Kishore Kumar came to Bombay with dreams of becoming a singer, only to become a legend. In a career spanning 40 years, Kumar, who was born Abhas Kumar Ganguly, would become famous as an actor, singer and Bollywood’s favourite eccentric. Even though he disliked acting and had stage fright, he became one of Hindi cinema’s most beloved comic actors before establishing himself as one of the greats of playback singing, despite never having received any formal training in music. He would also compose music, write lyrics and scripts, and direct eight films over the course of his career. He’d sing the most songs for Rajesh Khanna who once said, “Kishore Kumar was my soul and I was his body.” Yet despite all success he had in Bollywood, Kumar said in an interview, “Film people particularly bore me. I prefer talking to trees.”
(If you think that’s eccentric, here’s what Kumar told an interior decorator to create for the walls of his living room: “I told him that I wanted live crows hanging from the walls instead of paintings, since I liked nature so much. And, instead of fans, we could have monkeys farting from the ceiling.” Kumar also had a wardrobe in his home that he’d walk into when he didn’t want to meet someone — the back of the wardrobe opened to a secret exit — and producers would often find themselves twiddling their thumbs outside that wardrobe, unaware that Kumar had literally left the building. )
On his 93rd birth anniversary, we look back at what Kishore Kumar’s contemporaries said about him. These quotes are excerpted from The Sad and the Glad of Kishore Kumar, edited by Ashish Rajadhyaksha, which was published in 1988.
Ashok Kumar (the actor was also Kishore Kumar’s elder brother):
He was not a trained singer. In fact, he had a very poor voice in his childhood. One day, when he was five years old, my mother was cutting some vegetables when he blundered in. He cut himself so badly — in fact he cut a toe right off — that he cried for a month. Finally, when he felt better and he stopped crying, we discovered, miraculously, that his voice had cleared. The hoarseness and the sniffle had gone.
Hrishikesh Mukherjee (the director was friend of Kishore Kumar’s and the two had worked together on multiple occasions):
He was a born genius, and as a result, unpredictable. I took him for my very first film, Musafir. One realised very quickly that he couldn’t really be controlled, that he wouldn’t stick to the script. You could either force him to do what you wanted, in which case you simply got a bad performance, or you could interact with his abilities, even to the extent of improvising.
On the last day of shooting Musafir, I was waiting for him, all my crew were waiting and he wasn’t turning up. I rang his house, and his wife said, just come over and see what’s happened. I thought he was ill or something, so I went. Inside, he started shouting, “Mat aiye, mat aiye (don’t come in, don’t come in).” When I went in, what did I see? He had shaved off all his hair.
He had just returned from shooting a film with Prasad, Miss Mary, and he had an argument with them and shaved off his head in protest. They forced him to act, wearing a hat. And I got my make-up man to fashion a kind of wig for him, and some of the shots I’ve used have him in a wig.
Kalyanji Virji Shah (one half of the composer duo Kalyanji-Anandji. They were music directors for some of Kumar’s biggest hits):
It was very rare to find a playback singer who was also an actor, director, composer, writer. So when we gave him a song, we never had to tell him how to get the right “expression” in his voice. He knew. The only thing he lacked was classical training. Otherwise he was a perfect singer. … He had his moods, but that is an artist’s privilege. He had to treated like a child if you had to get him to do anything. He never gave us any trouble. Because we treated him like a child, like a Kishore, and gently persuaded him into doing our work. To get him to do what you wanted, you had to tell him exactly the opposite. If you wanted to record on a day when he wasn’t in a mood, we used to purposely say let’s hurry up, and he would say, “No, why do you want to spoil the song?” And he would stay as long as you wanted him.
The best thing about Kishore was that even though he wasn’t a trained singer, he was always in sur. And if he was interrupted in between a song, he could pick up exactly where he had left off. Because he was an actor, he could sing to suit the voice of the actor he was singing for. He sang with smooth ease, as though he were speaking some dialogue.
Tanuja (the actor worked with Kishore Kumar in Do Dooni Chaar and Door Ka Rahi):
I remember when I was shooting with him once, it was a seven o’clock shift. We were shooting in his house for Door Ka Raahi. I reached at about seven-thirty with make-up. He was sitting there on the sofa with his harmonium and he was singing and he said, “Aa Tanu, baith, aaj gana sonata hoon tereko. Aaj mood hai mera gana gane ka (Come Tanu, sit, let me sing for you. I’m in the mood to sing today).” And do you know what songs he sang? All the sad songs he had ever sung, and the way he sang them, it was clear that he felt every word of what he was singing. It was terrible, he had us all in tears. We couldn’t shoot that evening.
I told him, what is this, why are you making me cry, I don’t want to cry. And he said, “Hota hai kabhi kabhi (it happens sometimes). You must share. I am feeling sad so I want you to share my sorrow.” He wasn’t frivolous as he made people believe. He was a very deep person. … I don’t know why he put on this madcap act. Maybe as I said, like every other human being, he needed to hide some things. When he was in a good mood, he was great fun. He told us the most atrocious jokes. One day Dadamoni and I were also shooting and both the brothers got together to put up a show for me. They had this routine that they used to perform. Like they had this game — one said Pandurang, the other said Tukaram, and they went on and on, faster and faster, it was a competition to see who would fall out first. Then there was another routine he used to do, face each other and imitate he expression on the other’s face like a mirror image. With split second timing. The understanding was fantastic. Then at the end of it, when we were all in hysterics, he would ask, “Ab batao, hum dono bhaiyo mein se kaun zyada pagal hai? (Now tell me which of us is more mad?)” That was the way he was. … His first love was acting, but he became famous as a singer. He was a brilliant singer. I don’t think there has been another voice like his in this century.
Dev Anand (the actor was among Kumar’s friends):
We got to know each other well and became friends. We used to confide in each other. Then he got a break as an actor, but he continued to sing for me. He didn’t sing for anyone else till much later. Dev Anand and Kishore Kumar was a good combination. I used to tell him what mannerisms I would use for a particular song on screen and he sang keeping that in mind. Since he was an actor himself, he could enact a song. We complemented each other, I think. We built up a tremendous rapport and if I ever used someone else to sing for me, subconsciously, inwardly, he would resent it. … I loved his voice. When I sang on screen in somebody else’s voice, people missed him. Except for a few ghazals that Rafi sang for me, Kishore sang all my romantic songs. His voice was associated with my presence on screen and vice versa. … His voice was the voice of romance, the voice of love. Deep, melodious, resonant, fetching.