Flashback |Remembering RD Burman's lesser known prowess as a singer, from meditative solos to chartbusters

On his death anniversary, recalling how whenever RD Burman went solo, he made sure it was a song that needed his voice, and no one else's.

Subhash K Jha January 04, 2022 14:40:30 IST
Flashback |Remembering RD Burman's lesser known prowess as a singer, from meditative solos to chartbusters

RD Burman

Music was a gift bequeathed to Rahul Dev Burman by his father, Sachin Dev Burman. If Burman Dada immortalised himself with his two manjhi songs, 'O Re Manjhi' (Bandini, 1963) and 'Sun Mere Bandhu Re' (Sujata, 1959), Burman Baba belted out 'O Manjhi Teri Naiya Se' in the long-forgotten bilingual Aar Paar (1954), directed by Shakti Samanta.

This timeless manjhi song proved that Papa and Burman Jr were sailing in the same boat. Sadly, by the time RD's boat sailed into the 1980s, it developed a leak. If the song had not gone unnoticed, RD would surely have sung more such reflective quasi-philosophical songs.

Doubtless, the distinctive voice of RD was capable of conveying the emotion of a lyric as well, if not better than some male playback singers who sang for him. This is specially true of RD's tunes for Amit Kumar. In the popular 'Bade Achhe Lagte Hain' (Balika Badhu, 1976), Amit's voice synchronises so well with RD's that listeners can scarcely tell when Pancham stealthily slips into the number with the boatman's clarion call, "O manjhi re jaiyo piya ke des..." RD often contributed key lines to his compositions without claiming credit. Though the legendary cabaret number 'Piya Tu Ab To Aaja' in Caravan (1971) is credited only to Asha Bhosle, Pancham's banshee cries of "Monica o my darling" have rooted the number in the public's mind.

In the hauntingly bare Kishore Kumar-Lata Mangeshkar love duet 'Hum Dono Do Premee' (Ajnabee, 1974), the composer chips in as the bystander at the railway station to ask where the fugitive lovers are off to.

In Mangeshkar's version of 'Phoolon Ka Taron Ka' (Hare Rama Hare Krishna, 1971), Pancham sings for 'Daddy' Kishore Sahu, with "Daddy ka mummy ka sabka kehna hai ek hazaron mein teri behna hai..." These incidental vocal appearances verify Pancham's casual yet unforgettable artistry.

Recalls Gulzar, "Pancham was an excellent singer. He knew the nuances of classical singing. For my films, he sang only a couple of songs. But he lent his voice ever so often. For instance, in Jabbar Patel's Musafir (1986), the boatman's voice-over is Pancham! As a singer, he would perfect a tune by singing it repeatedly. In the album that I did with him in 1994, listen to how well he has sung the numbers 'Raah Pe Rahte Hai' and 'Koi Diya Jale Kahin' (later rendered by Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhosle respectively).

Then in Dil Padosi Hai, the original soundtracks by Pancham, before they were dubbed by Bhosle, are superb. They show his range as a singer.

The solos and duets that RD sang in the '70s asserted his growing reputation as a rock-n-roll renegade. Somehow, the serious songs sung by Pancham (such as the manjhi number in Aar Paar) never got their due. The hits that Pancham sang were almost invariably gimmicky.

With Mohammed Rafi, RD was heard in his element in the yummy 'Yamma Yamma' number in Shaan (1972).  RD's most memorable duet of male bonding was the zany jazz-tinged title song of 'Gol Maal.' Sung with Sapan Chakravarty, the verve of the song  is unmatched by any other song of male bonding in the '80s, except perhaps 'Jaan-e-Jigar,' the groovy Goan gaana that RD `dared' to duet with his favourite male singer, Kishore Kumar, in Pukaar (1983).

Whenever RD Burman went solo, he made sure it was a song that needed his voice, and no one else's.

