DAWN The Review, 1997
Sometime back we read in an eveninger that Madame Noorjahan is under treatment for an illness in a Karachi hospital with uncalled for insinuations. When I later heard from reliable sources (such as the statement of the doctors of Aga Khan Hospital printed in Dawn) that the news was false and baseless, my first reaction was that the clarification was, frankly speaking, unnecessary.
Noorjahan is not a person. She is a legend. Her popularity and her stature refuses to fit into any concept of fame that we have had known in our part of the world. It redefines fame. It speaks of a fame that ‘age cannot wither, nor custom stale.’ Her insistent denial of the tabloid reports and her doctor’s supporting statements, to my mind, only proved her naiveté. Could she be so naïve as to really imagine that her popularity would decrease if a story like that is left without denial? How could a person like her – with fifty-eight years out of seventy-two of her total age spent in absolute fame and celebration – still care about what people would say about her? Frankly, I was disappointed: what, on earth, would be sufficient to liberate a human being from the fear of other people’s remarks if Noorjahan's fame and glamour, and her courage, were not sufficient for her to do so?
I have seen many actresses – of much calibre, of much fame and celebrity, but in none of them did I find such artificiality as I have seen in Noorjahan. She is ceremonious. Her smile, her laughter, her greeting, her condolence, are all artificial. I wonder where did she pick it up from.
What Manto described as artificiality actually turned out to be an asset in almost all her television appearances and interviews. Without being as profound as her co-starrer from Jugnu, she has nevertheless been able to maintain an intelligent and pleasant image throughout her career – something few other females from her vocation can boast of, fewer still if they also have the type of bad temper she has in her real life.
I probably saw her for the first time in Khandan (1940). Those days she was [called] "Baby" – even though she did not look anything like that on the screen. Her body had all those curves and figures that may be found in a young woman’s body and which she may display when need be.
Noorjahan for the cinegoers in those days was a fitna, a real heartthrob but I could not find any such thing in her. There only was her voice that was really overwhelming. If I have been impressed by anyone’s voice after Saigal it is Noorjahan’s … I thought if this girl desires she can find it possible to stay on a single note for hours – just as acrobats stay on a tight-rope without a flicker.
Those days only two voices were holding the sway: Saigal’s and Noorjahan's. Khurshid also reigned, and so did Shamshad. But all those other voices were drowned in the voice of Noorjahan.
Actually Baby Noorjahan had starred in other films before Khandan. Her song from Gul Bakawli (1939) had become quite a sensation: Shala jawanian manay. But it is true that the film that really brought her to the top, almost overnight, was the one that was Manto’s first acquaintance with the teenage siren. It was produced by Pancholi of Pancholi Studios (Lahore). The hero of that film was Pran krishna (yes, the same Pran you have watched playing villain in so many Indian movies). The music director was Master Ghulam Haider, who composed such Noorjahan hit as Tu kaun si badli mein, Hum aankh macholi kheilein gay and Meray liye jahan mein. The director was Shaukat Husain Rizvi, whom Manto remembered as a handsome young man with excellent dress sense and John Gilbert style moustaches.
Manto met him in Bombay, where Noorjahan also soon arrived.
Syed Shaukat Husain Rizvi reached Bombay. That same Shaukat whose very hot love affair with Noorjahan had taken place in Pancholi Studios (Lahore). It had even went to the court and, in order to save her skin, Noorjahan had submitted in the court that she had no illicit relation with Shaukat, and regarded him as her brother.
Well…, I told Shaukat that I have met Noorjahan. At that time I didn’t know about their affair, neither did I know that their relations are strained. I had just mentioned by the way that I had seen Noorjahan at the house of Nizami [a Bombay film connoisseur]. Putting his glass of Deer-brand liquor on the table he said rather harshly: ‘Damn her!’
Tongue-in-cheek, I said, ‘I can do that a thousand time but after all she has been a heroin of your Khandan.'
'Noorjahan! All this is rubbish. What you have said about Shaukat has not, by God, come from your heart. And what I hear from that wild ass Shaukat, by God, that too is a lie. Both of you love each other more than life but both of you are deceiving yourselves…’
Tears were floating in her eyes as I was saying to her: ‘This world cannot, if you forgive me for saying this, watch any one to be in love, but that shouldn’t mean that people stop falling in love…’
[The next four paragraphs had to be ommitted from The Review for obvious reasons:]
Noorjahan had learnt through me that Shaukat was living in the neighbourhood and that it would take only five hundred paces for her to reach him or for him to reach her. One morning… I knocked at [Rizvi’s] bedroom. There was no response. I knocked again with more force. I got back in a sleepy voice from Shaukat, ‘Who’s there?’ I replied, ‘Manto.’ Shaukat said, ’Wait a moment!’
