Book Review: Sujata Dev’s ‘Mohammed Rafi: Golden Voice of the Silver Screen’

In the early 1940s, my mother (then a toddler) and her family lived in Amritsar. My grandfather used to work in Lahore: he was the sound engineer at the HMV recording studios there. Nana would commute everyday between Amritsar and Lahore, and one day, when he got back home in the evening, he told my Nani, “Today I heard a very young man with a wonderful voice. He will go places.”

My grandfather was the one who recorded the first song sung for cinema by that young man. A few years later, Nana could proudly say that he had heard Mohammed Rafi sing that day in the studio, and that he had recorded the song.

Mohammed Rafi. Rafi of the golden voice, Rafi of whom it was said (by many of his contemporaries) that he had a voice given by God himself. While I love the voices of Hemant and Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar and Talat (and many others of that period), and while I cannot imagine anybody but Hemant singing Tum pukaar lo or anybody but Mukesh singing Woh subaah kabhi toh aayegi… Rafi is special for me. If pushed to the wall and made to name one singer who’s my favourite, I would have to concede that it’s Rafi.

This is why I got pretty excited when I saw Sujata Dev’s Mohammed Rafi: Golden Voice of the Silver Screen (ISBN: 9789380070971; Om Books International; Rs 595; 238 pages). A biography of Rafi? It was worth a try.

And Dev starts off well enough, with a narration of Rafi’s childhood in the village of Kotla Sultan Singh (in Amritsar District), one of the eight children of Hajji Ali Mohammed and his wife, Allah Rakhi. Then known by the pet name ‘Pheeko’, the young Rafi showed a deep interest in music, and was already an accomplished singer by the time his father—who was renowned as a cook—decided to shift to Lahore to improve the family’s financial condition.
From there, Dev traces Rafi’s move to Bombay (accompanied by Hameed, a supportive and loyal friend of one of Rafi’s brothers), against the wishes of Hajji Ali Mohammed. From the chawl which Rafi and Hameed lived in when they first arrived in Bombay, to Rafi’s attempts to break into the world of playback singing—the early years make for interesting reading.

After this initial introduction to Rafi’s personal and professional life, Dev moves on to a more detailed telling of his singing: the composers, the lyricists, the co-singers, and the actors he sang for. This—his career, the songs he sang, the awards he won, the milestones he set, and in the process, the impressions he made on people, are what comprise the bulk of the book.

This—what other people have to say about Rafi—is perhaps the most endearing part of Dev’s book. She has interviewed dozens of people, ranging from Manna Dey and Khayyam to Dilip Kumar, Rishi Kapoor, Shammi Kapoor, Joy Mukherjee, Suman Kalyanpur, Shamshad Begum and Bhupinder, to Rafi’s own family members; his childhood friends from Kotla Sultan Singh; musicians who worked with him in recording studios; a fan in faraway Kolkata whose paan shop is a veritable shrine to Rafi—and which Rafi made it a point to visit whenever he was in the city.

What emerges from all of these anecdotes (and there are many of them) is a picture of a man as sweet as his voice. A quiet, unassuming, generous man who gave quietly to charity (there’s a very poignant anecdote, for instance, from an impoverished musician who used to receive Rs 200 every month from an anonymous donor to help fund the medication of his seriously ill mother; the donation abruptly stopped in August 1980, and it was only subsequently that the man discovered that the donor had been Rafi—whose death in July 1980 put an end to his philanthropy).

There are many stories like this: of people whom Rafi helped, of unlucky producers whom Rafi did not charge more than a token amount (sometimes nothing at all) if they were in dire straits. Joy Mukherjee, for example, devastated after his home production Humsaaya flopped miserably, was given back the Rs 10,000 Rafi had charged for the songs of the film (considering that Rafi’s Dil ki aawaaz bhi sun is one of the main reasons Humsaaya is remembered today, that’s especially generous).

