What are the first thoughts that come to our mind when someone mentions singing-actor Kishore Kumar? Chances are we will say yodeller, comic actor, or the voice of Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna. Perhaps we will think of his eccentricities, and maybe even his multiple marriages. Many of us recall him fondly through his garage-mechanic’s role and song Ek ladki bheegi-bhaagisi from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi. Others instantly mention his comic falsetto singing in Aake seedhi lagi dilpe jaise katariya from Half Ticket.
People who are in love with his work and persona—and these are in the millions—know more about him, and so they see this man in his other avatars too, as a composer, filmmaker, editor, scriptwriter and even songwriter, yes! A modern-day Leonardo da Vinci in our cinema, with an embarrassment of skills, many of them high-visibility.
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In his last 10 years, he connected beautifully on the stage through his shows too. Surely we are talking about a people person. Now this hardly sits well with what we also know, that till his very end, Kishore Kumar preferred to be a recluse, remaining a mystery to mankind in general. Clearly, there were two Kishores here, a happy connected one, and a sad withdrawn one. And perhaps, essentially more sad than happy.
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Yes, not many think of him as essentially a sad person—at least not in their first thoughts, but a certain theory of the case needs to do the rounds. Let’s see why.
Firstly, he was never happy acting in films, he just wanted to be left alone to sing. What got the better of him was peer pressure, principally from his brother Ashok Kumar, a huge box office star when Kishore made his entry, and with a nineteen year age gap, old enough to be the beginner’s father. Compound that with Kishore sometimes not being paid for his work, an occupational imperative in the sleazy world of our cinema. That was turning him paranoid, a gradually intensifying mood that accompanied him faithfully all his life, especially when success arrived.
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After his initial struggles were over, he found vocal success and the resources to sometimes reject greasepaint, but now he was getting periodically visited by discord in his personal life. His first wife Ruma left him to find a new career and husband in Calcutta. The second, Madhubala, was sick—and that for nine years, till she passed away. The third wife, Yogeeta chose an auspicious date—4th August, 1978—his 49th birthday, to walk out on him. Then she proceeded to marry a prominent actor. Hope winning over experience, Kishore finally found marital happiness only with his fourth wife, Leena.
Meantime, when Mrs Gandhi’s ‘feelers’ ordered him to sing for her 20-point plan during the Emergency, he shooed them away with a mouthful of choice Bengali expletives. The then information & broadcasting minister VC Shukla was offended enough to announce a ban on Kishore Kumar’s voice on All India Radio. Enter sad tidings again.
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Meantime too, he had plenty of issues with the Income Tax guys. Once he showed some tattered files to Pritish Nandy, editor of The Illustrated Weekly of India, who had called upon the legend for an interview. “What are these?” the journalist had asked Kishore. “They are my Income Tax records. Rats love to eat them. These are very effective as pesticide”. Nandy loved the sarcasm, but missed the sadness in the story.
For people to take you seriously, you need an air of gravitas. Now Kishore was a singer with a wonderful expression of course, but when he spoke, perhaps he couldn’t effectively convey the seriousness of the situation. When his route was sarcasm, they thought he was cuckoo. And when he used comedy, well, he was being funny!
Madness or sadness?
He didn’t smoke or drink, and had no friends, so he didn’t socialize either. By the late ‘60s, his distaste for people peaked, so he began treating his trees as pets, giving each one a name and talking to them. He once had an architect redesign his home into a moat surrounded by water, so people who wanted access to him would at least be psychologically turned off. Happily that project was dumped. He would relent if people hounded him for interviews, then leave the scene with a regret note. His living room had all these skulls and bones with red lights and sounds backing them up to welcome unwelcome visitors! All these were his way of saying ‘Please leave me alone’. This wasn’t so much madness that surrounded him, it was sadness.
Amazingly, all this was happening as he was producing unimaginable blueprints for some of the nicest fun songs and comic scenes that we have seen. His appearances in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958), Jhumroo (1961), Half Ticket (1962), Manmauji (1962), Padosan (1968) and a dozen more furnish us with plenty of examples of the fun and laughter that we associate with him. For other actors too, his songs of comedy and romance, of so many vignettes of emotions, were rendered so beautifully over the decades.
Jaate-jaate, since we are looking at his sadness, let’s quickly fly over just a few soul-stirring sad songs that were rendered by the legend. Marne ki duaen kyoon maangoon (his first film song, from Ziddi, 1948), Jagmag jagmag karta nika chaand poonam ka pyaara (Rim Jhim, 1949), and Husn bhi udaas udaas (Fareb, 1953) were his early sad songs. Over the years he chased these with many more heart-rending ones. Here are some:
* Dukhi man mere (Funtoosh, 1956)
* Aaj rona pada to samjhe (Girl Friend, 1960)
* Wo shaam kuchh ajeeb thi (Khamoshi, 1969)
* Zindagi ka safar (Safar, 1970)
* Kuchh to log kahenge (Amar Prem, 1971)
* Koi hota jisko apna (Mere Apne, 1971)
* Ghunghru ki tarah (Chor Machaye Shor, 1974)
* Badi sooni-sooni hai zindagi (Mili, 1975)
Kishore Kumar passed away on 13th October, 1987. It was Ashok Kumar’s birthday. The father-like brother couldn’t have imagined a worse gift. Gone was the man who gave us so many wonderful compositions like Raahi tu mat ruk jaana (for Hemant in Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein, 1964). This was the hero who gave us our money’s worth onscreen in Nakhrewaali (New Delhi, 1956). This was the romantic through whom Shashi Kapoor wooed Raakhi in O meri Sharmilee (Sharmilee, 1971). His was the voice that graced Neeraj’s nazm on a Pahadi tune by Dada Burman in Phoolon ke rang se (Prem Pujari, 1970). This was the golden hearted man who loved Mohd. Rafi, and had the latter playback for him the wonderful Ajab hai dastaan teri aye zindagi (Shararat, 1959).
They don’t make his kind anymore. For, who can breathe expression into words like he did when he sang this one?
Humse mat poochho kaise mandir toota sapnonka
Logon ki baat naheen hai, ye qissa hai apnonka
Koi dushman tthes lagaaye to meet jiya behlaaye
Man-meet jo ghaav lagaaye use kaun mitaaye?
(Editor's Note: This article was first published on August 4, 2014. It has been repurposed to celebrate Kishore Kumar's 86th birth anniversary.)