I waited. The door opened after three minutes. Noorjahan was lying on the only bed in the room. I shouted as soon as I saw her, ‘Long live the revolution!’
Noorjahan's eyes were as if they had just been received from the laundry. I looked at Shaukat, he was a bit tired. I asked him, ‘So, Chittorgardh has been conquered?’ He smiled. His smile expressed contentment. He said, ‘Come, sit here.’ I sat down on the stool of a dressing table near their table and addressed Shaukat. ‘So, how did this lady get to come here?’
Shaukat looked triumphantly at Noorjahan, who was covering herself with a sheet in the bed. ‘Just tied with a cotton thread!’
[Shaukat had alluded to an Urdu proverb, implying that a cotton thread is enough to bind the lovers with each other if their love is true.]
Manto had understood their love to be true. That was why he had been so eagerly trying to bring about their union. But he had little idea that the union would ultimately take the form of a marriage …
Let me make it clear that I was much against their marriage. I think marrying an actress at all is a wrong idea. Both should live together, that’s all right. When they get fed up, they should take their separate paths. But Shaukat believed in holding title deeds, so that he may own the land alone for a lifetime.
After their marriage the Rizvi-Noorjahan team joined again to bring about such memorable films as Zeenat (1945) and Jugnu (1947). Meanwhile Noorjahan also took up other assignments such as the Gaon ki Gori (1945) with Nazeer (famous song: Yeh kaun hansa yeh kis nay sitaroan ko hansaya) and Anmol Ghadi (1946: famous song: Awaz day kahan hai).
Jugnu was a major breakthrough for two upcoming young men who were destined to rule over the Indian cinema for the rest of their lives. One of them was Yousuf Khan from Peshawar who had already proved his talent in a few other movies under the pseudonym of Dilip Kumar. This was the one film that made him memorable and also, quite wrongly, marked him as ‘the King of Tragedy’ until he proved with Aan (1956) that his kingdom actually stretches far beyond.
The other one was an almost total newcomer. He had been trying his luck as a singer but little had he imagined that he would be paired with such a celebrity like Noorjahan so soon in his career. Consequently he was very nervous when the maestro Feroz Nizami called him to join the Madame in a duet: ‘Yahan badla wafa ka bewafai kay siwa kiya hai.’ The duet became successful and there was no looking back for Muhammad Rafi.
Noorjahan was the only actress who opted for Pakistan at the peak of her glory. Shaukat also had the assurance of a career that could not have been anything but sure success in India. They both came back to renovate the burnt down Shorey Studio at Lahore, which they aptly re-named Shahnoor – after Syed Shaukat had fixed down every nail that had to be fixed in that studio with his own hands.
The first Noorjahan-starrer that came out in this phase of their lives was Chan Way (1951). This was a Punjabi venture, a language that Rizvi did not understand. He therefore gave his wife the credit for direction and she became, officially, the first woman director of the country. The music director was, once again, Feroz Nizami. The song that took the entire nation like a blaze was Teray mukhray tay kala kala til way …
Today, Noorjahan’s voice no longer possesses that mellow effect, that softness, that childish character, that innocence that was once the unique characteristic of her throat but still Noorjahan is Noorjahan. Even though the voice of Lata Mangeshkar has cast a spell everywhere yet no one can turn a deaf ear whenever the Noorjahan’s voice is heard anywhere.
What seemed to Manto to be a slide down in the early fifties was actually just the beginning of the real Noorjahan. The childish quality of her voice was a feature that could not have lasted forever. Her command over the notes of music was the thing that were to last forever and remain unsurpassed.
In all she acted in 13 Pakistani films. The complete list (with some of the famous songs) follows: Chan Way (Punjabi; 1951), Dopatta (1952; Chandni ratein), Gulnar(1953), Patay Khan(Punjabi; 1955), Lakht-e-Jigar(1956; Chanda ki nagri say aa ja), Intezar(1956; Jiss din say piya dil lay gaye), Nooran (1957), Chhoo Mantar (Punjabi; 1958), Anarkali(1958; Jaltay hain arman), Perdais (1959), Neend (1959; Teray der per), Koel(1959; Mehki havain), Ghalib(1961; Muddat hui hai yar ko mehman kiye huay). Of all these films only Chan Way and Gulnar were produced by Shaukat Husain Rizvi.
Sometimes when I imagine her domestic life with Shaukat I feel as if that too is artificial but, thank God, that is not the case…
Rumours abound around her. Some of those may possibly be true but what I do know is that she is the mother to two lovely kids who are receiving education in the pure and clean atmosphere of Chiefs’ College. She loves them.
