If Red Indians and other tribes existed before Christopher Columbus ‘discovered’ America, then isn’t it interesting that an explorer who followed all of them—Amerigo Vespucci—has the continent named after him? Perhaps he had the first press conference!
In somewhat the same vein, there have been several India-lovers over the years, among them Rabindranath Tagore in the Arts, Subhash Chandra Bose in Politics, V. Shantaram in Cinema, etc. But Cinema’s real ‘Mr. India’ of Tsunamic proportions happened upon us in the shape of Mahendra Kapoor, thanks mainly to his many patriotic songs covering several decades in our films. It was only later that Anil Kapoor (no relative of the singer) took control of the baton, and gave the title a new meaning and cinematic appeal through his role in Mr. India (1987). Looks like he too had the first ‘press conference’!
Many examples abound of the patriotic nature of Mahendra’s songs, right from his very debut year in cinema, that being 1959, with this song from Navrang:
Na raja rahega na raani rahegi
Ye duniya hai faani aur faani rahegi
Na jab ek bhi zindagaani rahegi
To maati sabhi ki kahaani kahegi!
The song, written by Bharat Vyas, goes on to celebrate the life of Rana Pratap, Shivaji maharaj, the Mughals, and The Rani of Jhansi. Clearly, this was grist for the mill for Mahendra Kapoor.
Over the years, Kapoor went on to sing many jingoistic songs for filmmaker-actor Manoj Kumar, himself often called Mr. Bharat. But for a variety of actors did Mahendra Kapoor offer his vocals in this sub-genre over the years. Here is a sampling of his songs dipped in love for India:
- Chalo sipaahi chalo (Non-film song about the Chinese aggression, 1960s)
- Ye kis ka lahu hai, kaun mara, ai rehbar mulk-o-qaum bata (Dharamputra, 1961)
- Mera rang de basanti chola (with Mukesh and Rajinder Mehta, Shaheed, 1965)
- Mere desh ki dharti (Upkar, 1967)
- Dil karta o yaara dildaara mera dil karta (with Balbir and Joginder, Aadmi Aur Insaan, 1969)
- Dulhan chali, pehen chali teen rang ki choli (Purab Aur Pashchim, 1970)
And of course that biggie from Purab Aur Pashchim (1970):
- Hai preet jahaan ki reet sada, main geet waheen ke gaata hoon
Bharat ka rehne waala hoon, Bharat ki baat sunaata hoon
Consistent with his excessive love for India, the singer not only sang these and other songs in Hindi and Punjabi films, but spent a lot of time touring the border areas, rooting for troops in the 1960s after the Chinese aggression, and with his actor-son Ruhan even as recently as after the Kargil incursions. He also accompanied Prime Minister Vajpayee on the inaugural bus to Lahore.
As a direct consequence, Mahendra Kapoor’s image has got heavily associated with patriotic songs and also unfortunately—because he sounded like his idol Rafi—as a poor man’s Rafi. Neither image quite does him justice. But changing our minds is very hard, and changing others’ minds is harder still.
Because these images clung to Mahendra Kapoor’s persona, listeners rarely expected him to deliver much else. Every other song where he does not sound patriotic or like a Rafi clone is seen as really unexpected from him. As if Arre, ye kya hua? To borrow a cricketing neologism, these other songs are like doosras, signifying a special, unexpected delivery.
