Lata Mangeshkar rendered innumerable film songs in almost all Indian languages and a couple of them she sang in Tamil became all-time greats. Her foray into the Tamil film industry happened because of her close relationship with the late Thespian Sivaji Ganesan and his family.
It was in the 1950s that she made her foray into Tamil films, with Aan Murattu Adiyaal , the Tamil remake of the Hindi film Aan. The 50s also saw her sing in the remake of Dilip Kumar’s Uran Khatola in the Tamil as Vanaratham. It was, however, in the 1980s that her combination along with Illayaraja that put her songs on the lips of Tamil film fans. Her songs in the modern period of film-making became runaway hits. Her first song — Aararo Aararo — was for the film Anand released, in 1987, with Sivaji Ganesan’s son Prabhu in the lead role.
Prabhu recalled: “My brother Ramkumar was particular that she should render a song for the film. She came, sang and left for Mumbai without accepting any remuneration. She said ‘I did it for my elder brother’ [Sivaji Ganesan]. He added that Lata Mangeshkar was a great fan of his father and she and her sisters would affectionately call him ‘Anna’ .
“It started in the 1960s. After watching one of his films, she came to Chennai to see him. A bond developed between him and her sisters which continued till yesterday. We became a family. She would regularly send photos, she even did just before the day she was hospitalised. She would send photographs of deities, Baba and my father,” Prabhu explained.
A bungalow inside Annai Illam, the residence of Sivaji Ganesan bears testimony to their bonding. He constructed it for her stay during her visit to Chennai. “My father constructed it in two months. Since she did not like food from hotels, my mother would personally cook for her. There was no distilled water at that time and my mother sent her boiled water in a flask. She would send new clothes for our family during Deepavali and we would send them some gifts too. It happened till last year,” Prabhu said.
Historian of Tamil film music Vamanan said that in the 1960s when Hindi films were remade in Tamil, tunes of her hit songs were also used. Her another hit song in Tamil is Engiruntho Azhaikkum for the film En Jeevan Paaduthu , again composed by Ilayaraja. “The power of the song is explained by the fact that when Ilayaraja played it for his wife, she became emotional and broke down inconsolably. There is a magic in her voice. Ilayaraja himself told me,” said writer and film director Suka.
But it was the song Valai Osai Kala Kalavena in Kamal Haasan starrer Sathya (1988) that became a sensation. The tune — a piece in flute — was originally composed by Ilayaraja for his album How to Name It , but it was not recorded at that time. Ilayaraja has narrated the incident behind the composition of the song in many public performances.
“When I played the tune, Kamal Haasan liked it and wanted to use it in the film. But I said it should be rendered only by Lata Mangeshkar and he agreed,” Ilayaraja said. He also prevailed upon lyricist Vaali to write the song with simple repeated words (known as Rettai Kilavi, which will have no meaning if separated) so that it would be easy for her to sing. “She was not fully confident when I sang it for her. But when we played the song after recording, her reaction was inexplicable,” Ilayaraja said.
He would also explain how the extra accent to the flutes carried the song to another level.