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The King of Tragedy and the Queen of Melody


They sang together, but the kingdom was never at peace for 13 years. A look at the song which became the source of discord between two of the most powerful personalities of Indian cinema.

Shriram Iyengar

Dilip Kumar notoriously never attended a musical session. A typical method actor, he would stick to the studio for work and head home immediately after. The strain of his roles would be too much to bear. At the other end of the spectrum is Lata Mangeshkar. Another introvert, she would be confined to the boundaries of her sound studio and spend her free time at home. Between the two, they ruled Indian cinema for a majority of the 50 years after independence. Yet, like planets that never intrude each other's orbits, they never ventured into the other's studio work.

This changed in 1957. It was in Hrishikesh Mukherjee's 'Musafir' (1957) that the twain would meet. The film was based on three short stories written by Ritwik Ghatak and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. For one song in the film, Laagi naahi choote rama, Salil Chowdhary managed to coax Dilip Kumar into singing. The catch being that it would be a duet with Lata Mangeshkar. The man who had taken on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's epic tragedy with aplomb rumouredly tried to wring his way out of this challenge. Not that Dilip Kumar was incapable of singing. The actor was professionally trained in classical music and wished to be a singing actor at a time when the quality was a necessity in the film industry. For the role of a musician in 'Kohinoor', the actor had learnt one of the most complex instruments in Hindustani music – the sitar. In fact, it was the actor who suggested the raga for the song to the music director, Salil Choudhury. In the words of the music director “Dilip himself handpicked the tune...Dilip had been practicing this thumri for long hours on the sitar, I merely gave the tune an orchestral rounding.” The arrival of playback singing ended any wishes to that end. Even so the challenge of standing alongside the woman who could make prime ministers cry was intimidating for him. Speaking of the event, Salil Choudhury would say in an interview “Dilip even tried to shy away from the recording at the eleventh hour. We had to give him a peg of brandy before he ventured to stand up to Lata!”

Unbeknownst to Dilip Kumar and the music director, the songstress had her own axe to grind. In 1948, when Lata Mangeshkar was still just a starlet, she had heard Dilip Kumar make fun of her Urdu diction to the director Bimal Roy on a train journey. It stung her to no end. It spurred her to practice her diction for hours before every song. Her pronunciation soon improved to such an extent that the indomitable Jaddanbai, mother of Nargis and a famed singer in her own right, called on Lata to praise her command over Urdu. Now, the songstress wished to take on the star in Dilip Kumar in her own home ground of singing.

 

For those who have not heard Dilip Kumar sing, the song is a pleasant surprise. The actor's voice has a deep, rich timbre that add to the melancholic lyrics of the song. Against him, Lata Mangeshkar's fresh, sweet lilt echoes to pitch perfection. But this perfect intonation hurt Dilip Kumar. Actors are notoriously vain, and no performer of Dilip Kumar's stature would have liked being upstaged. Thorough professionals, they finished the song in immaculate style. However for the next 13 years, there existed a frosty silence between them.

The next time they met in 1970, Dilip Kumar was almost into semi-retirement and assured of his permanent position among the greats. Lata Mangeshkar herself had reached the pinnacle and was heralded as the 'Queen of Melody'. Each comfortable in their own zone, they finally found peace with each other.