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Voice behind the stars

The Gulf Today
Wednesday, May 25, 2011 AT 09:54 PM (IST)
It is part of the Hindi film industry folklore that Dilip Kumar, its first superstar, upon learning from veteran music director Anil Biswas that a newly discovered Lata Mangeshkar would sing for his leading lady, was dismayed. “Ek Maharashtrian ladki? Dal-bhaat ki boo aati hai.”—Girls from Maharashtra give off the smell of rice and lentil. It was an insinuation about Lata’s Maharashtrian accent. 

Stung to the quick, Lata got herself tutored in Urdu by a maulana. The result was that as early as 1949 she was singing in faultless Urdu, Aayega aanewala, the song that was to establish her as a popular singer.

Dilip Saab wasn’t alone in his apprehension. The nascent film industry was dominated by robust-voiced, Urdu-proficient singers like Noor Jehan, Zohra Bai, Suraiya and Shamshad Begum. Few could have imagined that one day the frail-looking young woman in simple cotton sari, with her pock-marked face and thin voice, would be synonymous with India’s film music, to the extent that if she were to postpone a song-recording for a few days on account of bad throat, despite munching on her favourite Kolhapuri chilli to clear her voice, filmmakers would start getting the jitters. 

It is a delicious irony that Dilip Kumar had to down four brandies before recording with Lata the famous Thumri from Musafir, Laagi Nahi Chhute Rama, a song he himself had chosen because he had been singing it for years.

In his magnum opus, Lata Voice of the Golden era, Dr Mandar V. Bichu, a Sharjah-based paeditrician, renowned film reviewer and ardent fan of the Melody Queen, traces the rise of Lata and her collaboration with various composers down the ages, and in doing so offers invaluable glimpses into the lives and quirks of some of the most creative people that the industry has ever seen. For example, Dr Bichu tells us that Madan Mohan, known for his dulcet, sorrowful ditties, had served in the British Army from which he got thrown out on account of being late to salute the Union Jack, and that the master composer Salil Choudhury used to first compose the tune and then look for suitable lyrics.

Three generations of Indians have grown up listening to the voice of Lata Mangeshkar. Recipient of India’s highest civilian award Bharat Ratna, she is an institution and living legend. Almost every song sung by her has the capacity to transport the listener into another world, not just for her technique and matchless vocal timbre, but for the feeling she evokes. Industry’s leading ladies acquired star status only when she sang for them, a fact acknowledged by veteran actor Jaya Bachchan. 

But Lata’s status, both as a singer and socio-cultural icon, didn’t happen overnight. Her unique situation in life as the family’s bread-winner at the age of 13, the direct and indirect contribution of many people from the film industry, her steely will and matchless talent played a huge role in shaping her career.

Lata’s arrival in the industry and the subsequent phenomenal rise to stardom is a fascinating story and the author does a good job of describing it. Ghulam Haider was the first composer to be impressed by her. When producer S Mukherji turned her down due to her “shrill” voice, Haider took it upon himself to establish her in the industry. He even remarked that one day the entire industry would be at her feet. Haider gave Lata her first break in Majboor (1948), and his prophecy proved to be right; after her entry only Geeta Dutt and Shamsad Begum survived in the industry. 

The song that established Lata as a singer (and Madhubala as a star) was composer Khemchand Prakash’s Aayega Aanewaala from the movie Mahal. This success was underscored by Raj Kapoor’s film Barsaat. Incidentally, throughout his career, from Awara to Satyam Shivam Sundaram, Raj Kapoor never looked beyond Lata.

It was the 60s that saw her rise to a level no other playback singer had reached before her. Except for OP Nayar, she sang for all the prominent composers of the industry. 

Dr Bichu has divided Lata’s career into two parts: the golden era and the post-golden era, that is 1970s onwards.  Even during the 80s, which saw the influx of talented singers like Alka Yagnik, Anuradha Podwal and Kavita Krishnamurthi—all of whom incidentally look up to Lata as their idol—she continued to be the favoured playback artiste of many a composer. As late as 2004 she sang for Yash Chopra’s Veer Zaara. 

Lata has had her share of controversies and ego clashes. The author has, rather candidly, tried to investigate some of them. Why did OP Nayar never work with Lata? Was there really such thing as Mangeshkar monopoly? Had Noor Jehan not migrated to Pakistan, would Lata still be the greatest playback singer? Why did Lata continue to sing beyond her prime?

Written in an anecdotal, intimate style, the biography evokes a nostalgic feel due to the scores of rare black and white photographs. However, a liberal use of the exclamation mark and occasional seepage of colloquialism makes one wish for better editing. 

- Neena Sharma

Voice behind the stars