How Lata Mangeshkar Ruled A Male-Dominated Film Industry

Few understood the intricacies of a film song, its ebb and flow, the thehraav it requires, the andaaz of delivery and the baareeqee of the underlying raag, better than her
How Lata Mangeshkar Ruled A Male-Dominated Film Industry

Lata Mangeshkar is no more. The 92-year-old doyen of Hindi film playback singing passed away on February 6, 2022. She was hospitalised last month due to Covid-related complications.

There is no easy way to describe the huge void left by her passing, but one is reminded of what the screenwriter-poet Javed Akhtar said about Lata ji in Nasreen Munni Kabir's book, Lata Mangeshkar… in her own voice. "If you take all the fragrance, all the moonlight, all the honey in the universe and put them together, you would still not create a voice like hers."

Lata ji's story is about incredible talent, but it is also a lesson in grit and astonishing determination. Although she showed interest in music from the very beginning, she could not afford the luxury of pursuing it seriously after her father, the classical singer, theatre company-owner and Marathi film producer Deenanath Mangeshkar, passed away at the young age of 42. Only 13 at the time of Deenanath's death, Lata ji took it upon herself to provide for her mother, Shuddhamati, and her four younger siblings. She acted and sang in Marathi and Hindi films in the mid-1940s to help the family tide through the difficult hour. 

Stardom brought with it its own challenges for a woman looking to hold her own in a male-dominated industry. The composer SD Burman blacklisted her for nearly half a decade between 1957 and 1962. She fell-out with Mohammed Rafi for a few years in the mid-1960s over the question of royalty. She displayed a visionary quality in wanting playback singers to have a share in the profit.

There were other obstacles and stumbles. Noted film producer Shashadhar Mukerji found her voice too thin for his film Shaheed. Questions were raised about her talaffuz, her diction of Urdu. But beginning with 'Dil mera toda', her breakthrough number from Majboor (1948), Lata ji swatted away one criticism after another in style. When she sang 'Aayega aaney waala' for director Kamal Amrohi's Mahal (1949), the words 'ethereal' and 'excellence' took on a whole new meaning.  

Stardom brought with it its own challenges for a woman looking to hold her own in a male-dominated industry. The composer SD Burman blacklisted her for nearly half a decade between 1957 and 1962. She fell-out with Mohammed Rafi for a few years in the mid-1960s over the question of royalty. She displayed a visionary quality in wanting playback singers to have a share in the profit. Her Filmfare award for 'Aaja re pardesi' from Madhumati wasn't just another honor, but the successful culmination of the battle she fought to get a separate category for playback singers. She refused to sing anything remotely suggestive or vulgar in her early years in the industry. Lesser mortals would have been buried for taking such defiant postures, but the Lata phenomenon rolled on like a juggernaut. 

It is impossible to condense Lata ji's body of work in a few paras to establish her greatness for one cannot fill the ocean into a knee-high bucket. Even a cursory listing of her famous songs would conservatively number around a hundred. Remember, this is a singer who sang in nearly 40 languages, including Kannada, Oriya, Gujarati, Assamese and Dogri. Her repertoire of foreign language songs, given that it contains Fijian, Latin, Russian and Swahili, is enviable too. 

It is that skillful, raffiné voice that helped her to shine on right from the time she sang 'Lara lappa, lara lappa, lai rakhda' for Meena Shorey, to producing chartbusters such as 'Didi tera dewar deewaana' (Hum Aapke Hain Kaun – 1994) and the wonderfully melancholic 'Luka chhupi bahut huyee' (Rang De Basanti – 2006) in the modern era. That she once moved Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru to tears with her singing of 'Aye mere watan ke logon' is not mere urban legend, but a fabled moment in the lives of two legends.

Lata ji sang for father-son composers: Chitragupt – Anand-Milind, Roshan – Rajesh Roshan, Sardar Malik – Anu Malik. She sang for classical maestros like Pandit Ravi Shankar, but also for disco king Bappi Lahiri. She sang for actresses in the 1940s – Nigar Sultana, Kamini Kaushal and Nargis – then became the voice of all the dominant heroines from Waheeda Rehman to Hema Malini and then sang for Kajol and Karisma Kapoor at the turn of the 21st century.  

She was at the top of her game with classical-based numbers such as 'Chalte chalte yun hi koi mil gaya thaa' (Pakeezah) and beautiful taraanas like 'Ajeeb dastaan hai yeh' (Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai). Her songs such as 'Aaj phir jeeney ki tamanna hai' (Guide) were remarkably buoyant, but she could be equally magnifique with melodies like 'Jab pyaar kiya tau darna kya' (Mughal-e-Azam). When critics thought her younger sibling to be the better cabaret song singer, Lata responded with the pitch-perfect 'Aa jaaney jaan' (Intaqam). And how does one even describe her rendition of 'Lag ja galey ke phir yeh' from Woh Kaun Thi but call it the kohinoor in her jeweled crown.

That she managed such a heavy workload despite the wide variety of songs she sang, comes down to her other innate quality. She only had to listen to a tune once or twice at most to memorise it.

Few understood the intricacies of a film song, its ebb and flow, the thehraav it requires, the andaaz of delivery and the baareeqee of the underlying raag, better than her. Listening to her sing 'Kuchh dil ne kaha' (Anupama) or 'Dikhayee diye yun ke bekhud kiya' (Bazaar), is manna for the impoverished soul. Even her 'Kahin deep jaley kahin dil' from Bees Saal Baad acquires mythical proportion in light of her admission to author Nasreen Munni Kabir that it was the first song she recorded after being deliberately poisoned. That she could produce such a gem after being bed-ridden for nearly three months, accentuates her brilliance. 

The poisoning episode and her quick return also highlighted the fact that the only thing that mattered to her was her work. As Lata ji herself told Kabir, she worked nonstop, recording "two songs in the morning, two in the afternoon, two in the evening and two at night." That she managed such a heavy workload despite the wide variety of songs she sang, comes down to her other innate quality. She only had to listen to a tune once or twice at most to memorise it. Calling her extraordinary would underscore the limitations of our own grammar.

The Lata Mangeshkar phenomenon is an incredibly unique one. She outranks her female peers from the industry, even those that faced the camera, by some distance. Her stature rivals India's iconic male figures in the cultural domain, names such as Dilip Kumar or Amitabh Bachchan or Rajinikanth. Away from cinema, few Indian women have captured the nation's imagination like her, the saintly figure of Mother Teresa and the Carnatic singer MS Subbulakshmi being among them. The saree-clad Lata ji was didi to everyone, a divine figure, soothing millions through the magic of her songs. A nation weeps copiously at her death, not because it has lost its voice, but because a great healer has passed on. That is the true extent of our loss.   

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