He comes forth, too, as a man who, in the cut-throat competition of the cinema industry, won almost universal esteem from his peers. There are heart-warming anecdotes of the mutual admiration and respect between Rafi and Manna Dey, and between Rafi and Kishore Kumar. Bhupinder talks of singing his very first film song (Hoke majboor mujhe, from Haqeeqat) and being reassured by Rafi that he would go far; Mahendra Kapoor remembers his early days, when, as a twelve-year old, he journeyed all the way to Rafi’s house to pay his respects to his idol—and ended up finding a mentor.

There are also delightful little bits of trivia about recordings and about songs: the fact, for instance, that Aajkal tere-mere pyaar ke charche har zabaan par had originally been recorded to be lip-synced by Rajendra Kumar in Suraj, and was dropped because Rajendra Kumar said that the song wouldn’t fit the film, the scenario, and his character. Or the fact that Rafi has a whopping 170 songs to his credit that were used as background songs, not lip-synced.

… which brings me to some of the things that irked me about this book. There are far too many errors. Among those ‘background songs’, for instance, Dev lists Raat bhar ka hai mehmaan andhera (Sone ki Chidiya): even a quick check on Youtube will reveal that Balraj Sahni lip-syncs to this song.

Some of what Dev writes may be disputed. For example, she talks of Madhuban mein Radhika naache re as a bhajan; I have never thought it as anything other than a brilliant song accompanying a dancer. She refers to the title song of Rajkumar as ‘romantic’ (if there’s a romance there, it’s of Shammi Kapoor’s character being in love with himself).

There are the outright incorrect statements. That Naiyya teri majhdhaar forms one of the three songs of the Awaara dream sequence. That Naushad was the music director for Pakeezah (and this not a one-off typo, but repeated in a couple of places—poor Ghulam Mohammad finds no mention here). And that ‘the last time Joy Mukherjee was seen lip-syncing to Rafi was for Umeed (1962)’, summarily dismissing pretty much most of Mukherjee’s filmography—after having talked of the songs of Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon, Love in Tokyo, Ziddi, etc.

The other major problem with this book is in its structuring. Dev tries to follow a chronological sequence for Rafi’s career, but this isn’t done in an organized way, leading to much confusion. For instance, she decides to deal first with Rafi’s early years, and relates—partly through her own narrative, partly through the memories of those who worked with him in the 40s and 50s—this period. Fair enough; we read about the musicians, the lyricists, etc whom Rafi interacted with during this period. But, some pages down the line, she takes up Rafi’s career in the 60s and 70s, and we read about all those people all over again (besides some more), and a good bit of what one had already read earlier is repeated. Why Rafi’s work with all the musicians, composers, lyricists and actors he collaborated with couldn’t be dealt with in one go, I cannot fathom.

Even otherwise, there are signs of poor structuring. The famous tiff between Rafi and Lata over royalties to singers (Lata was in favour, Rafi against) which led to their not singing together for several years, is explained in a good bit of detail—much after a fleeting reference is made to their not being on talking terms. To someone who doesn’t know about this disagreement, that first reference can be puzzling, because it explains none of the whys and wherefores connected to the episode.

 

I didn’t much care for the somewhat monotonous description of one song after another, but I suppose when one is writing about a singer, and that too one of the stature of Rafi, that listing of songs is inevitable. It is also inevitable that some songs I would’ve thought impossible to not mention do get omitted.

Plus, didn’t Rafi have any flaws? I would like to think so, but I still find it a little hard to believe that nobody had anything negative to say about the man. (Lata is mentioned as having said some nasty things about Rafi during the period they didn’t work together, but this comes across as being more a reflection of Lata’s peevishness than anything else).

But. The reminiscences, the anecdotes, the abundant photos (which I wish had been printed on better quality paper) make this still a readable enough book. Also, it comes with a free 40 minute DVD, which—while it is basically a much abridged version of the book, is also equally fascinating since one gets to hear a good deal of Rafi, and there are snippets of the interviews Dev conducted as research for the book. There’s Chitragupta’s daughter, for example, talking about a remarkable trait of Rafi’s voice that sets him apart. There’s Shammi, recounting a delightful anecdote surrounding Yeh chaand sa roshan chehra. There are some anecdotes that aren’t in the book.

