Friday, January 01, 2016

The naayak as gaayak - on stars who sang for themselves

[From my Mint Lounge column]

Reading movie magazines as a child, it seemed to me that whenever a Hindi-film actor was asked about his or her favourite Hollywood performances – “Hollywood” being a broad term used at the time to denote any non-Indian cinema – a few names were mentioned with dull regularity. Among them was Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady. In fact, Hepburn’s Eliza Doolittle – also cherished by some of my aunts and uncles – was so iconic, it came as a shock when I learnt that though the film had swept the 1964 Oscars, she wasn’t even nominated for best actress. (In the pre-internet era, it also took some doing for my nerdish teen self to convince adults of this.)

Various reasons have been suggested for this omission – one being that Audrey was too sweet and refined, too much a lady, even in the early scenes where Eliza is meant to be rough-hewn; another being that there was resentment in some quarters about her having been cast in a part that Julie Andrews had made her own on stage. But the most widely accepted explanation is one that can be gobsmacking for a Hindi-movie viewer: Hepburn’s performance was deemed “incomplete” by the voters because her singing voice had been dubbed by Marni Nixon.

Can you imagine such standards being applied to Hindi-film performances? Playback singing is something we take for granted, and many of our stars are remembered by the musical numbers pictured on them but sung by someone else. (Note the repeated references to the song “Lag Jaa Gale” in last week’s obituaries for our own Audrey-like fashion icon, Sadhana.) Out here, on the rare occasions when actors with no professional musical training sing for themselves, it becomes an event – or seems like sly commentary, as in “Kayda Kayda”, sung by Rekha in the 1980 Khubsoorat. This song about breaking the rules is set in a fantasy world where fish fly in the sky and laddoos grow on trees; the sort of world, one might add, where a Hindi-film star can sing in her own voice!

When I was growing up, the quintessential Amitabh Bachchan singing voice was represented for me by songs like the beautiful “O Saathi Re” and the rambunctious “Khaike Paan Banaraswala” (sequences that also featured some of Amitabh’s best performances) even though I knew that the voice was Kishore Kumar’s. That made no difference – in fact, it suited the inner logic of mainstream Hindi cinema, where songs led us into a new, hyper-emotional plane. And I remember how strange it felt to experience Bachchan’s own singing voice for the first time in Mr Natwarlal’s “Mere Paas Aao”. Even if you accounted for the song’s gentle, lullaby-like quality, the vocals seemed a register lower than
Amitabh’s baritone in the dialogue scenes; strange though it might sound, Kishore Kumar, Yesudas, and in later years, Sudesh Bhonsle, seemed to capture the “Bachchan voice” in song better than the actor himself did.

But “Mere Paas Aao” also had the effect of making the Angry Young Man seem more vulnerable, as if a new side of him had been opened up to us. And this is still the case when one of our top stars makes a bold leap into playback singing. (It’s another matter that current technology makes it possible for an amateur singer to sound better than he is.) When Salman Khan, so often mired in controversy for his off-screen adventures, sang the title song for Hero, the widely watched music video emphasized his reflective, down-to-earth side. Here was sensitive, bespectacled Salman, confined to the recording studio, far removed from the world of sleeping pavement-dwellers and black bucks, in touch with his finer emotions simply by virtue of being a singer. The video had obvious merits as a public-relations exercise.

Pushing an otherwise confident, well-known actor outside his comfort zone can also add layers to a film’s narrative. One of my favourite examples is from the 1957 Musafir – Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s first film as director – where Dilip Kumar sang in his own voice. The scene in question is a wistful, underplayed one where Kumar’s character Raja and his former lover Uma (Usha Kiran) recall the old days and then turn to a shared memory of a song. They exchange glances and he begins tentatively singing “Laagi Nahin Chhoote Rama” – then the camera pans to Uma, who doesn’t sing but remembers herself singing in the distant past, which is the cue for Lata Mangeshkar’s voice to join in.

So here is what is going on in this scene: on the one hand, Kumar’s untrained voice brings verisimilitude to the present-day moment; on the other hand, Lata’s assured, melodious voice transcends this present moment and give us a glimpse of an impossible, romanticized past when Uma and Raja were something close to the typical Hindi-movie hero and heroine, looking forward to “janam-janam ka saath”. It’s a lovely demonstration of two states of mind co-existing in the same frame.


  1. ""Here was sensitive, bespectacled Salman, confined to the recording studio, far removed from the world of sleeping pavement-dwellers and black bucks, in touch with his finer emotions simply by virtue of being a singer. The video had obvious merits as a public-relations exercise."

    Hahaha...I agree. In fact, I would go one step further to add that Salman (and even other stars like Amir and SRK) are better actors off screen than on screen.

  2. Loved this - specially the bit about Musafir. Keeping in mind the fact that most playback singers try to emote their voices to identify with the actor on screen, a few songs sung by actors have been tailored to focus on the emotive aspect of it, and less on the sur taal.
    For example - ye jeena bhi koi jeena hai lallu = is not typical angry young man, but still typical amitabh bachchan
    aati kya khandala is typical tapori - the character played by Aamir
    and so is Apun bola from Josh by Shah Rukh. The same is reflected in lines sung by Dileep Kumaar(also in Devdas) that underline his tragedy king status.

  3. Nice one! I was reminded of the iconic 'Mere piya gaye Rangoon' sung and performed onscreen by Shamshad Begum. Isn't it true that in those days, if the song was off, the scene had to be entirely reshot?