There was no Best Singer Filmfare Award on offer when Chori Chori was released.
The tuneful titan of cine sangeet that is how Manna Deys image endures in our eyes and ears. What a shame,therefore,that the world of movie music came to appreciate Deys true worth only after so many of his revered contemporaries had passed. So kaleidoscopic has been Deys singing life,that I cannot hope to plot all the points on his career-graph in a sketch as brief as this. I therefore endeavour to offer illustrative glimpses of his art and craft.
That he was the playback performer nonpareil is a fact. Yet I do not recall meeting a performer more laidback than him,in the sense that he never went after the crown. As first Mukesh,then Talat Mahmood,and later Hemant Kumar lost out in the rough-and-tumble of film music,each surrendered the niche he had occupied. But Dey never once gave the impression that he regarded himself as the best,even though he was. You dont miss something if you never had it! he would remark jokingly. If I quoted Naushad as averring that his voice was dry compared to Mohammed Rafis,he would just spread his hands. So much so that I wondered at times if it was not a lack of ambition that held him back.
Classically speaking,Dey remains unsurpassed. In Lata Mangeshkars pet raag,Hamsadhvani,Manna Dey goes along with her in the Salil Chowdhury charmer,Ja tose nahi bolun Kanhaiya in Bimal Roys Parivar (1956). Dey is ear-catching when he is Raag Kedar-dueting with Mang-eshkar in Chitraguptas Kanha jaare (from the obscure Tel Malish Boot Polish,1961). If it is in Boot Polish (Raj Kapoors 1954 offering) that you want those Dey vocal gymnastics,you get them in composer Shankars Raag Adana blues-chaser coming over ever so divertingly as Lapak jhapak tu aa re badarwa. Just after that,for Shree 420 (1955),Dey was summoned by Raj Kapoor when Mukesh became unavailable due to personal reasons after having recorded,for that movie,Mera joota hai Japani and Ramaiya vastavaiya. But he seized the RK mike with both hands as,under the baton of the redoubtable Shankar-Jaikishan,he sang Dil ka haal sune dilwala,Mud mud ke na dekh and that duet to end all duets: Pyaar hua ikraar hua,filmed on Raj Kapoor and Nargis.
So fluidly romantic were his vocal stylings that Raj Kapoor was happy to keep him on for AVMs Chori Chori,the 1956 romantic musical for which Shankar-Jaikishan won their maiden Filmfare Best Music Award. Deys Chori Chori duets with Mangeshkar remain evergreen,be it Shankars Yeh raat bheegi bheegi or Jaikishans Aaja sanam madhur chandni mein hum,Shankars Jahan main jaati hoon or Jaikishans Panchhi banoon udti phirun.
There was no Best Singer Filmfare Award on offer when Chori Chori was released,otherwise Dey would surely would have been a strong contender for it. As it was,Dey had to wait for a full 15 years after Chori Chori to win the best singer award for Shankars Aye bhai zara dekh ke chalo from RKs Mera Naam Joker (1970). By this point,Dey was so seasoned that there was not a male voice to touch him in mainstream cinema,as even Rafi fought a grim rearguard action in the aftermath of the Kishore Kumar-Aradhana wave.
Rewind to how Laaga chunari mein daag remained Doordarshans Chitrahaar-Chhaya Geet punchline for so long. Could you see anyone rendering Laaga chunari mein daag in the scale of Raag Bhairavi patented by Dey in Dil Hi To Hai (1963)? After 12 takes going abegging here, Dey told me,I was on the point of exploding,when slave driver-composer Roshan smilingly requested for a bakers dozen. Magically,that 13th time,my luck held!
Remember,when Vasant Desai conceptualised Nirbal se ladai balwan ki for the 1956 film Toofan Aur Deeya in Raag Malkauns,only Dey would do. If Shankar wanted his Raag Yaman to sound featherweight in Lal Patthar (1971),there was Dey with Asha Bhosle,Re man sur mein gaa. As for Jaikishan,he crafted his toning of Raag Darbari to suit the 1968 Mere Huzoor persona of Raaj Kumar,and how Deys classical integrity accented the Kannada ang in Jaikishans presentation of Jhanak jhanak tori baaje payaliya. Dey said S.D. Burman sprang Puchho na kaise maine upon him. That this 1963 Meri Surat Teri Ankhen all-timer came to be rehearsed overnight is testimony to his musical erudition. Ironically,this became a mental block to his advance. He knew too much for our topmost composers. By the same classical token,he gave a near inferiority complex to our later music-makers. Through the 70 years in which he enriched our musical vocabulary,Dey left his imprimatur in our minds and hearts with the sustained resonance of his performance.
Yet,in his true singing lifetime,our composers treated him as always there,available to be pressed into service whenever they needed. Indeed Dey himself felt diminished by the Mehmood-ian pass to which his career came with Ek chatur naar (Padosan,1968). Kishore Kumar was no match for Dey vocally,but on screen,it was he who prevailed over Sunil Dutt. Dey felt this keenly,but sang on like a true professional.
The writer is a music historian and the author of A Journey Down Melody Lane