Strange Cases of Playback

Let’s say you were watching Biswajit moving his lips to a song recorded by Mohammad Rafi: Aa gale lag ja, from April Fool (1964). You would probably enjoy the audio and visuals, thinking nothing odd about such a singer playback for an actor. Nothing odd too if you heard Lata Mangeshkar sing for actress Sharmila Tagore in Satyakaam (1969): Do din ki zindagi kaisi hai zindagi. Ditto when Kishore Kumar is heard on Dev Anand in Dene waala jab bhi deta (Funtoosh, 1956). All these have been high-quality singers in our films, singing for actors across the board. Of course we know that some top-quality singers have also been actors themselves. From the last, Kishore Kumar was a singing-actor, but there have been several other top-notch singers who also appeared in front of the camera, like KL Saigal, Surendra, Talat Mahmood, Suraiya, Noor Jahan, etc. These were high-grade singing-actors with hundreds of songs recorded in their voices.

There have been many other singing-actors in our films—artists who sang say at least 20 songs—who have been wonderful actors but who have generally not been recognised as top-drawer singers. Ashok Kumar, Nalini Jaywant, Leela Chitnis come to mind right away; these faced the camera far many more times than they faced just a microphone. But this story is not really about their kind. This story is about top-rated singers—regardless of whether they were mainstream actors—appearing in a film, but lip-syncing to someone else’s voice. That is odd.

For instance, it was odd to see singing-actor Kishore Kumar lip-syncing a Rafi song, as he did in Man mora baanwara, from Ragini (1958). Why in heavens did they choose another singer to playback for an actor who himself had a remarkable singing voice? Did Kishore’s voice lack a certain expression the filmmaker was looking for? Under what circumstances did Kishore allow this to happen? Was he too busy on the day of the recording? Was he unwell? Or was he being magnanimous? Questions arise.

Such happenings don’t occur frequently, when one singer playbacks for another mainstream singer, but when they do, we are startled.

But first, about playback

Initially there were silent films and then came ‘talking’ films (‘talkies’), ie movies with sound. In India the first talkie was Alam Ara in 1931. Such early films typically had many songs, all recorded direct to film—ie, during the shoots, as with dialogues. But such song recordings were far from perfect. Since many scenes were shot outdoors, ambient sounds compromised the quality of the songs we heard. Moreover, microphones needed to be hidden from the scene, so actors were unable to sing soft numbers. But 78 rpm records had been around for many years now, and they were a big hit. Result? All actors who sang in a film would go do the singing shoots during the day, and then go record for the 78s the same song, in the same tempo in a studio in the night. These days, it is possible to hear both the old versions one after another, and enjoy the variants, but in those days the technology was primitive. You heard the film version in the cinema hall and the 78s at home.

But these two shifts meant extra workloads for busy artists. This also meant that if you had a healthy mix of looks and acting talent, along with a good singing voice, there was hope for you in front of the camera. If you couldn’t sing, then such opportunities were diminished, if not non-existent. Few actors could manage a film career without singing talent. Thousands of hopefuls never made it beyond the auditions. But there were also some who kind of middled along; these were highly gifted actors who managed to survive with just a passable singing voice. Among them were stars mentioned above: Ashok Kumar, Nalini Jaywant, and Leela Chitnis. When playback singing arrived, it unhooked such essential actors from the responsibility of singing.

Playback is pre-recorded singing played back for an actor to move his lips to, repeatedly if needed, till an entire song is shot. Foreign films have used the idea only rarely, and it is almost endemic to the Indian sub-continent. That’s mainly because foreign films are not musicals per se, while Indian films are. Our actors ‘sing’ 90% of the time, but less than 10% actors actually sing well. Playback fixes that disconnect.

In India, the technology was developed during the making of Bhagya Chakra in Bengali and its simultaneous Hindi version Dhoop Chhaon (1935). After that, it took off gradually. Let’s now look at a few top-rated singers who lip-synced songs to others’ voices. We ignore their co-singers, if any, in the songs mentioned:

Kishore Kumar: Aankhon ko mila yaar se and Chale ho kahaan kar ke jee beqaraar, and Humen koi gham hai (all Rafi/Bhaagam Bhaag, 1956); Man mora baanwara (Rafi/Ragini, 1958); Ajab hai daastaan teri aye zindagi (Rafi/Shararat, 1959); Aap hue mere balam (Manna Dey/Krorepati, 1961); Main is maasoom chehre ko agar chhoo loon to kya hoga (Rafi/Baghi Shehzada, 1964); Apni aadat hai (Rafi/Pyaar Deewana, 1972)

Sulakshana Pandit: Mere rootthe balam se kehdo and Kaun ho tum kaun hoon main (both Asha) and Jee chaahe jee bhar ke tujhe pyaar kar loon (Lata) (all from Raja, 1975); Barkha ka mausam jee ko jala ke chala jaaye (Asha/Salakhen, 1975); Subah aur shaam, kaam hi kaam (Lata/Uljhan, 1975); Mujhe pyaar mein khat kisi ne likha hai (Asha/Hera Pheri, 1976); Is duniya mein marna hai (Lata/Apnapan, 1977).

Surendra Nath: Aaj gaawat man mero jhoomke and Tori Jai Jai kartaar (Amir Khan/Baiju Bawra, 1952); Aaj mera man been bajaaye and Ayese toote taar ki mere geet adhoore reh gaye (Talat Mahmood/Gawaiyya, 1954); Prem jogan ban ke and Shubh din aayo (Bade Ghulam Ali Khan/Mughal-e-Azam, 1960).

