The Man with the Quivering Voice
By Asif Javed
Once upon a time, a young singer received a message. The year was 1949. The sender was a highly respected and successful musician in Bollywood by the name of Anil Biswas. He was among the first generation of musicians in Bollywood. He was a contemporary of Naushad Ali, Khem Chand Prakash and PunjajMullick.
Music lovers may recall that it was Anil Biswas who made Mukesh sing Diljaltahey for PehliNazar in the Sehgal style. The recipient of that message was a shy aspiring singer from Lucknow by the name of Talat Mahmood. Talat was not new to singing. He had been singing for Radio Lucknow for some time, and had also spent time in Calcutta where he had recorded ghazals. But it was success in movies that he craved and so he decided to test the waters in the highly competitive and cut-throat Bollywood.
Anil Biswas had heard of the singer from UP with the silky voice and decided to give him a chance. Talat duly arrived and Biswas asked him to sing. A nervous Talat, aware that the graveyards of Bombay were full of failed singers and actors, started cautiously. The experienced maestro that Biswas was, noticed that and asked Talat why was he hesitating. Talat explained that he did so because of the quiver in his voice. Obviously, Talat considered the quiver a handicap. Biswas reassured him that the quiver was not a handicap but an asset (Tumheeniseelaye to bulaya hey) and told him to relax.
A relieved Talat sang to Anil Biswas’s satisfaction and was signed up by Biswas who was composing music for IsmatChughtai and Shahid Lateef’s Arzoo. Aye dilmujheaiseejagaley chalwas recorded. Both the singer and the composer may not have realized at the time but Talat’s journey to stardom had begun. For the next decade, he was the most sought after male singer in India.
How good was Talat? Just try listening to two songs; the first is Ae ghameindilkyakaroon sung by Talat and Asha in Thokar and the other Jayeen to jayeenkahan sung by Talat and Lata in Taxi Driver. Raza Ali Abidi in his superb book Naghma Gar is convinced that the Talat versions are superior to the Bhonsle sisters.
Fast forward to the 1990’s. Talat had been in poor health for some time and out of Bollywood for decades. Due to a stroke, he had lost his speech. The unique silky voice with quiver was no more. A visitor came to see Talat. He was ushered in. Talat was gracious and asked his son to play his famous non-filmi ghazalTasweerterimeradilbehlana sake gee and then, unable to speak, but with visible pride, pointed to himself to indicate to the visitor that he indeed was the singer. During the visit, the mail arrived that brought a royalty check for Talat from a far off radio station. Talat’s son reported that royalty checks were still coming. It seemed that Talat, out of Bollywood for decades, had still not been forgotten by the music lovers.
Talat’s fall from the lead singer to virtual obscurity has puzzled many. The most popular male singer of the 50’s had almost vanished from the music scene by the mid-60’s. What happened to him? Well, it seems that life has strange twists in store for us.
To begin with, he ran into a problem with Naushad. Mausiqar-e-Azam who had used Talat exclusively for Babul, in preference to Rafi and Mukesh, moved away from him for reasons which are vague. Picky Naushad, it was rumored, had earlier removed MajroohSultanpuri, considered by many to be one of the finest lyricists in India, from his team because of the latter’s communist tendencies. Whatever the reason, Talat and Naushad, both from UP, were never to work with each other again. But what really damaged Talat’s singing career was his unfortunate decision to try acting.
He may have hoped to cash in his good looks. He worked in twelve movies; only two of those clicked. By the time he returned to singing full time, Rafi, Mukesh, Kishor Kumar, Manna Day and Mahinder Kapoor had left little room for him. The music in the 60’s was also changing. The ghazal that was Talat’s forte, was less in demand. By nature reserved and cultured, he was not the type to beg musicians for work. A dejected Talat then turned towards overseas trips, concerts and private singing. And so it came to pass that the man with the silky voice was lost to the cruel and unforgiving film industry, and to his fans, forever. He lived well into the 1990’s. Visitors report that he consoled himself by the knowledge that he had been at the top once and that his fan base—while slowly diminishing--still remembered him. Deep inside, one wonders, whether he may have regretted his unwise foray into acting. That decision made the producers and actors wary of him since he became a competitor to those who were giving him work. As it turned out, he had neither the movies nor the songs.
Talat was a representative of Lucknow’s old traditions. A gentleman to the core, he once declined a song offered to him by Salil Chaudhry for Dalip Kumar’s Madhumati: he asked Salil to give the song to Mukesh instead who was struggling at the time. An ever grateful Mukesh ended up singing Suhanasafarauryehmausamhaseen. Just listen to this popular song, and you can tell that it was really meant for Talat.
Let us return to Anil Biswas: his fate was only slightly better than Talat’s. By the mid-60’s, changing music trends had sidelined him as well. The only composer from the senior lot who survived the changing times was SD Burman. The rest were cast aside by the late 60’s. These included stalwarts like Naushad, OP Nayyaer, C Ramchandar and Shankar, among others. Seeing the writing on the wall, Anil Biswas quietly moved to Delhi, where he took a job with All India Radio as the orchestra director. As expected, he was also soon forgotten by Bollywood.
Many years later, a group of music lovers turned up at his door and asked to see him. An ailing Biswas was getting on in years by then. They were led to his room. The excited visitors started to talk about his marvelous music. But it did not take long for them to realize that the maestro was having a mighty struggle with his memory. As they tried to reawaken his memory by naming his famous movies and songs, he just stared ahead, oblivious to his glorious past and legacy. The visitors left in tears. Anil Biswas passed away in 2003, having outlived his protégé by five years. Rahenaam Allah ka.
(The writer is a physician in Williamsport, PA and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)