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The Glad and the Sad

The Glad and the Sad

by Khalid Mohamed September 1 2020, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 10 mins, 28 secs

Even as COVID-19 spikes on, the film soundtracks of yesteryear offer some solace and relief. Khalid Mohamed writes on the vast treasure of songs of love and sorrow by Kishore Kumar.

Imagine 60 years ago, he had rendered a song written by Sahir Ludhianvi and composed by Hemant Kumar, which went - Na Dhela Lagta Hai… Hai Na Paisa… Karke Dekhoji… Yeh Dulha Kaisa Lagta Hai. That roughly translates It Doesn’t Take A Dime, It Doesn’t Take Money, Try It Out and The Bridegroom Will Look Like A Dream.

The song recorded for the long-forgotten romance-comedy Girlfriend, co-starring Waheeda Rehman, play-backed along with child star Daisy Irani, was a smart jibe against the dowry scourge. Besides this, the film had also spoken about a world where there was no money; people of all faiths lived by the barter system, exchanging food and household needs, without ever bargaining for a little or a lot more.

Directed by the ever-undervalued Satyen Bose (among his achievements, there’s Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi), Girlfriend advanced a notion of a utopian world. Tchah not feasible, you’ll think right away. So what? Only Kishore Kumar’s playful voice could make you believe in impossible dreams.

Swinging into extreme moods from the joyous to the achingly melancholic, his was a voice set free. He made us believe. He was popular but without catering exclusively to the rah-rah, give-us-our-daily-kicks front benches.

His struggle to do his own number, his battles with the sappy showbiz elements was laid to rest on 13 October 1987. He wrote his own comedy, his own tragedy -- the story of a boy who became a man, who became a cult only to be devoured, Dionysus-like, by some beyond-his-control, self-destructive bent.

Kishore Kumar was considered eccentric sometimes, sometimes a genius. The truth perhaps lay in between. Supremely gifted, he had to deal with charlatans, people who didn't know the craft or the art of the medium they were dealing with. They looked up to him for business advantages; naturally he was wont to treat them with mischief, contempt even. In his dancing eyes, in his exquisitely singsong speaking voice, in his light-hearted, quick-witted banter, you could still detect the painful vibe - the aching blue note. He could, whenever the mood grabbed him, sing with tears in his voice. He could have the cosmic blues. His low phrases could be deep as a valley, his heartaches hidden and prolonged. His romantic aura brought to mind an artist half-in-love with despair.

He would emerge from his reclusiveness to play in the park of the recording centers and the studio lights. Wanderlust would lead him to perform at concerts, in London and Los Angeles, though he always came back to his fiercely guarded bungalow in Juhu, just a stroll away from the once deserted beachside, now an enclave for Sunday holidaymakers.

And it was to his home that they brought him when he died, to his posters and pictures of Charlie Chaplin, to his fluffy dogs, Persian cats, among his gigantic video collection of horror movies and so many discs and cassettes which he would lend an ear to wherever there was a break from the career's hurly burly. He could be a charmer. He could be melancholic.  

The maturation of the singer-performer was impressive. From ranking third or fourth in the chart of playback singers, he progressed to become a very personal singer, songwriter and composer of pieces that revealed broad skills and even broader ambitions. If Kishore Kumar had not entirely shaken off the callowness of earlier outings, his later work represented a breakthrough. Strong and authorial, his voice developed confidence, establishing him as a peer. In fact, he became the first film singer to show an interest in bridging the gap between pop and serious music.

Rooted in the simple strains of the 1940s, he moved instinctively towards the electronic beat of the eclectic ‘80s. Restlessness was also the key to his personality; he was an innately conservative man who wanted to be a swinger. He would be an iconoclast too, and he had an understandable mistrust for institutions. What had the system ever done for him? The movies often meant crassness and he had to rise above that. If it brought money and sunshine, these were fringe benefits. He could mimic a rock-and-roll or ghazal star. He had fun, he could jeer and jibe at others because they didn't have the class and they accumulated more honors and awards than they deserved.

His unaffected pleasure in a solo performance, before the mike, on stage or in front of the camera, surprised everyone. He seemed to be grateful to his audience, anxious to please. How does he do it, you’d wonder, where does that energy and élan come from? It possibly had to do with the absence of snobbery that’s associated with artistry. He appeared to be so unspeakably relieved to have been sprung from the prison of anonymity that he married his audience and moved in. Kishore Kumar was just in time for any generation. He danced and sang just the way you wanted to feel, he made you escape from the ennui of everyday conditions. He could combine the lowest common denominator with the highest common factor. Like Mohammed Rafi, he sent out sounds that reverberated within, uniting so many hearts without apparent effort.  

It's true that sometimes he did not catch the listener right in the lead belly. But he was not too young to love or to console the tired spirit, and he kept up the whistle, the yodel on the long, long way to your very own Tipperary.

Born on August 4, 1929, in his 58 years he had become a dual personality. A mask of tragedy and comedy rolled into one. Son of Kunjbehari Ganguly, a barrister from Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh, his story begins in 1951.

In his early 20s, he left home for Bombay, where elder brother Ashok was already a major film star. That, young Kishore thought, was the ticket to a meeting with his all-time hero K.L. Saigal. The fan never got to meet Saigal but he was persuaded to stay back in the city where fame and fortune are up for grabs. Later their brother Anoop joined the movies too and played supporting roles; the trio teamed up in 1958 for Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, one of the most uproarious comedies to be confected in the Bombay studios.

