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Remembering KL Saigal through a play that explores his funny, entertaining side


Theatre veteran M Sayeed Alam's play looks at the lesser known aspects of the singing star's life.

Keyur Seta

Kundan Lal Saigal, famously known as KL Saigal, an Indian singer, actor and director, was in many ways the first star of Hindi cinema. Unfortunately, in his final years, his personal life was the opposite of his illustrious career. Alcoholism got the better of him and he passed away at his prime, aged only 42. Today (18 January) happens to be his 70th death anniversary.

But who would have thought that the life of a person who met with such a tragic end would have quite a few light-hearted moments? This side of the great singing star, along with the tragic one, has been explored by theatre artiste M Sayeed Alam in his musical play, KL Saigal, which he has been staging for the past four years.

Asked why he chose Saigal’s life story for a theatre production, Alam said there was a time when he had the wrong notion about the late star. “There is an older generation that has been making fun of Saigal’s singing. He was presented in a funny manner saying he was a nasal singer. And we, too, after believing others, started caricaturing his songs like ‘Gham Diye Mustaqil’ and ‘Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya’. I too used to do that.”

But when someone advised him to do some research on Saigal, he found a surprising picture. “I came to know Saigal has even sung Ghalib’s ghazals. People didn’t know this. I was stunned by his voice.”

Alam also learnt that Saigal achieved fame at a young age. “At an age when people struggle to become known, he achieved everything and even passed away! This is how I got interested in his character.”

Unfortunately, he realised there was not much research material available in India. Those who had heard Saigal were also no more. Finally, he did get information about Saigal from few people.

“I found his life story more interesting than his singing,” laughed Alam. He found out there were many interesting incidents in his life. “Ustad Abdul Karim Khan bought the ticket for Devdas (1935), waited outside and asked someone to call him inside two minutes before Saigal’s ‘Piya Bina Nahin Aawat Chain’ started. He left the hall once the song was over. It’s a big thing that an ustad like him went to the theatre just to hear Saigal,” Alam said.

Dr M Sayeed Alam

Alam credited theatre director LH Kazi, who is director at Mumbai’s Nehru Centre, for encouraging him to write a play on Saigal. At that time, in 2004, Faisal Khan, younger brother of Aamir Khan, played Saigal. However, from 2013 onwards, Alam started directing the play under his own production as he wasn’t happy with a few things. By sheer luck he found an actor called Yashraj Malik who not only looked like Saigal but also sang like him. In the Faisal version, they used the voice of Chandru Atma for playback, but Alam was always looking for an actor who could sing. 

“I consider it god’s blessing that his face resembles Saigal's and he could also ape his singing. I feel it is a miracle. It’s a coincidence that Yashraj was working in my production. One day I came to know that he sings well and had once got a job in the police after his senior was impressed by his voice,” Alam said. 

Interestingly, Yashraj also plays Saigal in Vishal Bhardwaj’s keenly awaited Rangoon

Alam believes that though Saigal belonged to an era long gone, his story is still relevant. "We always remember such personalities for their golden period. But we don’t look at their hard work, passion and sacrifice. The audience gets mesmerised not necessarily because we have a big production, but also to be able to witness an era long forgotten. When we talk about film history, we mostly speak about films after the 1960s. The era of the 1930s when the Hindi film industry was getting established is not considered history. Saigal isn’t the only famous name of that era. There were also people like Ustad Abdul Karim Khan, Vinayakrao Patwardhan, Ustad Faiyaz Khan, etc," he said.

Alam’s play also focuses on the film industry of Calcutta which is hardly spoken about today. “People are slowly forgetting Manna Dey, so how will they know who was KC Dey, Pankaj Mullick, RC Boral and Pahari Sanyal? I realized that when you do something on Saigal, a number of other interesting episodes and stalwarts would also come to light.”

Alam was amazed by a few things from Saigal’s life. “Imagine, a Punjabi getting established in Bangla music and film industry. It’s a big thing,” he said.

As there are a number of interesting episodes in Saigal’s life, isn’t it possible to make a movie on him? It’s the season of biopics, after all. "It will be an interesting biopic," Alam agreed. "You are forced to leave out some interesting incidents on stage because of limitations. Such events can be shown only in the medium of cinema. His life story is completely filmi.”

But he has his concerns. “I hope a lot of ingredients to make the film commercially viable aren’t added. For example, you can’t add forceful romance in his story, though he was a committed husband and father.” Alam would be happy to direct such a biopic on Saigal, provided someone helps him with the finance.

Lastly, Alam believes Saigal could have lived longer. “It is sad that he wasn’t alive to see India’s independence. But the good thing is that he didn’t see Partition either,” he said.