Noor Jahan: The Dark Side
By Dr Asif Javed
When I think of Noor Jahan (NJ), my mind often wanders to two other singers who were almost her contemporaries. Both came from blue collar backgrounds and rose to great heights after enduring early struggles. I am referring to Mohammad Rafi and Um-e-Kalsoom.
Rafi, during his long and illustrious career, remained above controversies, except for a brief rift with Lata. He had developed a reputation as a thorough gentleman. There are many examples of his compassion. Um-e-Kalsoom was adored by the masses and elite alike in the Middle East. NJ had a similar blue collar background and was successful too. But the similarities end there.
Back in the 70’s, Nisar Bazmi was, arguably, the most sought after musician in Pakistan. One day, he abruptly called it quits and retired to Karachi. The poor soul had infuriated Malaka-e-Tarrnum by his statement that no singer in Pakistan had the voice to satisfy him. Bazmi had worked in Bollywood before immigrating to Pakistan. He was entitled to his opinion but was hounded out of Lahore by NJ’s lobby. I vaguely recall that Hasan Nisar, that firebrand journalist, had written a scathing piece on NJ about this in Dhanak, a magazine that ceased publication years ago.
In 1971, Yahya Khan (YK) was at the helm and the occasion: Ali Yahya’s wedding. Some pictures exist of Madam NJ sitting next to YK. They are holding hands. YK in his sleeping gown, appears almost drunk. NJ (Noori as he fondly called her) is holding a drink. I will leave it to the imagination of the readers as to the type of drink being served. On the same occasion, as she sat close to her Sarkar (as she addressed him) NJ was overheard having snubbed Gen Gul Hasan, soon to be COAS, and ZA Bhutto (chup karo way, kee barr barr laee ooeejay).
Such was her influence over the man who should have been paying more attention to Manak Shaw’s plans. While YK allowed himself to be distracted by NJ, and the others of her ilk, East Pakistan was in turmoil. She was not the only one, but certainly one of the most destructive influences on the wretched man who presided over the division of Jinnah’s Pakistan.
Nobody suffered more from NJ’s hands than Shaukat Rizwi, her husband. Rizwi, it is to be recalled, was one of the very few successful film makers, other than WZ Ahmad, who chose to immigrate to Pakistan in 1947, despite being in great demand in Bombay. He had to his credit multiple hits like Khandan and Jugno (the first hit for Dilip Kumar who had had three flops in a row before that). Manto, who has written a sketch of NJ, notes that, “Rizwi had a good head for business, an excellent reputation as a director and editor and would have done well even if he had not married NJ. He was a man who knew his art and who worked hard.” But unlike Mahboob, Kardar, Rafi, Naushad, Dilip Kumar and many others who stayed on in Bombay, he chose to come to Pakistan.
Given the chance, he may have been one of the pioneers of the Pak film industry. Instead, he was dragged into controversies by his wife. Despite divorce, their feud continued for years. As a result, a talented film maker was lost to the fledgling film industry that desperately needed him. Having made Shah Noor Studio, poor Rizwi could do nothing else. One can only guess what might have been. A few years ago, as I stood at the gate of Shah Noor Studio, it presented a lookof a ghostly site.
NJ’s vengeance had no limits: at the height of her feud with Rizwi, she threatened to make a prostitute of Zil-e-Huma, her own daughter, in the red light area, and to display her name with Rizwi’s name prominently displayed as Zil-e-Huma’s father. In retaliation, he produced NJ’s birth certificate in his book Noor Jahan Kee Kahani in which her family profession was given as Tawaif. When Ijaz, her second husband, the love of her life, as she often called him, left her for a much younger Firdaus, NJ started to spread all kinds of rumors about him. Once she confided to Khalid Hasan that Ijaz had many brothers and they all had different looks. The readers can imagine the implicit filth contained in this statement.
NJ’s influence at times reached quarters, beyond music and movies. The careers that have been derailed include a young man who, at one point, had the world of cricket in the palm of his hand. In the formative years of Pakistan, one source of pride for the young nation was the cricket team. The. A. H. Kardar-led team had won a famous victory at the Oval in 1954. Two years earlier, when the Pakistan cricket team toured India, a young and stylish opener from Lahore, had faced the first ball in test cricket for Pakistan and created sensation by scoring a century and carrying his bat in the test match at Lucknow. His name was Nazar Mohammad.
Nazar’s elder brother was the musician Feroz Nizami who had given the evergreen music of Jugno that starred NJ and Dilip Kumar. Not many from that generation can forget the NJ and Rafi duet from that movie, Yahan Badla Wafa ka Bewafayee ke Siwa Kya Hey. Nizami later also worked with Rizwi for Dopatta, another hit. Nazar might have accompanied his brother to the Studio. NJ saw him and, throwing all caution aside, started an affair with the cricket star. At the time, NJ had been married for years and had three children. As fate would have it, the lovers were found out at their rendezvous at Ravi Road, Lahore. As an infuriated Rizwi, with a pistol in hand, and accompanied by his associates, approached the upper story room, Nazar tried to escape, and jumped from the window, fracturing his arm. The fracture never healed. While NJ lost just one of her admirers, and moved on to others adventures, (she once counted sixteen of them on her fingers) Nazar’s promising cricket career was over. Years later, he may have obtained comfort by seeing his son Mudassar play test cricket. Ironically, fifty years later, Nazar’s name is known more for his liaison with NJ than for cricket.
