Arthur J Pais and Som Chivukula
Rahul Dev Burman is remembered as one of the most gifted composers of all time.
However, if you are one of those who do not think much of his singing range, you may still want to give him the credit for composing and singing one of the most popular songs of the 1970s.
Mehbooba mehbooba from Sholay created history in terms of popularity.
But how many people know that it was composed specially for singer Manna Dey?
Burman, affectionately known as Pancham, had recorded the song in his voice hoping Dey would follow his (Burman's) singing pattern.
"But even before I finished listening to the way he had sung that song, I told Pancham that I did not want to sing the song," Dey recalls. "He had a unique way of singing -- and this song's rendition reminded me of (jazz great) Louis Armstrong's singing.
"So I told him that this was his song," Dey said in an exclusive interview in San Francisco, where he was visiting his daughter.
Of all the wonderful stories Dey could belt away as if they happened yesterday, the Sholay story remains his favourite.
Manna Dey, who made his singing debut some six decades ago, went on to lend his voice for some of the most popular leading men and comedic actors in Bombay including Ashok Kumar, Raj Kapoor, Dev Anand, Balraj Sahni and Mehmood.
He has sung for all major composers ranging from Sachin Dev Burman to Shankar Jaikishen and Ravi.
"Shankar had a special corner for me," Dey, who turned 81 recently, reminisced. Of the many memorable songs he has sung for Shankar, some are found in such films as Basant Bahar, Chori Chori, Shri 420 and Mera Naam Joker.
Yeh raat bheegi bheegi, a duet he sang with Lata Mangeshkar (picturised on Raj Kapoor and Nargis) almost didn't happen, the singer remembers with a nostalgic chuckle.
The film's producer, AV Meyappan Chettiar, who had flown to Bombay from Madras for its recording, insisted that Mukesh sing it. After all, Mukesh was considered the 'soul' of Raj Kapoor -- and had sung a majority of the songs the star lip-synced on the screen.
"When Chettiar saw me in the recording room with Lata, he turned to Shankar and asked where Mukesh was. He was not satisfied with Shankar's explanation that he (Shankar) wanted me to sing the duet."
Thereupon Raj Kapoor intervened, suggesting that the song should be recorded -- and if there was an agreement that it had come out well, it should be included in the film.
When Chettiar heard the recorded song, he congratulated the singer and said he was proud to have the song in his film. Yeh raat... went on to become one of the most popular songs of the 1950's, and Dey seldom leaves it out of his concerts.
Though Dey also sang one of his most popular songs for Shankar in Raj Kapoor's Mera Naam Joker, and grabbed a Filmfare Award, he doesn't think there was much of a challenge in it for him.
"It was no great deal," he says as a matter of fact.
There was more of abhinay (acting) in the song, he says with a smile. "I had to imagine how Raj Kapoor would walk and talk when he sang it on screen."
Manna Dey has sung in more than a dozen languages, one of his most popular songs being a sad solo in Chemmeen, a Malayalam film that won major awards in the mid-1960s and was a huge box-office success. (Its music was composed by Salil Chaudhary, for whom Dey has sung haunting numbers in movies such as Kabuliwala).
Many people complimented Dey for not only putting his soul into the song but also for pronouncing the Malayalam lyrics adeptly.
"The pronunciation has improved since then as I have been singing it at many concerts," he says, laughing. He remembers the day he went home with a tape of the song after the first rehearsal, and one of his daughters asked him what language it was.
It is Malayalam, he told her, surprised.
His daughter wouldn't believe him, and insisted that her mother listen to the song and confirm that it was in fact sung in the language of Kerala.
Not many people know that Manna Dey's wife Sulochana is a Malayali.
"She made sure I got it right," he says, adding on a grin: "Well, almost."
The song became a rage across Kerala, and since Chemmeen also became a hit in the neighbouring southern states, Manna Dey added thousands of new fans to his enviable fan base.
Many experts in popular music will readily acknowledge that Manna Dey, trained in classical music, was the most versatile singer in Indian music. He would sing with the same ease Sur na... in Basant Bahar as he would dole out Aao twist karen in Bhoot Bangla. Also he was very much at home with tunes based on folk music such Yaari hai in Zanjeer.
But he never made it to the very top, being overshadowed by Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar.
"There were a lot of great singers around," he says, without bitterness. "Naturally, I got a limited number of songs."
"But this much I know...My songs were composed with me in mind."
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