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Remembering Rafi – The King of Indian Playback Singers

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By Sudhir K Arora

Guru Poornima, 1980. Actor Shammi Kapoor, en route to his Guru’s Ashram at Vrindavan, was stopped by a local resident who told him, “Shammi sa’ab, aap ki awaz chali gayi”. Shammi Kapoor at first could not comprehend this, till it was explained, “Rafi sa’ab nahi rahe”. The enormity of his loss struck him speechless and in tears.

Mohammed Rafi was the screen voice of so many great actors. In the ‘song-and-dance heavy’ Indian cinema, hit songs could turn actors into stars. Indian cinema has been blessed with a pantheon of accomplished singers – among the great male voices were Mukesh, Manna De, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar, Talat Mehmood to name just a few – but what made Mohammed Rafi stand out was his unique ability to subsume himself into the one who was ‘singing’ on screen. It was uncanny how he could sound so much like the man on screen, his voice, tone, modulation, accent, even the way he breathed – all reflecting the actor’s mannerisms. This unparalleled versatility was the genius of Mohammed Rafi and made him the undisputed king of Indian cinema’s playback singers.

31st July, 2021, marks 41 years since Rafi passed away. Born in 1924, young Rafi moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1944 and was taken under his wing by the legendary music composer Naushad. Amongst their earliest hits was “Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki, Na Jaane Tum Kab Aoge” from Dulari (1949), though in the style of the ruling ‘deity’ Kundan Lal Saigal. Indian cinema was just transforming from the ‘theatre as motion picture’ era dominated by ‘singing stars’ to the ‘studio recording’ or ‘playback’ era. Mohammed Rafi began coming into his own by making subtle changes in his voice and even accent for different actors. Then followed hits like Baiju Bawra (1952) – the timeless bhajan “Man Tarpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj” and the plaintive “O Duniya ke Rakhwale”. Rafi had arrived.

Rafi’s ability to sound like the actor himself is seen in the songs he sang for stars like the brooding, mercurial Guru Dutt; effervescent Shammi Kapoor; and ever-romantic Dev Anand – with personas as different as chalk and cheese.

Guru Dutt’s Pyasa (1957) – who can forget the duet Rafi sang with Geeta Dutt “Hum Aap ki Aankhon Mein is Dil ko..” and the two songs that came to define Guru Dutt for posterity in his masterly play of light and shadow: “Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye To Kya Hai” and “Jinhe Naaz Hai Hind Par Woh Kahan Hai”? [Guru Dutt also created another star who was a scene stealer – Johnny Walker for whom Rafi sang super hits like the timeless “…Zara Hat Ke Zara Bach Ke, Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan” (CID, 1956), all in the inimitable Johnny Walker style!]

The Shammi Kapoor phenomenon started with the super hit musical “Tum Sa Nahin Dekha” (1957), his trade mark swagger and muscle-trying gyrations taken to the next level by Rafi’s singing (in a Punjabi accent!): “Yun To Hamne Lakh Haseen Dekhe Hain…” (the drawn-out ‘Aha’ the icing on the cake!), the foot-tapping duet “Sar Pe Topi Lal, Haath Mein Resham Ka Rumal, O Tera Kya Kehna”. On to Dil Deke Dekho (1959), Junglee (1961) – “Yaahoooo.!. Chahe Mujhe Koi Junglee Kahe”; the intoxicating songs of Kashmir Ki Kali (1964): “Deewana Hua Badal…”, “Taaareef Karun Kya Uski…”; Teesri Manzil (1966): “Tumhne Mujhe Dekha, Ho Kar…” and “O Hasina Zulfon Wali Jaane Jahan…” are embedded in popular memory. Quintessential Shammi Kapoor, aided in no small part by the super-versatile Rafi!

