spited, rich yet greedy, benevolent but harsh, notorious yet royal, well-dressed but often overdone, it would be Noorjehan.
From 1926—2000 (her National Identity Card was found tampered with in the date of birth column), Noorjehan’s life was full of hullabaloo and theatrics. She never ever had a quiet moment in her life except in the last four years of her serious illness in Karachi.
Noorjehan was not a very good actress. It was her voice that supported and sustained her on screen from Gul Bakawli to Mirza Ghalib. She had a wild record of romancing. Her two marriages ended in messy divorces which included a lengthy and scandalized child-custody court battle with Shaukat Rizvi. There were reports that Noorjehan
was so determined to leave Shaukat that she had agreed to trade in her share in Shahnoor Studios for her daughter Huma. Even if one were to skip her infamous and notorious past in Kolkata, Mumbai and pre-Partition Lahore, one would be tempted to revert to her post-Independence famous affairs, which are now a part of film history. Decency and good taste prevent us from going into spicy and graphic details.
Noorjehan was a vivacious woman in every sense of the word. She was intelligent without being academic. She was stubborn and foulmouthed and never spared a producer or studio owner from her astronomical fee as a playback singer. Sometimes, she would demand cash for songs yet to be recorded. She would shower this money on her six children. The producers in most cases would go broke but Noorjehan would continue to give zakat to poor and the needy at her Liberty Chowk (round-about) Gulberg residence. She would observe Muharram with full dedication and read Majlis. She also made it a point to wear black on Muharram. As a mark of respect to her, Shahnoor Studios holds Muharram Majlis every year.
She was monopolistic and would not let any other singer, actress or composer stand in her way. She wanted total obedience from everyone she came across. Those who did not go by her command were considered outcasts. She recorded songs one after the other without giving any consideration to voice quality or being selective. She was not familiar with ‘less is more’. Once offended by a newspaper column of a producer-journalist, she yelled at him right at the studio, threatening that she would take off his trousers in front of everyone.
She was once invited by the Federal (Union) Secretary Culture in the early-nineties to participate in a music concert at London. She insisted on being provided two first-class tickets, one for herself and the other for her son Akbar (emphasizing that her son was too tall to adjust his legs in the economy class) and demanded a third class economy ticket for her domestic help who carried her vanity box. She remarked, “People grabbed land in murabbas (unit of land) from the government and this is the least I am asking: Mujhey to government sey seb ka murabba tak nahi mi/a (I didn’t even get apple jam from the government)”.
She had a brilliant voice, comparable only to Lata Mangeshkar, her contemporary in India. The list of her outstanding songs is long, and yet like Lata she added a plenty of mediocrities to film music by singing for B and C grade composers and lyricists in the same grade films. At times, Noorjehan went a step further and recorded more than five to six songs a day. She would remember lyrics by heart. Renowned singer Roshan Ara Begum no wonder described her as Siahi Choos (blotting paper). With the passage of time, in her later years, she re-wrote the lyrics with a thick black marker. No one ever saw her using eye-glasses.
Talking about her career, Noorjehan often said, “I am one of the few fortunate ones who were able to work with great music director’s right from my childhood. I was in a position to test their credentials again and again”. She said many times that she loved music more than anything else in her life and did not have enough time for acting. “I did not work in more than one or two films a year,” she said. And yet she made it big. It was her outstanding talent that made her immensely popular. Someone correctly remarked in her early years, “Jehangiri karegi yeh Noorjehan ban ke (She would rule the world like Jehangir).”
Writing a book on Noorjehan was difficult, but it was exciting. After all, she is the only person who has been so popular both in Indian and Pakistani films for over six decades. She is as much known in India as in Pakistan. Noorjehan said during a 1982 music concert in Mumbai, “I have been keeping this music in my possession as your amanat (custody). I have come back to return it to you after 35 long years.”
India’s cinestar Madhuri Dixit paid the most befitting tribute on her demise. She said: “Noorjehan had left us twice, once in 1947, when she left for Pakistan, and again today, when she left the world.”
Thousands of Noorjehan’s fans both in India and Pakistan strongly believe that Noorjehan would always be around with her rich melodies. Film director Mehboob Khan, composer Naushad Ali and lyricist Tanvir Naqvi who rated her high are no longer with us. Let us then call her back in her own melody ‘Awaz dey kahan har’.
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