This book, on one of the most formidable musical talents of this century, shatters one’s reverie. Those of us who live, breathe, and draw our sustenance from Hindi film music (HFM), would prefer to be enveloped by its versatility, complexity and the sheer richness of its musical variety, and not have to think about the behind-the-scenes machinations, the power play, personal rivalries, technological changes, and most importantly, the shifting idiom of film making itself, inevitable with the passage of time—in other words, the whole external context—that produces the music we so enjoy.
Raju Bharatan, the well-known music commentator, opens several well-guarded doors, and allows us a peek into all of these factors, which not only shaped the career of the subject of his book, Asha Bhosle, but indeed, of the entire film music industry. The result is a gripping, fascinating account, though not necessarily a pleasant one, which reveals the human frailties of several of our musical heroes, and exposes their dark side, warts and all. Bharatan, as an insider, is uniquely qualified to write this account, given his special ringside position, and his close personal equations with everyone that he writes about, which made him privy to several private stories. However, the book is not only about personal relationships which have been the subject of much gossip and speculation in the media. The value addition of the book comes from its discussion of the world of studio recordings, the making of musical monopolies and the concomitant cut-throat competition that were as vital a part of the making of specific musical trajectories, as innate talent or abilities of singers.
Given that Asha Bhosle’s tumultuous personal relationships—most notably with her star sister and biggest rival Lata Mangeshkar, and with music directors O.P. Nayyar and R.D. Burman—have been dissected in the media ad nauseam, how can we be sure that Bharatan’s observations are not just more grist to the gossip mill? Several of the personalities mentioned in the book, including the central character, Asha Bhosle, are alive, and would be able to contest this account, if it were pure gossip, devoid of factual underpinnings. This fact imparts gravitas to Bharatan’s observations, and makes one sit up and take notice. Another dimension of the book, which sets it apart from tabloid speculation, is that in addition to his personal observations, he shares actual conversations that he and his wife, the late Girija Rajendran, an important film journalist and music critic in her own right, had with leading lights of the world of HFM.
Bharatan’s writing style is blunt. He does not mince words or beat about the bush, and has very strong opinions. Being a contemporary of the greats of the golden era of HFM (roughly 1950s to mid-1970s) gives him a certain authority that he uses frequently to assert his opinions, and one discovers within a few pages that the pressure to be politically correct does not bog him down. His writing style, with excessive use of passive voice; his own unique puns (‘vintageneration’, ‘vampremium’, ‘an Arabian Sea change’, ‘vintageing’ etc.); the sudden shifts between straightforward narration and discussion, to addressing specific people: Lata (‘Yes, Lata, one hundred percent you shot through…’), or Asha (‘in that sense, Asha, Mohammed Rafi’s contribution was even more noteworthy than was yours to Pancham making strides with Teesri Manzil’), or the reader, is surprisingly jarring for a seasoned journalist, not lucid, and takes getting used to. But once one gets acclimatized to the writing style, one can focus on the richness of detail that outlines both the personal and the production related context under which Asha Bhosle’s musical journey unfolded.
What emerges is the tale of an immensely talented and in many ways iconoclastic singer, whose success, it can be argued, fell short of her immeasurable and diverse abilities, but who triumphed against all odds. This might seem surprising at first sight, coming as Asha does, from the musically incredibly gifted Mangeshkar family. Yet, she remained in the shadow of her older sister, the reigning queen of HFM, Lata Mangeshkar. Predictably, the Lata-Asha competition and conflict is a running thread throughout the book. Between 1951–60, Asha Bhosle had the maximum number of Hindi film songs (2139), compared to Lata’s 1877, Geeta Dutt’s 848 and Shamshad Begum’s 569. This relative ranking remained intact throughout their careers. Asha scored over Lata in terms of quantity, but was not regarded as equally talented, for reasons that are hard to understand for music aficionados, and difficult to reconcile with her musical prowess, which she has amply demonstrated in her vast repertoire of both Hindi and Marathi songs.
Thus, Lata was the first choice of most music directors as the voice of the female lead (‘the obsession with Lata extended to the humblest composer’), Asha often got songs that were meant for the artists with smaller roles—the so-called character artists, the vamp, or the cabaret dancer. Even when she did sing for the female lead, she remained the second choice, to be called upon when Lata was not available. Bharatan believes that Asha’s singing contributed to the success of several music directors, who ‘merely used her’.
Bharatan shows that as Lata’s popularity and diva status escalated, songs started to be produced in high registers that Lata was naturally comfortable in. Asha’s voice was good for bass registers: it was her companion of 15 years, O.P. Nayyar, (who, incidentally, never recorded with Lata) who recognized the tremendous potential of Asha’s voice as a bass singer. He created songs especially suited to her voice, something that R.D. Burman (whom she later married after she parted ways with O.P. Nayyar) continued to produce spectacular music.
