Songs and Hindi cinema have been inseparable ever since one could care to remember. Alam Ara (1931) wasn’t only the first Indian talkie but also marked the beginning of the tradition of songs in Hindi films. The film had seven songs and perhaps set the template that is still followed in one form or the other.
In the earlier days, the ability to sing their own songs made them true stars. It was perhaps his god-like voice along with his screen presence that helped Kundan Lal Saigal become Hindi cinema’s first true superstar. Like K.L. Saigal, Suraiya, too, was more sought after than her contemporaries Kamini Kaushal and Nargis because she could sing her own songs. This might have given them the edge over others but what makes them one of their kinds is the fact that both Saigal and Suraiya could have chosen either playback singing or acting and yet, be as wildly successful as they were at both! With Saigal’s death in 1947 and the flopping of many of Suraiya’s films in the early 1950s the sun had set forever on an era of stars who could sing as well as they acted.
The first generation of post-Independence playback singers of Hindi cinema was unlike Saigal or Suraiya. They were better known to be the ‘voice’ of a particular star – Rafi for Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand, Mukesh for Raj Kapoor. Blessed with good looks to accompany that heavenly voice, Talat Mahmood tried his hand at acting and could have become another Saigal but he preferred to concentrate on his singing instead. The only other person who could come close to the dizzying heights of K.L. Saigal was Kishore Kumar. As an actor-singer Kishore would only sing for himself or Dev Anand but his reel-life persona of the lovable buffoon would always limit his acting career and never do justice to his vocal range. If earlier Suraiya or Saigal’s acting made their songs better it was the other way round now. The lilting Rafi and Kishore Kumar tunes made Dev Anand more endearing than a Raj Kapoor or Dilip Kumar in spite of his limited acting skills. It’s not as if Raj Kapoor or Dilip Kumar weren’t blessed with evergreen numbers but it seemed as if songs could be purely incidental in their films. You could imagine Dilip Sahab in a song-less film and Raj Kapoor was more bothered with the medium of films than films themselves but think of Dev Anand and you are blown away by a flurry of classic melodies.
Songs have always been the x-factor that made all the difference in a star’s life in Bollywood. No one recalls the 19 films that Shammi Kapoor did before 1957 as readily as the ones that he acted in after Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957), the musical hit that changed his life. Even the ones that he did after Tumsa Nahin Dekha are recalled more on the basis of their songs than anything else. Like Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor would be called to sit in the music sessions and both possessed a legendary instinct for recognising a good tune. But if there were ever one actor who’d be truly remembered for his songs more than anyone else it would have to be Rajesh Khanna. Much like Dev Anand’s on-screen persona, Rajesh Khanna, too, owes a major part of his legacy to Kishore Kumar, who sang most of his hits right from the breakthrough Aradhana (1969). Ironically, Kishore Kumar had only sung for himself or Dev Anand before becoming a full-time playback singer starting with Aradhana. Between 1969 and 1975 Rajesh Khanna had 35 Golden Jubilee films including the likes of Do Raaste, Khamoshi, Sachaa Jhoota, Safar, Kati Patang, Anand, Haathi Mere Saathi, Dushman, Amar Prem, Apna Desh, Mere Jeevan Saathi, and Aap Ki Kasam amongst others that featured some of Hindi cinema’s best songs.
One of the reasons why Rajesh Khanna’s songs are known as Bollywood’s staple classics than anyone else’s can be attributed to the ever-growing stature of R.D. Burman. Each year a whole new generation of Bollywood aficionados discover RD and along with him they end up humming the tunes created by the RD-Kishore-Rajesh combo. Also, a major chunk of India’s population is under the age of 40 so it’s easier for them to identify with Kishore Kumar-Rajesh Khanna more than any other singer-actor pair. They may find Dev Anand a little too ancient for their liking and Amitabh Bachchan or Rishi Kapoor, the other two actors who have a decent enough musical legacy, are still ‘current’ when compared to Rajesh Khanna. Unlike Bachchan’s recent body of work that has managed to transcend to later generations, Rajesh Khanna has been absent from the limelight long enough to be considered old gold.
Songs have always been every Bollywood superstar’s best friends, maybe the only steadfast friends they ever had. For most of his life Dev Anand came across as someone who was gregarious yet quite lonesome and eerily enough Rajesh Khanna’s life, too, seems like a solitary confinement of sorts even when he is amongst people. But both had their songs and like John Lennon mused, one could always get by with a little help from friends …
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