Almost two decades after her death, 93 years to her birthday (September 21, 1926), Noorjejan lives on in legacy. How can one forget her inimitable style; that makeup, that silk scarf around her neck, those songs and those TANTRUMS. Noorjehan was the definitive diva of the 40s. A mere child when filmmaker K.D. Mehra introduced her to the bustling studios of pre-independence Lahore, Noorjehan first claimed the spotlight when movie mogul Dalsukh Pancholi, cast her in his Khandaan (1942). Its success resulted in Noorjehan immigrating to Bombay, taking with her a brassy Punjabi ethos. Soon, this lark from Lahore had captivated the film capital with her shalwar kameezes and her vibrant voice.
Fortunately for her, the timing was right – the 40s belonged to the Muslim heroines. The uninhibited culture of the occidental Sulochana, Zubeida and Devika Rani was drawing to a close and a more conservative, oriental heroine was coming to the fore.
The colourful singing star reached her apotheosis with Mehboob Khan’s blockbuster, Anmol Ghadi (1946), where she tried every trick in the book to sabotage the second lead – emerging singing star, Suraiya. Noorjehan need not have bothered because the force and finesse with which she claimed as her own, the film’s best Naushad nuggets ‘Awaaz de kahan hai’, ‘Jawan hai muhabbat’ and ‘Mere bachpan k saathi’, immortalized her.
Along with Noorjehan and Suraiya, the third great singer to be coincidentally born in ’29 and to bloom in the 40s was Lata Mangeshkar. Lata has never made a secret of her admiration for Noorjehan. In fact, she was deeply influenced by Noorjehan in the early years. The two even worked together in Badi Maa in 1945, in which Noorjehan was the heroine while Lata played a smaller role. Though Noorjehan’s weighty voice was diametrically different than Lata’s thin vocals, it is a tribute to Noorjehan’s enduring appeal that, to date, music reviewers posit the question: ‘Would Lata have become such a major force had Noorjehan not left India?
In 1947, to the strains of her last hit, ‘Yahan badla wafaa ka bewafai ke siwa kia hai’ (Jugnu), Noorjehan migrated to Pakistan to a career that continued to be rich in melody as well as controversies. In 1959, pushing 40, she divorced her filmmaker husband, Shaukat Hussain Rizvi and married 25 years old Ejaz Hussain.
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. Everyone had a secret wish to hear her sing and when Dilip Kumar requested her to come on stage she said, ‘Aap logon ka mujh per utna hi haq hai jitna mere mulk walon ka’ (you have as much right on me as my countrymen) and then it happened. She sang ‘Awaz De Kahan Hai’ live; her voice had not lost the magic touch. Next morning the biggest Indian daily newspaper ran the words ‘And She Sang...’ as their headlines.
She may not be with us today, but her musical legacy stands tall with songs that mesmerised several generations of music lovers. Thanks to forums like Coke Studio and the age of remixes and covers that one gets to hear gems like ‘Chandni Ratein’ and ‘Mujh Se Pehli Si Mohabbat. Legend goes that she composed the tune of the latter on the spot without any musical instrument while Faiz dedicated that poem to her. Though Lata brought tears to Nehru’s eyes after the rendition of ‘Ae Mere Watan ke Logon’, it was Noorjehan’s ‘Ae Watan Ke Sajeele Jawaano’ that kept the spirit of our soldiers high.
All her life the Malika e Tarannum (Queen of Melody) had a lifestyle akin to her Malika-e-Hindustan (Queen of Hindustan) namesake. She became the go-to singer for Punjabi as well as Urdu compositions and remained her own competition. Her family is still in touch with different forms of art – acting, music and food to name a few. However, no one has been able to reach the level that was claimed by the unmatchable Noorjehan.
Years may have passed, style may have redefined, the film galaxy may have produced several other stars, but those who have seen her still believe that there was and there still is no one like her when it comes to stardom and style – stardom that never left her and style that she carried till her last breath.
– Sadiq Saleem is an Instep Correspondent in Dubai. He can be contacted at www.sidsaidso.com