x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Tribute to a century of Bollywood: Part four 1944-1953

On the fourth day of our illustrated tribute to 100 years of Bollywood, we look at 1943-1953

Leela Chitnis. Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National
Leela Chitnis. Illustration by Mathew Kurian / The National

An era of musicians and singers extraordinaire

The world recovered from a war and India gained its independence, only to discover that there were many more tasks to complete. This was also the decade of some of the greatest music makers as our selection shows you: three out of the five were singers. Ashok Kumar was also known to be a singer and once regaled television audiences with a song on Tabassum’s television show, Phool Khile Hain Gulshan Gulshan. The 1940s also saw the end of the studio system; as always, the stars were to blame. It had become obvious that audiences didn’t particularly care which studio made the film; they just wanted to know who the stars would be.

Ashok Kumar

He didn’t want to be an actor. Legend had it that he was conscripted into a film career and, in protest, shaved his head bald. But a wig was found and a career was born – and with it another film family. His brother Kishore Kumar would become to male playback singing what Lata Mangeshkar was to the voice of India’s women. A third brother, Anoop -Kumar, would join the other two but with out much success. Ashok’s career would span 50 years, covering roles from suave thieves to randy old men.

Naushad Ali

His tunes are still hummed by millions of Indians and are now being remixed by DJs and record companies, but Ali was also one of the first Indian music composers to introduce sound mixing. He is said to have put Lata Mangeshkar – who was his discovery – into a small room to get the right, haunting reverb for a song. He introduced huge orchestras with hundreds of musicians playing together. His scores for films such as Baiju Bawra, Mughal-e-Azam and Ganga Jamna are classics.

Leela Chitnis

The advertisements in the local newspapers described her as “the first graduate society-lady on the screen from Maharashtra”. Leela Chitnis’s career as an actor spanned 45 years, and during that time she went from playing a fine-boned beauty who haunted men  in their dreams to the mother of several great stars, including Bharat Bhushan and Raj Kapoor. She brought a new naturalism to her acting that was refreshing and exhilarating, and stood her ground against the changes that the decades were to bring.

Lata Mangeshkar

When she began her career, the playback singer Lata Mangeshkar was sniffed at because she came from the wrong part of India. “Her voice will smell of dal [lentils],” said Dilip Kumar. She didn’t take offence; she took lessons in Urdu diction. That she came from a family of classical musicians gave her a natural edge and with her sister, Asha Bhosle, she went on to rule the industry with an iron hand. The two of them created a monopoly that would last for nearly 40 years, with Lata taking the heroine’s songs and Asha going for the vamp’s seductive numbers.

K?L Saigal

Bollywood reserves the term superstar for a handful of men. The first of these was Kundan Lal Saigal, who was also the last of the great male singing stars. He was the first Devdas, playing the lover emasculated by society, patriarchy and indecision. His was the quintessential Bollywood story: he was a typewriter salesman when the producer and director B?N Sircar took him on as a singer. He was not classically trained but aided by his diction and a voice that often seemed like some vast musical instrument in itself, Saigal pioneered a new way of singing that would be imitated for years to come.


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