Once upon a time, Mahendra Kapoor was dismissed as a ‘clone’ of Mohammad Rafi. The funny bit is that he always acknowledged Rafi’s great skills and the two singers shared a bit of a ‘guru-chela’ relationship. There were times during the early 50s that Mahendra would play the tanpura when Rafi, sang on stage or on All India Radio. Since their voices were similar, Rafi had told him that they should avoid singing together.
But soon enough, Mahendra evolved as a great singer and came out of Rafi’s shadow. Not many know that he and singer Sudha Malhotra got their break through the Murphy Radio Singing Contest. Mahendra had already a few songs under his belt, but it was Naushad, who on Rafi’s recommendation, gave him his first big break. The song ‘Chand chhupa hai tare doobe’ from Sohni Mahiwal in the mid-50s put him on the centre-stage. The difficult number brought out the best in Mahendra, and there was no looking back after that.
Subsequently, the song from C. Ramachandran’s Navrang, ‘Aadha hai chandrama raat aadhi’, became a hit, as did Dhool ke phool numbers like ‘Tere pyar ka aasra chahata hoon’, sung under the baton of N. Dutta for B.R. Chopra.
After that whether it was Dharamputra (‘Bhool sakta hai bhala kaun’) or Gumraah, (‘Chalo ek baar phir se ajnabi ban jayen’), Mahendra reserved his best for BR. When the composer Ravi created some haunting songs for BR’s Humraaz — ‘Tum agar saath dene ka wada karo’ and ‘Aee neele gagan ke tale’ — Mahendra walked away with the Filmfare Award. In between, he sang for Guru Dutt’s last film, Bahaaren phir bhi aayengi, one of his most memorable songs, ‘Badal jaye agar maali’, under O.P. Nayyar’s music directorship.
When Rafi and Nayyar fell out for a while, it was Mahendra who sang most of the songs. Small budget movies like CID 909, Sambandh and Kismat had great Mahendra songs. During this period, he also sang a memorable duet with Rafi in Aadmi, ‘Kitni haseen aaj muradon ki raat hai’ for Naushad.
His association with Manoj Kumar started during the making of Shaheed where he sang ‘Mera rang de basanti chola’. He went on to become the ‘voice of Manoj Kumar’ — from ‘Mere desh ki dharti’ in Upkaar to the songs of Purab aur Pachim. He also sang the title music of the Mahabharata serial produced by B.R. Chopra. No longer was he the poor man’s Rafi.