Many years ago I read this interview of Manna Dey (given to The Pioneer editor Chandan Mitra) and he seemed to be bitter about the fact that he never got the recognition he deserved.
I never got what I fully deserved. You see I was born into a very proud family. We had no ego but we were proud of our talent. So, I couldn’t do the rounds of producers and music directors’ homes, get into Mumbai’s sharabi-kababi culture, or sit in the durbars of big heroes. Most struggling singers have to do that even now. I was a struggling singer in my early years in Mumbai and, thereafter, when I did gain acceptance, I got somewhat typecast. Only a few music directors would experiment with me as the hero’s voice.
I was quite surprised that time. After all, most of the iconic songs in Hindi films have been sung by Manna Dey including “Aye mere pyare watan”, “Zindagi, kaisi hai paheli hai”, “Poochho na kaise maine rain bitayi”, “Aayo kahan se ghanshaam”, and many more.
Today, one thought led to another and I was thinking about that interview. I think he felt like an outsider. In Bollywood, groupism is quite prevalent.
All major singers of the time were preferred by the contemporary Bollywood heroes.
Raj Kapoor had Mukesh.
Dilip Kumar had Talat Mehmood and Rafi.
Devanand had Hemant Kumar, Rafi and Kishore Kumar.
Shammi Kapoor had Rafi.
Rajender Kumar had Rafi.
Rajesh Khanna had Rafi and Kishore Kumar.
Amitah Bachchan had Kishore Kumar.
Even Mahinder Kapoor routinely sang for Sunil Dutt and Manoj Kumar.
In fact, these singers wielded so much influence that the success of most of the Bollywood heroes was attributed to their singing.
Shammi Kapoor attributed his success to Rafi.
Raj Kapoor attributed his success to Mukesh to a great extent.
Manoj Kumar’s patriotic songs sung by Mahinder Kapoor became a rage and are still popular.
Although Amitabh Bachchan never accepted it, his initial superstardom came due to Kishore Kumar and the same was the case with the superstardom of Rajesh Khanna.
Manna Dey never became a hero’s singer. He never made anyone successful. He was always called to sing the song because the song was meant to be sung by him. Nobody preferred him. No hero called his voice, his voice.
When Mukesh died, Raj Kapoor famously said, “Meri awaaz chali gayi”.
It’s not that he never sang for mainstream heroes. Songs like “Ye raat bheegi bheegi”, “Aa ja sanam madhur chandni me hum” and “Dil ki girah khol do” are still very popular, but they were one-off occurrences.
He was not the singer of choice. He sang for comedians. He sang for old characters in the movies. But when it came to popular, romantic, and even happy songs in general, his voice was not used. This is something he resented.
Although I can understand his pain, thinking objectively, his voice was not suitable for many songs that were sung by Rafi and Kishore. Take for example this song:
Although both have sung this song, you can easily make out the difference between how Kishore Kumar has sung it and how Manna Dey has sung it. While Kishore Kumar’s voice flows like water in a mountain stream, Manna Dey’s sounds like water in a faucet.
Not surprisingly, the filmmaker has used Kishore Kumar behind Dharmendra, who was at that time more popular than Amitabh Bachchan.
Another thing that I feel is that most of the singers were comfortable in their skins — it may be attributed to the influence that they wielded — but they were more confident compared to Manna Dey.
The song “Tum bin jaun kahan” has been first sung by Kishore Kumar and then by Mohammad Rafi. Both have done justice to their parts of the song.
Now imagine Manna Dey singing the same song. I’m sure, given his attitude, he would have been more worried about singing the song better than the first singer, rather than simply singing the song.
I think that might had been the main problem with him. When he sang alone he could get into the soul of the song, but when it came to singing duets, he couldn’t cast away his personality and mold his voice according to the personality of the actor on the screen the way Mukesh, Rafi and Kishore could do.
How he sang the song and hence, proved himself to be a better singer, was more important to him than the meaning and the purpose of the song.