Bombay Showcase

Worthy of higher notes

Mubarak Begum began her career in Hindi films in 1949 with Aaiye. She performed a solo song, ‘Mohe aane lagi angdai’ as well as a duet, ‘Aao chalein wahan’, with another upcoming singer called Lata Mangeshkar. Begum went on to sing over a long stretch of three decades, till Nai Imarat in 1981, with the 50s and 60s as the most productive phase.

However, her output, though melodic and popular, remained small in terms of sheer numbers. Wikipedia credits her with 178 songs in 115 films. Compare this to the many thousands sung by Lata in several hundred films. It’s this lopsidedness, inequity and perceived discrimination that underlined her career, more so for her fans and herself.

No godfather in sight

Mubarak once said in an interview that she didn’t get her due, and could do only 25 per cent of the work she should have ideally done.

She blamed it on the lack of a godfather. Also, like many other singers she felt sidelined and stifled in an era dominated by Mangeshkar and, later, Asha Bhosle. In fact, she was quite vocal and not as diplomatic about being denied her rightful opportunities, a reason she may have found herself isolated further in the incestuous industry.

Film historian M.D. Soni says that most of her popular songs were in small, “B and C grade” films. For instance, the number: ‘Ae ji ae ji yaad rakhna sanam pyaar ki daastaan’ in Daaku Mansoor (1961). The big films in her kitty were very few: ‘Woh na aayenge palat kar’ in Bimal Roy's Devdas (1955) for S.D. Burman and ‘Hum haal-e-dil sunaenge’ in his Madhumati (1958) for Salil Choudhury, which got shortened in the film.

Singing in isolation

According to music and film expert Pavan Jha, some of her best songs were, in fact, in films that didn’t fare well at the box office. Like ‘Devta tum ho mera sahara’, a duet with Mohammed Rafi, in Kamal Amrohi’s Daera (1953).

“It is a brilliant composition and she gave a superb rendition. Rafi has only one line. The song truly belongs to her,” says music expert Arun Mudgal. Jha calls it timeless. It may not have been so popular back then but is now considered a classic.

The most famous of them all is undoubtedly, ‘Kabhi tanhaiyon mein yun’ in Hamari Yaad Aayegi (1961). “It is the shortest song, with just one mukhda and antara and yet is eternal,” says Soni. But there is a medley of others vying at the popularity stakes: ‘Mujhko apne gala laga lo’ ( Hamrahi 1963); ‘Neend ud jaye teri chainse sone wale’ ( Juaari, 1968) and ‘Bemurrawat bewafa’ ( Susheela, 1977).

From Nawalgarh in Jhunjhunu district in Rajasthan — a reason why she is called Rajasthan ki koel (nightingale) there: Begum got inspired to take to singing on hearing Noorjehan and Suraiya. She trained in the kirana gharana and went in to playback singing after a stint with All India Radio.

Soni thinks her voice had a distinct “kashish” (passion) and was a rare, significant Rajasthani presence in Hindi cinema. Unlike Mangeshkar’s purity and technical perfection, Mubarak Begum’s voice was all about earthiness. “Her voice had khanak (tinkle/chime/ring) and soz (ardour) and was rooted in Rajasthani folk,” says Jha, “It wasn’t sugar that her voice was made of but jaggery.” The haunting quality came out best in ‘Kabhi tanhaiyon’.

The distinct tonality and textures made her the go-to mujra singer. Two outstanding ones were, ‘Wada unse kiya dil kisi ko diya’ in Saraswatichandra (1967) and ‘Jab ishq kahin ho jaata hai’ in Aarzoo (1965), a mujra-modern mix duet with Asha Bhosle.

In fact, she sang two Hindi songs written by Gulzar for a Bengali film, Lal Pathor (1964) starring Uttam Kumar, one of which was a version of ‘Ruke ruke se kadam’, later used by Gulzar himself in Mausam. The film was later remade in Hindi and the song was used in the climax without crediting the original. She sang a Hindi song, ‘Mere aansuon pe na muskura’, for a Magadhi film, More Man Mitwa (1965).

An artiste’s struggle

For a voice as rich as Begum’s the entire narrative in the media about her, especially in the last decade or so, got woven around penury. Understandably so. I remember meeting her in 2009 in her one bedroom flat in Behram Baug, Jogeshwari. Her daughter, who was suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was still alive then. The son did not have a fixed job and the pension coming her way was a paltry Rs. 700 per month. “ Ghar ghar jaisa nahin lagta (The house doesn’t feel like home),” she told me of the cramped, dingy space.

She craved rest from constantly having to provide for the family.

Things had got worse for her. Soni, who went to meet her one late evening in 1995 in her Noor Mohammad building home near Jinnah Hall in Grant Road, was shocked to realise that it was right in the heart of the red-light area of Mumbai. It was actor-politician Sunil Dutt who pulled her out of there and got the Jogeshwari flat allotted under the artiste’s quota.

She has not been the only one. There have been many artistes from the early days of Hindi cinema who have aged into financially difficult days. They were not able to capitalise and build on their success, were not able to invest wisely in their heyday for a comfortable future. Add to that the ignorance about copyright laws and royalties, which could have helped provide sustenance in the long run.

Performing till the end

Mubarak Begum had been performing in concerts to keep earning for the family, the last one being in January this year. Her health is said to have deteriorated with the death of her daughter last year. There had been news reports about her loss of memory and the family not being able to take care of her medical expenses. After meeting her to condole her daughter’s death, Lata Mangeshkar had sanctioned her a grant from her charity fund in Pune and her medicines were being funded by Salman Khan’s trust. But her daughter-in-law had complained to the media about the Maharashtra government and Information and Broadcasting ministry’s miniscule efforts.

The rained out Tuesday, July 19, in Mumbai was all about Mubarak Begum if you were home-bound and listening to Vividh Bharati. She, however, was on her last journey to a place she could truly call her home and final resting ground. It’s a spot, where she won’t have to bother about fending for herself and those around her any more.

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 2:58:44 AM |

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