Bollywood's Superstar Playback Singers
Amirbai Karnataki: Famous as ‘Kannad Kokila’, Amirbai Karnataki was 15-years old when she came from Karnatka to Mumbai where her sister, Gauhar, was an actress. With the help of her sister, she came in touch with HMV who were impressed by her singing talent and made her sing a qawwali which became very popular. Initially she sang songs in films like Narsi Bhagat, Sardar, Darshan etc., but her big success as playback singer came with the release of Bombay Talkies’ Kismet (1943). Her songs, ‘Ab Tere Siva Kaun Mera’, ‘Dheere Dheere Aa Re Badal’ and “Door Hato Ae Duniawalo’ became a rage. She reached her peak in 1940s through musical hits like Bharathari, Caarwan, Aamarpali, Shikari, Eight Days, Leela, Sindoor and many others. She was very popular with the music lovers and even Lata Mangeshkar admired her talent a lot. Mahatma Gandhi was an ardent fan of her song ‘Vaishnav Janto’, which he made a part of his daily prayer meetings.
Shamshad Begum: The legendary classical and playback singer of yester years, Shamshad was born in Amritsar. Making her debut in AIR Lahore in 1937, the singer captivated the hearts of listeners with the enchanting depth of her voice. Lahore based composer Ghulam Haider used her voice skillfully in some of his earlier hits like Khazanchi (1941) and Khandan (1942). When he shifted to Mumbai in 1944, Shamshad went with him as member of his team. In 1944 Ghulam Haider used her voice in Mehboob’s Humayun. The song ‘Naina Bhar Aaye Neer’ captured the imagination of the audiences. That was the time when Amirbai Karnataki was considered number one playback singer in Mumbai. With the introduction of Shamshad Begum in the Hindi film world, contemporary composers almost fell over each other in booking her for the recording of their songs, leading to an extremely prolific career till the late 50s. Music directors like C. Ramchandra, S. D. Burman and Naushad used her as their prime female vocalist in the early part of their career. Most of her songs were memorable hits – ‘Dunia Mein Ghribon Ko Aaram Nahin Milta’ (Zamindar), Armano Ki Basti Mein Hum Aag Laga Baithe (Shirin Farhad), ‘Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon’ (Patanga), ‘Milte Hi Aankhen’ (Babul), Sayyan Dil Mein Aana Re’ (Bahar), ‘Boojh Mera Kya Naam Re’ (C.I.D.), ‘Kabhi Aar Kabhi Paar’ (Aar Paar) and many more all-time hits. The number of remixed songs that are storming the music market can judge the popularity of her songs. 70 per cent of these remixs have the songs of Shamshad Begum.
Geeta Dutt: Geeta Roy came to Mumbai with her parents from East Bengal in 1942 when she was 12-year old. When she was only 15, music director S. D. Burman offered her a solo in Do Bhai. The music of that film clicked in a big way. The biggest hit of the film was ‘Mera Sunder Sapna Beet Gaya’, sung by Geeta Roy. Disc sales of the song rocketed to new heights. This gave Geeta loads of offers and she became the top most playback singer of the Hindi film industry. Her collaboration with composer S. D. Burman proved very fruitful for Geeta Roy, later famous as Geeta Dutt after her marriage to Guru Dutt. The team was a legendary one, dishing out hit after hit. Films like Do Bhai, Baazi, Munimji, Nau Do Gyareh, Kagaz Ke Phool, Sujata are just some examples. The jazzy musical score of Baazi revealed a new facet to Geeta’s singing. The appeal in her voice and the ease with which she went Western was marvelous to behold. Every song in the film was a raging hit. With Aar Paar, both composer O. P. Nayyar and the singer Geeta Dutt scaled new heights. ‘Babuji Dheere Chalna’ and ‘Yeh Lo Mein Hari Piya’ became super hits. Theirs was to be an eventful partnership yielding 18 classical songs. Her sensuousness made her a favorite for rock and role and seductive songs. Though relegated to second position after the rise of Lata Mangeshkar as the greatest playback singer, Geeta managed to hold her own against Lata for more than a decade in the 50s and 60s. After the death of her husband Guru Dutt in 1964, Geeta suffered a nervous break down, which practically finished her career as a singer. She died in 1972 at the age of 41.
