This is an important year when it comes to Hindi film music—because 2019 marks the birth centenary of some of classic Hindi cinema’s greatest in the field of music. Music director Naushad was born a hundred years ago; lyricists Kaifi Azmi and Rajendra Krishan were born a hundred years ago; and two of Hindi cinema’s most popular playback singers—Manna Dey and Shamshad Begum—were also born in 1919, less than a month apart.
Born in Lahore on April 14th, 1919, the day after the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar (which is just about 50 km from Lahore), Shamshad Begum never had any formal training in music. Her prowess as a singer, however, came to the fore very early, and by the time she was 10 years old she was singing in family marriages and religious functions. In the teeth of parental opposition, she was helped by an uncle who got her an audition with Ghulam Haider. In 1937, she began singing with All India Radio Lahore, and this proved a breakthrough—such a breakthrough that Shamshad Begum was offered a role as an actress and even bagged it after a screen test. Thanks to a very conservative father (who had insisted she wear a burqa even to sing!), Shamshad Begum had to finally decline the role and focus on her singing.
… to which she did full justice. Mehboob Khan, who brought Shamshad Begum to Bombay in 1941 and gave her the chance to sing in films like Khazanchi (1941), paved the way for her to soar to the top of the charts: her popularity peaked between 1940-55, and she was eventually only displaced by the Mangeshkar juggernaut. Even then, through the 50s and 60s, and even into the 70s (when she finally stopped singing playback for cinema), Shamshad Begum got to sing some of Hindi cinema’s most enduring hits.
It’s not as if I’ve never done a Shamshad Begum post on this blog. Six years ago, in the middle of a month I’d devoted to regional Indian cinema, Shamshad Begum passed away, and I took time out to pay tribute to her—in the form of a list of regional language songs that she’d sung. This time, then, to commemorate her birth centenary, here are ten of my favourite solos of hers, from Hindi cinema. As always, these songs are all from pre-70s films that I’ve watched, and are in no particular order.
1. Boojh mera kya naav re (CID, 1956): This song appears at the top of the list for a simple reason: because it is my earliest memory of the voice of Shamshad Begum (though at the time I didn’t know the name of the singer). I was perhaps about nine years old when I watched CID, and I still remember being entranced by Boojh mera kya naav re. Not just by the picturization—the women filling their gagris and dancing as they did so; Minoo Mumtaz, all effervescent and teasing; a debonair Dev Anand and a sullen but very pretty Shakila—but also by the music and the singing. I love Shamshad Begum’s singing: it has so much verve, and it so completely reflects the flirtatiousness of the lyrics.
2. Kabhi aar kabhi paar laaga teer-e-nazar (Aar Paar, 1954): This song has a slight resemblance to Boojh mera kya naav re (and even more to another popular Shamshad Begum song, Ab toh jee hone laga from Mr & Mrs 55): she is the voice of a passerby, a total stranger who sings a song that takes note of and celebrates the still-nascent attraction between the two lead characters of the film. Kumkum’s character and her fellow construction workers have a surprisingly large amount of free time to sing and dance, but so what: the song is good, and Shamshad Begum’s voice fits Kumkum to a T.
3. Bachke balam kahaan jaaoge (Naya Andaaz, 1956): By the mid-1950s, Lata Mangeshkar had become so popular that Shamshad Begum was often relegated to singing (as can be seen from the two previous songs on this list, as well as several of the songs that follow) for supporting actresses, and often for item numbers, so to say. But her voice could still be considered suitable, by the discerning, for a lead actress. In Naya Andaaz, which starred Meena Kumari as a theatre actress/dancer/singer, Shamshad Begum sang playback for the heroine.
Meena Kumari is young and pretty and Shamshad’s voice is perfect: she captures the teasing, playful tone of the song perfectly, telling the lover that he cannot ever hope to escape her. She will be there, right behind him, wherever he goes.
4. Chaakuwaala chhuriwaala (Al Hilal, 1958): If I were asked to pick particular favourites in this list, Chaakuwaala chhuriwaala would probably top the list—because I have loved this song ever since I first heard it. It’s a very peppy, infectious tune, a dance picturized on a young and energetic Shakila (who, by the way, is acting a girl who habitually disguises herself as a man, who in this instance dons a woman’s disguise. Convoluted in a Victor-Victoria sort of way). It’s a fast-paced song, and Shamshad Begum does justice to it and to Shakila: she sounds so young and full of energy herself.
