Remembering Noor Jehan, Malika-e-Tarannum, On her 20th death anniversary

Today, we are celebrating 20th death anniversary of The Legend Noor Jehan. She was died in 2000 at the same date.

From her real names were Allah Wasai and Allah Rakhi,  Baby Noor Jehan, to Madam Noor Jehan, and then eventually earning the title of Malika-e-Tarannum. The journey began much before Partition.

She was born in Kasur, Punjab on September 21, 1926. When she was barely five years old, her mother noticed her interest and potential for singing. Noor Jehan was sent for classical training to the best Ustad there was

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. After her training was over she began singing in Lahore — usually in the live song-and-dance performances prior to film screenings. She then moved to Calcutta along with her family to join the film industry. It was at this stage that she came to be known as “Baby” Noor Jehan. She acted in several Punjabi films, all made in Calcutta. Her first ever punjabi film was Yamla Jatt.

She then moved back to Lahore in 1938. The renowned music director Master Ghulam Haider composed some songs for her which became popular. Her first film role as an adult was opposite Pran in Khandaan (1942). Its success led to her shifting base to Bombay with her future husband, director Shaukat Hussain Rizvi (whom she would marry in 1943). From 1945 to 1947, she became one of the biggest film actresses with films like Badi Maa (1945), Zeenat (1945), Gaon Ki Gori (1945), Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Jugnu (1947).

She put her classical training to full effect, infusing her singing with emotional modulations and lyrical expressions. Her competitors, Suraiya and others stood no chance.

Anmol Ghadi was directed by Mehboob Khan starring Surendra, Suraiya and Noor Jehan. The film was tailor made for singing stars, and Noor Jehan exploited this fully. The film was a musical hit and still remembered for its music by Naushad, with hits like Aawaaz De Kahaan Hai, Jawaan Hai Mohabbat Haseen Hai Zamana and Mere Bachpan Ke Saathi Mujhe Bhool Na Jaana. The film became the highest-grossing film at the Indian box office in 1946.

Aawaaz De Kahaan Hai is inextricably linked to Noor Jehan’s brief tenure in India and defines her musically in the Indian consciousness. When she visited Bombay in 1982, she sang this song. She was royalty when she left; she was royalty when she came back 35 years later. The introduction she received from Dilip Kumar, the adulation she received from her fans, stood testimony to it.

After Partition, Noor Jehan moved to Pakistan. Her first film here was Chan Wey (1951) which was directed by her husband. Then one film came after another.

One film deserves mention Koel (1959) for its outstanding songs. The film is regarded as one of the all-time great films to come out of Pakistan and was a huge success at the box office. Koel was also Noor Jehan’s last big, successful film as an actress and her last but one film as a leading lady. One standout song was Dil Ka Diya Jalaya. The timbre and control with which Noor Jehan essayed the song was simply amazing. There were other great solos too by her in the film.

Lata Mangeshkar reportedly commented that Noor Jehan’s vocal range allowed her to sing as low and as high as she wanted, the quality of her voice always remaining the same.

Noor Jehan divorced Shaukat Rizvi and married Ejaz Durrani, a film actor, in 1959. He pressured her to give up acting. Her last film as an actress/singer was Mirza Ghalib (1961). Thereafter, it was only to be playback singing. Three decades of acting finally came to an end.

And what a start she got. Legendary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s nazm Mujhe Se Pehli Si Mohabbat Mere Mehboob Na Maang appeared as a song in the film Qaidi (1962).

Noor Jehan composed and sang the song in the film. Reportedly, she composed it spontaneously in a gathering that was celebrating Faiz’s release from prison (where he was sent for his Communist views). Everyone including Faiz liked it so much that Faiz remarked, “Aaj se yeh nazm meri nahin rahi, Noor Jehan ki ho gayi hai.” Seven years later, this nazm would inspire Majrooh Sultanpuri’s Teri Aankhon Ke Siwa in the film Chirag (1969).

Noor Jehan was the first female star of Indian cinema and laid the foundation of playback singing. She inspired a generation of singers including Lata Mangeshkar, before singlehandedly kick-starting music in Pakistan and inspiring subsequent generations there.

She died 20 years ago, on December 23, 2000. Her larger-than-life persona remains intact. Between India and Pakistan, she was a shared heritage who shall always be loved and revered. And even though she may not hear our “awaaz”, her duniya of a formidable legacy will always remain “jawaan”.