While there were flaws—some pretty glaring ones, as I mentioned—in this book, I still liked it, and that was mostly because of the anecdotes that people remembering Rafi mentioned. They brought Rafi to life, in a way his songs only hint at.

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36 thoughts on “Book Review: Sujata Dev’s ‘Mohammed Rafi: Golden Voice of the Silver Screen’

  1. Thanks, Madhulika for this post. I miss Rafi every day. To me, he’s the ultimate singer. The range, the expression, the sheer ‘listenability’, unparalleled till now. The closest any one has come is Sonu Nigam. I would love to interact with you one-to-one on my favourite Rafi songs.

    • “the sheer ‘listenability’

      You hit the nail on the head. Yes, that’s so true of Rafi.

      I’m afraid my schedule is chockfull right now, and likely to get even more choked over the next few months, so interacting on a one-on-one basis is something I may not be able to do. :-( I thought I might as well warn you, rather than let you send me e-mails that may not get answered for months altogether… Sorry about that.

  2. Hello Madhuji
    A good review. I also have read on anuji’s blog about bad editing of rishi kapoors book and ur saying the same about this book about Rafi.
    U r right it seems,as per ur observations.
    I haven’t read the book and dont want to read as it doesn’t seem to provide any extra info about Rafi.
    Rafi was a great singer and he is surely my most favourite from the golden era.
    May be i will try this in a library, but won’t buy it.
    :-)

  3. Uh oh. I was really getting into the book – I haven’t even heard of it! – when I came across the errors. Not just the editing, which would be enough for me to pull my remaining hair out, but also the factual errors. Why don’t they take enough pride in their work to actually check facts?! (Adding that Naiyya tere majhdhar is a part of the Awara dream sequence is criminally negligent!)

    That said, it’s Rafi! :( Me want, now!

    but I still find it a little hard to believe that nobody had anything negative to say about the man.

    I don’t think anyone did, Madhu. Really. Having spent years reading film magazines and listening to interviews… I haven’t come across even one instance where anyone had anything irritable, much less ‘bad’ to say about him. Even Lata, admitting that she was angry with him over his remark that ‘Maharani will tell us what to do!’ (over the royalty issue) said to Nasreen Munni Kabir that he was a ‘sant aadmi’.

    The other thing I’ve heard said about him was that there were only two things in his life: Riyaaz and Namaaz. And yes, he loved food! :)

    Perhaps that’s why he died so young. He was too good to live on this earth!

    God, I miss the man! It’s like he’s someone dear.

    • “Perhaps that’s why he died so young. He was too good to live on this earth!

      Someone – I’ve forgotten who – did say that about him. He seems like such a wonderful man. (And thank you for reiterating that – I must admit I haven’t ever heard anybody else say anything critical about Rafi, but then, my exposure to books or interviews about Hindi cinema is really rather limited as well as quite recent. Good to know that he really was a ‘sant‘. Makes me like his voice even more. :-)

      The errors are appalling in this book. And glaring. Those Awara and Pakeezah gaffes, especially – so embarrassing!

  4. Mohamed Rafi will be remembered mostly for Shammi Kapoor songs than any other actors. This was due to the dynamic between the two, which was simply unique. They understood each other through each other’s professionalism. Shammi understanding of music was quite profound, quite unusual for a movie actor.

    • Yes, Rafi’s role as Shammi’s voice is unique (though I think an equal status can be accorded to him as the voice of Johnny Walker and Rajendra Kumar, among others). What amazes me is Rafi’s ability to tailor his voice to suit the actor. Hearing him sing Ae phoolon ki rani or O haseena zulfonwaali or Jangal mein mor naacha, one might be fooled into thinking that he’s three different men with vaguely similar voices.

