In classic Bollywood cinema, playback singers could make or break the career actor. Famous actor-singer pairings are legendary. The voice of the singer became the soul of the actor and once a perfect match was made, it was hard to separate them without upheaval. Who could imagine anything but the manly voice of Kishore Kumar with the face Rajesh Khanna? Or the playful sweetness of Mohammed Rafi with fun-loving Shammi Kapoor? When Mukesh passed away, Raj Kapoor (for whose career Mukesh lent his illustrious talent) famously burst into tears and announced, “I have lost my voice.”
But occasionally we find a rogue player in Hindi film music. Hemant Kumar stands out as a unique character, a difficult man to place in the rankings. For he was not merely a singer, but a legendary music director as well in both Hindi and Bengali cinema. Hemant Kumar was heavily influenced by Rabindrasangeet (like his contemporary S.D. Burman!), and first broke into the Bengali industry as a music director in 1947, the year of Indian independence. Hemant Kumar’s unmatched virtuosity led him to not only sing many of the hit songs of the 50s and 60s in Bombay himself, but he actually formed his own production company that made classics such as Bees Saal Baad (1962), Kohra (1964), and Khamoshi (1969). In the 70s he even dabbled as a film director with moderate success.
But for me, it was as a singer that Hemant Kumar always shines and also the category in which history has given him the shaft. His voice was absolutely unlike any other in the industry–a deep and soulful richness that no one could touch. Interestingly, for a man whose talents were so diverse, Hemant Kumar never took to acting and singing his own songs on screen (à la Kishore Kumar). Instead, he sang for a myriad of rising and great actors across the decades–never branding himself with a single artist. Hemant Kumar remained a maverick, and for it, is often brushed aside.
So I now pose to you the question–which actor do YOU think Hemant Kumar sang for best? His voice graced the images of many men, but did it work for all of them? Your contestants are Guru Dutt, Dharmendra, Biswajeet, Dev Anand, and Shammi Kapoor. We present five songs below that illustrate some of Hemant Kumar’s finest collaborations with these actors and the cinematic chemistry that ensued.
1. Guru Dutt: Jaane Woh Kaise
The voice of tragedy, Hemant Kumar sings for Guru Dutt in this timeless lament from Pyaasa (1957). Guru Dutt, who often played the tragic poet, seems a natural choice for the resonant tones of Hemant Kumar in this song that has become iconic for all awkward dinner party songs.
2. Dharmendra: Tum Pukar Lo
Discussed in a previous post, Khamoshi (1968) is a heart-wrenching film about love, loss, and insanity. Although you don’t see much of Dharmendra’s face in this sequence, his subtle performance matches the song’s patient yearning with a hint of a Western flair. But to me, as an actor Dharmendra is somehow too shallow to be worthy of a Hemant Kumar solo. Maybe that’s just me?
3. Biswajeet: Yeh Nayan Dare Dare
A tender sequence from the film Kohra (1964), this song embodies the sweet side to Hemant’s voice that comes in the middle of a spooky film noir. I’m not going to pretend that Biswajeet is anything but a joke, but for me this pairing works–Hemant’s sweet vocals and Biswajeet’s confident, but appeasing motions to Waheeda are a pleasing combination.
4. Dev Anand: Yeh Raat Yeh Chaandni Phir Kahaan
God, I love it. I’ll be the first to tell you that no one sang better for Dev Anand than Mohammed Rafi, but this song is something else. I’ve discussed this sequence already in our earlier translation of the song, but let me just repeat that Hemant Kumar in a seductive mood blends beautifully with that longing gaze of Dev Anand’s. It’s just so exciting and rare, not to mention compliments Dev Anand’s semi-gravely voice in this film.
5. Shammi Kapoor: Aye Dil Ab Kahin Lejaa
This is another beautiful Hemant Kumar tragedy with a touch of mystery. Shammi is clearly giving it his all in this song, but somehow, I think it just doesn’t come together. Shammi Kapoor is too much of a hot mess for me to believe anything but Mohammed Rafi coming out of his mouth–the resonant voice of Hemant seems incongruous with those histrionics, despite its unarguable beauty.
And the winner is…?
I’m gonna have to say Guru Dutt–that song is just sublime on every level, but I’m open to discussion. Who do you think matched Hemant Kumar’s voice best? Let us know YOUR opinion in the comments!
P.S. Wondering why we didn’t mention female playback singers here? It’s because the female side of things worked very differently, ie., it was Lata and Asha or bust. Every actress had them, and with the occasional Geeta Dutt or Shamshad interlude, there was no room for a “signature” playback artist per actress (although Lata will argue she “changed” her voice depending on the actress–more on this to come!)