MUMBAI — On July 31, 41 years will have elapsed since Hindi cinema’s greatest playback singer Mohammed Rafi passed on. The highest-recorded male singer in Hindi cinema (he also sang in multiple Indian languages, as well as in English!), however, not only is still loved to the point of veneration but also remains relevant today.
Sonu Nigam and Udit Narayan can be considered the principal beacons of the Mohammed Rafi School of Playback Singing. These trained singers have walked the tightrope between following Rafi’s versatile and unaffected style of singing and perpetuating his memories without imitating the master singer. The many clones are another chapter altogether, and have been there since Rafi’s exit in the 1980s!
Composers as varied as Rajesh Roshan, Anu Malik and Nadeem-Shravan (all of whom also worked with Rafi), Anand-Milind and Jatin-Lalit and many more music makers gave us innumerable delights that suggested Rafi, recalled Rafi or craved for Rafi in the sense that they seemed to be made for him.
What else were scores like Rajesh Roshan’s “Koi…Mil Gaya,” Anu Malik’s “Border” and “Refugee,” Jatin-Lalit’s “Sangharsh,” Nadeem-Shravan’s “Tumse Accha Kaun Hai,” Anand-Milind’s “Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak” and “Dil” and even Ismail Darbar’s “Deewangee,” Sajid-Wajid’s “Kya Yehi Pyaar Hai” and “Mujhse Shaadi Karogi” and Sandesh Shandilya’s “Socha Na Tha?”
And who other than Rafi could be conceived as inspiration for songs like Rajesh Roshan’s “Ghar Se Nikalti Hi” (“Papa Kehte Hain”), Anu Malik’s title-track from “Main Hoon Na” or Pritam’s “Falak Dekhoon” (“Garam Masala”)?
And if ever some technology is developed whereby the exact voice of a past artiste can be put on a modern tune, the voice of Mohammed Rafi will dominate as much as it did from the ‘50s to the early ‘80s!
Because the ground reality is strong enough to motivate thought in that direction. In the last few years alone, dozens of songs across various composers seem to crave for Rafi, or give reasonable, if not certain, reasons to suggest that Rafi looms large even in the psyche of young composers.
So is it a subconscious desire to work with Rafi that makes a Pritam, as late as in fusion-infested 2010, compose the intense “Phir Mujhe Dil Beqaraar” (“Toh Baat Pakki”)? What was A.R. Rahman thinking of when he made the almost Naushad-like “Qismat Se Tum Humse Mile Ho” in “Pukar” and the haunting “Do Qadam” in “Meenaxi – A Tale Of Four Cities” besides the songs of “Jodhaa Akbar” like “Kehne Ko Jashn-E-Bahaaraa Hai”? Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s “Tanhayee” from “Dil Chahta Hai” and “Kal Ho Naa Ho”’s title-track and Aadesh Shrivastava’s “Mora Piya” (“Raajneeti”) all seem tailor-made for Rafi, and whether this is by intent or default does not really matter. Rafi is clearly rooted in these creations’ subconscious!
All that this shows it that Rafi remains perennial in more than just the musical legacy he has left behind. As its singer KK put it succinctly, “I loved the Mohammed Rafi-like vibe of my “Dil Kyun Yeh Mera” in Rajesh Roshan’s “Kites!””
The late Aadesh Shrivastava, who had had the good luck to meet Rafi and play on his songs under several senior composers, had put it simply, “Every song I compose has Rafi-saab’s ‘gaayaki’ (art of singing) and Kishore-da’s feel somewhere within my subconscious mind. And by ‘gaayaki’ I mean his sharp ‘harkatein’ (modulations) and everything else. His harkatein would be as sharp as the edge of a sword.”
