There are stars and there are superstars and then are are those who are truly blessed. Icons. One of a kind. Noor Jehan – loved and beloved by millions not just in her lifetime but beyond as well – was, is and will always remain an icon.
Noor Jehan, or Allah Wasai as her parents named her, was born on 21st September 1926 in Kasur, Punjab. Musically inclined since she was a baby, she started practicing her riyaz with Kajjanbai in Lahore, and later received early training in classical music from Ustad Ghulam Muhammad. She started singing at the age of six and would perform on stage with her older sisters.
From Lahore the family moved to Calcutta and it is here that Allah Wasai was renamed as Baby Noor Jehan. In 1935 Noor Jehan was cast in the punjabi film Pindi Di Kuri, where she not only acted but also recorded her first film song Lang Aaja Pattan. She next acted in a film called Misar Ka Sitara (1936) and in 1937 played the role of a young Heer in the film Heer Sayal.
Noor Jehan returned to Lahore in 1938 and here her pairing as a singer with the composer Master Ghulam Haider made an overnight success. She her first nationwide hit with Gul Bakavli (1939). Baby Noor Jehan’s first box office hit was the Punjabi film, Yamla Jat (1940). She recorded her first playback song for Khazanchi in 1941.
In 1942 the prefix “Baby was dropped off as Noor Jehan began a new phase in her career and starred as a heroine opposite Pran in Khandaan. With the success of Khandan behind her, Noor Jehan moved to Bombay where she starred in movies like Nadan (1943), Naukar (1943), Dost (1944) and Lal Haveli (1944), Bari Maa (1945). Zeenat (1945) was her first super hit film and the songs of this film earned her the title of Malika- e Taranum. Noor Jehan also achieved another milestone, when she sung a qawwali with Zohrabai Ambalewali and Amirbai Karnataki – Aahen Na Bhareen Shikave Na Kiye – the first ever qawwali recorded in female voices in subcontinent films.
1946 saw her in the classic Anmol Ghari, and the immense popularity of this one made her other films that year, Dil, Humjoli and Sofia, pale in comparison. In Jugnu (1947) she starred with Dilip Kumar. Noor Jehan’s last film in India was Mirza Sahibaan (1947). All in all she sang one hundred and twenty seven songs in Indian films, made twelve silent and sixty-nine talking films from 1932-47. Fifty-five of her films were made in Bombay, eight in Calcutta, five in Lahore and one in Rangoon, Myanmar.
After Partition, Noor Jehan initially moved to Karachi but then later moved to Lahore where her then husband Shaukat Husain Rizvi set up Shahnoor Studios. In Pakistan Noor Jehan’s first films was Chanwey (1951), opposite Santosh Kumar, which was also her first Punjabi film as a heroine. Shaukat and Noor Jehan directed this film together making Noor Jehan Pakistan’s first female director. Her second film Dupatta (1952) was an even bigger hit and this was followed by Gulnar (1953).
Patay Khan (1955) was another huge musical hit, Lakht-e Jigar (1956) was average, but Intezar (1956) was undoubtedly one of the most significant musicals in the Pakistani film industry. It had music composed by Khwaja Khurshid Anwar who made his first release after he came to Pakistan in the early 1950s. This film was also the first time Noor Jehan worked with the musical giant and what a combination that was to be. And it was this film that earned Noor Jehan the first President’s Award in 1957 for best actress and best singer.
Nooran (1957), Choomantar (1958), Anarkali (1958), Koel (1959), Pardaisan (1959), Neend (1959), Mirza Ghalib (1961), Baaji (1963) all solidified her position as an actress and singer of merit. Mirza Ghalib, her penultimate film, proved to be a bridge between her past and her future. She had developed a love for poetry and started recording works of leading Urdu poets, classical and contemporary. This contributed to the strengthening of her iconic stature. She gained another audience for herself.
Her rendition of Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s Mujh Si Pehli Si Mohabbat is a unique example of tarranum, reciting poetry as a song. Noor Jehan last starred in Baaji in 1963, though not in a leading role.She bade farewell to acting in 1963 after a career of 33 years (1930 to 1963). All in all Noor Jehan made fourteen films in Pakistan, ten in Urdu, four in Punjabi.
After she quit acting Noor Jehan took up playback singing. Her first playback for a Pakistani film was for Jan-e-Bahar (1958), in which she sung the song Kaisa Naseeb Layi Thi, picturised on Musarrat Nazir. She was soon the most famous playback singer through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s. She also made albums and even though she wasn’t acting, she was still a hit. She was the proud recipient of innumerable national and cultural awards, included among them the highest Pakistani civilian honour, Tamgha-e-Imtiaz (The Pride of Performance), in 1966.
Her popularity was further boosted with her patriotic songs during the 1965 war between Pakistan and India. She talked once about the stirring songs with Khalid Hasan. “Let me tell you about those days. No one asked me to sing. I myself phoned Radio Pakistan one morning and said I wanted to come and sing. They did not believe it, just kept asking, ‘Is that Madam Noor Jehan?’. They thought it was some kind of hoax. Finally, I said ‘You think I am joking with all these bombs falling, these shells exploding? I first had to get a pass to get out of the house because there was a curfew in the city. When I arrived, they were happy and surprised. ‘It is really you’, they kept saying. ‘Well, you can see for yourself’, I said.”
The diva revisited India in 1982 as an honored guest to help celebrate the golden jubilee of the Indian Talkie. It was the first time she had visited India since the Partition. She was granted an audience by the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi at New Delhi’s Rashtrapati Bhawan and was received by Dilip Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar in Bombay, where she performed live on stage for the show Mortal Men, Immortal Melodies on February 11 of that year.
As she sang Anmol Ghadi (1946)’s Awaz De Kahan Hai, all grievances were forgotten and the performer and her audience wept together. That night, she achieved what no ambassador had ever achieved before.
She returned home to give glittering performances for PTV’s musical Tarranum.
In 1986, on a tour of North America, she suffered severe chest pains which were diagnosed as an angina attack. After a smooth surgery Noor Jehan returned to Lahore with a winning smile. She recorded her last song in 1996 for the film Sakhi Badshah (1996) and stopped singing due to failing health and newer trends in music.
Noor Jehan, a woman of substance, a flamboyant, charismatic woman who lived life on her own terms was not only an accomplished actress, a gifted singer, an occasional poet and composer, but also a wife, a devoted mother, an excellent cook, a connoisseur of Urdu and Punjabi literature, and a glamorous fashionista.
She passed away in Karachi on Saturday afternoon, December 23, 2000 leaving behind a grieving family and legions of admirers. That we still remember her fondly and respect her is very telling of the honesty and the quality of the work she left behind. Her songs remain just as appealing today as the day they were first released.
There will always be stars and superstars aplenty but icons are few and far in between and Noor Jehan was undoubtedly one of a kind.
Hazaron Saal Nargis Apni Benoori Pe Roti Hai
Bari Mushkil Se Hota Hai Chaman Mein Didahwar Paida
Researched by Farah S. and SZ
Edited and compiled by SZ~
(Most of the information cited in this piece has been synthesized from here)