Synonymous with the popular qawali Dama dam mast qalandar and the lilting Mera babu chhail chhabila, Runa Laila is one of Bangladesh’s most popular singers, and one of the best-known singers in South Asia. Starting her career in the Pakistan film industry in late 1960s, her singing style is said to be inspired by the versatile Pakistani playback singer Ahmed Rushdi, acknowledged as an important contributor to the golden age of Pakistani film music. She emulated his singing and performing style, and also paired with Rushdi. She has won seven Bangladesh National Film Awards for Best Female Playback Singer for her work in The Rain (1976), Jadur Banshi (1977), Accident (1989), Ontore Ontore (1994), Devdas (2013) and Priya Tumi Shukhi Hou (2014), as well as the Best Music Composer award for Ekti Cinemar Golpo (2018). Singing for five decades in different languages including Hindi, Urdu, and English, she also entered the Guinness Book of World Records for recording 30 songs within three days. She sang for films such as Phir Subah Hogi (1967), Ek Se Badhkar Ek (1976) (Dama dam mast qalandar), Gharaonda(1977), Jaan-e-Bahaar (1979), Yaadgaar(1984), and Agneepath (1990).
She was born on 17 November, 1952 at Sylhet, East Pakistan, to Amina Laila and Syed Mohammed Imdad Ali, a civil servant posted in Karachi. Showing a flair for dance, she was admitted to the Bulbul Academy of Fine Arts by her mother. She thus started learning Kathak and Bharata Natyam at a young age. She also had a talent for singing. A student of Saint Lawrence Convent, she won an inter-school singing competition in Karachi. Thus, she also began learning classical music at an early age along with her sister Dina Laila, being trained by Ustad Abdul Kader Peyarang and Ustad Habibiddin Khan. She had her first public performance at age six and also sang a song, Gudia si munni meri for a Pakistani film called Jugnu at the age of twelve.
In 1966, she debuted in the Pakistani film industry with the song Unki nazron sey mohabbat ka jo paigham mila for the Urdu film Hum Dono (1966). More opportunities followed as she went on to sing for Pakistani films such as Umrao Jaan Ada (1972), and Dilruba (1975). She would also perform on PTV, had a show called Bazm E Laila, and also appeared on the Zia Mohyuddin Show (1972–74).
Post moving to Bangladesh in 1974, she sang her first Bengali song, O amar jibon shathi for the film Jibon Shathi (1976), composed by Satya Saha. It was her first concert in India in 1974 that made her popular on Indian soil as well. Director Jaidev, whom she met in Delhi, enabled her to perform at the inauguration of Doordarshan. Her playback singing debut in Hindi cinema came with music composer duo Kalyanji-Anandji’s title song for the film, Ek Se Badhkar Ek (1976). She experienced a surge of popularity with her foot-tapping songs O mera babu chail chabila and Dama dam mast qalandar. Her work featured in films such as Rishta Hai Pyar Ka (1967), Diya Aur Toofan (1969), Naseeb Apna Apna (1970), Dil Aur Duniya (1971), Gharaonda(1977), Nishan (1977), Awara (1985), andAgneepath (1990)
In 1982, she won the Golden Disk Award for her album Superuna composed byBappi Lahiri, which sold more than 1 lakh copies on the first day of release itself. In October 2009, she released Kala Sha Kala, a collection of Punjabi wedding songs, in India. She served as judge on the Indian TV contest show, Sur Kshetra in 2012. She has sung in 17 languages including her native Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Gujarati, Pashto, Baluchi, Arabic, Persian, Malay, Nepalese, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, French and English.
Runa Laila also held several charity concerts raising money to build a cancer hospital in Dhaka. She was also the first Bangladeshi to be named a SAARC Goodwill Ambassador for HIV/AIDS.