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In focus: Mubarak Begum (1936 - 2016)

Cinestaan.com remembers the singer who passed away in July 2016 by speaking with Bipin Choubal who made a documentary on her in 2007.

Sonal Pandya

Playback singer Mubarak Begum passed away at age 80 on 18 July 2016 after a prolonged illness. Born and brought up in Rajasthan, she was an up-and-coming singer of the 1950s and 1960s and had several hits under her belt from Hamari Yaad Aayegi (1961) to Daaera (1953) to Hamrahi (1963). But before her career could properly take off, it was clipped.

Bipin Choubal, who worked with the Films Division from 1979 to 2009, made a short documentary on the singer in 2007. Interestingly, Choubal made the documentary on 35 mm film as “it was the attraction” even though he could have done a lot more on video. Because of his decision to shoot on film, Choubal does not have access to any of the extra footage. The footage is completely owned by Films Division. There is also a limit to the length of the feature — the documentary should be no more than 10 or 20 minutes.

Choubal says the organisation isn’t really aware of the value of the archival footage. “The system is that, after finalising the film, after editing, whatever the rushes, whatever the sound, they’ve destroyed. There are few people like me who are from the industry itself. A person from the industry will not do that. I requested them, but they threw the negatives [of the documentary] away. Nothing is left. It was thrown away like garbage. I requested them to give [the negatives] to me. It wouldn’t have been a problem for them. I wasn’t going to sell it. It would have become archival footage.”

But this rule doesn’t only apply to Choubal, it affects all directors who make features for the Films Division. The focus of Choubal’s documentary, Mubarak Begum, was not as well-known as other playback singers in the industry. It was a hurdle he had to overcome to get his feature made.

“Not everyone will make a film on Mubarak Begum. When I told my Films Division officer I want to make a film on her, he took two days to call me. He was a good person, but he said, ‘Don’t glorify this. Keep it as is.’” That was the advice Choubal received for his short feature.

Her tone and language wasn’t as refined and Choubal says he regrets correcting her to rephrase certain incidents of her life. She was quite direct and outspoken. Like Mubarak Begum, there were other singers like Suman Kalyanpur and Sharda who were overlooked for more popular singers like Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. There were few directors like Shankar-Jaikishan or Salil Chowdhury who dared to take a chance on other singers when faced by a ban from the studios.

Choubal says Mubarak Begum only received four annas for ‘Kabhi Tanhaiyon Mein Yoon Hamari Yaad Aayegi’ with Kidar Sharma. “The saddest thing was that she didn’t even receive any royalty for her songs. I don’t know what kind of contract she signed with the producers. She was ignorant of what actually went in them; she didn’t even have any personal assistant or anything. She would get Rs500 for one song. When I worked with Kishore Kumar in the 1970s, he used to sign one for Rs1,500. I don’t know where he got the rest of the money from. (laughs)”

He got to know the singer well as he ferried her back to her house every day after the shoot of the documentary. Choubal said, “Mubarak Begum didn’t talk about her personal life much. She’s from Rajasthan, then came to Ahmedabad. Her father used to take the young Mubarak to the theatres. She used to listen to the songs of Suraiya and Noorjehan. After that she came to Mumbai and sang for All-India Radio (AIR). She had a very good voice.”

Around 90% of what he shot could not be put in the film. He said, “I had shot some footage around Mohammed Ali Road and taken her commentary as a voiceover on those scenes. That had to be removed. I matched what she was saying with the festival of Ramazan.”

He had also shot Mubarak Begum standing between Prabhu Kunj (the building where Lata resides) and the plaque commemorating Kalyanji-Anandji near her building. That shot was also removed. After editing, it goes through two stages of approval.

“I kept in the scenes of her travelling by bus. She also used to commute by train. People had to know at this age, her struggle to go to All-India Radio for recording. She had to do that because she didn’t have anything else. AIR didn’t call her every month, it would be every three months. She didn’t have a continuous monthly income,” he stated.

Mubarak Begum used to do shows for All-India Radio occasionally for the last few years of her life. It became the one consistent force in her life. Her sister, Mumtaz Begum aka Vijaybala, acted in Paisa (1957) produced by Prithviraj Kapoor. She even sang for her sister in the film.

Her voice was similar to Mangeshkar, probably why she felt threatened. Eventually, after a point, many people in the industry stopped taking her calls or asking after her. Talking about her situation in the documentary, Mubarak Begum was overcome with emotion and cried during filming.

Choubal revealed that only two days before the shoot of that scene, Mubarak’s sister had passed away. “The press asked her many times to stage a comeback. She had said, ‘Who do I sing for now?’ It’s not as if Lata Mangeshkar hasn’t struggled. At that time, there was no institute around. You weren’t told anything. You had to watch and learn. The production house Bombay Talkies was almost like an institute. It was the first of its kind that had systems in place.”

He further explained, “Before 1948, people thought anyone from films was a bad person. Society didn’t accept them. Bombay Talkies was an organisation, a reputed name. Even [Bombay Talkies co-founder] Devika Rani would ask you, ‘Did you get your salary?’ Here with an independent producer, you might or might not get your pay.”

Choubal’s father used to work as an editor in Bombay Talkies, and therefore he had good relations with many in the film industry. He was also an associate director on a documentary on Mohammed Rafi.

Choubal was most insistent that a filmmaker has to know their subject before making a film on them. He stated, “I didn’t want to make a documentary on Lata Mangeshkar or Dilip Kumar. In the industry, there are so many talented people. Some get a chance, some don’t. When I read about [Mubarak Begum] in Indian Express, there was a man from Paris who had come down. He took her to a hotel to take an interview and made her eat biryani. I thought about her, such a big star and singer, and now what has happened to her.”

But eventually, he said, Mubarak Begum was happy about the end result. The documentary was featured in the Indian Panorama section at the International Film Festival of Goa in 2007. At a press conference, she said, “I troubled Choubal sir, but he kept calling me to participate [in the film]. Nobody else came to me.”

Watch the documentary below