Well, there was at least one rumour in the mid-50’s that became too plausible even for her husband to reject it. And that was about the broken leg of the Pakistani batsman Nazar Muhammad, who had allegedly jumped out of Rizvi’s house in order to avoid discovery. That was the end of Nazar’s career and Noorjahan's first marriage.
Even then, when Shaukat came out with his next venture, Jan-e-Bahar (1958), he could not resist asking his ex-wife to do something she had never done before: lending her voice only as a playback singer.
Noorjahan still had three more years to go as a top-notch heroine. Throughout her acting career she would remain a symbol of boldness and sexual provocation in the Indo-Pakistani cinema. Manto remembered how she embarrassed many onlookers by coming out for the shooting of one of her films wearing a shalwar kameez of net-cloth. He also loathed in more than one articles how she made her bust rather too prominent in films she did Chan Way onwards.
In a recent interview with this writer the actress-director Samina Peerzada mentioned Noorjahan as an example of sensuality without vulgarity. "Remember that dance sequence on Mehki havain from Koel? Noorjahan’s bossom was kept out of focus and she managed to bring out her sensuousness through very small steps of dance and much controlled movements. There was no heaving and wriggling at all, and yet there was a superb representation of female sensuousness."
She married twice after Syed Shaukat Husain Rizvi. One of her lucky husbands was Ejaz Durrani. She had two daughters from him, one of whom has only recently given vent to her own passion for singing. Noorjahan was once asked (that was 1983) why didn’t she encourage her children to set themselves up in the showbiz. She replied with one of her characteristic (Manto would have said artificial) decent smiles, ‘We are ourselves ‘upset’ even after having got ‘set up’ in this fields, how could have we directed our children towards the same thing?’
Few people know about Noorjahan that she is as well-versed in the knowledge of the ragas as any classical master could be. She sings thumri, she sings khayal, she sings dhurpad, and she sings as singing could be. The learning in music came naturally to her since she was born in a family that had it in its atmosphere. But there is something that is God-gifted … Noorjahan had the knowledge as well as that Gift of God that is called a throat. The combination of these two is destined to be fatal…
I have often noticed that people who have a gift do not take proper care of it. Rather, they try - consciously or unconsciously – to destroy their gift. Liquor is extremely harmful for throat but the late Saigal remained an alcoholic all his life. Sour and oily food is death for a good throat – who doesn’t know that? And yet Noorjahan eats pickle by quarters of seers and the interesting thing is that whenever she has a film song to record she would eat a quarter seer of pickle quite ritualistically, then wash it down with ice-cool water, then reach over to the microphone. She says that her voice is enlivened this way.
Noorjahan bade farewell to acting after 1961. Her pride was too high, and quite rightly so, to accept anything less than the most important role in the film.
That was just the end of the beginning. The middle phase of her career was the phase of her greatest output: the best of her songs were yet to come. Her voice took on a new expressiveness that had never been there before. So far she had been known for her mastery and melody. But the queen of expression had been Zubeda Khanum. Now Noorjahan usurped that throne as well. It is possible that as far as she was singing for her own roles she had been counting on her screen presence as well: only half of the expression had to come through her voice, the other half could have always come through her acting. Now the acting part wasn’t there for Noorjahan and all she had been left with was the song. She had to prove all her worth through that medium alone. And that she did. Recall, for instance how an atmosphere of joy is created with the absolutely pleasing mood of her voice in Na chhura sako gay daman (Daman; 1963) or one of ultimate gloom and despair with the sad version of the same song?
It is true that her voice got increasingly heavier with age but it has never went out of tune. Nor has she ever lost the characteristic liveliness of her pitch. The music directors of the 70’s found newer uses of the heavier quality of her voice: ‘to fill up the cinema hall,’ as Nisar Bazmi puts it.
For the sheer magic of expression, her songs for the morale boosting campaign during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 almost consist of a genre in themselves.
For the Punjabi cinema of the repressive 1980’s Noorjahan’s loud notes were a symbol of expression, a means for catharsis.
Since 1996 she has almost stopped recording new songs partially due to failing health and partially due to the newer trends in music which she finds too much to bear with – and partially because the handsome amount she demands is no longer feasible to the producers in our industry.
With a career unmatched in success by any rival and a life full of colours of all shades she is definitely the subject of a biography. It was heard some time back that Fatima Suraiya Bajiya had taken up the idea. It is only a pity that Madame did not agree to co-operate. Which raises, once again, the question: does Noorjahan still has to think what others would say about her?