But before that, Kishore Kumar had established himself as what was then known as the singing star. This meant that he did his own playback singing instead of depending on a ghost voice. Among his earlier lot of films, he always had a certain regard for Bhai Bhai, Bandi, Lookochuri, Shararat, Musafir, New Delhi, and  Asha with that super stomper of a song, Eena Meena Deeka. He also gave a bulk of the credit to filmmaker M.V. Raman for he encouraged him to take on the role of an actor in an era when the premium was on Greek-god looks, or what came to be known as chocolate faces.

Indeed, Kishore Kumar was crooning a number for Raman's film Bahar, when the filmmaker was floored by his saucy style of singing and cast him in his next production Ladki.

He had acted before but had gone virtually unnoticed in the support of brother Ashok Kumar, opposite Veena in Shikari. Neither did roles in Andolan and Tamasha help him. It was Ladki and Lehren, directed by H.S. Rawail that brought for him a cloudburst of applause. The seasoned director of the times R.C. Talwar, cast him opposite Meena Kumari in llzaam while Bimal Roy used him as representative of the unemployed youth in Musafir. Came the hilarious Baap Re Baap in 1955 and Kishore Kumar found a place in tinsel town as actor-singer-cum comedian. Then, there were Naya Andaz, Miss Mary, Begunah (in which he did a takeoff of Danny Kaye's act in Knock On Wood), Dilli KaThug and once again the unemployed youth in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s debut feature Musafir.

Around the same time he assumed the voice for Dev Anand when his songs for Paying Guest became jukebox delights. For Dev Anand, his numbers in Munimji were also instant hits. Earlier he had sung for the star in Baazi.

On screen, his one-man laugh riots continued, culminating in the belly-clutcher Half Ticket. As the black-and-white era faded, Kishore Kumar went slower on his acting assignments, popping up only to do an occasional Padosan. He almost quit acting, except in his own home productions, preferring to concentrate on playback singing. There was a lean phase followed by a whopping comeback with the film Aradhana in 1969. If he had been Dev Anand’s voice earlier, he now became the ghost for Rajesh Khanna, the country's first acknowledged superstar.

It would be futile to compile a list of the golden numbers Kishore Kumar had done down the decades. But the oldies from Funtoosh, Rim Jhim, Fareb, from Jhumroo in which he acted, sang and also composed music, and Mr X In Bombay, have a lasting resonance. So do his later renditions in Guide, Amar Prem, Mehbooba, Khamoshi, Mili and Saagar - and, all these precious melodies from a man who had no formal training, no guru. It is lore that he never ever learnt to read the notations. He did not feel the need to.

His directorial efforts ranged from the introspective Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein and the semi-autobiographical Shaabash Daddy to the bizarre Badhti Ka Naam Daadhi. He could talk eruditely of film craft or he could crack corny jokes (most often aimed against income-tax officers), he liked talking to the trees (or so he said), and he liked proclaiming that he was a teetotaler and a non-smoker. It was work, evidently, that sent him on a high.

At one point, he was recording as many as five songs a day. Kishore Kumar would not get bulldozed. The most striking example of this was Union Minister V.C. Shukla's ban on his songs from radio and television during the Emergency of 1975. He had refused to publicize the 20-Point Program. The axe fell on him but he didn't seem to care. When the clouds lifted, Shukla had to make a public apology.

Colorful, Kishore Kumar could be. Mostly decked up in Hawaiian shorts once, he had then taken to the silk kurta lungi and a white fur cap for stage shows. He liked to be dapper, he laughed once when asked, otherwise his wife wouldn't care for him. He married four times, and each time it was to a beautiful actress: Ruma Devi, Madhubala, Yogeeta Bali and Leena Chandavarkar.

It was in 1985 that he expressed his angst, his wish to get away from the madding crowd. He announced that he would like to retire to the tranquility of his hometown Khandwa. But that he wouldn't was a foregone conclusion. Because born entertainers never give up.

A man of extremes, he could either adore you or detest you. As it happened, I sampled both facets. He liked me for appreciating his Shabash Daddy but he detested me for saying that his Door Wadiyon Mein Kahin wasn't up to the mark. It was a mess of crime, love and deceit set against a snowy backdrop that left you strangely ice-cold.

You had to state that, put it down in words, even a wonder man could go wrong. Kishore Kumar was furious, obviously the film meant a lot to him. He was annoyed that you hadn't really understood him; between him and I there was this sudden communication gap. He had even taken out this enormous double-page advertisement in the trade weekly Screen, slapping me as he would slap a spoilt child. I was hurt, maybe, but that couldn't whittle my admiration for the man, the artist.

I could see him pump life into arid music, I saw him on the Shanmukhananda Hall stage transforming the long black mike wire in a live partner. I could thrill to Kishore Kumar singing at the Congress Centenary, 1985. I watched him on the revolving platform of New York’s Madison Square Gardens, I heard his voice ghosting for every movie hero, teenager or senior, I heard him on the radio as soon as I woke up, I collected his records, cassettes, some video tapes. I kept in contact. And then he pulled another number. He went away.

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