Lata Mangeshkar: The most famous name in the history of Hindi film music, Lata Mangeshkar has always been a unique combination of a God-gifted voice and an unbelievable ability to easily pick up and inherit whatever was taught to her by her father, Dinanath Mangeshkar, a reputed classical singer. With established singers like Amirbai Karnataki and Shamshad Begum around, Lata’s thin voice strained. However, leading composer Ghulam Haider reposed faith in Lata and gave her break in Majboor that brought her some attention. But the true efflorescence of Lata’s talent was witnessed in 1949 when she sang super hit songs in back to back three blockbusters: composers Naushad’s Andaz, Shanker-Jaikishan’s Barsaat and Khemchand Prakash’s Mahal. By 1950 the Lata wave had changed the industry. Her high-pitched singing rendered obsolete the heavy base nasal voices of the day. Only Geeta Dutt and to some extent Shamshad survived the Lata onslaught. Her phenomenal success made Lata the most powerful woman in the Indian film industry. Though Lata sang under the baton of all the top composers, special mention must be made of Madan Mohan who exploited her voice as no other music director for rendering some of the most beautiful ghazals. The 60s and 70s saw Lata go from strength to strength. However, in the disco era from mid-80s onwards, Lata drastically cut down on her workload. Since then Lata has attached herself to, and worked largely with quality banners like Rajshree and Yash Chopra.
Asha Bhosle: The most versatile singer of Hindi films, Asha Bhosle can boast of having worked extensively with trend setting composers across three generations, from O. P. Nayyar’s breezy, foot-taping ditties of the 1950s to R. D. Burman’s pop blitzkrieg in the 1970s to A. R. Rahman’s sensational contemporary rhythms. She sang one of Hindi cinema’s first rock and roll numbers, ‘Eina Meen Deeka’ way back in 50s. Asha made her playback debut in 1948 with the film Chunaria, but it took her long time to make it to the top. 1957 was her real breakthrough year when O. P. Nayyar used her voice to sing in Tumsa Nahin Dekha and Naya Daur, both movies turning blockbuster musicals. Same year S. D. Burman chose to groom Asha along with O. P. Nayyar. The following year Asha made it right to the top spot with hit songs in films like Howra Bridge, Chalti Ka Naam Gadhi and Lajwanti. Asha got into personal relatioship with O. P. Nayyar and thereafter remained his premier singer till their break-up in 1970s. The 1970s brought her close with R. D. Burman (whom she later married), who gave her a new hip and happening sound altogether – Caravan, Teesri Manzil, Hare Rama Hare Krishna and many more hit movies. 1980 proved a lucky and prosperous year for Asha as she rocked the show with evergreen ghazals of Umrao Jaan. In 1990s Asha further widened her horizon by producing hit albums in Indipop. Today her vocals are in better, more supple, sensuous and inviting shape than ever before.
Manna Dey: A legendary singer whose singing career spanned over five decades, Manna Dey is a versatile genius. Manna Dey was initially groomed to be a music director under the mesmeric spell of his illustrious uncle K. C. Dey and composer Anil Biswas. But a song that Dey sang for the film Ram Rajya changed everybody’s opinion about his vocation. They all said he was better off as a singer. There was no looking back after that. Although he never quite got the success that contemporaries Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh and later Kishore Kumar achieved, Manna Dey went on to record several unforgettable numbers. Notable among them are: ‘Kaun Aaya Mere Man Ke Dware’, Tu Pyar Ka Sagar Hei’, ‘Upar Gagan Vishal’, ‘Yeh Ishq Ishq Hei Ishq’, Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua’, Ae Bhai Zara Dekh Ke chal’, ‘Aaja Sanam’, ‘Ae Meri Zohra Zabin and ‘Aye Mere Pyare Watan’. And who could forget the ‘Ek Chatur Naar’ duet with Kishore Kumar in Padosan? Manna Dey is a flawless singer who could sing any type of song. His mastery over semi-classical numbers is matchless – ‘Laga Chunri Mein Daag’, ‘Tere Naina Talash Karen’ and ‘Poocho Na Kaise’. Manna Dey is one of the earliest playback singers to feel comfortable with fast numbers like ‘Jhoomta Mausam Mast Mahina’. Although respected by one and all in the industry, Manna Dey feels that the reason why he never enjoyed the top slot in singing was due to the fact that he was never a part of any camp or attached to any one composer. He has no regrets and remains happy with his work.