‘Evergreen’ Dev Anand was, well, the Dev Anand – the ‘puff’, the ever-nodding head, the unique walk and ‘rapid-fire’ speech without seeming to pause for breath – and Rafi excelled in singing for him on screen. The Rafi-Geeta Dutt Duet “Aankhon hi Aankhon Mein Ishara Ho Gaya..” (C.I.D., 1956) was a sign of things to come. Then followed a host of smash hits: “Saathi na koi Manzil” (Bombai ka Babu, 1960); the unforgettable Hum Dono (1961): “Main Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya, Har Fikr to Dhuen Mein…” and “Kabhi Khud Pe, Kabhi Haalaat Pe..”, and Guide (1965), the Dev-Rafi pinnacle, “Din Dhal Jaye hai, Raat Na Jaay”, with the long drawn out “yaaad sataaye” – so Dev Anand.

Mohammed Rafi sang in almost all Indian languages (and quite a few foreign ones too – Farsi, Dutch, Creole!). He sang “Bhojpuri” or rustic songs with effortless ease: “Nain lad jain he to manavaa maa…” from Ganga Jamuna (1961) immediately brings to mind dhoti-clad thespian Dilip Kumar in one of his signature roles.

Rafi was a maestro of ‘sur’ and ‘laya’ and could ‘voice’ every emotion under the sun – joy, sorrow, adoration, melancholy, anger, playfulness – with consummate ease.

He sang masterfully for ‘Jumping Jack’ Jeetendra, who burst on the screen with his white drainpipes and white shoes, sliding, jumping and dancing on a lawn or hill slope: Farz (1967) – “Ooo! Ooo! Mast Baharon Ka Main Aashiq…”; the 1970 super hits Caravan and Humjoli (with its ‘synchronised’-dancing-while-playing-badminton number “Dhal Gaya Din (tak!) Ho Gayi Shaam (tak!) Jaane Do…”).

Rajendra Kumar chose Rafi’s nuanced singing for his many blockbusters: the title song of Mere Mehboob (1963); “Kaun Hai Jo Sapnon Mein Aya” (Jhuk Gaya Aasman, 1968), went a long way in establishing ‘Jubilee’ Kumar.

Rafi’s versatility spanned immense range. His renderings for Dharmendra – “Ek Haseen Shaam Ko, Dil Mera..” (Dulhan Ek Raat Ki, 1967); Joy Mukherjee: “Main Pyar Ka Rahi Hun…” (Ek Musafir Ek Hasina, 1962); Pradeep Kumar: “Dil Jo Na Kah Saka, Wahi Raaz-e-dil…” (Bheegi Raat, 1965), Raaj Kumar ”Yeh Duniyaa, Yeh Mehfil” (Heer Ranjha, 1970) are all time favourites.

His qawali for young Rishi Kapoor: “Parda Hai Parda” (Amar Akbar Anthony, 1977) did full justice to the actor’s fluid chopping movements and prancing on stage!

We will always remember with goose bumps that ultimate ode to the Indian armed forces: “Ab Tumhare Hawale Watan Saathiyon” (Haqeeqat, 1964) that evokes so stirringly the sacrifice and bravery of our soldiers in 1962, and the melancholic, forlorn Zafar’s “Na Kisi Ki Aankh Ka Nur Hun…” (Lal Qila, 1960).

Mohammed Rafi strode Indian playback like a colossus, yet he never got his due. The top award he got was a Padma Shri in 1967. Legions of his fans all over the world feel he deserved much, much better. And he passed away so young – just 55 years old, leaving the world bereft of all that he would have given more.

He himself had sung prophetically: “Tum Mujhe Yun Bhula Na Paoge, Jab Kabhi Bhi Sunoge Geet Mere, Sang Tum Bhi Gungunaoge”. And grateful music lovers pay tribute – Thank you Rafi sa’ab for the timeless, immortal songs. RIP!

[Author’s Note: Mohammed Rafi’s body of work is so vast that many major hits or actors he sang for may not have found mention in this short narrative. The purpose was to take the reader down memory lane to revisit Mohammad Rafi’s indelible imprint on Indian cinema. This article is dedicated to my father, late Shri Sukhdev Arora, whose passion for music I had the good fortune to imbibe.]