The angel’s voice

The Lata-esque songstress image—dulcet, moral, ‘plain’—endured for years

Published - April 29, 2017 04:32 pm IST

Playback singing confers a kind of meta-narrative to the Indian film. This was especially true for the female singers of yesteryear, whose vocals carried the baggage of archetypes beyond the personas of the leading ladies. Today’s voices do not carry that burden because they are not subject to the myth-making that their predecessors found hard to escape.

The combination of an actress and Lata Mangeshkar’s voice, for instance, created a dual personality where body and intonation, in hidden collusion, produced a unique allure. The enduring popularity of many silver-screen divas can be attributed to the underrated art of lip-syncing, subject to regular slips, but not as ersatz as one might imagine.

Maid Mangeshkar

V. Shantaram’s Teen Batti Char Rasta (1953) was one of those early ‘unity in diversity’ films, set in the bustling household of a Punjabi merchant with five daughters-in-law, each representing one of the budding Republic’s prime population groups. A unifying agent in this melange was the no-nonsense maid, Shyama, played by Shantaram’s frequent muse Sandhya. With her distinctive styling—sari, pigtails, accessories, expressions and mannerisms—Sandhya was the spitting image of the young Mangeshkar. Shyama did moonlight as a popular radio singer, but there was a felicity and effortlessness to Sandhya’s turn (years before she became an incorrigible ham) that brought to mind Mangeshkar’s industriousness, that early penchant for mimicry that her biographers frequently cite, and a pan-national appeal.

Yet, the implicit assertion was of a woman with wondrous attributes bogged down by ‘ugliness’, emphasised by the use of dark makeup, a chilling reminder of how fairness was always considered an essential marker of beauty. When Shyama emerged from a recording, autograph-seekers ignored her at first, rushing instead to accost an attractive damsel standing nearby, and later make disparaging remarks about her ‘unflattering’ appearance. The youngest scion of the household, Suresh, upon hearing her mellifluous voice (‘backed’ by Mangeshkar, of course), paints her on canvas in the likeness of a pale-faced Raja Ravi Varma damsel. It takes much forthrightness on Shyama’s part, and a lot of running and singing on staircases (that allude to the class structure), for Suresh to produce another portrait that better captures her Lata avatar: a woman of conviction and ‘inner beauty’—a reductive notion in itself but for those times, a progressive message in retrograde packaging.

This trope, of an ‘ugly’ woman with an ethereal singing voice, was appropriated by Raj Kapoor in Satyam Shivam Sundaram , a film he had planned in the 1950s, with none other than Mangeshkar in the lead. According to widely held speculation, she was, quite understandably, peeved. Kapoor’s film was finally released in 1978 with a sexualised Zeenat Aman, a nubile nymphette, half of whose face was tragically disfigured. The film was a misadventure full of contradictions and ironies perhaps lost on its maker. It added to the Mangeshkar myth by yet another imputation: that of a pristine religiosity and unsullied innocence attached to her voice.

Past sell-by date

In the 1970s, the Lata persona had acquired a conservatism of its own. For Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan , Jaya Bhaduri attended Mangeshkar’s recording sessions to observe the minutiae of her regimen (already seen as sacrosanct), in order to faithfully capture the physiognomy of a playback singer. This anchored her character’s unblemished moral poise, serving as a counterpoint to an egoistic husband. Leela Naidu and Rakhee also play singers in Mukherjee’s Anuradha and Jurmana respectively. It was Mangeshkar’s voice that accompanied them on the lonely trek towards self-actualisation.

So, while notions of self-inflicted morality could be self-limiting, there was also the semblance of a welcome individualism, not easily afforded to leading ladies of their times. Saaz (1998) was a sensationalist attempt by Sai Paranjpye to cash in on the Mangeshkar sisters’ public foibles. By this time, the immaculate Mangeshkar persona had perhaps crossed its sell-by date, which is why Aruna Irani could play the character based on her as a goddess with feet of clay, petty and conniving, and perhaps even less talented than her younger sister (Shabana Azmi as an Asha Bhosle stand-in).

The making and dismantling of an icon thus came full circle. Few and far between, these films still help us trace Mangeshkar’s evolution from a precocious youngster with pockmarks and pigtails and the world at her feet, to the imperious paragon in white silk and pearls, so much at home in the specious glow of a Gautam Rajadhyaksha portrait.

Even as a child, the writer sought out cinema that came at least two generations before him. That nostalgia tripping has persisted for a lifetime.

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