      On the DVD, someone – I’ve forgotten who – remarked that Rafi was a great singer, but he was an even greater actor, because his singing was as much acting as that of the men he sang for onscreen.

      • Good review.
        Any amount of writing on him, it appears to me, is less. He ha been a very good student all through his life. It appears he considered all of his MDs as his teachers. He paid the same attention and devotion wherever, whenever, and with whoever he worked with.
        His less known songs are equally wonderful and some of them are so wonderful that I winder how and why they are hidden.
        This song on actor late Sh. Radhakishan highlights the point mentioned in the above comment.
        Maike se aaja biwi re

        Shyam

        • This is such a brilliant example of Rafi’s versatility and his ability to mould his song to fit just about any actor! I’ve not seen this song, but I can, just my hearing the way Rafi sings it, imagine that it’s picturised on Radhakrishnan.

          What a genius this man was. Thank you for sharing this song.

  5. As great a Rafi fan as I am, I am not going to read this book because of the flaws you highlighted. How can one not fact-check one’s work, especially now with all sorts of resources on the internet? What were the editors doing? Mentioning Naushad as the MD of Pakeezah is criminal!
    R.D. Burman is reputed to have preferred Kishore over Rafi simply because Rafi liked to have the song fully composed whereas Kishore was a lot more amenable to last minute changes. This suited RD’s way of working because he was constantly getting new ideas. Rafi disliked changes to a song once it had been fully rehearsed.

    • ” What were the editors doing?

      I have a feeling most Indian publishers, even when dealing with works of a technical nature, don’t really bother about getting someone to check the book for facts. This isn’t something your average editor would even realize was a mistake – in this case, what was needed was someone with a sound knowledge of Hindi cinema and playback singing to do a thorough checking of the facts. Those goofs are unpardonable. :-(

      I hadn’t known that about Kishore vis-a-vis Rafi. Interesting!

  6. Rafi doesn’t need a shoddy book or a review of it just to sneak him in a blog,a better post would have been’rafi rocks’.Rafi is an eternal entity loved by all and sundry,somewhat similar to comte de st. germain who drank wine with christ was a regular invitee of queen victoria or shah of persia,a man forever 45.Rafi goes on as do kishore and mukesh.

  7. By all accounts Rafi was a sweet natured person, and any book about him should reflect that godly quality!
    I have been listening to Hindi film songs for over 60 years. Rafi did have a good voice, very good voice. But voice alone does not make a good song. Rafi was used (misused) by music directors indiscriminately. It is only a few MDs who could bring out the sweetness of his voice fully- like Naushad in the 50s , or OPN. However, I have found Rafi’s songs for Burmanda to be sweetest, beginning from Pyaasa. This intrigued me somewhat. Thanks to YouTube, I came across an incident narrated by Anil Biswas who was Burmanda’s companion for morning walks during 1955-59, during which they used to discuss all subjects under the sun. It was the time when SDB got Pyaasa with the rider that he had to use Rafi as the voice of Guru Dutt, since this had been done by OPN with great success in Mr&Mrs 55 and Aar Paar. It seems the MDs from Bengal were not comfortable with Rafi’s voice for their style of music. SDB had not used Rafi much till then. But with Pyaasa, Rafi had to visit SDB for rehearsals for about two hours daily, and this continued for 2-3 months! The wonderful result – the incredible sweetness of the voice- we see in Pyaasa, Nau Do Gyaarah, Kala Pani, Kala Bazar. This trait was shared by Jaidev (Hum Dono). C.R ( Nausherwan-e,Adil – especially, Ye hasrat thi ), Roshan ( Man re tu kahe na – Chitralekha), Ravi ( Chaudhvin ka Chand, – Ustadon Ke Ustad- Sau baar janam lenge) I feel Rafi after Pyaasa is distinct, and Burmanda deserves credit for this transformation.
    This has taught me one thing. However good a voice may be in itself, it is the music director who brings out the strengths and makes it shine. Voice is God’s gift, the good music directors compose to take advantage/ bring out the distinctness of the voice. Like God creates the stone, the sculptor makes the statue.
    Most books authored by Indians and published by Indian publishers are not edited with any professional competence. So this part is not a surprise to me.

