“Rahe na rahe hum, mahaka karenge / Ban ke kali, ban ke saba, bag-e-wafaa mein…”
—Mamta (music: Roshan, lyrics: Majrooh)
The cliché of ‘end of an era’ is true only once in a while. The voice of Lata Mangeshkar carried well beyond her active singing years and became the talisman for a wide range of musical motifs associated with Hindi cinema. The alaap accompanying the logo of the legendary production house Yash Raj Films is her voice. Cricket fans use O Paalanhaare (from Lagaan) as the ultimate prayer song in a dire situation. When music company Saregama launched their player, Carvaan, they used a Mangeshkar classic, Lag jaa gale from Woh Kaun Thi, as the transgenerational voice of Hindi ]cinema. You could call her passing the end of an era, except that it’s not the end. Her voice will carry on as long as Hindi cinema needs music.
Something unprecedented happened at All India Radio’s stations whenever this hit song was played. Their phone lines got jammed with people calling to know the name of the singer. The record carried the name of ‘Kamini’ (Madhubala’s character in the film) because music records of the time didn’t credit playback singers. That changed with this song and Lata Mangeshkar started the practice of crediting singers for songs. Of course, it was a musical gem and even with the primitive recording techniques, her voice shone through—making it one of the defining songs of the times.
Salil Chowdhury’s partnership with Lata Mangeshkar went beyond Hindi and some of his biggest hits in Bengali are sung by Mangeshkar. One of their classics was in Bimal Roy’s reincarnation drama, which won Lata her first Filmfare award (and also happened to be the first Filmfare award for playback singing). Veteran composer C. Ramachandra said of the performance, “I got the feeling that a 16-year-old was singing,” and, indeed, the song has an ethereal quality that compels the on-screen Dilip Kumar to chase the elusive singer. It was the thematic melody of the film as well, wafting in during critical scenes of the film.
Republic Day 1963: At a fundraiser event for the martyrs of the 1962 Indo-China war, Lata Mangeshkar went from being merely a successful playback singer to the voice of the nation. Her rendition of the song moved the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to tears. She had almost passed on the opportunity to sing at the function because of her busy schedule (and Asha Bhosle was brought in), but the organizers convinced Lata. She kept rehearsing till the last few hours (even on her flight to Delhi) to render the live version that would become immortal.
Guide is often called the greatest Hindi film soundtrack and it's easy to see why. It's a struggle to select any one number from the album. If I have gone for this one—a duet with Kishore Kumar—it is because it embodies the exuberant romance of 1960s Hindi cinema, the singer’s voices mirroring the ecstasy of Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman as they embark on their journey of forbidden romance in the film. Mangeshkar had a dream run, with the Kaanton se kheechke yeh aanchal going on to become something like an anthem for freedom of women.
The Mangeshkar household—led by Lata—is said to be notoriously prudish and one apocryphal story goes that the multitude of Filmfare award statuettes there have gowns stitched around them! Hence, this number pictured on dancing diva Helen gains some significance. It was the first cabaret song Mangeshkar agreed to, partially due to her rapport with L-P and partially due to the wave of Western music that was sweeping Hindi cinema then. Author Ganesh Anantharaman says, “The song is a study on how one can sound seductive without seeming coarse.”
Abhimaan was about a male singer getting upstaged by his more talented wife. The male playback singers included Kishore Kumar and Mohammad Rafi, which meant the only person who could be reliably expected to upstage them was Lata Mangeshkar. Piya bina merges the magic of a singer’s voice and the sadness of a wife watching her marriage crumble under the weight of her husband’s ego. If SD and Mangeshkar’s partnership had to have a swansong, this was the perfect one.
Yash Chopra and Lata Mangeshkar shared a special relationship, almost like family. She continued to provide playback till his very last film. He had just started to build his reputation as the ‘King of Romance’ when he directed Silsila, whose soundtrack endured way beyond the controversy of its casting and its middling box-office run. The distinctiveness of Mangeshkar’s singing voice was matched by the speaking voice of Amitabh Bachchan, the two creating a magical jugalbandi of song and poetry.
When the Lekin soundtrack released, a friend whose tastes run to classical music had said Kesariya balma is that one song he would take to a desert island. Yaara seeli seeli was the more popular choice, for which she won a National Award for playback singing, the song wowing purists and fans alike. One running joke about Mangeshkar’s career is the recurrence of hit ‘ghost songs’—probably because only she is able to bring an otherworldly quality to a melody.
With the addition of the flashy DD Metro channel, entertainment (literally) doubled in Indian households and countdown shows moved from radio to television. Lata Mangeshkar topped the charts once again and the song played at every wedding sangeet there was! Her duet with S. P. Balasubrahmanyam had all the verve of a joyous celebration and showed nothing of the 65-year-old who sang it for an actress less than half her age. Lata Mangeshkar had bowed out of the Filmfare Awards in 1971 to allow fresh talent to come in. Twenty-five years later, Filmfare had to give her a special award for this song.
Lyricist Prasoon Joshi had tears in his eyes when he heard the 75-year-old record this song about a mother and son playing hide and seek, except the song is being played at the son’s funeral. Lata had a slightly grainy quality to her voice due to advancing age and that suited Waheeda Rehman perfectly, the voice matching the tired, emotional visage of a mother left alone. It is said that no language has a word for a parent who has lost their child, because the grief is unspeakable. In the twilight of her career, Lata brought us face to face with this grief.
Diptakirti Chaudhuri is a Bengaluru-based author of books on cinema.