Interview Hindi

My father and Mohammed Rafi had a pact never to sing together, says Mahendra Kapoor's son Ruhan


On his father's 84th birth anniversary (9 January), Ruhan Mahendra Kapoor remembers the singer’s achievements and journey and shares some anecdotes from the golden era of Hindi film music.

Keyur Seta

Hindi cinema enjoyed what is commonly understood to be its golden period from the early 1950s to the early 1970s. Along with classic stories, music and songs had a major role to play in the period earning this title.

One of the more popular singers of the era was Mahendra Kapoor. Be it romance, tragedy, patriotism or melodies on social issues, he excelled in every genre and his name came to be taken with the same respect as the names of stalwarts like Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh.

Birthday special: Singer Mahendra Kapoor’s top 5 songs

On his 84th birth anniversary today, Ruhan Mahendra Kapoor remembered his father's achievements and journey and shared some interesting, little-known anecdotes from the golden era. Excerpts from the conversation:

How would you describe your father, Mahendra Kapoor, both as a singer and a human being?

Of course, he was fabulous. I myself am a musician, so I understand music. I know one thing, that he was a gifted singer. Right from the age of three or maybe earlier he was singing. He was extremely hard-working and learned. Right till his last breath he wanted to learn.

He had the opportunity to learn music from very talented teachers. Starting from BM Vyas when he was young to Niyaz Ahmed Khan saheb, Abdul Rehman Khan saheb, Tulsidas Sharmaji, Pandit Murli Manohar Shuklaji. Such talented people used to regularly visit us. Apart from film music, they used to discuss classical music. He was respectful and responsive towards these people.

Which are your favourite songs by Mahendra Kapoor?

This is the most difficult question (laughs). There are so many. Actually, it depends on your mood. He has sung all types of songs. You will find some song for every occasion. There have been two singers who can sing in any genre. One was [Mohammed] Rafi saheb, who was my father’s guru, and the other was my father. Be it bhajan, qawwali or ghazal, they could sing all. They have sung ghazals for Pandit Ravi Shankar and Pandit Shivram Krishnaji, who was a challenging musician. 

When Mahendra Kapoor acted in a college play with Vijay Anand

Mahendra Kapoor, Mukesh and Manna Dey (Photo: Ruhan Mahendra Kapoor)

Tell us something about your father’s relationship with Mohammed Rafi. 

My father met Rafi saheb for the first time at the age of 12. He was the only student of Rafi saheb who also reached this height. Both used to be present at Filmfare awards night. Both were honoured with the Padma Shri and National awards.

The honour, respect and love they had for each other was always there. Both were from Punjabi families, both were born in the same area — Rafi saheb was from Kotla while Dad was from proper Amritsar.

Both were Capricorns, Dad was born on 9 January, Rafi saheb on 24 December. That’s not all. Both passed away in the month of Ramzan. My father was cremated just besides the cemetery where Rafi saheb was buried. Must be some connection from a previous birth!

This reminds me that your father once got the opportunity to sing a duet with him — ‘Kaisi Haseen Aaj Baharon Ki Raat’ from Aadmi. It must have been a memorable moment for him to sing with his guru. 

Rafi saheb used to come to our house as a family member. He knew my grandparents well. He loved my father like a son or younger brother. He had told my father that they should never sing together as people will make them compete and both have a high-pitched voice. My father agreed. They were offered several songs together, but they refused.

Talat Mahmood had sung this song with Rafi saheb earlier. There are a lot of stupid stories going around that Manoj Kumar forced Talat Mahmood out of the song. There was nothing like that. It’s total crap. My father and Manoj Kumar both revered Talat Mahmood. He was a fabulous singer. 

Mahendra Kapoor rehearsing for a song (Photo: Ruhan Mahendra Kapoor)

It was just circumstantial that in the film there is a scene where Dilip Kumar and Manoj Kumar come to a point where they are against each other. Both have fallen in love with the same girl and there is a misunderstanding. It was a tricky situation. Rafi saheb's voice was powerful and soft at the same time. But because of Talat saheb’s ill-health, his voice couldn’t work. Manojji recently told me that it was unanimously agreed that Talat saheb's voice wouldn't work and they wanted someone like Mahendra Kapoor to do justice to the song.

In fact, my father refused to sing the song initially. [Music director] Naushad saheb then called my dad and said the entire team is in the South and waiting to record the song. My father said, ‘Yeh mujhse paap mat karao [Don’t make me commit this sin] because I have been inspired by Talat saheb.’ 

My father used to love Talat Mahmood's voice and used to perform his songs in college. Naushad saheb then thought of a solution. He called my father to his bungalow and also told Talatji that my father wants to meet him. My father touched Talatji's feet and said he has been told about the whole thing and he can’t sing the song. Talatji explained that he is not well and so his voice won’t work. He said if my father didn’t sing, somebody else would sing, so why not him?

My father touched Talatji's feet, took his permission, and agreed. But he also said that he was reluctant to do it. So this was the respect the people from the golden era had for one another. There was no conspiracy or ill feeling. People just write anything on the internet as 'timepass'. But it hurts our feelings.

Mahendra Kapoor's debut song ‘Aadha Hai Chandrama’ from Navrang (1959) became an instant success and is today considered a classic. How did he get his break?

