'Kishore Kumar: The Ultimate Biography': An Honest Account of a Legendary Artist

The book underlines the deep respect Kishore Kumar had for his mentors - K L Saigal, Khem Chand Prakash, S D Burman.

12 min read
Hindi Female

Celebrities usually get hagiographies, but 'Kishore Kumar: The Ultimate Biography'  is no ordinary biography; it is, in fact, a deep dive into the mind of an extraordinary artist who excelled in six aspects of cinema -singing, composing music, acting, writing, directing, and production. And an enthusiastic photographer, to boot!

The best of artists are vulnerable and often hide behind masks; Kishore Kumar was no exception.

This biography tries to explain his odd behaviour. Why he could come across as miserly at some times, and generous to a fault at others. What irked him, what pushed his buttons.  

It will become clear to the reader that self-respect was most important factor in his personality, which explains his run-ins with authority, such as the All India Radio ban during the Emergency, and why he sometimes rudely snubbed people.There was the time he walked out of Mehboob studios when producer-director Mehboob Khan's son Iqbal interrupted Kishore’s recording session with pointless suggestions. 

The book’s sweeping agenda covers all his relationships. It underlines the deep respect Kishore had for his mentors - K L Saigal, Khem Chand Prakash, S D Burman.

It discusses at length his relationship with his older brother, friend, philosopher and guide Ashok Kumar, and his love for his mother, the most important person in his life. The book also sheds light upon his four wives -Ruma(Guha-Thakurta) ,Madhu(Madhubala),Yogita(Bali) and Leena(Chandavarkar); each of these relationships being precious to him. It stops to take a look at his bond with his children as well.

The book underlines the deep respect Kishore Kumar had for his mentors - K L Saigal, Khem Chand Prakash, S D Burman.

The cover of 


'Arey lelo, ji lelo, hai yeh dil ka heera sachcha'

The book is an exhaustive journey into the life and times of Kishore Kumar of Khandwa (a town in Madhya Pradesh), from birth to death, and is rich with anecdotes from Kishore’s life. That will be very welcome for Kishore fans, because not much is known about the personal life of this great artist owing to his proclivity for shunning publicity.His bizarre behaviour on sets didn’t earn him any brownie points with the media either, and so he probably ended up getting a little lower coverage than contemporaries of his stature in the industry.Take for instance, the time when Kishore was supposed to drive a car for a scene, and he ended up driving all the way to Khandala because the director  didn’t say “Cut!”.

The Pritish Nandy interview for The Illustrated Weekly of India published in 1985, helped set the record straight to some extent. For once, readers got an opportunity to understand the method behind Kishore’s madness.

Sample this –“If he(the interior decorator who had come to sell some fancy ideas to Kishore for his home) can wear a woollen, three-piece suit in the height of summer, why can’t I hang live crows on my walls?”. Amin Sayani’s radio interview, where Kishore the judge grilled Kishore the artist about his idiosyncrasies, was another occasion when admirers of his craft got a window into his mind.

The painstaking research done by the authors, which includes visits to Khandwa, Bhagalpur and Indore to talk to friends, family members and old teachers, and numerous interviews with old colleagues, help us to de-mystify the man who many consider to be “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” (to paraphrase Churchill's famous words).

The book underlines the deep respect Kishore Kumar had for his mentors - K L Saigal, Khem Chand Prakash, S D Burman.

The book is an exhaustive journey into the life and times of Kishore Kumar.

(Photo courtesy: Twitter)

Bit-by-bit the book helps recreate the celebrity singer who lived and worked in a bustling metropolis, but at heart was a small-town boy who, till his dying day, longed for the open vistas of Khandwa. His favourite greeting,  a legacy of his Khandwa days when he enjoyed simple pleasures with his childhood friends, was - “Aahe badhiya khale karari gajak”- come, lets enjoy some crisp, delicious gajak (a winter snack made of jaggery and nuts). Reminds one of Saadat Hassan Manto and his actor friend Shyam cheering each other with “Hiptollah!” whenever they were happy.


Kuchh toh log kahenge, logon ka kaam hai kehna

During my growing up years, likely the same as those of the co-authors, I recall a  very clear hierarchy when it came to music; shastriya sangeet or classical music was considered infinitely superior to film music, which was patronisingly called sugam sangeet (easy listening).

