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Tug of war over Suraiya property

Mumbai, Feb. 7: The flat in which Suraiya, the singing star of the 1940s and 1950s, lived for more than 70 years until her death last Saturday is getting crowded again.

Only, those flocking to her Krishna Mahal ground floor flat are not family members — she was single — or legal heirs either. Instead, the crowd is made up of people attracted by the prime location, size and market cost of the property as well those wanting to create a memorial for her.

Suraiya also owns two floors at Suraiya, a seven-storey building in Worli, central Mumbai, a huge bungalow in the hill resort of Lonavla and some other land. She also had a formidable collection of jewellery.

“Everything could well add up to Rs 50 crore,” says veteran music director Naushad, who had given her her first break in films 60 years ago.

All her properties have come under the scanner.

The 2,000-square-feet flat in which Suraiya lived for the last 71 years is located on the posh Marine Drive in upmarket south Mumbai and is valued at Rs 1.7 crore. The actress used to pay a monthly rent of Rs 400.

The flat was sealed today by Maharashtra administrator-general M.K. Patil, on the orders of Bombay High Court. Patil said he would move tomorrow to take possession of all her movable and immovable properties, including her Worli and Lonavla houses.

A tussle for custody of her property broke out soon after the queen of hearts, who ruled the Hindi film industry five decades ago, died on January 31. She did not have any legal heir and had not made a will.

Suraiya, whom Dev Anand had admitted to “desperately” wanting to marry, and whose films Dharmendra used to walk miles to see, died unsung and remembered only by some loyal admirers.

Looking to take possession of the Krishna Mahal flat, landlord Ashwin Shah pasted a legal notice on its door on Tuesday intended for anyone wishing to claim the flat. “Such person is advised to notify the undersigned in the event of such a person making a claim to the said flat whether by way of successor or residence or otherwise whatsoever.”

Matters turned ugly when Suraiya’s old friend and solicitor Dhimant Thakar moved into the south Mumbai flat with his daughter, Amee Shah. In a letter sent to the landlord yesterday, Thakar said he was entitled to tenancy rights of the flat as he was like a “family member” of Suraiya’s.

“We took care of her legal matters for 30 years and in the last six months, when she was ill, she was with us. We footed all her medical bills,’’ Thakar said. The lawyer was forced to vacate the flat today, but has refused to relent, saying he can contest his claim in court.

Under Section 10 of the Administrator General Act of 1963, the administrator-general has the power to take over the movable and immovable properties of someone dying intestate (without having made a will). Legal experts say if a person dies intestate with no apparent heir, anybody wishing to claim the property has to make an application to the building society and furnish proof to establish their claim. Objections to the claim are then invited through newspaper advertisements. Things are more complicated in tenancy matters as tenancy rights end with the tenant’s death.

Naushad is hurt by the tussle that has broken out for Suraiya’s properties. He says three months before her death she had met him and expressed her desire to donate her property to an educational trust.

“My fear is that her assets could be grabbed by someone and in the absence of a will it may eventually be taken away by the government… ’’ he said.

Naushad and Abdul Ali, founder secretary of Cine Society, have called a meeting on February 20 to address the matter. “We will invite all the parties involved and hope that there is a solution to this tangle,’’ he says.

He added that the memory of Suraiya, best remembered for films like Afsar, Anmol Ghadi, Dillagi, Mirza Ghalib, Parwana, and Pyar Ki Jeet should be treasured. “And we can do that by putting to use what she left for the good of humanity. That is what she would have wanted, anyway,’’ he says wistfully.

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