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Kumar Sanu: A musician for the heartbroken

A singer in the mould of the legendary Kishore Kumar, Sanu is a lingering memory for anyone who grew up in the 90s. His lilting nasal twang is etched with memories of crushes, heartbreak, and a lost teenage. On his 59th birthday today (23 September), the singer still remains one of the most dominant icons of the 90s. 

Shriram Iyengar

Like all things, music in Hindi cinema has moves on a graph of ebbs and flows. The spectacular fireworks of cosmopolitan music in the 70s was followed by a lull in the next decade. RD Burman had hit a low point, and there were few emerging talents who had not yet found their footing in the music industry. Among these strugglers was a Kedarnath Bhattacharya (popularly known as Kumar Sanu). 

Born in Calcutta in 1957, Sanu had arrived in Bombay with the hope of making it big as a singer. A pedigreed talent, his father Pashupati Bhattacharya was a renowned singer and tabla player, Sanu found the going tough initially. His first big break came when singer Jagjit Singh found the melodious voice of Sanu too good to ignore. The singer got his name from his Bengali pet name 'Channa' (cottage cheese) which eventually became Sanu.

In an interview, Sanu said, "When he heard my songs, he was very impressed. Jagjitji insisted on meeting me there... I was awe struck when I saw him. I touched his feet and he invited me home at 12pm the next day. I went there. On meeting Jagjitji, he asked me to sing a peppy Kishore Kumar number. I sang ‘Mere Saamnewali Khidki’. He gave me a pen and paper and asked me to learn a new song. I learnt the song in five minutes and he then drove me to Famous Studios in Tardeo. I sang the song in about 10-15 minutes and Jagjitji hugged me right after. He pulled out Rs1,500 from his pocket and handed it to me. We took the song and then went to Peddar Road to meet Kalyanji-Anandji. The music directors heard my song and they loved it too. That’s how my career took off."

One of the key positives of the 90s decade was the rebirth of melody in Hindi cinema. With composers like Jatin-Lalit, Nadeem-Shravan, Anu Malik, Viju Shah, and even Bappi Lahiri, melody found new inheritors. These composers and musicians had a bevy of talented singers to choose from. Sanu had peers like Udit Narayan, Alka Yagnik, Kavita Krishnamurthy, Talat Aziz, Amit Kumar, Abhijeet Bhattacharya and Suresh Wadkar to choose from. As composer Jatin Pandit, one half of the duo Jatin-Lalit, says, "It was a memorable time because we had some splendid composers and singers coming together. You must remember this came after a time in the 80s when nothing great, musically, had happened. It was a lull period. This adds more shine to the melodious music that arrived in the 90s." 

Yet, in the 90s, not even Udit Narayan matched up to Kumar Sanu in his full flow. The mania began with the soundtrack of Aashiqui (1990) composed by Nadeem-Shravan. Soulful, heartbreaking, and sung in the typical nasal twang that would define Sanu's melodies, it proved to be the start of a brilliant winning streak. The popularity of the songs endured the changing tastes of the public. So much so, that two decades later Honey Singh's decision to remix 'Dheere dheere se' as a single, earned him a spot on the top of the chartbuster list. 

The period between 1990 and 1995 was a prolific one for Sanu. He won five back to back Filmfare awards for Best Singer. The soundtracks for Aashiqui was followed by Saajan (1992), Deewana (1993), Baazigar (1994), and 1942: A Love Story (1995). In between, there were the remarkable successes of Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin (1991), Sadak (1991), Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992), Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1993), Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994), Dilwale (1995). But the best was yet to come.

In 1997, Aditya Chopra made his directorial debut with Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge. It would change the format of Hindi cinema and its presence in foreign markets forever. In addition to a great story, the music by Jatin-Lalit ensured the film lived on as one of the lasting symbols of the 90s decade. One track in particular, 'Tujhe dekha to' acquired iconic status in the annals of Yash Raj Films and Hindi cinema. The sight of Shah Rukh Khan in a field of yellow mustard field, arms spread out, calling to Kajol, is definitive of the romance in the 90s. Sanu, who lost the award to Udit Narayan for 'Mehendi laga ke rakhna', maintains that losing the Filmfare in 1996 is his only regret in life. Jatin Pandit says, "Kumar Sanu was naturally melodious. He possesses a lot of Kishore Kumar's likeliness, in his natural gift for music, rhythm, and melody. It is always good when composers find a natural fit in a fellow singer. It helps them create music in sync."

As a comparison, Pandit adds, "Udit Narayan had a unique voice control. His ability to stamp his authority on a composition set him apart. With Sanu, you could be sure of getting a song that touched the heart."

Sharat Katariya is not the only one thriving on the legacy of Sanu. In the last three years, radio stations have found a new audience for music from the 90s. An audience which was then in its teenage, is now thriving as the main consumer. But Sanu's name was always popular among the urban non-elite. His songs would stream out from barber shops, tea stalls, newspaper vendors on the street. One reason for the popularity of Sanu's voice could be the choice of his songs. Love, heartbreak, fidelity and passion remained themes that were dominant in his choices. The characters he voiced for on screen were not traditional macho heroes.

In Aashiqui, Rahul Roy plays a broke bar singer trying to make it big. In Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, Shah Rukh Khan is a young man cutting it in the corporate world. In Saajan, Sanjay Dutt is a crippled poet who is too insecure to confess his love. Sanu was the voice of the less than ordinary fellow man. Since then, the idea of heroes in Hindi cinema has undergone a drastic change. They sport six packs, sexy stubbles and the confidence of boxers. It is little surprise that the space for heartbroken losers, once occupied by Sanu, remains empty. It is no coincidence that Sanu's return to the big screen was in Dum Laga Ke Haisha, a love story about a very ordinary looking couple.

When Katariya's Dum Laga Ke Haisha released in theatres, audiences witnessed, or perhaps missed, the radical change by Yash Raj Films. For almost six decades, the logo of Yash Raj Films was accompanied by its theme music, sung by the great Lata Mangeshkar. For Dum Laga Ke Haisha, YRF bowed and had the theme sung by Sanu. For a film about love, loss and redemption, set in the 90s, no one else would do.