5. Naina bhar aaye neer (Humayun, 1945): Naina bhar aaye neer featured on my earlier list of Shamshad Begum songs too, and I could not bring myself to omit it from this list, because irrespective of which list of Shamshad Begum’s songs I draw up, this song would have to be on it. If the Shamshad Begum of the later 50s was usually slotted to sing the frothy, peppy songs for the dances (as the previous songs all show), the Shamshad Begum of a decade earlier could, with just as much ease, be called upon to sing a sad song. A song that talks of tears, of pleading, of praying.
I love the way she is restrained and controlled, her voice never sliding over into what could have been a screechy and melodramatic rendition. Lovely.
6. Na bol pee pee more angana (Dulari, 1949): A classic song from a time when Shamshad Begum was at her peak. For me, the song that defines Dulari (otherwise a fairly forgettable film with a predictable story line) is the Rafi hit, Suhaani raat dhal chuki—but of all the other songs, Shamshad Begum’s Na bol pee pee more angana is my favourite. Geeta Bali, while not the heroine (Madhubala played the female lead here, opposite Suresh), gets to lip-sync to this love song where she gently chastises the papeeha, telling the bird to go away and not keep reminding her of the lover who is not there. Shamshad Begum’s voice suits Geeta Bali beautifully, and has a sweet, mildly teasing tone at times (when she shoos the bird away), and a faintly sad one at others (when Geeta Bali’s character yearns for her lover).
7. O babuji main na karoon teri naukri (Shrimatiji, 1952): In several films from the early 50s (Baabul is another), both Shamshad Begum and one of the other emerging queens of Hindi playback, like Geeta Dutt or the Mangeshkar sisters, sang songs for the same film, and for the same actress (this has always made me wonder why: voices don’t change so, and Shamshad Begum’s voice is such a distinct one that realistically speaking, a woman who sings with her voice cannot be picturized singing in Asha’s voice, or Lata’s).
Shyama in Shrimatiji has Geeta Dutt singing playback for her in some songs (the romantic ones), Asha Bhonsle singing the lovely Barkha ki raaton mein—and Shamshad Begum singing what was a very popular song back then: O babuji main na karoon teri naukri.
Shyama here, while an aspiring theatre artiste, finds herself shoved onto the stage rather earlier than she’d been prepared for. But she gamely takes on the challenge, and belts out a song and dance. Shamshad’s voice suits the feisty, ‘don’t give a damn’ nature of the lyrics: she’s so full of life, so zesty and unabashed.
8. Kaahe koyal shor machaaye re (Aag, 1948): As a child, I remember being very clear that I didn’t like the songs of the 1940s and before: that nasal singing (something we kids made a lot of fun of, imitating it till our noses and throats got sore) was, in my opinion, just terrible. Now a more mature (I think!) me admits that that was a style which had its own place—and its own masterpieces. That style probably became outdated with the coming of singers who didn’t sing in that somewhat nasal style and music directors who didn’t encourage it—though some singers (like Mukesh) did succeed with a voice reminiscent of an earlier era, till well into the 70s.
Here, then, is a 1940s song, with Shamshad Begum singing for Nargis. The style, from the music (Ram Ganguly’s) to Shamshad’s, is, for me, very typical of the late 1940s. A song of vireh (separation), of being parted from the lover and missing him.
9. Saiyyaan teri akhiyon mein dil kho gaya (12 O’Clock, 1958): OP Nayyar was one music director who used Shamshad Begum’s voice a good deal. Even in films (CID, Aar Paar, 12 O’Clock, Mr & Mrs 55, Kismat, among others) where Asha Bhonsle invariably got to sing playback for the lead actress, Nayyar would sneak in a song where a supporting actress or a dancer got to lip-sync to Shamshad Begum’s voice. Here, Sabita Chatterjee (?), dancing along with Johnny Walker, sings a light-hearted romantic song: oh, the havoc he has wreaked on her poor little heart, by being the charmer he is. Shamshad’s voice has the sweetly teasing tone that fits the playfulness of the song to a T.
10. Chhod baabul ka ghar (Baabul, 1950): And to end, a song which is one of the most poignant bidaai songs I’ve heard. While Shamshad Begum sang another iconic bidaai song for Mother India—Pee ke ghar aaj pyaari dulhaniya chali—seven years before Mother India, also under the music direction of Naushad, and also for a song picturized on Nargis, she had sung about a bride leaving to go to her groom: Chhod baabul ka ghar. This song was repeated at various stages throughout the film, beginning as a credits song, and sung very poignantly (and with minimal accompaniments) near the end by Talat. In between, at a happy stage in the film, Shamshad Begum sings it playback for Nargis. It’s a lovely song, and the credits version—with Shamshad Begum and a chorus—is especially full of emotion.
Happy 100th, Shamshad Begum! May your voice live on.