He had added, “If you say “Mora Piya” had that ambience, I agree completely. And my semi-classical “Baawri Piya Ki” (Baghban) was made with him in mind 101 per cent! Ravi Chopra, my director, and I discussed this song—and how much we thought, ‘Kaash! Agar yeh gaana Rafisaab gaate (Wouldn’t it have been great if Rafi had sung this)!’ though Sonu Nigam was brilliant. The song in my mind’s eye when I composed this one was Rafi-saab’s “Tu Ganga Ki Mauj” from “Baiju Bawra.” Whenever Rafi-saab would go high-pitched in a song and take a sapaat (broad) taan (note), incredibly his expression quotient would not change or get compromised. There was no showmanship – it was all so natural – and beautiful.”
Shantanu Moitra agrees that Rafi is in-built in the composers’ psyche. “These are schools that we have to study to compose for Hindi cinema, and regardless of favorites, we have to look at all the various schools like Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and so on. I had Rafi-saab in mind straightaway in two scores of mine, in addition to other songs in many films – “Parineeta” and “Khoya Khoya Chand.” These are virtually my tributes to him!” Of course, the Nigam numbers from “3 Idiots” are another reminder of Rafi, especially “Zooby Zooby.”
He adds, “For the song “O Re Paakhi” from the latter, the song that came to mind was Rafi-saab’s “Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye” from “Pyaasa.” In this song, the sequence has a crowd, but Rafi-saab managed the difficult job of sounding lonely, as he was supposed to, as if he was oblivious of the musicians and everything else. I have also been told that Rafi-saab would always want to know who the actor was and about the character, so that he modulated his voice. This is a quality that needs to be emulated by today’s singers – to change from a “Tu Ganga Ki Mauj” to a song for Johnny Walker and sound equally apt! This can only happen when you give your 100 per cent to each song.” Shantanu recalls Nigam and him discussing this classic and Rafi a lot.
Sajid, of the Sajid-Wajid duo, declares that you do not have to keep Rafi-saab in your mind at all. “Woh zahan mein na hokar bhi zahan mein rehte hi hain (He remains in your subconscious even when you do not consciously remember him)!” “Kya Yehi Pyaar Hai,” especially the title-track and the songs of “Mujhse Shaadi Karogi” clearly demonstrated this. Even when we compose a “Saanchi Saanchi Nazar” for “Dabangg” or “Meherbaniyaan” and “Taali Maar De” in “Veer,” we somewhere have within our minds the quality Rafi-saab imparted to his songs – which could be called the quality of a screen hero. The genius of Rafi-saab lay in also understanding a song, and the character. There are good singers today, but they must master this art.”
Shekhar Ravjiani of Vishal-Shekhar also agrees with his colleagues. “He would get the song perfect. Vishal and I make songs that we always think could be sung by both Rafi and Kishore. But paradoxically, I do not understand the term ‘Rafi’s style.’ What IS that? Rafi could sing any song, and has done so! We terribly missed him especially in “Aankhon Mein Teri” and “Main Agar Kahoon” in “Om Shanti Om.” We have fantastic singers around, but Rafi-saab would have taken these songs to the skies!” The composer forgot to mention another of their Rafi-esque numbers—“Falka Tak Chal Saath Mere” from “Tashan.”
The last word comes from Himesh Reshammiya, who has composed the Rafi-like ace “Tum Chain Ho Qaraar Ho” in the just-released “Milenge Milenge.” “Rafi-saab would have rocked even today. A song like “Chura Liya Hai Tumne” from “Yaadon Ki Baraat” can give a run to any chartbuster today. I have had four or five stages in my career so far, in terms of the kind of music I composed, and the first two stages are completely Mohammed Rafi, till perhaps “Tere Naam” and even a bit beyond, when I used Udit Narayan-ji and Sonu-ji a lot. Legends like Rafi-saab are our roots, our inspirations.”
Clearly, Rafi is not yesterday’s legend but the forever “voice”. His treasury will live on, but he will also continue to shape and influence film music for ever. Even in the overdrive of Punjabi music, he will be the obvious choice for songs as heady as “Teri Mitti” from “Kesari” or “Pashmina” (“Fitoor”)—apart from many others, even in this multi-composer era.