Lata Mangeshkar– Off the beaten track

I remember the first time I saw the 1954 Dev Anand superhit Taxi Driver on a circulating library VHS. I was blown away by Sheila Ramani exuding old Hollywood-style glamour a la Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardener while playing the film's second lead, Sylvie.

And wait! I recall reacting in amazement...Just who was voicing Sylvie’s seductive cabaret numbers? Wasn’t that Lata Mangeshkar! Crooning multiple club numbers and sounding sultry! Just wow. Lata Mangeshkar turned 90 yesterday (September 28).

For most people, she is a national treasure and is beyond compare in film music when it comes to singing pathos-laden songs, effervescent romantic duets, soulful ghazals, devotion-soaked bhajans, raag-based classical numbers.

So for this column I thought of exploring how Lata has also dabbled in other song genres which may not have been her forte but which she has still rendered with great felicity.

Cabarets and club songs

By the mid 1950s Lata Mangeshkar was in her mid 20s, and had already established herself as a living legend. Her propah off-screen demeanour added to the predominantly prim image of her songs.

In such a scenario, composer SD Burman got her to croon three cabaret songs for the statuesque Sheila Ramani to oh-so-gracefully shimmy to in Taxi Driver (1954). In the superb torch song Dil jale toh jale Sheila tries to seduce Dev Anand onscreen and she is abetted by Lata oozing sensuality.

Aye meri zindagi is a heady mix of seduction and philosophy (Aaj hai duniya teri, jhoom le o matwale) and Dil se milake dil pyar keejiye is an exhilarating club song with a western beat.

While Lata sang these numbers with effortless ease, she wasn’t predisposed towards such songs. In fact, lore has it that Lata was reluctant to sing the cheesy faux cabaret number Main kaa karoon Ram mujhe budda mil gaya even for the venerable Raj Kapoor in his blockbuster Sangam (1964).

The scene had actresses Vyjayanthimala recreating a Folies Bergere cabaret in a hotel room while on a Parisian honeymoon with hubby Raj Kapoor.

Once Lata relented, she gave it all. Whoever says that saucy numbers are not Lata’s forte should listen to this number and marvel at Vyjayanthimala’s moves as well as Lata’s naughty nuances.

India’s cabaret queen Helen is not really associated with Lata…it was Asha Bhosle who gave playback for most of her hits. But Lata has lent voice to the danseuse for some famous songs.

The Indian dance number Oui maa Oui maa in Parasmani was within Lata’s comfort zone but the singer has also vocalised with verve and vivacity more rumbustious dance numbers for Helen like Gham chhod ke manao rangrali from Gumnaam (hands down, my favourite Helen number) and Jhameela from Night In London (Lata’s play on the word ‘Jhameela’ is tantalising).

This pair hit its acme with the famous cabaret from the 1969 hit Intequam — Aa jaane jaan. Hear Lata croon ‘la la la la’ in the interlude and you will realise that Lata can dazzle in any genre.

Drinking songs

Intequam had another famous atypical Lata song — Kaise rahoo chup ki maine pee hi kya hai. In this revenge drama, the leading lady Sadhana feigns to be drunk to humiliate her fiancé Sanjay Khan’s father Rehman. Sadhana kicks up her heels in the song (literally throwing off her sandals while dancing) and Lata serves a cocktail of gay abandon and jeering.

When she mockingly sings, Jo maine pee toh kyun nasha utar gaya huzoor ka…tch tch tch, you can’t help but grin at the audaciousness conveyed through her voice.

Two years earlier, Lata had sung another drinking song for Sadhana which was not as popular but which is a favourite of mine — Kareeb aa from Raj Khosla’s Anita (1967). Hear this number kareeb se, and you will marvel at the way Lata’s voice intermittently ebbs and rises, as mesmerising as the visual of Sadhana swaying on a bar stool.

Lata repeated her drunken act a few years later for Hema Malini in Seeta Aur Geeta when she sang Haanji haan maine sharaab pee hai but I am partial to her rendition of Mohabbat mein aise kadam dagmagaye zamaana yeh samjha hum peeke aayein for Bina Rai in Anarkali.

She punctuates the song with hiccups that heighten the intoxicating flavour of Ramchandra’s composition. Lata has done her fair share of seduction songs too — Victoria No 203’s Thodasa thehro, Kartavya’s Doori na rahe koi, Lahu Ke Do Rang’s Zidd na karo or Raaste Pyar Ke’s Yeh waqt na kho jaaye.

A few years back a new wave of licentiousness breezed in with the videos of remixed songs like Thoda resham lagta hai and Bangale ke peeche — tellingly, both were originally sung by Lata. Lata may have given the disco era a wide berth (save for the stray Disco 82) but don’t pigeonhole her as strait-laced.

When the occasion demanded, Lata could spring surprises. I, for one, would have loved to have been present at the Bobby recording when Raj Kapoor and Laxmikant Pyarelal explained the Aruna Irani song Uska chhoota gharbaar to Lata Mangeshkar. And she, with her saree wrapped conceivably around her shoulders, cut loose with: Ayyyyyye phansa!