Kishore’s contemporaries like Mohd Rafi and Manna Dey were considered “serious”artists, whereas Kishore was considered the untrained jack of all trades, master of none.“Kishore Kumar classical jaanena” (KK doesn't know classical music) was the refrain in Calcutta and this characterization of his travelled from there to Bombay as well.

The man was dismissed by some among the elite bhadralok of Calcutta as a representative of "Apasanskriti"(inferior culture),despite the fact that his admirers came to include Pt Bhimsen Joshi, Kumar Gandharva and Ajoy Chakraborty.

But then, Kishore was a humble,down-to-earth man who never took his own talent seriously. At the height of his career in early 80s, he fell at the feet of Pt Ravi Sankar after listening to his concert, lamenting, "Panditji, kichhu sheekhte parlaam naa" (Panditji,I have learnt nothing). 

Perhaps the fact that Kishore dabbled in different aspects of film-making such as acting and directing, made music directors doubt his sincerity towards playback singing.But Kishore wouldn’t give a damn about making a good impression.He always followed his heart.Looked down upon by purists from Bombay film industry (one of the older film music directors is said to have dismissed the music of 70s as being all about "Pancham's music and Kishore's singing "), Kishore wasn't exactly welcome in Bengal either. He was considered a nausikhiya (beginner) who didn't know Rabindra Sangeet (the songs of Tagore).

Had Kishore been image conscious, we wouldn’t have been treated to characters like Munna from Half Ticket or Vidyapati from Padosan, because the best of comedy in cinema comes when actors are left free to improvise on the sets. It is well known that Kishore was inspired by Hollywood greats such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, both of whom had terrific comic timing ,a lot of which came from ad-libbing on the sets and inventing stuff on the go.

Kishore set new standards of slapstick and physical comedy in Half Ticket;he even accomplished the difficult task of switching between a male and a female voice in the song –Aake seedhi lagi dil pe.Among the half-dozen madcap characters in Padosan, Kishore’s Vidyapati was the  maddest and most endearing. “Arey bangdu”,his term of endearment for Bhola played by Sunil Dutt,has come to occupy a special place in the film buff’s vocabulary.

The book underlines the deep respect Kishore Kumar had for his mentors - K L Saigal, Khem Chand Prakash, S D Burman.

Kishore Kumar in Padosan.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

That was classic Kishore for you; he followed no rules, recognized no boundaries. And that is why film audiences loved him with all their heart. There wasn't a trace of duplicity in the man-what you saw was what you got. He didn’t care that he sometimes appeared to be a  crazy, unreasonable man; was even seen a conservative male chauvinist who was always competing with Lata Mangeshkar for a place in the sun, when he did stunts like asking for Re1 more than the diva in some playback songs just to score a point. (The truth is that two shared a warm relationship; after all they shared a mentor Khemchand Prakash who was the one who gave them a break and pushed the film industry into accepting this talented duo despite great initial resistance).

The book covers the many allegations of petty rivalry and one-upmanship between Kishore-Lata or Kishore-Rafi, and shows these up as baseless. 

It's a pity that people don't understand the concept of friendly competition. They notice Kishore being miffed that the only major award he received was named after his contemporary Lata (the Lata Mangeshkar award ,which was instituted by the Madhya Pradesh Government),while neglecting the fact that Lata had to be administered sedatives, so shocked was she the day Kishore died. People gloss over the fact that Rafi and Kishore had a very warm relationship, that they often bonded over good food. Few know that Kishore sat shell- shocked by Rafi's body on the day Rafi died. The two not only sang around 40 duets(excluding songs which had other singers than these two), but Mohd Rafi actually gave playback singing for Kishore the actor, in around 10 songs, in films such as Shararat,Bhagam Bhaag etc.

The book underlines the deep respect Kishore Kumar had for his mentors - K L Saigal, Khem Chand Prakash, S D Burman.

Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

Another popular myth demolished is the one that Manna Dey, Kishore's senior, was miffed at being made to lose to Kishore in the Padosan competition song, “Ek Chatur naar”. The truth, as the authors explain, was that Manna Dey quietly watched Kishore ad-lib on Pancham's request, and ended up marvelling at Kishore's enterprise and knack for enlivening the song with his impromptu “Oh tedhe,seedhe ho ja re”(straighten up, you crooked chap)etc. Contrary to popular opinion,Kishore Kumar mocking Mehmood's character with "Arey dekhi teri chaturayi, tujhe sur ki samajh nahi aayi" (you stand exposed, you know nothing about musical notes)was said in jest and not meant a challenge to Manna Dey (who gave the playback for Mehmood).Kishore’s intention, as always, was only to ensure that his friend Mehmood's film was successful.


'Ankhon main tum, dil main tum ho' 

Kishore neglected the beautiful Madhubala when she needed him the most – that’s another trope that commonly circulates in informal Bollywood histories. The book reveals, in fact, that Kishore was a  devoted lover and husband to Madhubala.Their romance started around 1957, and they got married in 1960. Madhubala married Kishore out of various suitors because her “pagla”(innocent madcap) made her laugh. 

The book underlines the deep respect Kishore Kumar had for his mentors - K L Saigal, Khem Chand Prakash, S D Burman.

Kishore Kumar and Madhubala got married in 1960.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

In turn, he looked after his “hoor-pari”(angel, fairy) devotedly till her very last breath.Kishore spent nearly nine years constantly by her side till Madhubala’s death in February,1969. As per the authors, during most of this time, she was so sick that the couple could enjoy no intimacy at all, her fragile heart couldn’t take the excitement.Imagine the state of mind of the caregiver in this miserable scenario; surely it must have taken a toll on Kishore’s mental health.

At heart,Kishore was a small-town, conservative male who wanted an ardhangini (better half) all his life and went through three unsuccessful marriages trying to get one. His own song "Zaroorat hai zaroorat hai ik shrimati ki, kalawati ki, sewa kare jo pati ki" (I need a talented,dutiful wife who will serve her husband selflessly) seems tailor-made for him. Luckily he found that soulmate in Leena Chandavarkar, his fourth and last wife.
In his book Ganje Farishte, Sadat Hassan Manto criticizes Ashok for being “berukha”(heartless) towards his female admirers. Unlike his older brother,Kishore never saw that kind of adulation as an actor, although his films were quite successful and ran parallel to the films of the holy trinity of Dev, Raj and Dilip. 

He was always the “maskhara”, the joker, the court jester. And like many jokers, melancholy laybehind the façade. That loneliness shone through  -when Kishore expressed his saddest emotions through his own compositions for films he directed, such as “Beqaraar dil,tu gaye ja” (oh restless heart, keep singing) for Door Ka Raahi(1971).Or “Aa chal ke tujhe main leke chaloon” (let me take you into a better world) in Door Gagan ki Chhaon Men(1964).

The Ganguly brothers
This book is an important piece of film history and should preferably be read in conjunction with Dadamoni written by Nabendu Ghosh, which was recently re-printed with a foreword by Ashok Kumar's daughter Bharati Jaffrey (sadly she passed away within a month of release of this book). Together, these two books will help a film enthusiast appreciate the depth of contribution by the Khandwa-wale Ganguly brothers to Hindi cinema.

While Dadamoni focuses on the rise and rise of Ashok Kumar,the Kishore Kumar biography explains how Kishore’s career was effectively controlled by his older brother for the longest time.

In fact it amazes me how Ashok had his younger brother’s life in such a tight stranglehold; how he was able to get away with  constantly interfering in Kishore’s professional as well as personal life for the longest time. Perhaps it was out of a misplaced sense of gratitude (the elders-know-best kind that is typical among Indian families )-that Kishore never quite rebelled against his brother.

The book underlines the deep respect Kishore Kumar had for his mentors - K L Saigal, Khem Chand Prakash, S D Burman.
The Ganguly brothers - Kishore, Ashok and Anoop.
(Photo courtesy: Facebook/ kishoredasinger)

Kishore did take an occasional  decision without consulting his brother,like marrying his first wife Ruma Guha Thakurta (Ashok was bitterly opposed to the marriage till the birth of Kishore's son Amit) ,but when it came to his career, it seems Ashok made him dance like a puppet on a string endlessly. 

