Lata Mangeshkar died this morning, leaving behind a musical legacy that's unlikely to ever be equalled, in India or elsewhere. In the late 2000s, she spoke to author and filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir about her life and a storied playback singing career for an interview book, Lata Mangeshkar… In Her Own Voice (Niyogi Books). Edited excerpts:
On first receiving credit.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the 78 record of ‘Aayega aanewala.’ Well, the singer’s name on the label is ‘Kamini.’ It was Madhubala’s screen name in Mahal. I did get upset that our names never featured anywhere. I had to fight for it to happen and kept asking producers: ‘Why don’t you credit us?’ The first time our names appeared on the screen and on disc was in Barsaat in 1949. It coincided with credit given to us in other films that year, including Andaaz and Badi Bahen.
‘Aayega aanewala’ became so popular that the radio station received thousands of request letters. People wrote in asking: ‘Who is singing this song? We want to know her name.’ So HMV was called and asked to name the singer. Finally it was even announced on the radio: ‘This song is sung by Lata Mangeshkar.’
On ‘Pyaar hua iqrar hua’.
Yes, I liked the way the song was picturised. It’s unforgettable. Raj Kapoor’s three young children, Randhir, Ritu and Rishi, were featured in the song. Raj Kapoor knew what he wanted and often had Shankar-Jaikishan change entire musical interludes. This happened in ‘Pyaar hua iqarar hua’ too. The interlude music in the song was changed during the rehearsal...
Raj Sahib and Shankar-Jaikishan worked very closely. And along with lyricist Shailendraji and Hasrat Sahib, they sat for hours working on the songs. Raj Kapoor described some songs as ‘poppatiya’ [literally: as though sung by a parrot] — lightweight numbers that weren’t very special but bound to be big hits!
On singing in character.
I get completely lost in a song. But I always try to sing according to the character portrayed in the film. What kind of character is she? I think about that and also ask which actress I am singing for. When I first started singing, I didn’t pay much attention to this. I paid more attention to adding nuance and variation.
Master Ghulam Haider was the first to tell me: ‘Lata, pay more attention to the lyrics and who will mime the song on screen. This is important — only then will the song work better. And try to sing the words clearly so we know what they are. Be mindful of this.’
On the foreign singers she likes.
I love Nat King Cole, the Beatles, Barbra Streisand and Harry Belafonte — I was very pleased once to see Harry Belafonte perform on stage. I also like the Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum and the Lebanese singer Fairouz. Did you know the Awaara song ‘Ghar aya mera pardesi’ is based on Umm Kulthum’s ‘Ala balad el mahboob’.
On Kishore Kumar’s antics.
Sometimes I arrived late for a recording and he would be sitting there quietly. He would look at me and say: ‘Lata, you’re here! Come, sit down.’ As soon as the music director started to rehearse the song, Kishoreda would look at me, raise his eyebrows and say under his breath: ‘What do you think?’ Meaning the song was no good. He just looked at me and I would burst out laughing. The music director never understood why I was laughing.
Kishoreda did all sorts of things. Many times I had to stop him and say: ‘Kishoreda, please let me sing. Or else my voice will go from laughing.’
On her love for Vegas.
This may sound strange but when I used to visit America on holiday, I loved spending time in Las Vegas. It’s an exciting city. I really enjoyed playing the slot machines. I never played roulette or cards — but I used to spend the whole night at a slot machine. I was very lucky and won many times. Meena and Usha and sometimes my nieces and nephews would accompany me. I would drink Coca-Cola all through the night and play. The next morning, we would have breakfast: fried eggs and a glass of milk. This was our Las Vegas routine. These little escapes were enjoyable and relaxing.
On a rumour about ‘Jab pyaar kiya to darna kya’.
How can people think such things? Record in a studio bathroom? The person who has written that has clearly never been inside a studio bathroom!
I was standing at the mic in Mehboob Recording Studio when I sang the song. The chorus singers and I were the only ones in the otherwise empty recording hall. Naushad Sahib asked me to sing the main line a number of times, creating a gap or pause in between. ‘Pyaar kiya to darna kya…’ pause and then again ‘Jab pyaar kiya to darna kya…’ This line was then layered onto the track to create an echo effect — as if many voices were singing it. Record in a studio bathroom, if you please!
On her favourite Hindi films.
A film I have seen many times is Yash Chopra’s Trishul because I really liked Amitabh Bachchan in the role. He is such a good actor. I liked his work in the recent Baghbaan too. His co-star in that film, Paresh Rawal, is good too. He can do any kind of role, serious and comic. I have always appreciated the acting of Uttam Kumar and Soumitra Chatterjee. Their Bengali films were wonderful. The work of Sivaji Ganesan and Chiranjeevi is also excellent.
Coming back to Hindi films, I am still very fond of Madhumati and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge. I liked Sholay, Seeta aur Geeta and Sohrab Modi’s Sikander with Prithviraj Kapoor.
I was very young when I first saw Kismet, but I think I have seen it over fifty times! I used to have a VHS copy of Kismet, and would watch it over and over again. I like every aspect of the film: the music and songs and Ashok Kumar. It’s a film I still enjoy.
I must have seen Mughal-e-Azam two or three times. But honestly speaking, I don’t like sad films. I prefer comedies. I loved watching Mehmood and loved his Padosan. I prefer happy endings.