Had he been alive, Kishore Kumar would have commenced his 90th year on August 4. Sadly, he isn’t, but he continues to live (nay dominate) our collective musical consciousness, despite the “YoYo Honey-fication” Hindi film music.
Born in Khandwa (present day Madhya Pradesh) in a Bengali Brahmin family, Abhas Kumar Ganguly was the youngest of three brothers — the eldest being veteran actor Ashok Kumar. Kishore always had his sights on being an actor. He gamely tried for two frustrating decades but could not even attain Ashok Kumar’s level of stardom. Destiny had other, grander, plans for him.
Kishore Kumar is my all-time favourite singer, a clear undisputed no.1, across all languages, genres and ages. A singer with no formal classical training in music (amazing but true!), he was able to establish his popularity over far more classically accomplished and trained singers like Mohammad Rafi, Manna Dey and Mukesh, for almost two decades — from the late 1960s till his death in 1987.
With utmost respect to other legendary singers like Lata and Rafi, when they sang a song, their voice had a tendency to overshadow the actor on whom the song was being picturised. The actor had to subsume himself/herself to the singer’s voices — but this was the not the case with Kishore. Unlike a Lata or a Rafi, perhaps Kishore had the advantage of also being an actor. Moreover, his voice wasn’t fettered by the constraints of formal classical music training.
The casually careless genius
Kishore sang his first song way back in 1948 — “Marne Ki Duayen Kyu Maangu” – for the film Ziddi, around the same time as Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammad Rafi started playback singing for Hindi Films. In fact, in an unprecedented coincidence, stalwarts Kishore and Lata, were both born in the same year (1929), with Lata being younger by seven weeks.
But he never took himself seriously as a singer. Therefore, for almost two decades since his debut, though his name was counted amongst the top male playback singers of Bollywood, he would invariably be placed at No.4, behind Rafi, Mukesh and Manna Dey.
Then a certain Jatin Khanna from Delhi won a talent contest in the mid-60s and one of the rewards of that victory was a movie directed by the renowned film maker Shakti Samanta. The movie was Aradhana, the debut hero was Rajesh (Jatin) Khanna. SD Burman was the music director, Anand Bakshi wrote the lyrics. SD fell back on his usual favourite Mohammad Rafi and recorded couple of songs of this film with Rafi as Khanna’s voice (“Gun Guna Rahe Hai Bhawre” and “Baaghon Mein Bahaar Hain”).
Story of a ‘most fortuitous illness’
Then Dada Burman fell seriously ill and had to be hospitalised. The reins of completing the musical score for Aradhana fell on his son, the precociously talented RD Burman. This was the most fortuitous illness in the history of Hindi film music. Sensing the mood of the film and its prospective audience, RD took a bold step of replacing Rafi with Kishore. The remaining three songs of the hero were recorded in Kishore’s voice.
“Mere Sapnon Ki Rani” was a colossal chartbuster. This song had Rajesh Khanna in the incandescent glory of all his romantic mannerisms, which would later become his trademarks (the slanting smile, mischievous twinkling eyes, crooked cap) and a faithful sidekick — Sujit Kumar doing equal justice to the harmonica and the wheels of the open Jeep, wooing a coy Sharmila Tagore travelling in a toy train, whose attempts at reading Alistair McLean’s “When Eight Bells Toll” proved spectacularly unsuccessful in the face of the romantic blitz unleashed by the song and its singer.
The duet with Lata (“Kora Kaagaz Tha Man Mera”) was a smash-hit and so was “Roop Tera Mastana” — the first Hindi film song to be canned in a single shot, for which Kishore won his maiden Filmfare Best Singer (Male) award. He would go on to win seven more and his total haul of eight such awards is still the record, yet to surpassed by any other male playback singer since then. In one of them — “Khaike Paan Banaraswala” (Don, 1978) — Kishore sang the entire song with a paan in his mouth just as his on-screen character Amitabh Bachchan!
The Great Trinity of Kishore, Pancham and Rajesh Khanna
Kishore Kumar never looked back. Aradhana witnessed a generational change in Bollywood. The baton passed from Dilip Kumar to Rajesh Khanna from Rafi to Kishore and from SD to RD Burman, or Pancham, as the music director was affectionately called.
Kishore, RD and Rajesh Khanna went on to forge a formidable partnership for the next decade. I don’t think there have been more hit songs by any other trio in the history of Hindi film music. Later, when the angry young man replaced Khanna at the top of the rankings, Kishore had a seamless transition as Amitabh Bachchan’s onscreen voice. In fact, Kishore was able to make those fine adjustments and minor modulations which made it difficult to judge for whom did he sing better — Rajesh Khanna or Amitabh (my preference is for the former).
Crackling chemistry with Madhubala
1969 is an epochal year in Indian cinema. Prior to Aradhana‘s release in 1969, Kishore used to sing primarily for his onscreen characters or for the odd Navketan movie starring Dev Anand. I often wonder what would our music have been like, if we hadn’t lost out on Kishore’s precocious talent as a playback singer in the first two decades of his career. A case in point is the song “Paanch Rupaiya Barah Aana” from the movie Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958).
A black and white classic featuring a madcap genius and a lady, whose beauty could convert geniuses into madcaps! Please watch this song carefully. Kishore Kumar has done everything one can possibly do in a song: sing, act, dance, plead, beg, mimic, whistle, shriek, yodel — all for a measly five rupees and 75 paise. But displaying a resolute stubbornness that would make a Subroto Roy Sahara or a Vijay Mallya blush, Madhubala just refuses to cough that money up!
Kishore’s several costume changes and his antics at claiming the money due to him are met by a resplendent Madhubala who uses her bemused smile to nonchalantly disarm Kishore. Madhubala appears have to thoroughly enjoyed herself during the making of this song. And why not? Not only was she the sole recipient of Kishore’s affections but also had the best seat in the house.
Only a veritable versatile genius like Kishore could do all that in a single song. Think of a single actor/singer/comedian who could have done all this at that time and since then. You won’t be able to think of anyone else and it is at this moment we must realise how fortunate we were to enjoy the talents of Kishore.
Impromptu comedy of Padosan
The songs from Padosan (1968) were yet another proof of his versatile brilliance. Take “Meri Bindu Re Bindu, Meri Pyaari Bindu”, for example. On the day when this song was being recorded, the music director (RD Burman) didn’t have the complete tune ready, the lyricist (Rajinder Krishan) didn’t have the lyrics ready. No problems for Kishore. He asked RD to start the recording — improvised the tune, supplied the lyrics, as well as the actual screenplay, in addition to the brilliant rendition of the song itself, right on floor of the recording studio.
His musical “duet” with Manna Dey-backed Mehmood in “Ek Chatur Naar” is also the stuff of legends. Reportedly, Manna Dey was miffed at losing an on-screen musical duet to someone like Kishore, with zero classical training at all!
Just like that, he went away
On October 13, 1987, which was also elder brother Ashok Kumar’s 76th birthday, Kishore suffered a massive heart attack and passed away. All of a sudden. Just like that. He was only 58. In the annals of Indian cinematic history, Kishore Kumar stands alone. I imagine, with eternal regret, what would have been, had he taken his talents and health more seriously.