In music, NJ was at the very top. She was famous, had plenty of money, had hardly any competition, and had all kinds of accolades thrown on her. One would have expected that she would act like a mentor to the new singers. But she did no such thing. Instead, she allowed herself to be involved in petty squabbles and scandals. A few examples: an aspiring actress by the name of Nighat Sultana was working in a movie that Rizwi was directing. Suspicious that Rizwi liked Nighat, NJ got into a physical altercation with her. The ensuing court case brought bad publicity to NJ and finished off Nighat’s career. Ali Sufyan Afaqi interviewed Nighat Sultana after that incident and observed with sadness that Nighat was the sole bread-winner for her family; her father was blind and the family lived literally hand-to-mouth.
Mukhtar Begum (of Agha Hashar fame) once approached Rizwi and sought help for her younger sister who was a singer. Rizwi was unable to help, he writes, due to NJ’s jealousy. That talented singer later created a name for herself on Radio and TV but never made it to film industry. Her name: Farida Khanum. Back in the 80’s, Musarrat Nazeer tried to make a comeback, as a singer. NJ sent her threatening messages. Mussarrat felt so insecure in Pakistan that she moved back to Canada. There was a spat with Malika Pukhraj too. Her offence: she made the cardinal error of reminding NJ of her humble origin.
An infamous incident of NJ’s misbehavior involved Roona Laila who, like actress Shabnam, was from East Pakistan, and had stayed on in Pakistan after 1971. She was a popular singer but hardly a threat to NJ. But NJ had developed a dislike for her. One day, as NJ approached the recording room, RL did not stand up as NJ expected. NJ took it as a slight, went up to RL, and in her chaste Punjabi, scolded RL for not paying her due respect. Naive RL responded in English that she did not understand what the problem was. NJ slapped the young singer, in full view of the recording crew and musicians. No one intervened; not a word was spoken by anyone in RL’s defense. Such was NJ’s iron grip on the film industry. A shocked RL left the recording room, and Pakistan, soon afterwards.
Manto who saw NJ and Rizwi in Bombay, has left a description of NJ that is less than flattering: he calls her arrogant, her smile and laughter commercial and insincere. Manto then gives his most damning assessment of NJ:
She had every single characteristic associated with the background from which she came. Everything about her was a put on. She was flirtatious but not in a cultivated way.
Manto wrote this in the early 50’s. His description of NJ was spot on. The prophet of short story writers had seen back in the 40’s what the rest of us did decades later.
Of all her feuds, the most puzzling one was with Khurshid Anwar. He was widely regarded as the best music director in Pakistan, was highly educated, universally respected, and a cultured person. Many of NJ’s best songs were composed by him. Just listen to his compositions, in Intizaar, Koel, Jhoomer, Ghoonghat and Heer Ranjha. KA took pains to create the type of tunes suitable for NJ. Qateel Shifai goes to the extent of saying that NJ owed a lot of debt to KA but rarely acknowledged his contribution to her career. Fed up with NJ, at one point, he was forced to use Kauser Perveen and Nahid Niazi. Such was NJ’s behavior towards her mentor.
Zahoor Chaudhry has this to say of NJ in his book Jahan-e-Fun:
NJ was a controversial figure. She was admired for her generosity but was also despised for her jealousy and vindictiveness. She made it impossible for any female singer to sing without her approval. She would humiliate her fellow singers and musicians. The first musician to have been insulted by her was Mian Shehr Yar who was forced to use Naseem Begum. She would insist that her voice would only be used for the heroine and had numerous fights with singers, musicians and poets. Those who had access to recording studios witnessed the humiliation of many musicians by her. She made life difficult for Naheed Akhtar, Kauser Parveen and Roona Laila. Because of her monopoly and dictatorial behavior, the film industry was not able to bring up the new generation of female singers. The way NJ misbehaved with Master Abdullah, a proud, intelligent musician, was widely known.
Naushad Ali was an admirer of NJ who once conceded that NJ had a better voice than Lata. He had used NJ in Anmol Ghari before partition. But he regrets that, in the later part of her career, she allowed herself to sing below standard, cheap Punjabi songs that not only damaged her reputation but also hurt the quality of her voice. Maestro, who rarely compromised on quality, and would typically do one movie in a year, appeared disappointed at the greed of his onetime prodigy. Yaseen Goreeja, notes that while NJ’s periodic announcements of donation to hospitals came to nothing, Iyanat Hussain Bhatti, a second rate actor, actually did it.
NJ has been dead for more than a decade. She was revered for her music. She had become a legend in her life, and remains so to this day. There are stories of her generosity and kindness. But there was a dark and sinister side to her character. Though she reigned supreme in her profession, at times her inherent insecurities would show up. In those moments, NJ would act more like Allah Wasai from Kasoor, a ruthless bully, hidden behind a mask of polite but fake polite demeanor. Um-e-Kalsoom was idolized by the entire Arab World; her funeral was attended by millions and Cairo came to a stand-still. But NJ, who envied Um-e-Kalsoom, and copied the Egyptian diva’s style by holding a scarf while singing, has tarnished her legacy and that was her tragedy.
Voltaire is credited with the saying that we owe consideration to the living and truth to the dead. It is with this spirit that this piece has been written. The readers are requested to keep this in mind.
References: Mulaqaton Ke Baad by Javed Iqbal; Rear View Mirror by Khalid Hasan; Ghungroo Toot Gaye by Qateel Shifaee; Jahan-e-Fun by Zahoor Ch; Filmi Alf Laila by Ali Sufyan Afaqi; Ganjay Farishtay by SH Manto; Noor Jahan Kee Kahani by SH Rizwi; Aik Dil Hazaar Dastaan by Agha Ashraf; Ab Who Lahore Kahan by FE Chaudhry; Ehd-e-Shabab by Agha Jamsheri; Lakshmi Chowk by Yaseen Goreeja.
(The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA and may be reached at email@example.com)