Talat Mehmood: When melody ruled the roost in the Hindi film world, Talat remained the number one singer in the 1950s. He was totally identified with Dilip Kumar (Babul, Daag, Tarana, Footpath, Sangdil, Shikast), sang for Raj Kapoor (Ashiana, Anhonee), Dev Anand (Taxi Driver) and V. Shantaram (Parchain, Subah Ka Tara). Every music director including Shanker-Jaikishan, C. Ramchandra, Roshan, Ghulam Mohammed and Madan Mohan sought him after. This period also produced some of the most wonderful duets, pairing Talat with Lata Mungeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Geeta Dutt. Both Naushad and Anil Biswas claimed credit for discovering Talat in the 1950-releases, Babul and Arzoo. The next five to seven years found Talat zooming to the top with an enviable score of hits – ‘Ae Dil Mujhe Aisi Jagah Le Chal’(Arzoo), ‘Mera Jeevan Sathi Bichad Gaya (Babul), ‘Meri Yaad Mein Tum Na Aansoo Bahana’ (Anhonee), ‘Mein Pagal Mera Manua Pagal’ (Ashiana), ‘Ae Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal’ (Daag), ‘Tera Khayal Dil Se’ (Do Raha), ‘Andhe Jahan Ke Andhe Raaste’ (Patita), ‘Jayen To Jayen Kahan’ (Taxi Driver), ‘Jalte Hein Jis Ke Liye’ (Sujata) and several more super hit songs. From the 1960s, the direction of Hindi films music began to change. So did the attitude of successful heroes. Dilip Kumar was no longer the tragic hero whose personality suited the soft melodies of a Talat Mehmood. He switched over to loud roles and Naushad who composed music for most of his fims, opted for Mohammed Rafi. Despite fewer films, Talat Mehmood remained the favorite of those who preferred soft, romantic melodies.
Mukesh: Bitten by the Bombay bug, Mukesh arrived in Bombay with the hope of becoming a movie star. He stayed with his relative, the famous actor Motilal. With Motilal’s help he got a role as an actor. His debut as a singer, however, came in the film Nirdosh with the song, ‘Dil Hei Bujha Hua’. He later went on to sing the song ‘Badariya Baras Gayee Us Paar’ with Khursheed in the film Moorti. Then came an important milestone in his life. The year was 1945 and Anil Biswas asked him to record the song ‘Dil Jalta Hai To Jalne De’ for the film Pehli Nazar. That song brought a still relatively unknown Mukesh to the altar of fame. A legend was born and in the coming decades his golden voice would be heard in songs from musical hits like Aag, Andaaz, Barsaat, Mela across the nation. In 1949 came another milestone in his life – his association with Raj Kapoor and Shanker-Jaikishan. The chart-bursting success of the music in films like Awaara and Shri 420 spread Mukesh’s popularity all the way to Russia where in the streets of Moscow you could hear people singing ‘Awara Hoon’ and ‘Mera Joota Hei Japani’. Following Awaara’s success, Mukesh almost ruined his singing career to pursue acting. But both of his films, Mashooqa and Anurag sank at the box office. It was with ‘Yeh Mera Deewanapan Hai’ from Yahudi (1958) that Mukesh came back with a bang. Other hits that year like Parvarish, Madhumati and Phir Subah Hogi meant there was no turning back. Then followed S. D. Burman-composed two masterpieces – ‘Chal Ri Sajni’ from Bombai Ka Babu (1960) and ‘O Janewale Ho Sake To Laut Ke Aana’ from Bandini (1963). Mukesh thereafter flourished right through the 1960s and mid 1970s with soulful hits like, ‘Main To Ik Khwab Hoon’ (Himalaya Ki God Mein), ‘Jeena Yahan Marna Yahan’ (Mera Naam Joker), ‘Maine Tere Liye Hi Saat Rang Ke Sapne Chune’ (Anand) and many more hits. His last recorded song was ‘Chanchal, Sheetal, Nirmal, Komal’ from Satyam Shivam Sundaram. He died of a massive heart attack in Detroit (USA) in the midst of a concert with Lata Mungeshkar on 27th August 1976.