And so, just to get him out of our mental slot, let’s slap the dust out of our sclerotic thoughts and go see some of the many nice songs this crooner gave us, those that don’t position him as a deshbhakt or Rafi clone. Here we go:
- Ga rahi hai zindagi (with Asha, Aanchal, 1960)
- Aaj ki raat naheen shikwe-shikaayat ke liye (Dharamputra, 1961)
- Aaj madhuvaataas dole (with Lata, Stree 1961)
- Dhoonde nazar-nazar (with Asha, Dilli Ka Dada, 1962)
- Badli-badli duniya hai meri (with Lata, Sangeet Samrat Tansen, 1962)
- Aap aaye to khayaal-e-dil-e-naashaad aaya (Gumrah, 1963)
- Chalo ik baar phir se (Gumrah, 1963)
- Rangeen fiza hai (with Asha, Bahu Beti, 1965)
- Aaja re mere pyaar ke raahi (with Lata, Oonche Log, 1965)
- Dil laga kar hum ye samjhe (Zindagi Aur Maut, 1965)
- Andhere mein jo baitthe hain (Sambandh, 1969)
That’s not his entire repertoire; consider more of these exceptional ‘doosras’ offered by Mahendra Kapoor in several dozens of songs:
- Jhukti ghata gaati hawa (with Asha, Dhool Ka Phool, 1959). This love song, exceptionally planned by N. Datta, has Asha going solo in the first half, with Mahendra’s entry signaled by a change in tempo. Excellence obtained in toto.
- Kaun ho tum (Stree, 1961), in which Mahendra Kapoor goes uber-soft in love, the Veena keeping him company.
- Kho gaya hai mera pyaar (Hariyali Aur Rasta, 1962), a medium-paced Shankar-Jaikishan work of class, the sad kind the composing duo normally gave to Mukesh.
- Ye hawa ye hawa ye hawa (Gumrah, 1963), the haunting raag Bhopali tune with its echoes achieved by moving the volume sliders up and down, before sophisticated electronics made such effects easy.
- Tum nacho ras barse (Sati Naari, 1966), a classical effort tuned by Pandit Shivram, the bold move producing winning results.
What a feast of melodies above! Also let’s bear well in mind that many of his songs had sensitive poetry needing high-class expression; no filmmaker, composer, or songwriter would have liked to repeat working with Kapoor if that quality was lacking. But almost everybody repeated with this singer, which should tell us something.
The point in mentioning all this is to offer us thoughts about the heavy millstone slung around Mahendra’s neck, not in small part because he sounded like the man he admired most. This talent of sounding like a successful singer works like a double-edged knife: it gets you more initial breaks, but it also creates enormous hurdles as you navigate the waters for newer opportunities. You are always a no. 2 so-and-so.
Address the origins, and we can see how this burden of sounding like Rafi could not have been lessened. To begin with, the obsessed young man ran away from home to go meet his idol.
Later, the young Mahendra’s guru, Pandit Husnlal, was himself very fond of Rafi, and had used that singer in several hits like Tune mera yaar na milaaya, main kya jaanu teri ye Khudaayi (Shama Parwana, 1954). When it now came to participating in a high-profile music contest, young Mahendra sang this very song before an august audience in which the judges were C. Ramchandra, Naushad, Vasant Desai, Madan Mohan, and Anil Biswas. He got to be the best singer at the contest, earning himself breaks in cinema in Sohni Mahiwal (1958) and Navrang (1959).
Before long, he was singing away for many composers and lyricists, without pausing to reflect and change tracks. Pretty soon too, a rift between Rafi and OP Nayyar furnished invitations to sing in Nayyar’s recording rooms. Badal jaaye agar maali (Baharen Phir Bhi Ayengi, 1966), Laakhon hain yahaan dil waale (Kismat, 1968), Meri jaan tumpe sadqe (Sawan Ki Ghata, 1966), and Kahaan se laayi ho jaane-e-man ye (with Asha, Dil Aur Mohabbat, 1968), to list just a few of these. With everything so hunky-dory, why upset the apple cart?
And that’s the result of the road taken by Mahendra Kapoor, a successful singer who had the potential to offer so much more than we score him for.
Mahendra Kapoor was a fitness buff, and yet he got knee surgery done some time in 2006. Convalescing wasn’t easy, and he soon lost his spirits. On September 27, 2008, this good singer and popular human being passed away.
He had given us some very good songs to enjoy. Many of us want to remember him through Sahir’s poetry:
Na moonh chhupa ke jiyo, aur na sar jhuka ke jiyo
Ghamon ka daur bhi aaye to muskura ke jiyo…
Ghata mein chhup ke sitaare fana nahin hote
Andheri raat ke dil mein diye jala ke jiyo
Originally published on 21.10.2012