Article Hindi

Birth anniversary special: Celebrating Surendra Nath's fame as 'Saigal of Bombay'

On the singer-actor’s 108th birth anniversary (11 November), we journey through his remarkable career that began in the 1930s.

Surendra Nath with Suraiya

Sonal Pandya

A popular singer-actor of the 1930s and 1940s, Surendra (also known as Surendra Nath) came from Batala village in Punjab. Surendra was born on 11 November 1909 and was headed for a career in law, but his friends encouraged him to give films a go.

Mehboob Khan discovered the tall, lanky actor with the good voice for his first musical Deccan Queen (1936). Surendra had arrived in Mumbai (then Bombay) a year earlier and bagged his first film with Sagar Movietone’s Village Girl (1936), starring Sabita.

In Deccan Queen, Surendra played a police officer pursued by twin sisters and sang ‘Birha Ki Aag Lagi More Man Mein’, which became quite famous. The song was quite similar to KL Saigal’s ‘Baalam Aaye’ from Devdas (1935).

Filmmaker Mehboob Khan repeated Surendra in Manmohan (1936), which was heavily inspired by PC Barua's Devdas (1935) and was also a musical hit. Surendra played the obsessive artist Mohan who falls in love with Vimla (Bibbo) and drives himself to ruin. His duets with Bibbo were well received, and the duo later did other memorable films together.

After Manmohan was released, the actor’s reputation as the ‘Saigal of Bombay’ was cemented.

Mehboob Khan had a good working rapport with him and cast Surendra again in Jagirdar (1937), Aurat (1940), Anmol Ghadi (1946), and Anokhi Ada (1949).

In 1940, he was down and out for around six months after a serious riding accident on the sets of AR Kardar’s Puja. The filming of his part was perhaps never completed. But editor Baburao Patel of Filmindia magazine was quoted as saying, “The story that he would retire from film work is all bunkum. Surendra is such a favourite with fans that they won’t allow him to retire.”

Filmindia’s review of Aurat praised the actor's singing prowess: 'Surendra has never sung better.' In 1957, Khan remade Aurat as the now legendary Mother India, starring Nargis, Sunil Dutt and Raaj Kumar. Surendra had played Ramu in the original, the role that would be essayed in Mother India by Rajendra Kumar.

The mythological film Bharathari (1944) and Lal Haveli (1944) were also quite successful for Surendra as an actor and singer. But arguably the biggest film of his career was the hit musical Anmol Ghadi (1946), where Surendra was in a love triangle with two of the top singer-actresses of the time, Noorjehan and Suraiya, aided by a superlative soundtrack composed by Naushad. The duet between him and Noorjehan, ‘Awaaz De Kahan Hai’, is still remembered today.

Surendra’s last role as a hero was in Ram Bhakt Vibhishan (1958). In the 1950s, he began to take on more fatherly parts and played character roles, like Tansen in the iconic films Baiju Bawra (1952) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Other notable films to feature him were Dil Deke Dekho (1959), Waqt (1965), Milan (1967), and Saraswatichandra (1968).

The veteran actor then shifted focus to advertising and was involved in making ad films for brands like Colgate and Lyril under his own company. His sons Jeet Surendranath and Kailash Surendranath continued that tradition after his death on 11 September 1987 at age 77.