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The Enigma called Kishore Kumar

Last updated on: August 11, 2009 

Image: Kishore Kumar

The legendary Kishore Kumar gave us some of the best songs and performances in his long career in Bollywood. The legend, who would have turned 80 years old on August 4, will always be remembered for his contribution to cinema. And for the enigma that he remained until the end.

We present an excerpt from Kishore Kumar: Method In Madness -- penned by Derek Bose -- where the legend truly comes alive in the pages. Read on:

For a man who had endured so many storms in life, Kishore Kumar kept a surprisingly cheerful front in public. Nobody outside his immediate family ever saw him grieving over a personal misfortune or crying on anybody's shoulders.

He was always a man of the masses -- a jovial, happy-go-lucky, though somewhat of a scatterbrain whose job, he believed, was to entertain. In terribly pressing circumstances, he would at the most, withdraw himself into a shell and remain incommunicado for a while. It would give the impression that he was being moody. But soon after, he would be back in his elements, laughing and joking as though all was well with him and the world.

This dual persona and the constant switch between the seriously reticent and a frivolous mischief-maker only bolstered his image as an unpredictable maverick nobody dare mess with. Effectively, it was a defence mechanism he had perfected to protect his privacy.

One person who had detected this peculiar trait in him from very early on was Asha Bhosle.

"Kishoreda would often come for a recording in the company of an invisible boy," she recounted. "This non-existent child and Kishoreda used to talk to each other continuously, at times cracking jokes and breaking into laughter While alternating between himself and this invisible child, Kishoreda would often invite me to join the conversation. Frankly, I could never make head or tail of what was going on and always excused myself. But more than finding it weird, I used to be very amused."

Excerpted from Kishore Kumar -- Method In Madness by Derek Bose, published by Rupa Co with the publisher's permission, Rs 395.

Buy the book here!

'Every night I change my personality'

Image: With Madhubala in a scene from Jhumroo

His alter ego would surface at all odd times and in different forms. Many explained it as a schizophrenic tendency, but the fact was that Kishore was so intent upon playacting all the time that it had almost become second nature to him.

The odd part though, was that he did not try to disguise this Jekyll and Hyde streak in him, as Rahul Dev Burman was discover when he met Kishore for the first time in 1952:

"I had moved to Bombay from Calcutta to join my father as an assistant. He took me to Kardar Studios where a recording of his song was scheduled. As we entered the main gate, I noticed a man dressed in kurta-pyjama with a muffler around his neck and sitting by the boundary wall. My father said to me: This man gives me a lot of trouble. Today he has the audacity to sit on the compound wall.' He said this in obvious disgust and went inside the studio.

"But I was curious and went to this strange man. 'What are you doing here?' I asked.

"His immediate reply was, 'I am imitating Kardar-saab.'

"I asked him his name. 'Kishore Kumar Khandwawala,' he said, all the while shaking his leg vigorously. One of his shoes got dislodged. He requested me to hand it over. I did so. He got down and said, 'Thank you very much sadhu!'

'Once again I questioned him: 'Are you not the brother of Ashok Kumar Khandwawala?'

'Yes,' he said. 'No wonder nobody gives me any work.'

"I introduced myself: 'My name is Pancham.'

"His eyes lit up: 'I know and I also know who gave you that name. Wasn't it my brother Ashok Kumar? Immediately he began mimicking Ashok Kumar and my father in turns. I was weak with laughter watching him. 'I am Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde,' he said. 'Every night I change my personality'."

Bizarre demands

Image: With son Amit in a stage show

Kishore loved to fool people and create a world of make-believe around him as it gave him the license to do as he pleased. How else can anybody explain the many myths surrounding him, the most popular being that he used to spend time in his garden talking to trees which had names like Janardhan, Raghunandan, Buddhuram, Gangadhar, Jagannath, Jhatpatjhatpat...

There is also the story of how much he missed being close to nature and wanted to dig a canal around his bungalow in Bombay where he could sail gondolas. The municipal corporation did not give him permission and with a vengeance, he got a few labourers to dig around his house. One day, they dug out a skeletal hand and a few toes. Word got around that the house was built on a graveyard and evil spirits would possess them. Overnight they fled.