    • That is a wonderfully insightful comment. Thank you so much for taking the time and effort to write it.

      I hadn’t noticed it, but now that you draw it to my attention, yes. SDB does draw out the sweetness in Rafi’s voice. On that topic, I must also admit that I was surprised to note that although the author of this book mentions the songs of Pyaasa several times in the course of the book, not once does she even mention in passing the brilliant Tang aa chuke hain kashmakash-e-zindagi se hum. While all the songs of Pyaasa are superb, that one is, I think, one of the best showcases of Rafi’s voice, devoid as it of any support by way of musical instruments.

  8. “While I love the voices of Hemant and Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar and Talat (and many others of that period), … Rafi is special for me”
    Amen to that!
    Rafi saab is nonpareil.
    Should I get the book for the abundant photos and anecdotes though. because the flaws you have mentioned seem too basic to have crept into the book but for sheer incompetence!
    May be I am better off listening to his numerous songs. Rafi is definitely up, way up . in the list of things that we indians can be proud of.

    • Yes, the anecdotes and the photos are good – the anecdotes better than the photos, in my opinion, because the photos haven’t been printed on very good paper. They deserved nice glossy art paper.

      If you want a compromise, listen to Rafi’s songs, and watch the documentary that accompanies the book. ;-) Someone has uploaded it on Youtube, and it’s got some good interviews with a lot of people who knew and worked with Rafi. Stars, singers, composers, etc.

  9. Rafi is one of the few person (live or dead) on this planet who deserve my highest regard and respect. I’ve been fanatically in love with his songs since my childhood and his magic still carries. I used to enjoy his fast and romantic songs. But now I immensely enjoy his slow songs and Ghazals. Some of the samples below:

    • Excellent review, Anirudha. Thanks for pointing me to that. Technically ignorant even though I am, I did wonder if there was a way a singer could have been analysed – because it seemed to me that Sujata Dev wrote about Rafi’s singing in the way I would have: from the point of view, not of someone technically qualified to do so, but from a fan’s PoV (and that too a fan who sees no wrong in her idol’s corpus of work – which isn’t the case with me).

      Have you and Balaji thought of taking up this task? Just asking. I’d really look forward to reading your book on Rafi. Or, come to think of it, any of the other great singers of that era.

      • Thanks for the compliment Madhu. I do not see myself writing on Rafi, though I was introduced to his grandson through a common friend around 5 years ago, and that could have helped in opening gates to a host of interviews which might could be difficult to get otherwise. My strength is Bengal, Bengalis and the 1970s Bollywood, and I prefer to stick to that :)

        I met Sujata in 2012 during the National Film Awards at Vigyan Bhawan. She was one of the guests, representing ASSOCHAM with her husband Pradip Dev. She was talking mostly about numbers, not numbers as in songs, but numbers as in numbers. I felt that a numerical analysis of a singers career does not do much justice to his work. But wished her good luck nevertheless.

        I feel she worked hard on the book. Her effort was sincere, and she did not try to bluff people with interviews which never happened or stories fabricated from nowhere. We can take it offline.

        • “I felt that a numerical analysis of a singers career does not do much justice to his work.

          Very true. Holds true for composers too, I think. I mean, if you look at Sajjad Hussain’s work, for instance – so few films, but such good songs.

          I do agree that Sujata Dev has obviously worked hard on the book, and that it does show. The sad part is that it probably required a good editor with a sound knowledge of Hindi film music (possibly just an SME to do one round of fact-related editing?), besides of course the editor to look at the structure of the book.