There are a lot of singing competitions taking place on TV these days. But few people know that the first music competition ever held in India after Independence was the Metro Murphy Contest, where my father was the winner. There were five judges — Naushad saheb, Anil Biswasji, Madan Mohanji, Vasant Desai and C Ramchandra — who were super composers. As per the competition, the winner would get a chance to sing a line or a song in a movie. As he won, C Ramchandra wanted him to sing ‘Aadha Hai Chandrama’ with Ashaji [Bhosle] for Navrang.

But during the recording, they couldn’t hear his voice. They thought this boy has become nervous. They told Ashaji that they will record the song some other day. She was surprised and asked why. They said his voice is just not audible. She said what nonsense, I am able to hear him clearly, so why can’t you? The recordist then shouted to his assistant that my father’s mic wasn’t plugged in. That saved the day and the song was okayed in the first take.

Everybody was happy. Then Naushadji called my father and made him sing ‘Chaand Chhupa Taare Doobe’ for Sohni Mahiwal (1958). That also became a super-duper hit song. 

Mahendra Kapoor, Lata Mangeshkar, Saira Banu and Dilip Kumar with Kalyanji and Anandji (Photo: Ruhan Mahendra Kapoor)

Immediately after that BR Films called Dad for Dhool Ka Phool (1959). Yash Chopra actually introduced my father to BR Films. It was Yashji’s first film. Dad sang all the songs for Rajendra Kumarji. That film and its songs also became mega hits. So, my father’s start itself was humongous.

Your father sang many songs with Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. How was his rapport with them?

He sang many songs with them. They were the only main female singers in that era. Suman Kalyanpur sang a few songs, too.

Almost every day they used to meet in the studios. My father used to touch Lataji's feet as she was 10 years older than him. Ashaji was about 2-3 years older. They were more like friends. But he used to address both as didi [elder sister in Hindi].

We were neighbours at Peddar Road [in South Mumbai]. Lataji used to send biryani, fish curry, rice and sweets to our house. We too used to send some varieties to their place. Madan Mohanji used to stay next to our house. Rajinder Krishanji too lived nearby. Vasant Desaiji used to stay opposite Lataji. Kalyanji-Anandji also resided nearby.

Mahendra Kapoor has also sung a lot of regional songs. 

He is the only singer from the Hindi film industry to have sung the highest number of Gujarati songs. He won seven state awards from Gujarat. He had one of the highest number of songs even for Marathi. He was the voice of [Marathi comedy star] Dada Kondke. He sang a lot of songs for [Shiv Sena founder] Balasaheb Thackeray’s brother Shrikant Thackerayji [who was a music composer]. He sang for composers like Datta Naik and Hridaynath Mangeshkar. He also has a good body of work in Punjabi. Plus, the first pop album by an Indian singer was by him. It was for Boney M [the German disco band].

Mahendraji also sang the title track of BR Chopra’s classic television show Mahabharat (1987). This must have been very important for him. 

When my father sang the title song, he knew in his heart that it will excel. But he was also apprehensive because Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan had become a mega hit only recently. So people were sceptical if another mythological serial would do well. And Mahabharat is a very difficult subject. Ramayan is found in many households. But people don’t keep the Mahabharat at home, though people keep the Bhagavad Gita. So, he wasn’t sure how successful the serial would get. But Chopra saheb's presentation and making was so beautiful that the serial became a hit. 

Ruhan with Mahendra Kapoor (Photo: Ruhan Mahendra Kapoor)

They used to say even in Pakistan there used to be a curfew [-like situation] when it was played. Not a soul on the street. It wasn’t about Hindusim or Islam. It is a great epic about human values. It is dubbed in maximum languages in the world. After singing this song, the audience would never leave him without singing the title song of Mahabharat.

My father also sang a lot of dohas for the serial. Very often they used to record them in his office itself since the telecast would be just two days later. 

How was it growing up with him?

He was a doting father. He used to be very loving and warm. In the house, nobody could ever feel that he was a well-known personality. He was a very simple, down-to-earth, grounded human being. But he was a very disciplined person who never tolerated ill behaviour from anyone. He used to like interacting with those who shared his nature.

As a child, were you aware of his star status?

I didn’t come to know [of his status] through him. I came to know from the outside world. Right from my school friends, their parents, teachers and everybody saw me with a special eye. They used to go, ‘Wow!’ You really couldn’t avoid that. When I used to tell him about this, he used to say, ‘Oh, leave all this. It’s just a profession.’ He didn’t like to brag about his success and achievements. 

Did he discuss about you taking up singing or working with him?

I used to join him for his shows. I started singing with him way back in the 1970s. The first time I sang with him was in South Africa. The movie Kabhi Kabhie (1976) had become a hit. He used to make me sing Mukeshji’s songs. As he was a learned person, he wanted me to sing properly and earnestly and not just for the sake of it.

Later, I got busy with acting in films and theatre. Then in the early 1990s, I stopped acting. At that time a lot of people started demanding father-son shows. We used to sing as a team and travelled abroad. In the night when we would sit and chat, it was only about music. But always on a positive note. He was always appreciative. He always used to look at things in a positive way. He was my father, guru and best friend.