The singer, the citizen: remembering Kishore Kumar
Kishore Kumar refused to sing to raise money for the sterilisation programme of the all-powerful Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi during the Emergency.
One sign of a consummate artiste is her refusal to bend to power. This was truest among mainstream cinema icons about the late Kishore Kumar, who lent his voice to countless immortal songs.
Of Bengali ancestry, Kishore Kumar was born in Khandwa in today’s Madhya Pradesh on August 4, 1929. In other words, August 4, 2019, is the actor-singer’s 90th birth anniversary.
It was at the peak of his singing career in 1975-77 – when he had lent his voice to two superstars, Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan, apart from stars like Dev Anand and Dharmendra – that Kumar faced political pressure during the Emergency.
Most artistes of his time were tongue-tied, but Kumar refused to bend before a repressive regime.
He refused to sing to raise money for the sterilisation programme of the all-powerful Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s son Sanjay Gandhi. The programme, it was said, led to many forced sterilisations and also riots in Muzaffarnagar, where more than 50 people were shot dead in police action.
Kumar’s refusal to sing for the regime had immediate consequences. His songs were banned from All India Radio, which exclusively broadcast film songs in those times of formally controlled and limited media platforms.
It was only after the Emergency ended that the familiar voice of Kumar was heard again on radio.
Historian Ramchandra Guha has made a mention of this episode in his book India After Gandhi.
“An incidental victim of Sanjay Gandhi’s family planning drive was the great popular singer Kishore Kumar. Other film stars and musicians agreed to perform in a programme to raise money for sterilisation, but Kishore refused. As a consequence, his songs were banned from Vividh Bharati, the AIR channel that exclusively broadcast film music,” Guha writes. “The Film Censor Board was instructed to hold up the release of movies in which Kishore acted or sang. Sanjay’s men also warned record companies against selling Kishore’s songs. It was an act of petty vindictiveness in keeping with the times.”
Kishore Kumar came from a family with film connections, with his elder brother Ashok Kumar being a respected actor. Kishore tried his hand at comedy, with his film Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi becoming a major hit. He also sang the famous song ‘Babu, samjho ishaare’ in the film. The comedy film Padosan, in which he starred alongside Sunil Dutt and Saira Bano, was also a major hit.
However, while Kishore failed to be accepted in the big league of actors, his playback singing made him immortal. His strength was not any formal training in music – unlike Manna Dey or Mohammad Rafi – but his spontaneity and the youthfulness in his voice. Manna Dey, a trained classical singer, accepted in a later interview that he found singing the song Ek Chatur Naar alongside Kumar in Padosan a challenge, as Kishore’s spontaneity was overwhelming. It is said that even Lata Mangeshkar once referred to Kumar as the best playback singer.
However, it was the rise of Rajesh Khanna as a superstar – many say he was Hindi cinema’s first superstar – that saw Kumar become the most popular playback singer. The film Aradhana was the turning point for both the actor and the singer, with the song Mere Sapnon Ki Rani becoming a runaway hit.
This was followed by immortal songs in Rajesh Khanna movies, like Kora Kaghaz Tha Ye Mann Mera and Chingari Koi Bharke.
When Amitabh Bachchan replaced Khanna as the superstar of the Hindi film industry with the 1973 film Zanjeer, Kumar became Bachchan’s voice and continued to be popularly associated with the superstar till Sharabi, the superhit movie that released in 1985.
Kishore’s deep voice suited Bachchan’s baritone the way no other voice could, but for the later playback singer Sudesh Bhosle, who imitated Bachchan. The golden years of Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan were also years when Kishore Kumar ruled the Hindi film industry, with Mohammad Rafi, who was the lead singer before Kumar’s rise, a close second.
Kishore, who married four times and had two children, suffered a heart attack in 1986. He had another heart attack in 1987 that took him away. He was just 58 when he died.
In one of his last interviews, Kishore was asked why his health dipped the way it did. “Main dil se gaata hoon (I sing from the heart),” he replied, in characteristic Kishore Kumar fashion.
Kishore Kumar’s songs have proved immortal and his voice has stood the test of time decades after his death. Many say – as a compliment to Kumar – that his voice almost always seems contemporary despite changes in singing styles over the decades.