Would Kishore's career have been better without Ashok's interference? Perhaps not, because Ashok was one of the founding fathers of the Hindi film industry and his network definitely opened the doors for Kishore. On second thoughts, being identified with the Ashok Kumar camp is likely to have cost Kishoresome good opportunities of working with rival banners,especiallyin the 50s and the 60s . That’s a topic for another book, perhaps.

Gaata rahe mera dil: Kishore and Lata 

The songs of Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar have been an integral part of the growing up experience of four generations of Indians .“Kishore”, after all,means youth. And his voice remained fittingly youthful till the end;the voice of a virile man ,as Lata Mangeshkar once called him,and the perfect foil to her own sweet,virginal voice.

The book underlines the deep respect Kishore Kumar had for his mentors - K L Saigal, Khem Chand Prakash, S D Burman.

Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar.

(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

The two singers sang approximately 300 duets, most of which were super hits. This number doesn’t include tandem songs they sang ,such as “Rimjhim girey saawan”(Manzil), or “Khilte hain gul yahaan” (Sharmilee) or “Mere naina sawan -bhadon”(Mehbooba). Actually the Kishore -Lata phenomenon is not difficult to decipher. Both of them ruled the airwaves during a time when romance was a very important ingredient of films. Kishore was the voice of the dashing lover/husband, while Lata was the voice of the virtuous lover/wife. Beginning with the 50s, when Dev was romancing women in every film, this romantic phase peaked in the 60s and the 70s, with Aradhana proving to be a landmark. 

Hey, kitne sapne, kitne armaan laya hoon main,dekho na

Kishore became synonymous with Rajesh Khanna after Aradhana. Then came other actors like Shashi Kapoor, Rishi Kapoor and finally Amitabh Bachchan, who dominated the film industry at a time(the 1980s) when melody didn’t matter. It’s remarkable how Kishore modified his tone and tenor to match the unique personality of each of these actors. Kishore sang some really mediocre songs too during the 80s, which he clearly regretted. These songs were typically recorded for South-based “quickie” productions, usually remade from the original Telugu or Tamil films. RD Burman also went through a low phase during the same phase, during which Kishore’s songs were picturized on Jeetendra (“Ek Aankh Maroon toh", Tohfa) and occasionally a pot bellied Rajesh Khanna (“O Devi, O baby”, Maqsad), music for both films was composed by Bappi Lahiri. But the two friends kept their heads through this rather poor decade for  film music, even delivering some memorable songs for films such as Shaan (“Janu meri jaan”), Shakti (“Jane kaise kab kahan”) and Kaalia (“Tum saath ho jab apne”, “Jahan teri yeh nazarhai”).

Achha to hum chalte hain…

Coming back to Lata and Kishore, we Indians have been fortunate enough to hear Lata Mangeshkar’s voice through various stages of her life, from the sweet voice of a teenager in Mahal (“Aaye gaaane wala”) to  the mature voice of a married woman in Libaas (“Khamosh saa fasana”). We also enjoyed several non-film albums of Lata. We were not so lucky with Kishore.

He did some Pujo (Durga Puja) albums quite late in life; it was only in the 80s that stiff upper lip Bengalis accepted that he could sing Rabindra Sangeet, despite the fact that Kishore had sung “Ami chini go chini” for Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964), as well as "Bidhir Badhon" in Ghare Baire(1984), both films being based on Tagore’s short stories. 

The other difference between Lata and Kishore’s professional trajectory is that Lata, who was rightly called the Nightingale of India, was awarded the highest civilian honour in the country, the Bharat Ratna, whereas  Kishore Kumar was denied even a Padmashree, ostensibly for reasons of alleged tax evasion. He didn’t win any national award either.

 The inherent biases in the minds of people against the untrained singer Kishore, I dare say, exist even today. People don’t appreciate the struggles every artist goes through.Success didn’t come easily to either Lata or Kishore; both of them worked hard to master playback singing and establish their respective positions in the film industry. It’s to the credit of both singers that their melodies sound fresh even five decades after these were first recorded and released.

Whether it is “Kaali palak teri gori” (Do Chor) or “Diwana kar ke chhodoge” (Mere Jeevan Saathi),or "Aasman ke neeche" (Jewel Thief), I suspect Kishore-Lata songs will continue to be the perfect pick-me-up to kick start a dull winter morning, for several generations of Indians to come.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Topics:  Kishore Kumar   Lata Mangeshkar 

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