If you were asked to name one person in Hindi cinema you admired most, who would it be?
Until a few weeks ago I would definitely have said Guru Dutt—that ultimate crazy, cool, intense, moody, manic, god of black and white cinema. Or Dilip Kumar; he has always been my favourite.
Amitabh Bachchan is certainly important in the history of Indian cinema. And Dev Anand had his share of followers (I loved him in Guide). And Raj Kapoor surely makes it to the top of anyone’s list? Gulzar? Naushad? Mukesh? Yash Chopra? And, of course, for those of you who like to live in the present, the choice gets much wider.
Power pack: Who’s your favourite? Lata Mangeshkar...In Her Own Voice / Niyogi Booka
But it was only when I was reading a just-out book that it hit me: There’s one person in Hindi cinema who has given me more happiness than all the above put together. I never realized I was a diehard Lata Mangeshkar fan until I hummed my way through Nasreen Munni Kabir’s Lata Mangeshkar…In Her Own Voice.
I’ve always fancied myself a guy’s girl. My all-time favourite playback singer was sad sack Mukesh. I loved Kishore Kumar, but only when he was feeling depressed (Woh Shyam Kuch Ajeeb Thi; Koi Humdum Na Raha; Dukhi Man Mere; Jeevan Se Bhari). Ditto for Mohammed Rafi. And my god, Manna Dey in mourning was exquisite. All those husky/nasal female voices did it for me too—Geeta Dutt, Shamshad Begum, Suraiya. Asha Bhosle, I believed, was so much more adventurous than her more perfect, big sister Lata.
This may sound silly but it’s only now that I realize Lata was like that mother who loves you most and who you take so much for granted. It was my “discovery of India” moment (that’s where you state the obvious— “Guess what! Lata is a national treasure!—with the zeal of a pioneer).
For one, she’s outlived and outworked all my musical heroes (she’s sung at least 27,000 songs in 36 languages); she has worked with all the greats from the 1950s and 1960s and has great tales to share too. Manna Dey says that “when Lataji sang with me, I was aware I had to improve my own singing because she was a perfect sort of singer.”
Mangeshkar is the queen of sensible thinking. She says in the book that she doesn’t see any difference between Hindus and Muslims; she thinks even that dark musical decade of the 1980s was better than today’s music; and that you stay alive if you laugh, there’s no point being morose or philosophical.
That’s probably because she’s had a hard life. Most of us who love to wallow in sadness have never really experienced it fully. When Mangeshkar’s father died, she was only 13, the eldest of five siblings. “Where can I work? How do I earn money?” she asked her mother. She pretty much taught herself to read and write. And she made it in a tough-as-nails industry solely on the strength of her voice and character.
The book is a series of non-controversial conversations between the singer and the author (mostly over long-distance phone calls). At one point the author tells Mangeshkar she read somewhere that the singer would prefer not to be reborn as a woman. “Now I would say I prefer not to be reborn at all,” the singer answers. You may not find the answer to that statement in this book, but you will certainly rediscover the importance of Lata Mangeshkar.
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