Another popular story related to how Kishore wanted to redo these interiors of his house. He called a suited-booted Gujarati interior designer and explained that he wanted something very simple for his living room -- just water, several feet deep and little boats floating around instead of large sofas.

"I told him that the centerpiece should be anchored down so that the tea service could be placed on it and all of us could row in on our boats and take sips from our cups," he narrated.

"But the boats should be properly balanced, or else we might whiz past each other and conversation could be quite difficult. He looked a bit alarmed and soon his face gave way to sheer horror when I began to describe the wall decor. I told him I wanted live crows hanging form the walls instead of paintings, since I like nature very much. And instead of fans, we could have monkeys farting from the ceiling. That's when he slowly backed out of the room with a strange look in his eyes. The last I saw him, he was running out of the front gate at the speed of an electric train."

'Do not disturb the dog'

Image: A birthday celebration in the family

There are also stories of how he had put up swings and slides in his backyard and spent hours playing on them like a child.

Radio announcer Ameen Sayani had known him to frolic about bare footed in the jungles of Bombay's suburbs with Sachin Dev Burman, singing senseless songs like Zingalala Zingalala.

Actress Tanuja (who shared the lead in Do Doni Chaar) has seen him and Ashok Kumar playing games like who could say Pandurang-Tukaram faster.

Amit Khanna had caught him on a Sunday afternoon, sitting in the middle of a huge collection of battery-operated toys, all switched on together. Among close family friends, his standard manner of greeting was, "Badhiya khaale karare gajak", whatever that meant.

H S Rawail used to narrate yet another story of how Kishore drove him mad during the filming of Shararat in 1959. Apparently, Kishore did not show up on the sets one day and the director, out of sheer exasperation, decided to go over to his house and fetch him.

"Kishore was in his house alright, but with a chain around his neck, much like the ones you tie to dogs. He sat there like one with pieces of chapatti in a plate placed nearby and a bowl of water alongside. Nearby was a board that stated, 'Do not disturb the dog'. When I requested him to come for the shooting, Kishore began growing like a dog. Seeing the humour of the situation, I held out my hand as you would to a dog. And surprise, surprise! He sprang towards me and bit my hand. Thereafter, he barked incessantly, until he drove me out of the gate!"

Friends and family members have always explained that he reserved such behaviour for people he did not want to interact with, particularly, those who owed him money.

Ashok Kumar was witness to one such incident during the shooting of M V Raman's Bhai Bhai in 1956: "Kishore had not been paid and a few of his shots were left," recounted the elder brother. "On that particular day, I had to give some shots too. Raman persuaded Kishore to be present that ay as he would pay him his dues. As soon as Kishore arrived, he asked Raman, 'Where is the money?' Raman explained to him, "One of my men has gone to fetch it. Meanwhile, why don't you get ready for the shot?' Kishore did not comply. Raman requested me to convince him. No sooner did I tell him than he went for the make-up. When he came out, he again asked Raman for his money. Raman said his man has just left with the money. 'He will be here any moment,' he reassured. The shooting began. In that scene, Kishore had to walk from one door to the other. Instead, he did one somersault and said 'Rs 5,000', then another forward roll and counted 'Rs 10,000'. He took a third one and with the fourth, he had reached out of the door. He stood up and said, 'Bye bye, I am leaving.' He really went away and did not return. Later, he told me, he knew Raman would not be paying him."

'Kishoreda was not lured by wealth'

Image: Dimple Kapadia, Arjun, Amit, Tanuja, Ronu Mukherji, Rajesh Khanna, Kishore Deb and Shomu Mukherji

And yet, here was a man who, for all his alleged miserliness and fabled obsession for money (many said that he used to stay awake all night counting currency notes!) could be extraordinarily generous towards charitable causes and as any number of music composers would testify, had waived his fees a number of times.

