There are many actresses and singers, but there is only one Suraiya. In the 1940s, she ruled over Hindi-language cinema and music, but behind the glitz and the glamor, Suraiya’s real life was even more dramatic and tragic than any of her movies.
Suraiya was born to become a celebrity, and everyone knew it. Not only did she have massive star quality, but her uncle was M Zahoor, one of the most popular Bollywood villain actors at the time. So no one was surprised when, at just seven years old, she made her screen debut in the 1936 film Madame Fashion. But bigger—and more disturbing—things were on the way.
When Suraiya was 12 years old, she visited her uncle on the set of his new film, Taj Mahal. From the moment she walked in, the director could sense the little girl on the sidelines had that "something". But what happened next was more than a little creepy: Instead of casting her in a bit part, the director gave her the massive role of Mumtaz Mahal, the Shah's most beloved wife.
It was very adult role for a 12-year old to play, but this insensitive treatment of Suraiya was only going to get worse.
Around this time, another of Suraiya's talents emerged: She had the voice of an angel. Sensing big bucks in using Suraiya as a "playback singer," someone who voices over the singing parts of other actresses in music scenes, Bollywood producers began lining up job after job for her—even though she wasn’t even tall enough to reach the microphone. This quickly had awful consequences.
By the mid 1940s, the still-teenaged Suraiya was one of the most beloved actresses and singers in the country, but it was already taking an enormous toll on her. She was so constantly absent from school that her principal tried to stop Suraiya's meteoric rise in Bollywood and get her butt in a classroom. It didn't work...because there were much more nefarious forces at play.
Like so many child stars before and after her, Suraiya’s family not only reaped the rewards from her fame, they also horrifically mistreated her in the process. Suraiya’s iron-fisted grandmother Badshah Begum controlled everyone in the family, her famous granddaughter included, and no one much cared if their gravy train went to school or not. But the truth was so much darker than people imagined.
When Suraiya appeared on screen, she looked the picture of happiness and health. So no one could have guessed that India’s brightest star wasn’t even allowed to wake up past 6:30 AM or eat rice, much less think of disobeying her grandmother. Yet even her tragic home life had nothing on the mess her career was quickly turning into.
As Suraiya became more and more famous, her fans' response was utterly chilling. Her admirers knew where she lived and would frequently sit outside her home. In particularly heightened periods, as happened after the release of her latest film Pyar Ki Jeet, they would turn into an unruly horde, terrifying Suraiya and forcing her to post guards outside her residence 24/7.
And then this obsession crossed an even bigger line.
The year Suraiya turned 20, she released Badi Behen to adoration from her fans. But when she attended the premiere, it turned into pandemonium. Even with guards chasing down the worst offenders, the frenzied crowd managed to corner Suraiya and tear at her clothes. Shaken, Suraiya refused to attend any of her film premiers ever again.
Bollywood was slowly chewing Suraiya up, and it was about to spit her out.
At the time Suraiya was on the scene, actor Dilip Kumar was one of the most prominent stars in Bollywood, earning the nicknames the "Tragedy King" and "The First Khan" for his potent brand of method acting. So when Kumar came to Suraiya and proposed they work together on a film, he expected her to fall over herself saying yes.
Instead Suraiya said "no thanks". The star's response was bone-chilling.
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Unfortunately for Suraiya, Dilip Kumar was a big enough deal that she eventually had to work with him one way or another, and she starred opposite him in Jaanwar in the early 1950s. From the very beginning, it was a nightmare: To get back at her for rejecting him, Kumar began treating her extremely roughly under the guise of "filming".
In one scene, the actor didn’t just rip her shirt, he seriously bruised her. It was so severe the marks took a month to fade...but Suraiya had no idea that more was coming.
Not content to physically hurt Suraiya, Kumar decided to psychologically torment her, too. With the help of the director, who was his friend, Kumar insisted on continually re-shooting a lurid scene where he sucks snake venom from Suraiya's leg. Burning with rage and embarrassment, Suraiya was at the end of her rope. Kumar's next actions shattered her patience.
Next, Kumar and the film's director suggested they film a kissing scene between the two leads. This might seem harmless enough for a romance film, but in the 1950s films were heavily censored, and Suraiya knew the kiss would end up on the cutting room floor anyway. There was no point...except to make her more uncomfortable.
It was the final straw, and Suraiya soon made a shocking decision.