GM Durrani: Unke khayaal aaye to aate chale gaye (Rafi/Lal Pathar, 1971).

Shakila Banu Bhopali: Zinda hai zinda humse (Suman/Ramu Dada, 1961); Kehte hain jisko ishq (Shamshad/Aaj Aur Kal, 1963); Milte hi nazar tumse (Asha/Ustadon Ke Ustad, 1963), Teri meherbaani hogi (Asha/Raaka, 1965), and Kabhi aye haqeeqat-e-muntazar (Lata/Dulhan Ek Raat Ki, 1966).

Faux Tansen

In all this, my thoughts go to Surendra Nath. Not only did he lip-sync those Talat songs mentioned above, but to add insult to injury the 1954 film was called Gawaiyya, which means singer. Wonder if he thought his time as a singer was already over. Not to forget he had played Tansen with a borrowed voice two years before in Baiju Bawra (1952), a role he would reattempt, again by singing in someone else’s voice, in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). But perhaps the harsher cut was served to him much later, in early 1982, when they celebrated 50 years of Hindi film music on a huge platform in Bombay. If you recall, one of his top songs was a duet with Noor Jahan in Anmol Ghadi (1946): Awaaz de kahaan hai, under Naushad’s baton. On the high-profile celebration day, it was the same Naushad conducting an orchestra on a stage. Madam Noor Jahan had been flown in from Pakistan. Surendra was in the auditorium too. The lady sang this song of course, but no one thought of inviting her co-singer to the stage. She proceeded to sing both the parts, as if she had playbacked for Surendra too.

Yahaan main ajnabi hoon, playbacked Rafi for Shashi Kapoor in Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965). Wonder if Surendra felt such thoughts that evening.


Originally published in DNA Jaipur page 13, on 4 February 2018

Post Script: In the song Man mora baanwara, featured above, you wonder if Padmini is getting ecstatic about the actor or his voice 🙂

Featured image on top: Surendra in Awaaz de kahaan hai

14 thoughts on “Strange Cases of Playback

  1. Another treat to brighten a snowy Sunday. Each essay of yours shines with the light emanating from your enriched mind that travels the multiple tracks that run in Hindi cinema, particularly in the music.

    You mine the information pool surrounding HFM and pluck new pearls every week. My cup runneth over realizing the sheer brilliance in your thought process and in the product you present week after week. Thank you for the weekly enlightenment.

  2. You leave us wordless week after week ……..the world of Hindi music and films could be so much actual knowledge and information ……..We cannot praise you enough, but we are always with you ……on writing these articles, week after week …….

    1. Vineesh…I thank you, but I know there are many others who know more, who express better, even as I am enjoying my role…jab tak chale 🙂 Grateful…

  3. I must say that every Sunday one is educated in the ways of the musical Hindi film world thanks to Manek Premchand’s tireless efforts to inform and share what he has researched n understood. Every Sunday it is as if one is entering a Musical university and one has attended a course in what the Golden period of Hindi film music was all about. I can scarcely recall a single music historian who has bent over backwards to help us comprehend this world.
    Yes, OP Nayyar did use Asha Bhosle as someone has pointed out, but that was because it was a cross-dressing song, so really it doesn’t startle us because a female voice is needed under those circumstances.
    Another issue, slightly tangential, was how certain actors refused to take any other voice for their singing, as in Raj Kapoor who wanted only Mukesh but OP Nayyar put his foot down and insisted on Rafi for the film Do Ustaad, and won. And the result was fabulous, Raj K sounded just as good with the Rafi voice with Ruk ruk ruk and Rik rik rik and humpe dil aaya to bolo kya karoge…so glad OPN was given way to think out of the box for Raj Kapoor!
    Kudos once again on your weekly workshop in this open university, Manek Premchand, you are leaving behind a serious legacy for music academies to integrate in their syllabi.

    1. “Open University”…that’s a tall order Lata. And coming from you, who has taught in colleges in Mumbai _()_

      And you are right about OP Nayyar, and that song too: Nazron ke teer maare kas kas kas…wah 🙂

  4. Strange are the ways of fate;and stranger the neural network of a man called Manek Premchand who prises such handiworks out of their matrix, Hindi Film Music.
    Remembering, searching, and finding, then arranging them into a semblance of logic…. whew, a Herculean feat indeed. Keeps the reactor inside the calvarium buzzing like a beehive. Another Sunday dose of DNA, to recharge ours.

  5. Kishore kumar also got Playback of Rafi in film Miss mala-54 and Baghi Shehzada.
    He got Playback from Manna Dey in films Naughty Boy and Haye mera dil also.
    S.D.Batish gave Playback to Kishore in Bhagam bhag.
    Asha bhosle gave him Play back in film Baap re baap
    Amanat Ali and Fateh Ali gave Play back to Kishore in Raagini.


  6. I’ve often wondered about just this. Especially Rafi playbacking for Kishore Kumar. Glad to know I’m not the only one. That incident of Surendra and Noor Jahan- that makes me very sad each time I read about it. At the very least, he could have been felicitated as having been in the audience. You mention Gawaiyya- not sure I know any of the songs. The essay makes me curious to hear them. Lots of info packed into this today, Manek. Enough food for the week!

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