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Mohammed Rafi, the comedian's singer


From the deep melancholy of Dilip Kumar to the joie de vivre of Rajesh Khanna, Mohammed Rafi was the voice of a thousand different emotions. His versatility made him the perfect choice for voice of the hero. But every once in a while, the mimic in Rafi would emerge and surprise fans with the darnedest songs. 

Shriram Iyengar

In 1937, the power went out at a KL Saigal concert in Lahore. Unable to sing in a voice that would traverse the crowd, Saigal invited someone from the audience to keep the crowd amused until the power supply was restored. And so, Mohammed Rafi was sent on to the stage as a back-up for the legend.

Such was the prowess of Rafi that even at the tender age of 12, Saigal marked him out as a future legend. From crooning the most melodious duets to songs laden with pathos, Mohammed Rafi displayed a versatility that set him apart from his peers. What made Rafi great was his ability to adapt his voice to the face on screen. It was a quality that made him a suitable voice for Dilip Kumar as much as for Johnny Walker. 

"Rafi could adapt his voice to any actor," says Madhusudan Bhatt. A long-time fan of the great singer, Bhatt recollects every song, its lyrics, and the film for which Rafi has sung. Known among collectors of film memorabilia as 'The Radio Man', Bhatt has spent a lifetime collecting radios and LPs (long-playing records) to create a music library that is the envy of many.

So, what drew him to the great man? "It is his versatility. Nobody had the skill or the range that Rafi had," he says. As an example, he suggests a song from Kedar Kapoor's forgotten Devar Bhabhi (1958).

In the song composed by Ravi with lyrics by Prem Dhawan, Rafi's voice is unrecognisable. The nasal tone and drawling sneer that comes through the song is an almost exact copy of the actor on screen. Radheshyam, the actor on whom the song was picturised, was a comedian whose nasal drawl would often draw howls of laughter from the audience. For Rafi, the man who sang 'Mere mehboob tujhe' for Rajendra Kumar, this was a transformation beyond expectation. 

Yet it was one of the singer's greatest qualities. It was not just heroes like Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, or Shammi Kapoor for whom he sang. His voice also enhanced the reputation of comedians like Agha, Johnny Walker and Mehmood. Two songs that stand out are the evergreen 'Sar jo tera chakraaye' from Guru Dutt's Pyaasa (1957), picturised on Johnny Walker and 'Hum kaale hain to kya hua dilwale hain' from Gumnaam (1965) picturised on Mehmood. 

 

In both these songs, Rafi stands out with his ability to modulate his voice to match the tonal rhythms of the actors on screen. It is impossible for a stranger to Hindi cinema to point out that both songs were sung by the same voice.

A humble gentleman, Mohammed Rafi took the simplest of songs and took them to another level. The content and status of the song never mattered to him. What mattered was how he could deliver it. Few would question his ability to do that.