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When Mahendra Kapoor acted in a college play with Vijay Anand

On the singer’s 8th death anniversary, we spoke to photojournalist Pradeep Chandra who's currently working on a pictorial book on the versatile artist.

Courtesy: Ruhan Kapoor

Sonal Pandya

Every year, Mahendra Kapoor’s sonorous voice booms across India on Independence Day (15 August) and Republic Day (26 January) with the song, ‘Mere Desh Ki Dharti’ from Manoj Kumar’s Upkar (1967). His rendition won him the National Award for Best Male Playback Singer.

Over the course of his five-decade-long career, Kapoor sang thousands of songs in many different languages. Photojournalist Pradeep Chandra, who is working on a book about Mahendra Kapoor, spoke to Cinestaan.com about the unique singer. “Initially, a lot of people thought that he’s very much like Mohammed Rafi, but I think he had his own niche and has sung for almost every actor, except Raj Kapoor maybe.”

Manoj Kumar with Mahendra Kapoor
Courtesy: Ruhan Kapoor

Chandra knew Kapoor both professionally and personally. He recalls a particular occasion when the singer came all the way to his house to hand over a cassette of Punjabi songs recorded by him. Kapoor was accompanied by his son, Ruhan, and brought along a large cake with the album. Chandra recalled, “That way he really touched me [with his gesture], I can never forget it in my life.”

Along with photographs, Chandra says his book will be made up of anecdotes about the singer from his early days as a student at St Xavier’s College in Mumbai to the time when he was trying to break through in the Hindi film music scene.

One such incident from his young days had us in splits. Chandra narrates, “When he was studying at St Xavier’s, he was a contemporary of Vijay Anand. Vijay Anand told him, ‘Why are you singing! You should act! Who does a singer sing for, an actor only?’ Anand used to do a lot of plays and [Kapoor] was a part of that. He was a hero in them and he was very popular. One time, there was an All-India college competition in Delhi. Vijay Anand was selected from St Xavier’s and took his tour there. The group went to Chandni Chowk at night and ate dahi vadas and drank lassis. Punjabis are very fond of eating. [And later], all of them had upset stomachs, they had dysentery. [That became] a very big problem, the next day was the play. Jawaharlal Nehru was the chief guest. When they woke up in the morning, their stomachs were no better. They couldn’t even cancel. Vijay Anand came up with an idea. The name of the play was ‘Rehearsal’. So Vijay Anand said, ‘Let’s go on the stage. Whoever is feeling uncomfortable, just give a clue, and go away.’ People couldn’t understand [what was going on], it was very hilarious. This one is coming, that one is going. The audience was in hysterics. Finally, Mahendra Kapoor got an award and Jawaharlal Nehru gave it. The award was for Best Play and Kapoor saab was the hero.”

Despite early offers to become an actor, Mahendra Kapoor turned them down to go to his first love, singing. Years later, for Manoj Kumar’s 1983 home production, Painter Babu, Kapoor finally appeared onscreen in the song, ‘O Mere Sajan Barsaat Me Aa’ where he enacted the part of a fisherman.

Chandra also shared Kapoor’s first time in a recording studio with music composer C Ramchandra, who gave him a break with the song ‘Adha Hai Chandrama’ sung with Asha Bhosle for V Shantaram’s Navrang (1959). Kapoor was offered the song because he had won the Murphy contest. The contest was adjudged by five judges including music composers C Ramchandra, Roshan and Naushad.

“Those were the olden times. They were recording in a room whereas C Ramchandra was listening to it in a van. Every time he used to sing, C Ramchandra used to say cut, cut, cut. Anybody would become nervous singing for their first song. C Ramchandra came into the room and said, ‘I think you’re very nervous, let us keep it for some other day.’ The poor guy became sad. Asha Bhosle defended him saying he’s singing fine. C Ramchandra insisted there was something wrong with his voice. Finally, Asha Bhosle said, why don’t you sit here? C Ramchandra sat and listened. Mahendra Kapoor was singing quite well. When they checked, it was actually the fault of a cable which transmitted the sound from the studio to the van.”

Even though this song with Bhosle was recorded first, the track from ‘Chand Chhupa Aur Tare Doobe’ from Sohni Mahiwal (1958) became his first release. Chandra said, “I think that was the best song in the film. First he sang for Navrang, but Sohni Mahiwal released first. Mohammad Rafi was very upset, I’m told, because he said, Naushad saab gave away the best song to him.”

Ruhan Kapoor with his son Sidhant
Photo: Pradeep Chandra

After countless hits and establishing a place for himself in the annals of Hindi film music, Mahendra Kapoor passed away due to a massive heart attack on 27 September 2008. His son Ruhan Kapoor, who debuted as an actor in Yash Chopra’s Faasle (1985), continues his musical legacy as he tours the world as a singer, while Ruhan’s son Sidhant is an accomplished music composer in his own right.

Pradeep Chandra’s book on Mahendra Kapoor is due to release next year.