While Lata and Asha were rivals, together they dominated the playback scene for decades. A large part of the reason is undoubtedly their formidable musical talent. But Bharatan argues that they constituted one of two ‘savage monopolies’ that dominated the film music scene by the mid-1960s, one whose run came to an end as a result of a fierce challenge posed by Anuradha Paudwal in the late 1990s. Bharatan has an entire chapter on the emergence of T-series and Anuradha Paudwal’s role in ‘dismantling the Mangeshkar monopoly mechanism’. However, he points out that while she replaced the Mangeshkar monopoly with her own, she also lowered the quality of singing, ‘with monotony for its keynote’ (sic.). The emergence of T-series and Super Cassettes also had another fundamental effect on the film music recording scene via the emergence of ‘tune banks’, where a singer-composer team would record a song using a dummy artist, often also picturized on smaller dummy artists to help directors imagine how the song would look on screen. Thus, one monopoly gave way to another, but left us poorer in terms of musical quality.
The second (of the two savage monopolies) was the trinity of composer duos: Shankar-Jaikishan, Kalyanji-Anandji and Laxmikant-Pyarelal, who ‘cartelized’ films. Each of these duos was scoring music for upto 17–18 films per year, which meant roughly 140–150 songs per team per year. Bharatan outlines how these three teams tried to book every single music studio in Bombay for the full year. Most studios were happy to go along, as they got their yearly rent on 1st of January. Some, like Mehboob Studios, resisted. Other major directors, like Naushad Ali, would have to call one of the three duos to request a studio slot. Madan Mohan and C. Ramachandra formed a rival association to challenge this monopoly, but did not succeed. We learn how in HFM, like indeed in the rest of the world, success and marketability are not explained by talent alone.
As the music industry moved from being purely aural to partly visual, through the advent of television and visually aware, performative singers such as Runa Laila, the old style of stage shows with singers standing erect with a notebook in front of them, started to change. Asha Bhosle was quick to adapt and adjust to this shift, and reinvented herself as the queen of stage shows, both in India and abroad, a move that helped her tide over the T-Series-Paudwal challenge.
Asha Bhosle’s personal travails mirror the tragedies of several highly creative individuals, women in particular, who continue to produce astounding work in the midst of deep personal turmoil. She left her first husband, Ganpat Bhosle, who was highly controlling but one who encouraged her to make a niche for herself against Lata. She left him for O.P. Nayyar, who was instrumental in transforming her career, but was equally controlling. (The book contains a rare interview with Nayyar’s wife, Saroj, where she talks about her husband’s obsession with Asha). Apparently, while she was troubled by his domineering behaviour for several years, Asha Bhosle decided to finally end the relationship after she saw him slap her daughter. As Bharatan describes, it was not easy to break away from his ‘oppressively possessive clutches’, certainly not in a male-dominated industry where he was a super successful music director. This must have been especially difficult for a woman who was already struggling to get due credit for her talent. She found personal peace in her marriage to R.D. Burman, but remained troubled that for him too, Lata was the first choice.
The book contains several other stories, about singers, music directors, and actors, people whose lives intersected with Asha’s. Several of these stories have been in the public domain, but here in Bharatan’s voice, one hears something new. For instance, a great deal of media gossip about Guru Dutt’s break up with his wife, the incredibly talented Geeta (Roy) Dutt, has been about his obsession with Waheeda Rahman. Bharatan discusses how Asha’s rise affected Geeta Dutt’s career adversely, and contributed (undoubtedly combined with other factors) towards her descent into alcoholism.
The ease with which the author, as well as other men whose voices we hear in the book, dispenses casually derogatory remarks about women, especially their physical appearance, is jarring. For instance, [Asha Parekh’s] ‘Nasir Hussain’s bouncing betty’; ‘OP … to plump for the roly-poly Asha Bhosle’; ‘the weird-looking Sandhya’ and so on. References to Asha Bhosle’s overweight figure and dark skin colour, which occur at several points during the book, are particularly upsetting. One would have liked to attribute these to the bygone days, typical of the past, when men could publicly mock women for characteristics that were completely irrelevant to their capabilities, a freedom that was reciprocally never granted to women. However under the leadership of Donald Trump, as misogyny proudly flexes it muscles all over the world, these attitudes, sadly, continue to permeate the present.
In many ways, while she is the central character, this book is about more than Asha Bhosle. Apart from everything else, it also reveals how much more difficult it is for women to pursue successful careers, even for those as supremely talented as Asha. But it also shows that while the decks are stacked against them, individual women—Asha Bhosle, Lata Mangeshkar, Geeta Dutt, Shamshad Begum, Anuradha Paudwal and countless others, both in the world of
HFM and outside—have the requisite spunk to do it.
Ashwini Deshpande is Professor in the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi, Delhi. (email@example.com)