Big Screen Movies

That eccentric genius named Kishore Kumar would have turned 90 this year

In a short-lived acting career, Kishore Kumar honed both talent and idiosyncrasy.

In a short-lived acting career, Kishore Kumar honed both talent and idiosyncrasy.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The genesis of his prodigious musical output can be traced to a relatively shorter-lived acting career

In his 90th birth anniversary year, Kishore Kumar is perhaps best remembered for his prodigious repertoire of chartbusters, remixed and refunctioned with impunity today, even if his dazzling vocals are yet to be matched. The genesis of this output can be traced to a relatively shorter-lived acting career, in which he honed both talent and idiosyncrasy. It certainly makes for an interesting ‘origins’ story, one that has been all but lost to time.

Kishore’s first appearance on celluloid was in Shikari (1946), a film written by Saadat Hasan Manto. It was a Filmistan production, starring elder brother Ashok, who had founded the banner with Sashadhar Mukherjee, among others. Kumar fleetingly featured in the group song ‘O Rangeela Rangeela’, in which his vocals were also used, displaying traces of the distinctive style to come. It was only in 1948 that his playback career took off with Shaheed Latif’s Ziddi, in which he also made an uncredited cameo as a gardener. That film was with Bombay Talkies, another Ashok-managed enterprise that supplied the fledgling actor supporting parts in films like Majboor (1948) and Muqaddar (1950), before casting him as romantic lead in Phani Majumdar’s Andolan in 1951.

In the film, real footage from India’s freedom struggle was interspersed into a fairly routine melodrama about nationhood. The young, clean-shaven Kishore (he was credited mononymously in many films till Bhagam Bhag in 1956) was the spitting image of his elder brother, from the latter’s Achhut Kanya (1936) days. His acting mien was in the lightly romantic Dev Anand mould. Almost as if to break away from these associations, Kishore acquired his trademark pencil-line moustache the following year, in Chham Chhama Chham, a film now notable only for being O.P. Nayyar’s first collaboration with Kishore and Asha Bhosle (she sang 10 of the 11 songs). The eccentric persona, already visible in his playback in films like Bahar (1951), would soon come into being.

Kishore Kumar and Nutan in ‘Dilli Ka Thug’ (1958).

Kishore Kumar and Nutan in ‘Dilli Ka Thug’ (1958).   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

His early career certainly got a fillip because he had essentially joined a family business, although some accounts insist that Kishore resisted being coerced into acting, before success at the turnstiles saw him acquire respect for a profession handed to him on a silver platter. His early heroines included big names and even Bimal Roy signed him up for a gritty social realist drama like Naukri (1954), in which he embodied the unemployed youth of Kolkata. With the illustrious Meena Kumari and Vyjayanthimala, Kishore made six films apiece, before they moved on to the heavy-duty dramatic vehicles of the 60s. Meanwhile, as a comic star, Kishore had come to inhabit a screen identity that refreshingly bucked the traits of alpha-male masculinity.

Perfect foil

In the 1953 film Ladki, with Vyjayanthimala, Kishore became the perfect foil to one of filmdom’s earliest ‘feminists’, or rather, a ‘superwoman’ who was classical dancer, musician and sports champion all at once, and was unconditionally supported by her man. Kishore was less convincing when cast against type, as in the 1956 Mem Sahib, in which he plays one of Meena Kumari’s two suitors — his self-righteous conservative set against Shammi Kapoor’s Westernised cad. He fares far better in the second half, where he turns into a comic version of his bête noire. Ladki began his run of box office luck, and went on to include such all-time classics as Miss Mary (1957), Aasha (1957), Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) and Dilli Ka Thug (1958).

In Kishore’s home, along with those of K.L. Saigal and Rabindranath Tagore, it was Danny Kaye’s portrait that was prominently displayed. Kaye was the all-American entertainer who dabbled in all departments — acting, singing, comedy and dance — and Kishore took on this role enthusiastically. In fact, Kishore was arguably the last of the singing stars, with Suraiya on the ebb and playback taking over the airwaves.

Kishore Kumar and Shakila in ‘Band Master Chik Chik Boom’ (1978)

Kishore Kumar and Shakila in ‘Band Master Chik Chik Boom’ (1978)   | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

Besides the famous yodel, other signature skills he worked into his repertoire were Kaye’s patter songs, which featured rapid-fire rhythmic patterns using text. And Ella Fitzgerald’s scat singing in vocal jazz, which involved verbal improvisations using gibberish. Many Western songs Indianised to a point of originality are part of his output — Bhagam Bhag’s (1956) ‘Hey Babu’, an Indian version of Dean Martin’s ‘Hey Mambo’; ‘Hum The Woh Thi’ from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958) riffed off Tennessee Ernie Ford’s ‘The Watermelon Song’. In Kishore’s own Bengali production, Lukochuri (1956), he ‘covered’ Kaye’s cover of the 1919 novelty song, ‘Oh By Jingo’.

Of course, all composers used foreign inspiration but it was only Kishore who made this consortment of cultural styles his own without coming across as a derivative performer; perhaps because his command over the Indian idiom was so thorough. One attempt to emulate his idol in person and voice came a cropper in 1958, when all prints of Begunah, a copy of Kaye’s 1954 Hollywood caper, Knock on Wood, was recalled by an Indian court ruling on a case of plagiarism brought by Kaye himself.

In the 60s, as his saleability as leading man steadily declined, Kishore resolutely settled into playback mode, reaching a never-before zenith with Aradhana (1969). It forged what was to become his indelible identity as the voice of the first Indian superstars Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, whom he might well have given a run for the money as hero material had their eras coincided.

The writer is a playwright and stage critic.

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Printable version | Feb 19, 2020 6:10:13 AM |

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