After weeks of dealing with fragile male egos and having to endure Kumar's various and inventive torments, Suraiya took drastic measures. In a very unusual move, she quit Jaanwar entirely, refusing to work with Kumar for one second longer. They never replaced her, and the film is still incomplete.
Yet for all this drama with Dilip Kumar, Suraiya didn't always fight with her co-stars. In fact, one of them became the love of her life.
In 1948, Suraiya began work on the family drama film Vidya with the Hindu actor Dev Anand starring opposite her. Although he would come to mean everything to her, Suraiya may not have initially paid Anand much attention. She was, after all, a far bigger star at the time and undeniably the top-billed talent on set.
Then one day, everything changed.
During one song sequence in Vidya, Suraiya and Dev Anand were shooting in a boat, with the rest of the cast and crew standing some distance away to get the right shot. Suddenly, disaster struck. The boat capsized, and while the water was shallow, Suraiya had no idea how to swim and quickly began drowning right in front of everyone. Enter: her hero.
Just like a character in a film, Anand quickly realized what was happening to his co-star and dove in after her, saving Suraiya from serious injury or even death. Reportedly, after the accident Suraiya thanked Anand by saying, "If you hadn’t saved my life today, it would have ended”. His response? “‘If your life had ended so would have mine".
It all happened very fast from there.
With a meet-cute like that, is it any wonder that Suraiya and Anand fell head-over-heels into an affair with each other? Soon, they had treacly, inside-joke pet names—Suraiya was "Nosey" and Anand was "Steve"—and were spending all of their time together. It was all truly like something out of one of their movies...but it had more than a few plot twists coming up.
When people on set first began noticing that the top-billed Suraiya and the newcomer Dev Anand were dating, their reaction wasn't so lovey-dovey. Indeed, many were skeptical of Anand's intentions, and believed that he, like so many other people Suraiya knew, was simply riding on her coat-tails to success.
Still, Suraiya couldn't have cared less—and she was ready to make a huge sacrifice for her new lover.
Suraiya had always had a very complicated relationship with her fame, and when she began experiencing true happiness with Dev Anand, she didn't hesitate to throw it overboard. Almost immediately, she allowed another singer to dub over her film songs—something Suraiya almost never did, given that she could sing—just so she could spend more time with Anand. And she didn't stop there.
Suraiya was in so deep, she was ready to give up even more for Anand. While letting other people dub over her songs saved her some time, she was also willing to give up her singing career entirely to devote more energy to her relationship. Yep, Suraiya really was ready to burn it all down for her love.
Unfortunately, she never got the chance. Her family got there first.
When Suraiya and Dev Anand were first testing out the waters of their relationship, she invited him back to meet her family under the guise of being a friend. And at first, it worked: Anand was polite, good-looking, and had just saved their little girl from drowning. But when Suraiya's family found out it was more than just a friendship, it got very ugly, very fast.
While Dev Anand was a Hindu actor, Suraiya and her family were Muslims—two religions that haven't always mixed well in India's history. And while some people might have worked to overcome this, Suraiya's controlling grandmother Badshah Begum was certainly not one of those people. Enraged, she soon came up with a plan to destroy them.
Soon enough, Badshah had recruited family members and friends to discourage Suraiya from going any further with Anand. It got downright ridiculous. At one point, one of Badshah's allies "gifted" Suraiya with a very passive aggressive edition of the Koran, not-so-subtly hinting to her that her loyalty should lie with her religion and not with her lover.
Even so, that may not have been the only reason for Suraiya's grandmother's disapproval. Her true motives were appalling.
Badshah Begum was certainly scandalized that her daughter was in love with a Hindu man, but she also had much more selfish reasons for opposing the match. Namely, if Suraiya really was serious about giving up her career to devote her life to Dev Anand, then all the money Suraiya was pouring into the family would quickly peter out.
But for all Badshah's tactics, she obviously didn't know her granddaughter very well. Instead of breaking up with Dev Anand, the actress launched her own offensive.
Suraiya was still too much of the good-girl to completely defy her family out in the open, but she rebelled in a much naughtier way. She and Anand took their relationship underground, with Suraiya sending him clandestine letters through intermediaries. And they made sure they were together in other ways, too.