For instance, lyricist Sameer confirmed that he had sung at least 10 songs for his father, the late Anjaan, without charging a single paisa. "I never work to fill my stomach," Sameer quoted Kishore as saying. "My principle is, if I derive pleasure from it, I shall work."

"Kishoreda was not lured by wealth," continued Sameer. "As he had been duped by many people in his early years, the anger remained within him for ever. He always expected those who could afford him to pay him his worth. He had a discerning eye, which immediately assessed the person with whom he was interacting. So just as he was particular about claiming money, he gave it too. I remember, a number of times Kishoreda dropped Papa home when we could not afford a car. When he produced Chalti Ka Naam Gadi in 1981, he especially requested Papa to write its songs. Though Papa had not asked him for a single rupee, Kishoreda gave him much more than his going market rate."

Actor Danny Denzongpa has had first hand experience of Kishore's beneficence. It was for a 1977 film, Abhi To Ji Lein in which Kishore had to sing a bhajan for the first time. He had returned from a pilgrimage to Rishikesh and Haridwar and was behaving like a sadhu. When Danny met him in his house, he had grown his beard and hair, was wearing an ochre robe and rudraksha beads around his neck and was "blessing" everybody around. Upon hearing Danny's request, he refused point blank, but later agreed on the condition that there would be no rehearsal. "I shall hear the time on the day of the recording and will sing accordingly," he said.

On the day of the recording, Kishore arrived late and as usual, sent his secretary in to collect his remuneration. Only after the secretary received the amount would Kishore alight from his car. That day the boys decided to play a prank. "As students from the Film Institute, we are perpetually broke," Danny lied to the secretary. "We do not have enough money to pay Kishoreda. Besides, we thought that he has become a sadhu and since this is a bhajan, he would not require the money."

The secretary was taken aback, but later on, releasing that the boys were pulling a fast one, he signaled his boss to alight. But Kishore did not budge. Danny went up to the car and convinced Kishore that the money was ready and he would be paid in full. Only then did Kishroe get down and walk into the studio.

"We played the tune and for a long time thereafter, Kishoreda was silent," recounted Danny. "We were tense, wondering whether he would sing or not. Later, he sang the bhajan and it was approved in the first take. He rendered it so well that we immediately handed his secretary the packet containing the money. When he came out, the secretary gave him the packet. But he refused to accept it. "This song is so beautiful, I will not take anything for it,' he said, returning the packet."

Music composer Annu Malik too had a somewhat similar experience in 1987. He wanted Kishore to sing for a film Tutu Sharma was producing and accordingly called him up on telephone one Tuesday afternoon. The voice at the other end was direct and to the point: "Tell me, how many mango crates are going to give me?"

Annu understood what Kishore meant and asked how much he expected. "You know well, I do not sing for less than 25 crates a song," Kishore said.

"But Dada, you are going to sing all the songs in the film," Annu pleaded. "I could at the most give you 15 crates per song."

Suddenly Kishore's manner changed and he said affectionately: "Annu, you are like my son, whatever you offer is accepted."

The recording never took place. For after taking that call, Kishore put the phone off the hook and settled down to watch a film, The River of No Return on video. Amit was away in the US for a stage show. Upstairs, in the bedroom, Leena was getting herself massaged for a backache. Suddenly, she head a sound of a fall downstairs and the masseuse rushed out to check. Meanwhile, Kishore came up and quietly lay down on the bed beside Leena. He mumbled he was not feeling well and his shoulder was paining. Leena was alarmed. For a moment she thought he was playacting just to frighten her. But when she noticed that his eyeballs were turning and the breathing pattern had changed, she decided not to take any chances. She raced to the telephone to call the doctor. Kishore turned and said: "You are about to call the doctor aren't you? Do not do that. I am already feeling better. Give me a sorbitrate if you can... but if you call the doctor, I will truly get a heart attack."

Those were his last words. Mouth to mouth resuscitation could not revive him. The doctor massaged his heart. But all efforts were in vain. Of his three damaged arteries, the one in the neck was completely blocked. That accounted for his painless death.

The date was October 13, 1987.