Title: Mohammed Rafi – Golden Voice of the Silver Screen; Author: Sujata Dev; Publisher: Om Books International; Pages: 238; Price: Rs.595
Statistics tells us he sang 4,425 Hindi film songs but the figure, though impressive, doesn’t give the full picture of his effect. Would Shammi Kapoor’s exuberant screen persona come through without the Mohammed Rafi-rendered songs, or Dev Anand’s jaunty philosophy be as effective if “Main Zindagi ka saaath nibhata..” was in another voice? But Rafi, whose voice still recalls Bollywood’s best, himself remains unsung.
Out of his 56 year lifespan, Rafi spent well over half as one of Bollywood’s best-known but versatile voices, singing not only for stars ranging from Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Shammi to Rajesh Khanna, Jeetendra, and Rishi Kapoor, but also comedians Mehmood, Johnny Walker and Radhakrishan and even fearsome villain Pran (in his positive roles). But few know much about him, apart from some broad details or maybe some snippets like his tiff with Lata Mangeshkar or perhaps the unfortunate episode after his death, and almost nothing about his personal life.
It may seem unbelievable but the man who could sing “Main Jat Yamla Pagla Deewana” with verve for a comically boisterous Dharmendra or the full-throated “Chahe mujhe koi junglee kahe” that became synonymous with Shammi was actually a shy, self-effacing man who hailed from a small village in Punjab and despite rising to great heights never forsook his intrinsic humility and simplicity.
In fact the only concession he made to his fame was to help people in need with money or his art, agreeing to sing for new composers without or at greatly reduced fee – as this quite detailed biography brings out.
Though there have been accounts of Rafi’s life including by his daughter-in-law Yasmin Khalid (“Mohammed Rafi: My Abba – a Memoir”, 2012), there were no full-length works on him before a woman entrepreneur stepped to reveal the full reality of the man behind the legendary voice.
As another legend observes, in the foreword, it was time that “the story of the life of a legend about whom the millions who loved the songs he sang from his soul for their enjoyment and inner enrichment know so little about” became “public knowledge”.
And Sujata Dev delivers on Dilip Kumar’s request.
Biographies can be chronological or thematic and mixing both approaches may not seem viable but she manages, beginning from his birth and early life in his Punjab village and Lahore to his arrival in Bombay in 1944 and attempts to secure a foothold in the industry.
The narrative then switches to anecdote-based accounts of the combinations, down the years, with music directors from Naushad (who gave him his break) down to Anu Malik and many others, both illustrious or less known, co-singers, lyricists, the several generations of actors he gave his voice to and the musicians, that ensured his voice stays in our memories.
A chapter examines the Rafi-Lata rift over royalty payments and the total corpus of their songs, before dwelling on the last days and the spell of indignity after his death. Recollections of family members and a few representative statistics completes the account.
The whole serves as a engrossing account of not only Rafi the singer but Rafi the person, who sang in a chorus accompanying K.L. Saigal in 1946 and three and a half decades later, called his family together after returning home from work to delightedly announce he had just had the pleasure to sing with Amitabh Bachchan, the one who travelled to Lucknow and convinced Naushad’s father, who was strictly against music and the film world, to furnish a letter of introduction to his son (who had himself run away from home to pursue his career), who was initially hesitant to give autographs only because he couldn’t sign his name in English, who cried when he thought he had lost his voice ahead of a concert for soldiers near the front and many more.
The only false note that mars this is the prevalence of translation or explanations for every Hindustani word right after its occurrence in the text instead of putting them in a glossary at the end. But apart from this, the spirited rendition of the making of our favourite songs is hard to beat.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)