When I did the Rafi in Ten Moods post a few months back, Stuartnz suggested I also do a Lata Mangeshkar post sometime. It’s taken a good deal of thought, since—like Rafi—Lata also has such a huge corpus of work, it’s impossible for me to pick my ten favourite songs. This, therefore, is the easy way out. It’s a list of ten songs in ten different moods. Not Lata’s ten best songs, but ten songs that showcase her voice, in every emotion from joy and playfulness to heartbreak and deep sorrow. These are all from pre-70’s films that I’ve seen (Pakeezah is the exception, but I never count that as a 70’s film—for me that’s very 60’s).
Defiant: Jurm-e-ulfat pe humein (Taj Mahal, 1963): Although Pyaar kiya toh darna kya from Mughal-e-Azam is probably more popular, this one—also Lata, and also from a film about the Mughals—is, in my opinion, the better song. The soft, caressing music is the perfect showcase for Lata’s voice, which brings out the emotion of the song brilliantly: a quietly obstinate refusal to let go of a love, even at the cost of the world’s anger. Lata and Bina Rai together create an Arjumand Bano who is dignity itself in her defiance.
Romantic: Lag jaa gale ke phir yeh (Woh kaun thi?, 1964): Lata sings for one of her favourite composers, her so-called brother, Madan Mohan. There is so much I love about this song: the picturisation, Sadhana’s breathtaking beauty, Manoj Kumar, so handsome and looking so smitten yet bewildered— and Lata. Lata’s voice, enticing, alluring, yet tinged with a fatalism, a sense that these are charmed moments stolen from eternity, moments that will vanish in a heartbeat. Fabulously romantic.
Betrayed: Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein (Mamta, 1966): Heartbreak, anger, the haunting memories of a past love, and a deep sense of being used by someone very dear… daava thha jinhe hamdardi ka, khud aake na poochha haal kabhi (“those who claimed to be sympathetic, did not care even to ask how I was”) is superbly rendered by Lata in a song that’s bitter yet not melodramatic (if you don’t watch the picturisation). Like the song from Taj Mahal, this one too has subdued music—dominated by the tabla— which I think brings out the sense of deep hurt that Lata infuses in the song.
Hopeful: Aayega aanewaala (Mahal, 1949): The quintessential Lata song, and one I can hear as many times as it’s played. This song, brimming with desire for an as yet unknown lover, and the hope that that lover will appear someday—catapulted the 20-year old Lata to fame. Lata’s name didn’t appear in the credits of Mahal, so until Aayega aanewaala became a hit and listeners wrote to All India Radio requesting the song and asking for the name of the singer, very few people actually knew who had sung this song.
Between them, the three bigwigs of Mahal—the music director, Khemchand Prakash; the director, Kamal Amrohi; and the lead actor, Ashok Kumar—had decided that the song would sound best if it seemed to begin far away, then drifted closer. Lata therefore had to begin the song standing in one corner of the huge studio, and continue to sing as she very slowly approached the microphone. It took an entire day to finally record Aayega aanewaala.
Sublime, and the start of the song—the aalaap—is matchless. And Lata’s voice, clear as a bell and in perfect control of each note, is exquisite.
Seductive: Thaare rahiyo o baanke yaar (Pakeezah, 1972): Like Aayega aanewaala, this song too begins with a lovely, echoing aalaap. In tone, though, this is very different from the Mahal song: the lover here is very much known (so what if he’s buying the woman’s ‘love’) and for him, she adorns herself: darkening her eyelids with kohl, twining flowers in her tresses, putting on her jewellery… shringaar ras at its best. What I love about this song, other than the music (the jingling of those ankle bells!), is the breathtaking range of notes that Lata’s voice effortlessly travels in the course of the song. Magnificent.
Resigned: Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh (Dil Apna Aur Preet Paraayi, 1960): This has been one of my favourite songs from as far back as I can remember. There is so much to Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh: the congratulation that is not merely polite; the sense of being let down; the looming loneliness, the deep sorrow, the awkwardness at suddenly being the object perhaps of public gossip and/or pity;—and, ultimately, a resignation to one’s fate. This is the way it is, and it will have to be endured.
Lata’s voice is soft, gentle, melodious, and imbued with the unhappiness of the situation. One of the most exquisite songs in Hindi cinema.
Weary: Jhoom jhoom dhalti raat (Kohra, 1964): Lata’s voice is literally haunting, isn’t it? I’ve just realised that of the songs I’ve listed, two are sung by characters who appeared (or pretended to be) supernatural—Madhubala in Mahal and Sadhana in Woh Kaun Thi? Here’s a third, and you actually see a ghostly figure in the picturisation. A superb song, Lata’s voice going almost slurringly slow over the words, adding to the impression of a woman so weary of life itself that even though she drinks, she remains thirsty: utne rahe pyaase hum, jitni bhi pi humne. If you know the film, you will probably have little sympathy for the singer, but this song always makes me feel a little sorry for her: the life she loved so wholeheartedly and selfishly has let her down; all her debaucheries have come to nothing, and she has had to step out into the dark, all alone and friendless. Reason enough for the brooding weariness that seems to weigh down every syllable of the song.
The slow version of the song, I think, is more effective than the faster one.
Lonely: Yeh sham ki tanhaaiyaan (Aah, 1953): And not merely lonely, but aching with loneliness. Nargis’s character, jilted by the man whom she loves deeply but who has disappeared inexplicably from her life, cries out her sorrow to the stars and the moon—which shed tears of dew in response. Shailendra’s lyrics are beautiful, Shankar-Jaikishan’s music is melodious, and Lata’s voice portrays a yearning and a deep unhappiness that conveys the emotion superbly.
Sultry: Aa jaan-e-jaan (Intaquam, 1969): Okay, so that is pretty close to seductive. But there’s a world of difference between this ‘cabaret song’ and the more ‘Indian’ and not quite so in-your-face Thaare rahiyo o baanke yaar. This one’s very rare for Lata: it oozes oomph and an almost predatory sexuality from every note and every syllable. Lata manages, with that breathy and come-hither rendering, to pull off a song one would generally associate more with Asha. Very Helen.
Patriotic: Vande Mataram (Anandmath, 1952): I’ve talked about this song on another post too, but I can’t resist listing it here too, simply because it’s in such a different mood from Lata’s more usual romantic or sad songs. This one’s both a song in praise of the motherland, and a call for action, an attempt to draw patriots together to rise up. Lata’s seemingly effortless rendition never fails to impress me: the full-throated singing, the power in that voice and the obvious fervor are very inspirational.