In the company of Jack Daniels on the rocks and cinnamon pretzels, it was 3:30-ish am, close to the witching hour, even in New York.
Star guest Padmini Kolhapure, orchestra instrumentalists, stage managers, human spoons and the lone accompanying journo (my good self) were there, a bulging part and parcel of the monumental Lata Mangeshkar-Kishore Kumar world road show, circa 1985.
Under the influence of Siberia sized pegs of Daniels, a majority of the party was high as kites. Dizzied, I saw skyscrapers toppling, baseball mittens zooming into our cackling faces, Marilyn Monroe oddly breaking into an Odissi. Unreal, surreal, whichever. That’s when she entered, and advised coolly, “Continue, continue, I do not mind you people drinking. Enjoy!”
Freeze! Instantaneously we felt like so many Dennis the Menaces caught raiding the Hilton Hotel’s bar by Mr Wilson. She had that effect, still does. She can rehab drunks instantly, she can turn ordinary verses into Shakespearean sonnets, and she can wisecrack with a straight face,“I thought love is blind…but the way that music composer was promoting that playback singer, proves love is deaf too.” Unbeknownst to many, Lata didi – as her sobriquet goes – is wit personified.
To date, she’s mega-amused that Raj Kapoor once offered her the lead role in Satyam Shivam Sundaram. The micro-saris she would have to wear made her balk. The showman was evidently asked, “Tabiyat theek toh hai na Raj saab?” The role was next offered to Hema Malini, who turned a darker shade of red on seeing the wardrobe design.
Next Zeenat Aman was pencilled and you should see the metaphorical saga on the theme of “there’s no beauty without a beautiful soul,” highlighted by Laxmikant-Pyarelal’s outstanding music score. Needless to inform, Lata didi rendered the playback for quite a few of the memorable songs including, the title track, Bhor Gaye Panghat Pe, Saiyan Nikas Gaye and Yashomati Maiye Se Bole Nandlala.
Pardon the digression. Back right away to the New York Hilton, then. She chatted musically into the weeniest hours as every one of us, whiskying at Manhattan’s Hilton bar, hid every cigarette pack under the table, switched to fruit cocktails (non-alcoholic), and put on faces of Botticelli’s angels. Didi commands respect as a real-life didi would.
Clearly, Lata Mangeshkar was in the mood to chat up the music concert caravan. Just a few hours ago, the show at the enormous Madison Square Gardens had been a sell-out, the audience had clapped, wept and ooh-aahed at the Mangeshkarian melodies. But, but, but, Kishore Kumar was sulking in his suite.
When Kishore Kumar was performing solo, Madison’s revolving stage had spun so fast that the genius singer had almost lost his balance and his vocal pitch. His spoons whispered that they suspected Lataji of tampering with the stage speed. Consequence: he was katti with her.
She asked us sombrely, “Would I ever do something like that? Has a mad dog bitten me or what? Neither he nor I are quite fond of the song Chai Pe Bulaya Hai (from Souten) but we both agreed to perform it on stage since the audience expects us to. There can never be any problems between us,” and then smiled that dentist delight of a smile, “Kishoreji will be fine tomorrow.” By the way, it is said that all her 32 teeth are in perfect shape to date, a fact confirmed to me lately by didi herself.
Next morning, Kishore Kumar and she had a chat, declared undying admiration for each other and patched up. Very buddy buddy, Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar winged off to Montreal. I stayed back, eager to worm my way through the Big Apple.
Lataji had asked, “Are you sure? Jack Daniels toh Canada mein bhi milega.” In her eyes, I was a boozard already. Seeing my face fall like a parachutist’s, she comforted me, “Arrre, aap to bura maan gaye. I was only joking.”
Now at this point you might ask why I’m recalling the whisky night of the eclectic 1980s? Simply because I love Lata Mangeshkar. She may not have adopted me as her Journalist No 1, at times she may have avoided phone calls and chat fests. That’s because she has been innately cautious about the press types, apprehensive that they will exacerbate the simmering rivalry with her sister Asha Bhosle, or disparage her voice. Naysayers may grouse. Yet didi’s vocals in her latter-career-days, Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Veer-Zaara, were dreamy.
The trouble (or joy) is whatever Lata didi does, she’s boss. She has been with us on the darkest and brightest days, she has stood by all her watan ke logon.
As an interviewer, I’ve been stonewalled occasionally. Her answers go… yes, no, maybe, maybe not, jee hanh, jee nahin, will you have something thanda? She can be icy as the sharbat that materialises on a wooden tray. On a camera interview I did for a TV show produced by Dilip Kumar and Saira Banu, she was tight-lipped.
The question about her personal favourites from her repertoire was a hackneyed one, admittedly, asked a gazillion times over. At most she specified that the song – Ek Haseen Nigaah Se from Maya Memsaab - composed by her brother Hridaynath, was her most underrated track. I gave up, understanding that it’s not essential for artistes to be consistently gifted in the quotable quotes.
It’s another story that she can drip vitriol and crack salty jokes when she’s with people she trusts. One of her family members tells me that she has dressed up all her Filmfare trophies in costumes ranging from Hawaiian hula skirts to Kanjeevaram saris.
She covered up the trophies because she doesn’t want nude women hanging around her drawing room! Cute.
I moved on. As it happened in 2000, I had to request her if she would do the playback for a song for a film project of mine. The composer, Anu Malik, cited her fee, which was beyond the film’s budget. Nervously, I told her that, and she knotted up her face, “I wasn’t going to take a rupee from you anyway.” I felt a 100 feet tall, but the privilege of getting Lata Mangeshkar to sing for me was squandered. The composer had recorded the track with another singer. My loss.
I haven’t met Lata Mangeshkar since, only conversed briefly or lengthily over the phone. I pass by Prabhu Kunj on Peddar Road every day, wondering how she lives cheek by jowl to the whizzing traffic. Around 2006, she had threatened, “I will leave Mumbai” if a flyover was built on Peddar Road, which followed outrage from vested political interests. Today, the proposed flyover is a distant memory.
On her 92nd birthday for me there will always be the Lata Mangeshkar who froze us without intending to, with her voice and presence one Jack Daniels night.
(This story is from The Quint's archives, and is being republished to mark Lata Mangeshkar's birthday.)
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