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May 18, 1998


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How a great voice was stilled

Talat Mehmood. Click for bigger pic!
Talat Mehmood, of the rich and mellow voice, had a fan following that was more musically aware than those of his contemporaries.

Born in Lucknow, his father was a good singer as were his sisters. But coming from a conservative Muslim background, singing was not encouraged. Talat had to choose between a career in acting and singing and staying at home. He opted for the former, though the family accepted the fact only about a decade later when the industry gained respectability.

After a three-year course in music, he came to Bombay and did some broadcasting before composer Anil Biswas gave him his first break.

Talat acted in a few films, but preferred singing. And when singers arrived who shifted easily between bass and soprano, he could not keep up -- his voice didn't allow it. He sang few songs after that.

Naushad Ali, the legendary composer, was very close to him. Talat and he came upon the new kind of music together. While Naushad adjusted to the new realities, he admits Talat had his problems.

Still, this was also the time Talat began battling with Parkinson's disease. He couldn't sing any more and his career came to a standstill. Naushad remembers Talat the legend and recalls how that rich voice was silenced.

Talat Mehmood with Suraiya. Click for bigger pic!
The only way to describe Talatsaab is to say that he had a silky voice. I have always said this to everybody who asked me. His voice never suited loud songs, songs that demanded a high-pitched voice. Shouting or screaming didn't suit him and so he avoided those kinds of songs too. He only sang soft, romantic, lyrical, ghazals.

His nature was a quiet one. He was a decent man and his voice reflected that decency and sense of calm. When you listen to him, you get the feeling he's a soft-hearted man. Because one's character reflects one's art too.

He lived in Lucknow and brought the culture of that place with him. He accorded the same respect to everybody and left a lasting impression. He always smiled, never speaking loudly. I never heard him say anything bad about others. Whenever I went to see him while he was sick, he always welcomed me with a smile on his face. He must have been laughing at the last moment too, I'm sure.

He was a legend in the industry. He acted in many films but stopped because it didn't really suit his temperament. We also made films from my production house, Uran Khatola, Babul and Malik, the last with Suraiya. But he really didn't like acting much.

Legends like him aren't born everyday and when they do their place can't be filled by anybody. Like K L Saigal, Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh... Nobody can fill their places. Where ghazals were concerned, Talat had the same stature as Begum Akhtar.

Naushad. Click for bigger pic!
In Calcutta, he acted in a few films and sang in Bengali too. But he sang just one ghazal and was an instant hit in Bombay. And throughout his career, though he sang many film songs, he was more famous for his ghazals. For my film Babul I made him do the playback for all the songs sung by Dilip Kumar. Talat may not have got the same respect for the film that I did, but I definitely benefited from his singing.

I was working in Kardar Productions in the fifties and Talatsaab had come to meet director Nitin Bose's assistant at whose home he was staying. That is where I met him first.

He met Anil Biswas first when he came down from Calcutta. I was making a film Palkhi and I thought of asking Talatsaab to sing a song. The song was recorded and picturised. My partner, the director, who died before the film was complete. Another director came in and demanded that the song should be sung by Rafi and not Talat. I told him the song was already picturised, but he wouldn't listen saying Rajendra Kumar, the hero, wanted Rafi to sing for him.

Talatsaab was very angry with me. He felt humiliated. I explained what had happened, telling him I was under a contract and didn't have any say in the matter. It happened again with another film, Aadmi. There was a song involving Dilip Kumar and Manoj Kumar, and I asked Talat to sing for Manoj.

This film was almost finished when the producer told me that Manoj Kumar wanted Mahendra Kapoor to sing for him. Again, I explained to Talatsaab, but this time he smiled and hugged me saying that it didn't matter anymore.

Talat Mehmood. Click for bigger pic!
His voice didn't suit the new songs of the time, loud, harsh and demanding a great deal of shouting. Which may be why the heroes didn't like him singing for them.

His voice had transparency, it was silky. It was not that he didn't want to sing the new kind of song. He was successful in the sense that he won't be forgotten. His songs have a audience and they will keep his memory alive. Because of his disease, he couldn't sing. He wasn't well those days. Still he was okay with me and understood the situation.

After a few months, HMV wanted me to cut a private album and I thought that I should ask Talatsaab to sing the songs. Unfortunately, he began falling ill often and we couldn't do it together. His voice became more unsteady as Parkinson's disease advanced. And he couldn't sit straight or talk clearly.

He stopped singing and avoided stage shows. He slowly found it difficult to say anything. He became very dejected and stopped going anywhere. He would remain in his house the whole day. He got trapped in his dejection, his sadness. That worsened his health and he kept going down. But he never showed it. He would be smiling. People knew he was heart-broken, but they respected his silence on the subject.

He had a good character and, despite being in this line, was never involved in any scandals. His daughter and son were very respectful to him.

His conservative parents had objected to him becoming a singer though they also were musical people. Things only began improving when people from respectable families started joining the industry. He didn't discourage his son from singing either.

Financially, he was well situated, though not rich. He signed a deal for his building with the Rahejas and invested the money wisely. Still, people go away, but memories remain. And I believe that they are never forgotten though the image might fade away. I will end by saying: "Sunne wale, meri awaaz to suni, dil bhi toota hai mera, uski bhi jhankar suni."

As told to Sharmila Taliculam

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