  10. Md Rafi to a great extent overlaps with my generation. In being a die hard Shammi , Dev Anand, Joy Mukerjee & Biswajit ( for songs in his movies only) got to hear all the hits , which continue to be so for over till today. Listening to all Rafi yester numbers from school, college Army job, retirement , second innings with corporate , I feel thrilled to sing those numbers in Karoake nights, much to ‘Farmaish’ of keen listeners.
    There is just no parallel to Rafi….& no point some body trying it also.
    Like to quote Shammi Kapoor on hearing that Rafi was no more ” On hearing that Rafi was no more I could not talk…..I had lost my voice..”

    • That anecdote about Shammi saying that his voice was gone when Rafi died, is there in the book as well. Somebody else said it, actually (I’ve forgotten who, and since I no longer have the book, I can’t check). This person was the one who gave Shammi the news of Rafi’s passing, by saying that “Your voice is gone,”. So true. Rafi was in a very large part responsible for the stardom of Shammi. The (very few) songs that other men have sung for Shammi somehow lack that pep and believability which Rafi could impart.

      • This news was given to him (Shammi) by probably a driver when he was returning from an outdoor shoot, This can be seen in one of the episodes in ‘Shammi Kapoor Unplugged’ on UTube.
        Quite strangely I see most of the connects between Rafi & Shammi with Junglee, An Evng in Paris, Teesri Manzil, China Town probably for the masti these numbers conveyed.
        I would also suggest a sneek peek into Rafi songs of Pyar kiya to Darna Kya,
        Vallah kya baat Hain, Dil Tera Deewana, Mulzim, Budtameez, to name a few.
        Saw a great emotional content here & thats probably where Rafi excelled aptly supported by Shammi’s knowledge of music & sense of timing.

        • Okay… this is a little confusing now, because I’m pretty certain that the person Shammi Kapoor talks about as saying that (in the book) was someone different, not his driver. It actually may well be that Shammi’s memory was playing tricks, and that he said one thing in Unplugged and another in the interview he gave to Sujata Dev.

  11. Thank you for your wonderful review Madhu. I have always struggled to determine if he was a better singer or a person and I think I tend to believe now that both factors contributed to what he was able to produce, sheer magic!

    If you hear him talk, you wouldn’t believe this guy can actually sing, for he had such a low and soft “talking” voice! But his “singing” voice was so capable that he could emote almost any situation. I am mesmerized by his ability to let his song explain the meaning for each word, by giving it the right amount of weight and depth it deserves. Even when he was not singing but humming in the beginning or at the end of a song, I felt the melody just floated in the air to be soaked in. I feel that I am still learning and exploring his legacy every day and still get surprised at the ocean of gems he left us with.

    “While there were flaws—some pretty glaring ones, as I mentioned—in this book, I still liked it, and that was mostly because of the anecdotes that people remembering Rafi mentioned. They brought Rafi to life, in a way his songs only hint at.”

    I think I am going to get the book for that exact reason!

    • “I am mesmerized by his ability to let his song explain the meaning for each word, by giving it the right amount of weight and depth it deserves.

      Very true. I am awestruck, too, by that ability. Someone said that Rafi was as great an actor as he was a singer, and I agree completely. Look at the anguish in something like Tang aa chuke hain; compare it to, in the same film, something as cheery and fun as Sar jo tere chakraaye and something as angry as Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye. Or the fact that Rafi could make it seem as if Johnny Walker was singing, or Shammi Kapoor, or Dilip Kumar – or Radhakrishan, or whoever. With most of the other singers, you hear the singer: it’s clearly Mukesh, Talat, Hemant, whoever: Rafi has this unique quality of being able to mould his voice to the actor’s.

      • Couldn’t agree more about his “acting” skills. It is not possible to emote what he was able to, without being an expert at acting. You have to feel the situation and however silly it may sound, you need to do justice to what the character is supposed to be doing. Whether it is “Suno Suno Ms Chatterjee” or “Koi Sagar Dil Ko Behlata Nahi” or “Dekhi Zamane Ki Yaari” you can feel every emotion…

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