‘Lata Mangeshkar… in her own voice’ (Niyogi Books) is a collection of fascinating conversations between Lata Mangeshkar and Nasreen Munni Kabir, an India-born TV producer, director and author based in the UK. It takes us into the world of India’s most gifted singer and reveals the person behind the voice that has provided the soundtrack for the lives of billions.
At some event, Shah Rukh Khan said his one regret was you could never sing for him! What about the generation after Meena Kumari?
The names that come to mind now are Waheedaji, Nimmiji, Nanda, Sadhana, Sharmila Tagore, Sairaji, Mala Sinha and Hema Malini. They have mimed songs correctly. It gives me a great sense of satisfaction to see the variations and expressions I have tried to give the song work on the screen.
I liked Jaya Bachchan’s performance in ‘Guddi’ very much. I thought she mimed the song ‘Baahon mein chale aao’ in ‘Anamika’ so well. There is a difficult song in ‘Lekin’, ‘Suniyoji araj hamari’, and Dimple’s lip movement is flawless. Of today’s generation, I like Kajol, and Rani, especially in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Black’. Another talented actress is Karishma Kapoor.
You have sung for three generations of the same family: Shobhana Samarth, her daughters, Nutan and Tanuja, and then Tanuja’s daughter, Kajol. Did you share a close personal relationship with any actress?
I can’t say I was close to many. I felt close to Nargisji and Meena Kumariji. We got on well and I liked the kind of people they were. They had a lovely, charming way of speaking. The way they dressed was lovely too — with their beautiful ghagras and sarees.
I often visited Nargisji’s house. She lived in a very gracious way. Meena Kumariji had a tragic life in many ways, but when you met her, you couldn’t tell she was unhappy. Nargisji and Meena Kumariji were special people. I am also very fond of Nimmiji, Sulochana, Waheeda Rehman and Rekha.
Did any of the actresses insist you sing for them?
Madhubala was the first who said I must sing all her songs — she even had it written into her contract. I always thought that Madhubala was influenced by Marilyn Monroe.
I later heard other actresses wanted me to sing for them. Male actors often insisted on the same playback artiste. Raj Kapoor wanted Mukesh Bhaiya, Dilip Kumar chose Rafi Sahib and Dev Anand preferred Kishore Kumar. People came to identify a singing voice with a star.
To some extent Mukesh Bhaiya’s voice matched Raj Kapoor’s speaking voice. So it was a good fit. And Rafi Sahib’s voice suited Dilip Kumar.
I heard a rumour that you are a wonderful mimic.
[Laughs] Even as a child I enjoyed imitating singers and actresses of the ’30s and ’40s. The first person I mimicked was my father. I was performing at a classical musical programme in Poona, and told him matter-of-factly: “Today, I’ll sit like you and sing like you.” I went onto the stage and did just that. Imitating his gestures too.
A friend of my father’s said: “Baapser to beta savaser!” (The daughter is one step ahead of her father.) Baba said nothing. He just laughed.”
Everyone in the Mangeshkar family impersonates rather well. People often ask me: “When you sing for Sairaji, how do you manage to sound like her?” I don’t actually change my voice, but when I sing for Saira Banu or any other star, I think to myself: “If I sing like this, it will look right for her.” So, I add some touch to reflect her personality.
Ultimately when the song is picturised, it acquires a life of its own and depends on so many factors. Which film directors for you have a good understanding of music and how the song can work on screen?
Guru Dutt and Vijay Anand were the best. Although I did not sing many songs for Guru Dutt, I sang a few songs in his film ‘Jaal’ and ‘Badle badle mere sarkaar’ in ‘Chaudhvin ka Chand’ — the film was produced under his own banner. But I really liked the way he visualised songs. He gave importance and weight to every song line. He was careful about camera angles and how the actor should mime the song to make it work. He performed ‘Aji dil par hua aisa jaadoo’ in ‘Mr & Mrs 55’ so well. He was so natural. I’ll never forget it.
Guru Dutt was an intelligent and quiet man. During the recording sessions, he’d sometimes explain the way he intended to film the song, but we communicated, by and large, through S.D. Burman.
