In 1976, the legendary Hindi film singer Mukesh died of a heart attack while he was on a concert tour with Lata Mangeshkar in Detroit. It is said that when Raj Kapoor learned about Mukesh’s death, he broke down in tears. “I’ve lost my voice,” he said.
Mukesh was indeed the voice of Raj Kapoor, although he also sang for other actors of that time, including Dilip Kumar. Another singer also gave his voice for Raj Kapoor — Manna Dey sang some of his most famous songs, from Shri 420 (Pyar hua ikrar hua) to Chori Chori (Yeh raat bheegi bheegi and Aaja sanam madhur chandini). But the combination of Mukesh’s voice and the music of Shankar Jaikishan usually defined the musical moments in Raj Kapoor’s films.
From Awara (the title song) to Shri 420 (Mere joota hai Japani), Anari (Sab kuch seekha hamne) and the heartfelt songs of Teesri Kasam (Duniya banane wale and Sajan re jhoot mat bolo), it was Mukesh’s voice that enhanced the narratives built around Raj Kapoor’s characters.
The Hindi film industry from the 1950s through the 1990s, and the early part of the new century, repeatedly got singers whose voices were associated with specific actors — songs were an integral part of the films’ narratives.
However, things have changed for Hindi films, as songs are now used primarily for promotional purposes, and this change has led to some male singers singing for practically every film.
That is the case with Arijit Singh, the 29-year-old Punjabi-Bengali singer with a soulful voice and several remarkable songs, who has, in a few years, become the king of Bollywood melodies.
“One thing you would have noticed is that there is hardly any lip-syncing now,” says Siddharth Mishra, RJ for the popular Breakfast Show on Mumbai’s 92.7 BIG FM radio station. “The songs are in the background. So it really doesn’t matter who is singing, whether it is Arijit or whoever.” This is unlike the female playback landscape, where there’s still some variety in voices. “If you see recent films like Raees, Sultan or Dangal, the songs are almost always in the background or they play when the last credits roll,” Mishra adds. “When people are getting up and leaving the theatre, that’s when the most popular song from the film comes.”
There are exceptions, of course. Ranbir Kapoor’s performance in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil was appreciated by many. Critics, fans and even the actor’s father, Rishi Kapoor, pointed out his skillful lip-syncing in the film for the title song of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Channa mereya (both performed by Arijit Singh), and Bulleya. But Karan Johar makes romantic musicals and songs play a critical role in his films.
In the history of Hindi films, male playback singers have often sung for more than one actor. The 1950s onwards, Mohammed Rafi lent his voice to Dev Anand and Dilip Kumar’s songs. Briefly, Hemant Kumar also lent his voice to Dev Anand’s characters, including the lyrical Yeh raat yeh chandini (Jaal) and Na tum hamein jano (Baat Ek Raat Ki) By the late 1960s and in the 1970s, Rafi also sang for Rajesh Khanna in films ranging from Do Raste (Yeh reshmi zulfein) and Mehboob ki Mehndi (Yeh jo chilman hai). This, despite the fact that Kishore Kumar was usually considered Khanna’s singing voice. Even in a film like Aradhana, which took Kumar’s career to another level, two songs were sung by Rafi.
That trend continued in the 1980s with Kishore Kumar singing for Amitabh Bachchan as well. In the 1990s, singers such as Abhijeet, Sonu Nigam, Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan become the voices of Shah Rukh Khan — mostly at different stages of Khan’s career.
Abhijeet’s songs for Shah Rukh Khan in Yes Boss became huge hits, including Main koi aisa geet gaaon and Chaand taare. Some of Sonu Nigam’s career best songs are also tied to Shah Rukh, including many in the early 2000s — Suraj hua maddham (Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham…), Kal ho naa ho, Dheere jalna (Paheli) and the lovely Khamoshiyan gungunane lagi from One 2 Ka 4, a film hardly anyone saw.
At the same time, Kumar, Sanu also continued his 1990s success by contributing hit songs to Shah Rukh Khan’s films. In songs like Do dil mil rahe hain and Meri mehbooba (both from Pardes), Ladki badi anjani hai (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai), and Baazigar o baazigar (Baazigar), Sanu sounded like the definitive voice of Shah Rukh Khan.
There were exceptions, though, where more than one singer sang for Shah Rukh in the same film. In Dil Se, two singers sang for Khan — Sukhwinder Singh (Chaiyya chaiyya) and Nigam (Satrangi re), while Udit Narayan’s Ae Ajnabi played in the background.
But unlike then, in recent years it is hard to find a singer who could be considered the voice of a particular actor. Rockstar is a rare instance where AR Rahman and Imtiaz Ali followed the old Hindi film pattern and Mohit Chauhan sang most of the songs for Ranbir Kapoor. Now, that trend hardly exists. In Raees, three singers sang for Shah Rukh Khan — Mika Singh (Dhingana), Sukhwinder Singh (Udi udi jaye) and, once again, Arijit Singh (Zaalima). This change has also come because of the overall outlook towards music by filmmakers and composers.
“People realise that a fresh voice can elevate the melody and bring a new flavour to a song,” says composer and singer Vishal Dadlani. “Whereas once, experience and familiarity were prized, it’s a lot more experimental now, and unique textures are being widely appreciated.”
Arijit Singh’s career took off after the hit songs Tum hi ho (Aashiqui 2) and the haunting Muskurane (Citylights). Mishra feels that a song like Muskurane, while beautiful, is also generic. “It could have been used in any film,” he says. “It had no connection with the film as such.” The film’s director Hansal Mehta says, “I almost did not use the song, but it was such a lovely melody.” Initially, Muskurane was sung by Mohammed Irfan, whose unplugged version is still on the album. But, Mehta says Sony Music and the film’s producers felt that Arijit Singh would be a better choice for the final song.
Suspension of disbelief always played an important role in how audiences accepted playback songs from the time Hindi cinema started as a cinematic representation of musical theatre. Today’s audiences easily accept new singers — even those whose voices rarely match the on screen actor.
Dadlani feels that another change has come over the Hindi film music industry. Singers are focusing on just the songs and working with the composers. Once upon a time, Mukesh would have known that a song he was recording was for Raj Kapoor’s character. That is usually not the case now, says Dadlani. “Arijit sings every song in his unique style, rather than tailoring himself to each actor,” he says. “I’m sure there are many times that he doesn’t even know who the actor is going to be. It’s all about him doing his best for the song and for the composer.”
Arijit’s success should also be attributed to the fact that in addition to being a singer, he is also a musician. After his attempts to enter the music industry through reality TV shows, the singer became an assistant to top composers in the industry — Pritam, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Vishal-Shekhar. “He understands the song from the composer’s point of view and delivers both simplicity and complexity, as required by the song,” Dadlani says. “He has the ability and the openness needed to make every recording a genuine collaboration. He’s also a really nice guy, with no ego. That helps.”
Aseem Chhabra is the author of Shashi Kapoor: The Householder, the Star and director of New York Indian Film Festival.