For a certain period during the Emergency of 1975-76 the All India Radio, under the diktats of the Information & Broadcasting Ministry banned songs of Kishore Kumar from being played on the radio. The reason being, which was of course not stated but understood, the singer had refused to sing at a charity function organized by the ruling party without being paid. The radio being the only source of home entertainment during those days – the television was yet to arrive – suddenly lost its charm for a nation that was hooked on to the famous Vividh Bharti programme that belted out popular Hindi film songs.
That was not the only run-in with the authorities that Kishore Kumar had in his illustrious and eventful career. The frequent raids at his Juhu bungalow by the Income Tax department made their way into gossip magazines and national newspapers. His refusal to sing until he got the entire money or his practice of turning up on the sets with only half his make-up done because he had been paid half earned him the wrath of many a producer. An obliging producer who had once come to pay him his dues got his hand bitten by him because he had ignored the warning sign outside his bungalow – ‘Beware of Kishore Kumar’! Another story relates how, during a shot in which he was required to drive out of the main gate of Mehboob Studio in Bandra, he never came back. He drove all the way to Khandala and next day when the furious director confronted him, he nonchalantly told him that he never said ‘Cut’!
One of the most memorable stories revolves around how he psyched a reputed interior decorator by asking him if he could turn his drawing room into a pond where guests could row around in boats instead of sitting on sofas and make arrangements for live crows to be hung from the walls instead of paintings. Then he took the man to his garden and introduced him to the trees as his close friends by calling out their names. The terrified interior decorator fled from the bungalow. Years later when Pritish Nandy carried out his famous interview with the eccentric genius for The Illustrated Weekly and enquired about the episode, Kishore Kumar reasoned – how could he trust the aesthetics of a man who turned up in a three-piece Savile Row suit in the beastly heat of Bombay summer? That’s why he had played the prank on the idiot!
There seemed to be a method in his madness; there were times when he revealed his gracious side. He sang for free for Satyajit Ray in Charulata (1964) and contributed Rs 5,000 towards the making of Pather Panchali (1955) when Ray was struggling to raise money to complete the film, a deed which he never forgot to remind the master of. The two were distantly related through his first of his four wives – Ruma Guha Thakurata.
A man becomes a cult when anecdotes from his life vie with his actual talent without denting his reputation as an artist; and Kishore Kumar was a true artist – a genius to be precise, whose lack of formal training did not deter composers to recognize his natural abilities.
When he came to Bombay from Khandwa (in Madhya Pradesh) in 1946, his elder brother Ashok Kumar was already a big star, but he was not interested in a film career. His initial forays into playback singing and acting, thanks to Ashok Kumar, were half-hearted. It was on the insistence of S. D. Burman that he began to take singing seriously and developed a style distinct from K. L. Saigal, his idol. Alongside, he continued to act in films and proved to be an equally versatile actor, specializing in comic roles that immediately endeared him to the audience. But it was singing that he loved most, and he gradually reduced his acting commitments despite writing, producing, directing and acting in a spate of films, the most famous being Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1958).
In a post - Independence era when India grappled with industrialization and aspired towards modernity, his voice and style reflected an urbanity that listeners could immediately connect to. If there was a breezy number, it was Kishore who was the natural choice over Rafi, Mukesh or Manna Dey. His voice had a flexibility and range that merged seamlessly with actors ranging from style gurus like Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna to the angry and young Amitabh Bachchan. Newcomers like Mithun Chakraborty, and later Govinda and Jackie Shroff in the 80s also found a ready voice to complement their varying histrionic talents.
Time is kind to a genius, as Javed Akhtar put it succinctly once. Even 37 years after his death (he would have been 92 today – 4 August 2021), we continue to listen to his magical voice and songs that reflect the entire gamut of our moods and emotions and get an endless kick. Or, as a lady admirer once admitted – get aroused!
Ranjan Das is a Mumbai based filmmaker & faculty