Mohammed Rafi: Born in Amritsar, Mohammed Rafi moved to Mumbai in 1944 after taking lessons in music from Ustad Wahid Khan in Lahore. Naushad gave him his first break in Pehle Aap (1944). He made his mark with Naushad-composed ‘Tera Khilona Toota Balak’ in Anmol Ghadi (1946). Rafi’s first big hit was in Jugnu (1947) in which he sang the duet ‘Yahan Badla Wafa Ka Bewafai Ke Siva Kya Hai’ with Noorjehan. His career took off with the all-time hit ‘Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki’ (Dulari-1949). There was no looking back after that and Rafi ruled as the undisputed king of playback singing till the early 70s. Though Rafi was a favorite of different music directors but the one who recognized and exploited his immense talent was Naushad. The duo worked together to give several super hits such as Baiju Bawra and Mere Mehboob, to name a few. Rafi’s other fruitful partnership was with S. D. Burman (Kagaz Ke Phool, Guide, Tere Ghar Ke Samne and Pyaasa). Rafi was displaced by Kishore Kumar in the early 70s but Rafi made a grand comeback with the Nasir Hussain musical hit Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahin (1977) and Amar Akbar Anthony the same year, even winning the National Award for ‘Kya Hua Tera Vaada’ from the former. His last song was ‘Tu Kahin Aas Paas’ in the film Aas Paas. The legend of the Hindi film industry breathed his last on July 31, 1980. His immortality is vouched by the fact that even about two decades after his death, his popularity remains intact.
Kishore Kumar: The versatile genius, Kishore Kumar nurtured dreams of becoming a singer following the footsteps of his idol, the legendary singer K. L. Saigal. He frequently visited his famous star brother Ashok Kumar in Mumbai from Khandwa, his birthplace, in the hope that he would introduce him to K. L. Saigal. But destiny willed otherwise. He was forced into acting – a hero who was as much a comedian. But Kishore Kumar’s real ambition was to become a playback singer, which became true when music director Khemchand Prakash called him to lend his voice for Dev Anand in Ziddi (1948). However, Kishore gave credit for his popularity to Burmans – father and son. It was S. D. Burman who made Kishore Kumar, the superstar singer of the 70s when he chose him to sing ‘Roop Tera Mastana’ for Rajesh Khanna in Aradhna. Earlier Sachinda had made Kishore the voice of Dev Anand in hit films Baazi, Paying Guest, Munimji, Guide, Teen Devian, and Jewel Theif. Another composer who placed implacable faith in Kishore Kumar was Sachnda’s son, R. D. Burman. Kishore’s ability to modulate his voice to suit the personality of the hero he sang for was what made him a star singer. He was as much the voice of dapper Dev Anand, the adorable Rajesh Khanna as well as the angry youngman Amitabh Bachchan. As he was still on top, singing superhit songs, Kishore’s sudden death on October 12, 1987 shocked the nation.
Paying tribute to superstar playback singers cannot be complete without applauding other melodious voices of the Hindi cinema who at one time or the other sang immortal songs – Hemant Kumar, Bhupinder, Yesudas, C. H. Atma, G. M. Durrani, Bhappi Lehri, Zohrabai, Mubarak Begum, Raj Kumari, Uma Devi, Suman Kalyanpur, Sudha Malhotra and Sandhya Mukherjee. The present generation of playback singers is no less praiseworthy for their continuing contribution to the treasure of beautiful Bollywood melodies: Alka Yagnik, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Sunidhi Chouhan, Shreya Ghosal, Alisha Chenoi, Sadhna Sargam, Sonu Nigam, Udit Narayan, Kumar Shanu, Hariharan, Abhijeet and Balasubramanyam.