It was 1939. One day a small little girl came to meet me with her maternal grandmother. Her grandmother told me that this girl wanted to make me listen to her sing. I said, okay, sing. She hadn't trained to be a singer, but her voice was very melodious ('suriilii'). I told her: your voice is nature's gift, what's your name? She said, Suraiya. I immediately said, "But Suraiya, I shall call you Surili". She burst out in giggles.
This is how I first met Suraiya. She used to be in school then and her grandmother would take her to musicians. Then I met her again after a few days at Prakash Studio. A film called Station Master was being made which required a girl to play the role of a younger sister, so I called for her. She also sang two songs for this film, of which one of the songs for children became quite popular - yeh rail hamaare ghar kii dekho. This is where her film-career began.
Suraiya did not take any formal training in music. It ought to be remembered that when she stepped into the world of music, it was the 1940s - a revolutionary phase of Indian music. Decades hence, the songs of those days are still fresh in people's hearts and on their lips.
Anyway, after that came Sardar Sahib's film Nai Duniya. It required a child-artist to play the role of a shoe-shine kid. I told Sardar Sahib that instead of a boy, there was this young girl and if I should call her. He agreed, and so Suraiya was called. She also gave playback for the film and her song, "boot karun mai polish" was quite a hit. And then she was taken for Sharda with Mehtab and thus it continued from thereon. In those days, for a film -- or sometimes, even for a song -- Rs 200-300 were paid which was quite a sum then. I still remember, when I first used Lata Mangeshkar, and paid her Rs 60 for it, her hands trembled and there was wonder in her voice: "Sixty rupees..." Even Rs 60 was a large sum and more amazing than that is the fact that Suraiya said goodbye to film-industry at a time she could have earned lakhs.
Actually she was a very sophisticated and cultured person. She knew how to show respect to elders and even when she became a star, she continued to behave with the same dignity and decorum with which she had first met me. After her grandmother's demise, she stopped socialising, and gradually she became distant from everyone. And then her parents passed away, and after a while she suddenly stopped acting in films. She just stayed within her Marine Drive house and met very few people.
Every now and then she would visit me. In the beginning, I would always advise her to recommence acting and she would reply, "Naushad Sahib, thanks to giving up films, at least now I don't have to worry about my diet. Why do you want to snatch away this pleasure?" In a way, she had fully made up her mind not to act in films. Then once I suggested, "Okay, forget films, but at least do playback. Nature's bestowed such a great voice to you, at least let it reach people," but she had the same answer, "Now I don't feel like doing anything".
Whenever she would visit me, apart from talking about old experiences, I would give her my advice on lots of other subjects as well. Now she was the sole owner of her house, and in Lonawala, of course, she had a full village; so I would tell her to bequeath it to Anzuman Islam, an organisation which looks after child-education. She told me she would do something about it, but I don't know if something could be done or not. Today she's not with us, but I feel that her nature-gifted voice would forever stay alive and remind us of an extremely cultured and intelligent person.
(As told to Hemant Sharma. Translated from Outlook Saptahik)