Here is my promised and much-delayed tribute to Lata Mangeshkar, in the form of seven outstanding songs. These are not all necessarily songs that I prefer to all others – most of these could be interchangeable on the list with other songs that are out there, considering that it is just impossible to pick out a small number of “best” songs from someone who has contributed so many songs to Indian films – especially Hindi films – with so many of those other songs also being well-recognized greats. Some of the songs on my list (especially nos. 1 and 6) might appear on a lot of people’s best-of lists, too, but I don’t know about the rest. I just know that I really like them, myself.
I did apply some criteria while putting together this list that went beyond just (possibly) liking these particular songs the most… I wanted to include songs (even if just one song) from every decade from the ‘40s to the ‘80s, since I think that a lot of people would consider that entire stretch of time to be her heyday (if not later decades) and I felt that if I did not stick exclusively to, say, the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, it would also make the list more interesting. But I would not include the later songs in this list if I did not enjoy them a whole lot, too.
In fact all of these songs – and her performance in them – are so good, I don’t know if I have been able to do them justice. But I have tried my best, in my small descriptions, to communicate the qualities that I think make them unique.
1.“Ayega Aanewala” from Mahal (1949)
I will start with Lata’s big breakthrough song, one that probably goes on anybody’s best-of list, “Ayega Aanewala.” This is a remarkable song in a remarkable soundtrack. The ethereal quality of Lata’s voice is truly otherworldly, best befitting what I like to call the most Goth film ever made. By the way, I have shared the soundtrack for Mahal with people who have next to no knowledge of Indian films, and every one was blown away by it. Naturally, composer Kehmachand Prakash deserves a lot of credit also; he was a fantastic music director.
2. “Apni Ada Par Main Hoon Fida” from Teen Batti Char Raasta (1953)
If there is any song in which Lata’s voice ideally matches an actress’s visual presentation and vice-versa, it’s “Apni Ada Par Main Hoon Fida” from Teen Batti Char Raasta. That’s partly because the film’s director, V. Shantaram, arranged for Sandhya to mimic Lata’s visual presentation, with her distinct braid and dresses. Sandhya was also asked to wear dark makeup because lighter skin was so commonly associated with beauty and Sandhya’s character was meant to be the opposite of beautiful – at least by conventional standards of the time (though while watching this film, we can see all along that such a perception was wrong – well, I know I could see it was wrong, certainly). But when this character sings, she sounds more beautiful than anyone. And that is why, when the other people in the film hear her singing, they run to the radio, crowd around the studio, and/or close their eyes while smiling as though in the middle of a wonderful dream. Sandhya does a great job on camera, but Lata’s sweet-sounding voice is what makes those listeners’ joyous reactions in the scene totally credible.
Incidentally, I don’t think that the music director for Teen Batti Char Raasta is nearly as famous as any of the others on this list. In fact, the name Shivram Krishna just doesn’t ring any bells for me. Maybe other people know a little more about him, but if he isn’t well known, I think that he definitely should be.
[Note: It is unfortunate that I can’t embed the video into this blog, but it is the only watchable version available, and it’s well worth the extra trip to YouTube!]
3. “Hamaare Dil Se Na Jaana” from Uran Khatola (1955)
Lata’s vocals in this song mesh very nicely with the variety of styles that Naushad brought together. As often is the case with Naushad, it contains both Eastern and Western classical influences, but it is eminently danceable, too. (It’s kind of waltz-like, I think, though I don’t have the technical knowledge to determine instantly how much of a waltz this is. Does this song go by “waltz time”? Maybe someone would like to tell me – or maybe I’ll answer my own question by doing a little more research into that matter – but not right now.)
In addition to the charming and unique musical qualities, another thing that sets this song apart is the mood. The song is quite foreboding (which I could tell pretty quickly, thanks to the English subtitles), like a couple of other songs in this film, too. That’s not a very common quality among most of the songs that Lata was given (as far as I know), and it’s a unique quality in this list. And that’s a good reason to include it here – in addition to the fact that I simply love listening to it. (Not to mention that I love looking at Nimmi, who served as another excellent – and very frequent – on-screen face for Lata’s voice.)
4. “Na Dir Dim” from Pardesi/Journey Beyond Three Seas (1957)
Padmini’s dance in Pardesi/Journey Beyond Three Seas (1957) was certainly dramatic, complementing the character’s desperate pleas with this man from a strange land not to walk away from her. And, not surprisingly, Lata’s voice supplied all of the drama that was required. With Anil Biswas composing the music, the result was what I consider to be one of the most stunning classical-influenced dance numbers in Hindi cinema. Needless to say, I’ve watched this song and listened to it many times.
5. “Tumhen Yaad Karte Karte” from Amrapali (1966)
There is a different kind of dramatic quality to this slow and sophisticated song that, for me, captures a feeling specific to music of the 1960s – not only in India, but in Western films, too. It’s difficult for me to describe what that quality is, but I don’t think that this kind of film music could have been created at any other time. That’s why, if I am including only one song from the 1960s (which was not my original intention, but just how it’s turning out), “Tumhen Yaad Karte Karte” seems like the perfect choice.
Throughout the song, Lata’s voice also seems a little different from what I hear in most of the ‘50s songs – for instance, it seems to be gliding along at a slightly lower pitch – but her singing here is at least as outstanding in quality as anywhere else. I should add that this song is also quite different from a lot of Shankar-Jaikishan numbers that I can think of, but their repertoire was very diverse, and Lata could be counted on to do equally superbly with most of the wide range songs that they gave her over the years. (By the way, since I am so crazy about dance, it might be surprising that out of all the songs in Vyjayanthimala’s great dance show-off film of the ‘60s, I have picked one that doesn’t actually contain any dance. But I simply feel that “Tumhen Yaad Karte Karte” contains the best, most moving vocal performance by Lata – which is not to say that the other, dancier numbers don’t sound great, too.)
6. “Inhi Logon Ne” from Pakeezah (1972)
Any one of the songs behind the great Meena Kumari (and/or Padma Khanna) dance scenes in Pakeezah could be on this list; I consider them all about equally great (with much credit to music director Ghulam Mohammed). But for this list, I’ve decided to pick the one that is probably the biggest hit, too. The song is catchy as hell, and I love the exuberance of the music – which is fully matched by both Meena’s dance and Lata’s vocals. It’s a song that really gets stuck in my head!
7. “Jalta Hai Badan” from Razia Sultan (1983)
The song “Jalta Hai Badan” is interesting for a number of reasons. It makes sense that this is a Khayyam-composed song from the early ‘80s, because it bears some musical resemblance to the songs in Umrao Jaan. Interestingly, though, the courtesan played by Rekha in Umrao Jaan with playback by Asha Bhosle is a bit more highbrow, with a much more classical quality to her performances, than the dancer is in this scene. The dancer here is good (that’s Aarti Chopra), but – as some commenters also pointed out on YouTube – this scene is a racy kind of sequence that we would normally sooner expect to receive playback singing from Asha Bhosle. (Did the two sisters make an agreement to switch roles a little in the ‘80s? I wonder.) Of course, it’s no surprise that Lata gives it a more ethereal quality with her vocals than Asha might have, and that beautiful, ethereal voice also creates a great contrast with the ugliness of the violent slapping scene at the end. (That whole scene at the end isn’t included in all the videos of this song on YouTube, but I think it should be.)
I am sure there are numerous other songs that different people might want to put on a best-of-Lata list – hundreds, maybe even thousands! I wanted to put my own list together merely as a personal tribute, to show that I, too, have appreciated much of her singing, and I certainly realize that she made an enormous contribution to Indian film music history.