Nowhere else are film songs so embedded in a country’s culture as in India. It is by far the most popular form of music. A film made in 1932, soon after ‘talkies’ arrived on our shores, Indrasabha, had an overwhelming 71 songs. For the next five decades or so, six to ten songs per film was the norm. One of the first films without songs, Munna (1954), sank like a stone.
In the beginning, actors were obliged to sing themselves and it was recorded during the shooting of the film itself. The musicians, with their tablas and harmoniums, were kept out of camera range. Playback singing, reproduction of previously recorded songs, was first introduced in 1935 in the film Dhoop Chhaon (Bhagya Chakra in Bengali), directed by Nitin Bose for New Theatres in Calcutta. The music was composed by R.C. Boral, often credited as the father of Indian film music.
It was no longer necessary for the actor to be able to sing, though some continued to do so magnificently—K.L. Saigal and Noorjehan in particular. It opened up singing careers for those who had no inclination to act or were not star material. Zohrabai, Amirbai Karnataki, Rajkumari, Shamshad Begum and Geeta Roy were the more prominent among the ladies.
There was a seismic change in the world of Hindi film songs in 1948, with the arrival of two sisters, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle. They were so successful that they wiped out most of the competition. During their long reign, no new female singer of any significance emerged. Composers were afraid to introduce new voices, fearing it would antagonise the sisters, especially the indispensable Lata, and that they would be blacklisted.
Their domination ended in the 1990s, when Anuradha Paudwal made her mark as a playback singer through the backing of a powerful music recording company, T-Series. Lata more or less retired, while Asha switched to lucrative stage singing among homesick Indian diaspora.
Throughout her career, Asha was always under the shadow of her older sister. Producers would turn to her if Lata was not available or proved too expensive for their low budget films. O.P. Nayyar lays claim to be the only composer never to have used the voice of Lata in that golden age of Hindi film music. They had a tiff. He turned to Shamshad Begum and Geeta Dutt (nee Roy) and later took Asha Bhonsle under his wings, both professionally and otherwise. Under Nayyar’s baton, Asha blossomed and started competing with her sister on her own terms. Her Nayyar songs in films like Naya Daur (1957), Howrah Bridge (1958) and others are remembered fondly. The 15-year relationship of the composer and singer soured in 1972 and she walked out on him.
Asha went over to Rahul Dev Burman’s camp; together, they produced some beautiful music, among them the evergreen Dum maaro dum in Hare Rama Hare Krishna and O mera sona re sona in Teesri Manzil. They married in 1980, both for the second time. Asha sang over 7,000 songs for films with all leading composers—Naushad, S.D. Burman, Shankar-Jaikisan, Roshan, Madan Mohan and others.
Raju Bharatan’s prose is eccentric and has been badly edited, if at all. But a patient reader will be rewarded. The author may have some scores to settle and axes to grind but this biography tells you everything you need to know about Asha, warts and all. Besides, it is deliciously gossipy. Bharatan, as assistant editor of Illustrated Weekly for 40 years, was in and out of the homes of everyone connected with film music. No one comes close to him when it comes to knowledge of Hindi film music; he is a walking encyclopaedia.