Audiences could see that Suraiya and Dev Anand's chemistry was scorching, and the pair went on to star in no fewer than seven films together. They made the most of it: Not only did the time on set together allow them to send countless letters to each other, they also used romantic scenes as an excuse to get truly close to one another.
That is, until it all came crashing down.
Suraiya was wily, but her grandmother was wilier. After cottoning on to their "romantic scene" loophole, Badshah Begum simply began showing up on set whenever Suraiya was filming an intimate scene with Dev Anand. With this, she took away one of the only outlets the pair had to show their love—and they came up with a desperate solution to their woes.
In 1949, Suraiya and Dev Anand were more in love than ever, and shooting the film Jeet together. Everyone on the cast and crew knew about the tense nature of their relationship, but—unlike at home—many of them were on Suraiya's side and truly wanted her to be happy. So one day, they all came to treasonous decision.
They would marry the pair in a temple on set. Oh boy, did this go badly.
In many ways, the plan was perfect. All they had to do was secure the cooperation of the crew, and then use one of the film's wedding scenes to stage a real wedding. But this is where it all went wrong. One of the accomplices, the assistant director, was actually madly in love with Suraiya too, and couldn't bear to watch her marry Anand.
Instead, he committed a betrayal that ruined Suraiya's life.
On the day where true love should have won out, Suraiya discovered the depths of human cruelty. Overcome with jealousy, the assistant director ran and tattled everything to Suraiya's grandmother Badshah Begum. The battle axe wasted no time whatsoever, bursting onto set and literally dragging Suraiya away from her altar.
Even then, it wasn't over. It just got more tragic.
After this dramatic display, Dev Anand and Suraiya weren't ready to give up. But then her grandmother made a threat she couldn't ignore. Badshah and other members of Suraiya's family went whole hog and threatened to kill Dev Anand if the star-crossed lovers didn't drop their Romeo and Juliet act. Suraiya had only one choice.
Suraiya passionately loved Dev. She wanted to marry him. But she wanted him to survive even more. She was willing to give up her fame and fortune for him, but she wasn’t willing to give up his life. In the face of her family's threats on his life, Suraiya called it quits at last—or so she thought. Dev Anand had much more deranged plans.
Dev Anand once admitted that Suraiya “was truly the love of my life...I couldn’t breathe without her”. So in the face of losing her, he went right off the deep end. Even though their relationship was crumbling, they still had films to wrap up shooting together, which gave Anand the opportunity to press Suraiya again about their relationship on the set of 1950's Neeli. He did not like her answer.
Suraiya, still in the grips of terror over her grandmother's threats, turned Anand down once more, saying she didn't want to selfishly risk his life, even if it meant not marrying him. Anand's response was infamous. Grieving and angry, he slapped Suraiya across the face and yelled that she was a "coward".
He apologized for days after this incident, but he had one final chance with Suraiya.
Just months later, Suraiya and Anand were working on yet another film, Afsar, when Anand decided to go all out. This time, he formally proposed to her, giving her a lavish engagement ring. And this time, it was different: Suraiya actually looked him in the eyes and said "yes". For a brief time, the pair were overjoyed. Then reality hit.
When Badshah discovered their second engagement, she was furious. She reacted more dramatically than ever. This time, the matriarch grabbed the expensive ring and threw it into the ocean. She then launched into yet another rage about how ill-suited Suraiya and Dev Anand were for each other.
In another world, this would be the moment Suraiya finally stood up for herself. It wasn't.
Dev’s joy and Suraiya’s conviction didn’t last. After agreeing to marry him—for the second time—Suraiya changed her mind. She just wasn’t strong enough to break away from her grandmother’s control, and she would later blame her timidity and lack of experience for her unhappy ending.
The star crossed lovers would never be together again, and didn't act together in any film after 1951—but there was one final, gut-wrenching goodbye.
Only a monster could look at Suraiya’s grief and not feel anything. So finally, her mother took pity and arranged a final meeting between the lovers turned exes. It was a bitter, unmitigated disaster. Fearing for his life while facing Suraiya's vengeful family, Dev Anand brought along an armed officer friend.
As such, their last encounter unfolded under the watchful eye of Suraiya’s family and a suspicious officer. It a devastating end to what could’ve been the love story of a lifetime. And there was a cruel irony to come.
Suraiya and Dev Anand had been together for three intense years that were as painful as they were ecstatic. Apparently, though, it didn't take Anand very long to get over it: He not only pushed his career into overdrive and became a huge star following their breakup, he also married actress Kalpana Kartik just a few years later.
