When it comes to films, we may admire the choices an actor makes, but there’s always a doubt: Is this great bit of dialogue delivery the actor’s own choice, or did the director prompt him to perform this way? (“Take it down a notch!” “When you say the second line, start pacing about!”) It’s the same with film music. Given a particular song, or even a particular phrase, when we say “X has sung it magnificently”, how much of it came from the directions of the composer and how much was X’s on-the-spot improvisation? That confusion does not arise with a song like Zara nazron se keh do ji, from Bees Saal Baad (1962). Before the first antara, there’s a bit of dialogue that’s half-spoken, half-sung: Hairat mein pad gaya hoon… The first syllable “hai” (of “hairat”) is uttered with an expulsion of breath that sounds like a sigh! That’s Hemant Kumar, the singer. That’s also Hemant Kumar, the composer.
He was a fixture of what nostalgists refer to as the Golden Age of Hindi film music, and at one point, he was the voice of Dev Anand. You’ll know at least some of the songs: Hai apna dil to awara from Solva Saal (1958), for instance. Sometimes, there’s this amalgamation that occurs between actor and singer and composer: in this case, Dev Anand and Hemant Kumar and SD Burman. The end of the first antara: Bahut bhola hai bechara / Na jaane kis pe aayega. The fit is so right that it’s hard to say if Hemant Kumar “smiled” in his singing anticipating his hero’s smile, or if the smile in the singing prompted the hero to smile. Whatever it is, the effect is magical. As is Yeh raat yeh chandni phir kahan (Jaal, 1952), a song to swoon to if there ever was one.
SD Burman used Hemant Kumar beautifully. In Peeche peeche aakar (House No. 44, 1955), the tune sounds like it’s bouncing on a trampoline. All the lyrics go to Lata. All HK does is hum throughout. He hums high. He hums low. He is her “hum-safar”. He is also practically a wind instrument all by himself. The timbre of his voice combined the nasality of Mukesh and the robust baritone of Kishore Kumar, and if I had to pick one song over all others, I don’t think you’ll be very surprised: Jaane woh kaise from Pyaasa. This SDB-HK combination lies at the other end of the emotional spectrum from Peeche peeche aakar. You don’t just hear the pain. You feel it throb in your temples. If I were Mala Sinha, whose emotional betrayal occasioned this song, my conscience would have turned into a porcupine, sticking it to me every which way.
Pyaasa came in 1957. Two years later, Guru Dutt re-teamed with SD Burman for Kaagaz Ke Phool. But this time, the temple-throbber (Dekhi zamaane ki yaari) went to Rafi. The whys and wherefores are best left to biographers; this is just a memory piece. And even the memory isn’t that encyclopaedic. It’s hard to do justice to a vast career, especially when you aren’t too familiar with the composer-singer’s work in Bengali cinema, especially with Uttam Kumar. The few Bangla songs I’ve heard are more because I heard the Hindi versions first and was curious how the tune sounded in Bengali. One of my favourite HK songs is Yeh nayan dare dare, from Kohraa (1964). In the third line, the word zara spools over four beat counts, and this becomes a motif. The song hangs in the air with the sensuousness of agarbatti smoke.
Ei raat tomar amaar is the Bengali version. It has a wonderful whistling in the opening, and then, HK’s humming, all set to more sinister-sounding percussion than the gentle tabla beats in the Hindi song. Like in many songs in those days, the orchestration was the amber in which to preserve the lyrics. The most important instrumental choice in Yeh nayan dare dare is the pause towards the end of the stanza, at Aur tujhse haseen, filled with four gently descending notes. Ei raat tomar amaar has another Hindi-film connection. It came in Asit Sen’s Deep Jweley Jai (1959), which was remade as Khamoshi (1970), with HK’s music. This time, HK gave himself the temple-throbber: Tum pukar lo, tumhara intezar hai… How velvety he makes the word pukar sound! Pah! I’ve always wondered if this number inspired Mera dil tere liye, from Aashiqui (1990). Listen to the line Khwaab chun rahi hai raat / beqarar hai here, and Sameto na baahon mein / yeh gora badan from the Nadeem-Shravan chartbuster. I’m just saying.
As a composer for other singers, Hemant Kumar exhibited a far wider range than he was able to exhibit as a singer for other composers. Taking just the small sub-genre of the Lata-Asha duet, we travel the spectrum from the ultra-classical Sakhi ri sun bole (Miss Mary, 1957) to the fabulously zingy Dabe labon se kabhi jo koi from Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Biwi aur Makan (1966). In this director’s Anupama (1966), we get two magnificent Lata solos: Kuchh dil ne kaha is probably more beloved, but I’ve always preferred Dheere dheere machal. It’s one of the great piano-backed songs, set in the raag Khamaj, and the bridge from antara back to mukhda (Mujhko karne de karne de solah singaar / koi aata hai) is to die for.
And then there’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, with its extremes of musical colour. Asha gets both the playful Bhanwara bada nadaan hai and the melancholic Meri baat rahi meri man mein and the superb mujra, Saaqiya aaj mujhe neend nahin aayegi. Geeta Dutt gets the ghostly Koi door se awaaz as well as the languorously seductive Piya aiso jiya mein. To recover from all this deep feeling, you need Kishore at his zaniest. You need something like Boom booma boom, from Girl Friend (1960). It belongs to the Eena meena deeka family, which means your pelvis begins to swing of its own accord. When Kishore goes la la la la, shivering as though from high fever, I admit I wonder: Is that Kishore freaking out, or did Hemant Kumar give him that instruction, knowing fully well that he’d nail it? Boom booma boom is the kind of song HK would never have been called to sing himself. But what he couldn’t do or didn’t get to do in front of the microphone, he made up for by composing them. In his quiet way, he covered the gamut.