When Lata Mangeshkar’s Voice Was Rejected For Being ‘Too Thin’

After the untimely death of her father, singer Dinanath Mangeshkar in 1942, Lata Mangeshkar, then 13, struggled to support the family financially. Apart from acting and singing in Marathi films, she would go around to film music directors in Kolhapur, Pune and Bombay to get reading assignments. By the early 1940s, the era of playback was beginning to take shape. There was a demand for good singers. Yet the job eluded the talented teenager.

Mangeshkar knocked on the doors of film studios, auditioned using popular songs from then established artists like Noorjehan, Khurshid Bano, Amirbai Karnatki and others. She had even perfected star singer Noorjehan’s Bulbulon mat ro yahan (1945) on the tee with the latter’s characteristic nasal twang. By the mid-1940s, music directors Datta Davjekar and Vasant Desai had tested her singing talent and recommended her to other music makers. But she hadn’t made a strong impression yet.

In 1948, Master Ghulam Haider, who composed the music for Khazanchi (1941) and Khandan (1942), realized the immense potential of the fine-voiced Mangeshkar. But she failed to impress Haider’s rigid boss producer, Sashadhar Mukherjee, founder of Filmistan Studio. This prevented Haidar from using his voice in Filmistan’s Shaheed (1948). It wasn’t until he shifted his loyalties from Filmistan to the then-struggling Bombay Talkies that he got a chance to show off his new find’s talent. Haider took Lata under his wings and trained her in the art of playback singing. She gave the reading of six of the seven songs of Majboor (released in March 1948). His songs Dil mera toda, mujhe kahin ka na chhoda and Angrezi chhora chala gaya were noticed.

Soon after, Anil Biswas, the successful independent music manager confident of the hugely talented teenager, recorded nine female playback tracks in her voice for HMV’s records for Anokha Pyar, released in May 1948. Singing compositions Yaad rakhna chand taaron is suhani raat ko and Mere liye wo ghame intezaar chhod gaye with her soft and high-pitched voice were appreciated.

The competition, at that time, was tough for the female-voiced Mangeshkar. Gifted with well-rounded female voices, playback artists Shamshad Begum, Amirbai Karnatki, Geeta Roy (Dutt), Zohrabai Ambalewali and Rajkumari dominated the scene. That, however, was soon to change.

Most movie stars, artists, music directors and technicians were employed by film production companies in the 1940s. Music composer Khemchand Prakash worked for then market leader Shree Ranjit Movietone. The production company was owned by Seth Chandulal Shah and his wife Gohar Mamajiwala. With musical blockbusters like Tansen (1943) and Bharthuhari (1944), Prakash had contributed greatly to Ranjit’s fortune. Speaking to me in 2007, Prakash’s assistant, music director Daan Singh, said that one day Prakash enthusiastically took the teenage artist in two braids to Shah and introduced her as “the voice from the future”.

After the mandatory voice tests, Shah rejected Lata’s voice on the grounds that it was “too thin and, therefore, unsuitable” (Yes, we heard music composer Omkar Prasad Nayyar make a similar claim a few years later ). Prakash reasoned, “Seth, the voice you cast will become the voice of the future. You might want to capitalize on this. But Shah, the confident punter, didn’t budge. He argued that the epitome of female voices that resonated in Ranjit’s fortune was that of Amirbai Karnatki (she sang Mora dheere se ghunghat hataye and Chanda desh piya ke ja from the 1944 film Bharthari and Khurshid Bano (sang Moray balapan ke saathi, Ghata ghanghor ghor and Barso re from the 1943 film Tansen) Mangeshkar’s voice, according to him, was not up to par.

Without admitting defeat, the daring Rajasthani music maker quit Ranjit Movietone after this incident. It was a bold move for Prakash to throw a plum position at the then-top production house following a disagreement over a newcomer. Soon after, Prakash signed a contract with Bombay Talkies, then a depleted force. He composed six fine tunes for Ziddi, which was released in March 1949, and Mangeshkar gave voice to his melodious compositions. Her songs have been credited to the female lead role of Ziddi ‘Asha’, played by Kamini Kaushal, on HMV records (numbering N 35658-35661). Similarly, Kishore Kumar was credited as “Pooran”, the male lead character played by Dev Anand.

The classically trained Mangeshkar, with his ability to learn new songs with detailed nuances at lightning speed, had caught the eye of sought-after musical director Naushad Ali. With a series of musical hits like Ratan (1944), Anmol Ghadi (1946) and Shahjehan (1946), Naushad was associated with great producers such as Abdul Rashid Kardar and Mehboob Khan. In Khan’s Andaz love triangle, Naushad gave Mangeshkar the chance to sing six beautiful songs, which were performed on Nargis.

This time, however, Mangeshkar got due credit on HMV’s discs of the hit film Andaz (released in March 1949). Songs like Uthaye ja unke situm and Tod diya dil mera became extremely popular.

Interestingly, music composer duo Shankar-Jaikishan, who debuted with Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat, asked Mangeshkar to lend his striking vocals for all female songs. When the film was released in May 1949, nine of its ten songs were recorded with Mangeshkar’s vocals and portrayed as three different characters – Nargis, Nimmi and Bimla Kumari – in the film! His songs, Hawa mein udta jaye mora laal dupatta, Jiya bekaraar hai and Tak dhina din barsat mein humse mile, have reached new heights of popularity. HMV records gave Mangeshkar her credit on the label and the singer also enjoyed the success of her songs. His struggle to find his place, however, was not yet over.

Bombay Talkies was filming the unusual reincarnation drama Mahal, starring Ashok Kumar and Madhubala. Prakash was tasked with setting the appropriate musical mood. The unique two-tiered Aayega aanewala was a masterstroke on his part. Not only did it resonate well with the desired phantasmagoria, but it became the only song in music history to have the same word (aayega) repeated five times in its verse (mukhda) and the song with the most short.

At 20 years old, Mangeshkar announces his arrival in the world with Aayega aanewala when Mahal was released in October 1949. Prakash uses his immense talent with dexterity in three soundtracks of the film. He proved to the world why he had rested such a strong belief in her. Of the three, Aayega aanewala remains an all-time favorite.

Mangeshkar’s voice from Mahal’s gramophone records made a big impression on listeners, but they didn’t recognize this at first despite his hit songs in Andaaz and Barsaat. The main reason being ‘Kamini’ – the name of Mahal’s leading wife – imprinted on her gramophone record as a singer. Crediting the character to the label instead of the singer was the custom of recording giant HMV. At Mangeshkar’s insistence, later reissues of Aayega’s breakthrough record aanewala credited the playback artist and this practice of crediting characters ceased.

However, Mangeshkar never forgot Shah’s rebuff. After becoming popular, she firmly refused to sing for the Ranjit banner. As an extreme exception, she obliged the then-struggling musical director Roshan and beautifully performed the songs from Humlog (1951) produced by Ranjit, such as Chali ja chali ja and Chhun chhun baaje paayal. She sang for the banner once again in 1963 when her favorite Madan Mohan composed music for Akeli Mat Jaiyo in 1963. Ironically, this was the last film produced by Ranjit Movietone.

The author is a Mumbai-based musicologist and film historian.