Incredibly, the all-time favourite 'Mehbooba O Mehbooba' (Sholay, 1975), might not have been sung by Pancham at all. At first, this vibrant sexy titillator was to be sung by Bhosle. When Jalal Agha was brought into the picture to lend a vocal drizzle to Helen's sizzle, RD  was considered by Javed Akhtar, Anand Bakshi, and Ramesh Sippy as the best bet for this number inspired by a Demis Roussos chart-topper.

Equally accomplished was Pancham's interpretation of the locomotive rhythms of 'Dhanno Ki Aankhon Mein.' Gulzar's words in Kitaab (1977) were transported to a wonderland of images. It became a voyage of self-discovery for Pancham. Equally devil-may-care was RD's interpretation of the number 'Kal Kya Hoga' (Kasme Vaade, 1978) and 'Samundar Mein Nahake' (Pukaar).

And how elegantly Pancham wore the shirt of hurt into the two Nasir Hussain musicals Hum Kisise Kum Nahin (1977) and Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981). In the ever-young songs 'Tum Kya Jano Mohabbat Kya Hai' and 'Dil Lena Khel Hai Dildar Ka,' RD walked tall over a terrain of pain.

The most meditative solo melody that Pancham sang was 'Yeh Zindagi Kuchh Bhi Sahi' in the flop Kumar Gaurav-Poonam Dhillon starrer, Romance (1983), containing some of RD's best compositions ever. The emotional grip of the lyrical delivery rivals 'Kabhi Palkon Pe Ansoon,' which Kishore sang for RD Burman in Harjaee (1981).

With his singing soul companion Bhosle, RD created a dense romantic atmosphere. Though they sang no more than seven or eight full-fledged duets, the slender repertoire created a voluminous impression because of their impact.

The first duet that RD and Bhosle sang was 'O Meri Jaan Maine Kaha' (The Train, 1970). The Rajesh Khanna-RD Burman team, that bloomed in the '70s, was in its infancy when RD composed and sang with Asha for The Train. The film had two strikingly original-sounding solos, 'Gulabi Aankhen' by Mohammed Rafi and 'Kis Liye Maine Pyaar Kiya' by Mangesgkar. Inadvertently, the RD-Asha duet was left out, sidetracked.

RD Burman and Bhosle had their revenge the very next year when their up-tempo number outpaced all other chartbusters of Apna Desh. Their heat-and-run number? The high-pitched ode to raunchiness, 'Duniya Mein Logon Ko.' The number stressed the outlandishness of Pancham's vocals. Khanna and Mumtaz were dressed as a couple of freakos in this climactic song.

Just when you thought they were the '70s version of Sonny and Cher, belying all expectations, the RD-Asha pair hit an all-time high of emotional expression in 'Sapna Mera Toot Gaya' in Khel Khel Mein (1975). While Kishore accompanied Bhosle in all the frothy fun duets in the film, RD stepped in to create waves in this memorable song of parting and remembrance.

Peculiar, passionate, and palpably Pancham is 'Na Jaa Jaane Jaa,' that largely ignored, scene stealer RD-Asha duet in Joshilaay (1989). Here, and in the disco-very-very special of the '80s, 'Jaan E Jaan O Meri Jaan E Jaan' in Sanam Teri Kasam (1982), Pancham stepped back into the shadows to let Bhosle`squeal' the limelight. But his contribution to the two duets is like a mistletoe decorating a Christmas tree.

The last duet that RD sang with Bhosle was 'Yeh Din To Aata Hai' (Mahaan, 1983). Sadly, by then, RD's career was under a cloud.

There is an interesting endgame associated with RD's career as a singer. In the selective, reluctant, and meagre repertoire of songs that the chameleon composer chose to sing, one song is extra-special: 'Kya Bhala Hai Kya Bura' in Gulzar's unreleased Libaas. It is one of the few film songs that dares to make light of the burden of existence.

The song is special for another reason. It is the only time, Rahul Dev Burman dared to face at the microphone with the singer who had seen him as a child fooling around in shorts at his papa's recordings... and whom the young adult-Pancham hesitantly approached to sing the first song that he ever composed.

That duet with Lata Mangeshkar was the last song RD Burman ever sang in a film.

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based film critic who has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out. He tweets at @SubhashK_Jha.

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