Many decades back, the composer Madan Mohan had said that it was the great fortune of music directors that Lata happened in their time. Like several wonders of history, Lata Mangeshkar was a product of her time and that makes her life and success impossible to replicate.
Talkies came to India in 1931 with Alam Ara and with the very first film, the Hindi film song had made a grand entry. It is noteworthy that just 10 years after the first talkie of India, Lata had done her first film in Marathi. She took up full-time work in films in 1942 after the death of her father Pandit Deenanath Mangeshkar, the doyen of Marathi theatre (he was originally Hardikar, but took on the name Mangeshkar after the deity Mangueshi in Goa, where he was born). She hated donning the greasepaint and being in front of the camera and wanted to focus solely on her singing. But the time was still not ripe.
While playback singers like Amirbai Karnataki and Zohrabai Ambalewali were successful at the time of Lata’s entry, singing stars like Noorjehan, Khursheed and Suraiya still ruled the roost. The death of Kundan Lal Saigal, followed by the partition of India in 1947, marked the end of the era of singing stars.
Lata was in the right place at the right time.
The Naushad musical Andaz (1949) saw the first signs of Lata’s success with her hit song 'Uthaye ja Unke Sitam'. Close on the heels of Andaz came Raj Kapoor’s blockbuster Barsaat and Kamal Amrohi’s Mahal. Lata had arrived, never to leave or look back again in life.
Away from the thick nasal-styled singing of the '40s, Lata brought in a new style which became such a strong reference point for singers that followed that they either tried to imitate her or consciously not imitate her specifically.
Music directors were amazed by the limitless possibilities offered by the voice of Lata. Up until then, they had to keep in mind the vocal limitations of the actresses who also sang the songs. Lata came with a range they had never seen before and this unshackled their creative energies. Anil Biswas once said that with the advent of Lata, for the first time, he could feel free to create, since he could mould the tune in any scale.
Along with Lata came many new voices that went on to reshape film music for good like Mohammed Rafi, Geeta Dutt, Talat Mahmood, Asha Bhonsle, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey. Their success marked the real beginning of the playback era and a golden chapter in the history of film music.
Bombay film music of the 1950s was dominated by the likes of Naushad, Anil Biswas, C Ramchandra, S D Burman, O P Nayyar, Hemant Kumar, Vasant Desai, Husanlal Bhagatram and Shankar Jaikishan. With the exception of Nayyar, all the music directors created some of the best compositions for Lata during this time. Her voice, drenched in the innocence of youth, conveyed love, longing, dejection, devotion, excitement and exuberance in a way never seen before.
The sheen of the golden era would have been halved without the presence of Lata and the doors of possibilities she threw open with her singing.
She was not only an accomplished playback singer but was also forthcoming with her creative inputs when the songs were being composed. In fact, she very famously suggested Madan Mohan to set the song 'Tu jahaan jahaan chalega' from Mera Saaya (1966) to the Raga Nanda.
In 1955, she composed music for the Marathi movie Ram Ram Pavhane and in the 1960s, composed for a few Marathi films under the pseudonym 'Anandghan'.
The real face behind the name is said to have emerged only when her film Sadhi Manase (1965) won the Maharashtra State Award for Best Music. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was very keen to get her to compose the music of his film Anuradha (1960) and according to some legends, even for Anand (1971). But Lata didn’t take her role as a composer seriously beyond a point as she had her hands full with work as a singer.
During her reign from the late 1940s to the 1990s, she was second to none. It did not come the easy way. On an average, a superstar actor reigns at the top for 20 years, as was seen with both Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan. It is even rarer for a actress to stay that long in business, with some exceptions being Meena Kumari, Vyjayanthimala, Nutan and Madhuri Dixit. But in such an industry, Lata remained the top female voice for more than five decades.
In an industry, where men write the rules, she had to play her game the tough way. She wrote her own rules and made the men adhere to it. She could refuse to sing for the biggest of showmen and music directors, who later found themselves seeking her voice and forgiveness.
Lata’s voice for playback made a star out of an actress. Her name in the credits could revive the prospects of a dead project. In the late 1980s, Rajshri Films was going through a tough phase and Sooraj Barjatya had taken over to make Maine Pyar Kiya. Their sinking ship found support only when Lata agreed to sing their songs.
Both Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle are associated with certain cliches in film singing. Lata is the ‘serious’ one and Asha is the ‘fun’ type. But they both have shattered these labels time and again. Lata could at once herald the arrival of youth in 'Thandi Hawayen Lehrake Aayein' and at the same time, be flirtatious in 'Gore Gore, O Baanke Chhore'. She could be stepped in classicism in 'Man Mohana Bade Jhoothe' and express a rare sensuality in 'Aa Jaane Jaan'. She would celebrate unfettered freedom in 'Aaj Phir Jeene Ki Tamannah Hai' and scale heights of coquetry in 'Thade Rahiyo'.
Lata taught generations of Indians different ways of expressing love. Why love, the rainbow of Lata Mangeshkar’s voice covered every colour of human emotions.
'Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon' is a rare non-film song that has endured over time and become synonymous with national festivals like Independence Day and Republic Day. Lata was able to infuse such renditions with a strong streak of patriotism because she herself came from a family of staunch nationalists.
Her passing away will bring forth several discussions on her greatest songs, the controversies she courted, the rivalries she survived and the scale she summited. But her greatest legacy remains the permanent change she brought to the aesthetic of a film song.
Today, songs are not quite significant an element in films. Playback singers have also become quite easily replaceable with technology camouflaging the flaws of even the worst singers. Lata Mangeshkar has towered above all these through these decades, from the dawn to the dusk of playback singing.
One never knows if the phenomenon of the Hindi film song has another day in store for itself but even if it does, it will never see a chapter as glorious as that of Lata Mangeshkar.
The writer is a journalist and film researcher.
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