Suraiya, meanwhile, experienced a vicious downfall.
At the end of her relationship with Dev Anand, Suraiya was still young, beautiful, and highly in demand in Bollywood. But none of that mattered to her. Countless men—more wealthy, famous, and successful than Anand—proposed, and the heartbroken Suraiya refused them every time, despite protestations and pleas from her family.
Suraiya remained unmarried for the rest of her life. Sadly, this wasn't the only fallout from her breakup.
In the months and years following her split from Anand, Suraiya's head was no longer in the game. So in 1953 when she got the opportunity for the lead in the historical drama Anarkali, she turned it down. It was one of the biggest career mistakes in Bollywood history. The film was not only the biggest of the year, it was one of the top Indian movies of all time.
Unfortunately, her bad luck didn't end there.
Suraiya struggled with picking the right movie roles. Not only did she turn down the opportunity to star in one of the top Hindi movies of all time, she chose many failed projects instead. One was Pagalkhana. Never heard of it? That’s because production crashed and burned after only eight reels, thanks to unexpected financial problems. It all led Suraiya to a devastating choice.
By the early 1960s, Suraiya was well and truly exhausted from the Bollywood machine, pleasing people, and living only on film. Slowly, she began to confess to friends and family that she wanted to get out of the limelight, and refused to listen when her confidants protested. But it took another heartbreak to get her out completely.
In 1963, Suraiya got some of the worst news of her life. Her father passed, and the ensuing grief made her more certain than ever that she needed to wrap up her already dwindling film and singing career. In fact, she took it one step further: She withdrew from the spotlight altogether, giving very few interviews and even fewer public appearances.
The Queen of Bollywood gave it all up for a simple life as a hermit–with one major exception.
In the 1966, a reporter convinced Suraiya to emerge from retirement and show up for a Lifetime Achievement Award—promising that if she did, Dev Anand would be in the crowd. It was all Suraiya needed, and she dressed herself up and took herself out...only to be met with wrenching disappointment.
After hearing Suraiya was indeed coming, Anand begged off attending, saying he just wasn't ready to look his first love in the face.
Perhaps one of the strangest romantic detours Suraiya had away from Dev Anand was with a major Hollywood heartthrob. Throughout her most famous years, Suraiya had always held a candle for good-guy actor Gregory Peck. And while many other women harbored a crush on Peck, Suraiya actually got to meet him.
In what some saw as an attempt to distract her from her love for Dev Anand, her grandmother allowed her to meet Peck on the actor's visit to India, where the pair reportedly hit it off.
A Marvel show is one of the last places you’d expect to hear Suraiya’s music, but the hit show Ms Marvel recently introduced Suraiya to a younger and more global audience. Specifically, it featured her song “Tu Mera Chand” or "You Are My Moon". The show follows a young Muslim girl with roots in both India and Pakistan as she discovers her unique talents and struggles with her disapproving family. The parallels to Suraiya's life could not be more obvious.
Thanks to her very short stint in school and her controlling family, the rumor mill once whispered that Suraiya was not only dumb, but also illiterate. Despite this gossip, many who were lucky enough to know the real Suraiya were “awestruck” by her intelligence, and she was reportedly a voracious reader and eager learner.
As Suraiya entered her 70s, her physical and mental health began to decline. After the death of her mother she had lived alone, and the isolation of those years began to weigh on her. It took a massive toll. At the age of 75, following a string of hospitalizations, she passed from various ailments in 2004.
Yet heartbreak and drama followed Suraiya even afterwards.
Even after Suraiya's passing, her first love Dev Anand couldn't seem to face up to her. When the media sought out his response to her death, Anand hid from their lenses. Understandable enough, sure—but he also didn't work up the courage to even attend her funeral, choosing to grieve his first love in private instead.
My mom never told me how her best friend died. Years later, I was using her phone when I made an utterly chilling discovery.
Madame de Pompadour was the alluring chief mistress of King Louis XV, but few people know her dark history—or the chilling secret shared by her and Louis.
I tried to get my ex-wife served with divorce papers. I knew that she was going to take it badly, but I had no idea about the insane lengths she would go to just to get revenge and mess with my life.
Catherine of Aragon is now infamous as King Henry VIII’s rejected queen—but few people know her even darker history.
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