I also liked Vijay Anand’s approach. I believe Guru Dutt might have influenced him because Guru Dutt had worked with Dev Sahib. Vijay Anand filmed ‘Kanton se kheench ke ye anchal’ in ‘Guide’ brilliantly.
Another example of his skill is the ‘Tere Ghar Ke Saamne’ title song. Rafi Sahib sang the song for Dev Anand and I sang the ‘alaap’ for Nutan. The scene shows the hero sitting at a bar and he starts singing. He thinks of the girl he loves and suddenly she appears to him in his whisky glass. Vijay Anand was highly imaginative. Chetan Anand was a good director too. And I liked Dev Sahib’s acting very much.
Which other directors have created memorable songs on screen?
Raj Kapoor. He understood music very well. He had a great sense of how a song should be picturised and explained to the music director exactly what he wanted. Raj Sahib would say: “This is how I’ll film it. This is where I’ll cut. My camera will be in this position.” So we knew how the song would look in the film. His songs were wonderful.
Mehboob Sahib was very good too, but had an older style of filming songs. ‘Andaaz’ was different from his usual style. In ‘Andaaz’ scenes lead up to a song. There’s a party and Dilip Kumar is asked to sing. He sits at the piano and sings ‘Tu kahe agar’. The child in the story has a birthday, and her mother, played by Nargisji, mimes the song ‘Meri laadli, o meri laadli’. The same connection between song and story is made in ‘Tod diya dil mera’ and ‘Uthaye jaa unke situm’.
Every song in ‘Andaaz’ has a reason to be there. When songs are used in this way, the audience feels involved because they add to the understanding of the character while advancing the story. Naushad Sahib’s contribution to the matching of scene and song in ‘Andaaz’ was tremendous.
Bimal Roy’s songs are also beautifully embedded in story-telling. Did you have many discussions with him?
I didn’t discuss songs directly with Bimalda. He talked in Bengali and I hardly spoke it at the time. He was a serious and quiet man and never talked much. He sat quietly in the recording studio and all he would say to me in Bengali was: “Namaskar. How are you? Well?” Nothing more than that.
I liked his films. Whether his songs were good or bad wasn’t important — the whole film was good. I consider him among our great directors.
What do you think of V. Shantaram?
Shantaramji was an excellent director too. One of his special talents was his understanding of music. He couldn’t sing, but recognised a good tune. While the songs were rehearsed, he explained in great detail how he intended to film every song line. I liked his song picturisations in ‘Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje’. The same goes for Yash Chopra. I like his films very much.
Gulzar Sahib is a lyricist, poet, writer and film director. What do you feel about his work as director?
He is a different kind of director. I am fond of all his films — the serious ones and the comedies, especially ‘Angoor’. He is a stubborn sort of a person. I know this because I have worked closely with him on ‘Lekin’. He gets annoyed and insists on doing things his way, but what he delivers is of good quality.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee was a fine director too. He understood how to use songs well. He loved the sitar, and was very knowledgeable about classical music.
You started singing fewer songs from the late 1990s. But all the film directors of today, including Mani Ratnam, Sooraj Barjatya, Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar, Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Ashutosh Gowariker, Rakeysh Mehra — they all want you to sing in their films.
And I have sung for them all. I find the work of these directors very good. I like Aditya Chopra’s films. He explains the song situation very well. I don’t see many films these days, but I liked Rajkumar Hirani’s ‘Munnabhai MBBS’ and ‘Lage Raho Munnabhai’.
Shah Rukh Khan can act in many different types of roles. In ‘Darr’ and ‘Baazigar’ he was a villain and then in ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’, he redefined the idea of a romantic hero. An actor whom I like very much is Rishi Kapoor. He has always been excellent, a good dancer and is handsome too! I saw Aamir Khan’s ‘Taare Zameen Par’. He is a good director and a very good actor. I regard him as a personal friend.
(Excerpted from ‘Lata Mangeshkar … in her own voice’ by Nasreen Munni Kabir with the permission of the publisher, Niyogi Books)