Which Actor Did Hemant Kumar Sing For Best?

Hemant Kumar (1920-1989) was a legendary Hindi and Bengali film music composer and singer.

Hemant Kumar (1920-1989) was a legendary Hindi and Bengali film music composer and singer.

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.

Hemant Kumar recording a song with Lata Mangeshkar

Hemant Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar during the studio recording of “Nain So Nain” from Janak Janak Paayal Baaje (1955).

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!

-Mrs. 55

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!)

Rabindranath Tagore’s Influence on S.D. Burman

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and S.D. Burman (1906-1975)

Due to my upbringing in a Bengali household, I am intimately familiar with Rabindra-sangeet: the genre of songs written and composed by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. As a composer, artist, novelist, playwright, poet, and philosopher, Tagore has left a lasting legacy on Indian culture through his vast collection of works in a variety of mediums. Although the purism and simplicity of Tagore’s style might suggest that Bollywood is an inappropriate forum to celebrate his art, several music directors from the Golden Age of Hindi cinema have been known to use Tagore songs as inspirations for their musical compositions. The music director who is most well-known for this practice is none other than the illustrious S.D Burman. S.D. Burman is one of the most succesful music directors in the history of the Bollywood industry, and his songs from films such as Bandini (1963), Guide (1965), Jewel Thief (1967), and Aradhana (1969) are still considered all-time classics today. His filmi compositions tend to draw upon inspiration from Bengali folk traditions (e.g. bhatiaalii, saari, etc. ), but here I’d like to draw your attention to a collection of S.D. Burman compositions that are derived from Rabindra-sangeet:

meraa sundar sapnaa biit gayaa (Do Bhai, 1949): From one of S.D. Burman’s first hit scores in the Bollywood industry, this song is considered to be Geeta Dutt’s breakthrough as a playback singer in Hindi films. The mukhDaa of this song is inspired by a Bilaaval-based Tagore composition called “radono bharaa e basonto.” Geeta does an excellent job of expressing the sorrow and pain of this song with her voice, and it is truly unfortunate that the lyrics here would become a reality for her during her tumultuous marriage to Guru Dutt in the next decade.

Playback singer Geeta Dutt (1930-1972) with her husband Guru Dutt (1925-1964)

nain diivaane (Afsar, 1950): This Pilu-based composition is skilfully rendered by Suraiyya, a leading singer/actress who became a huge sensation in Bollywood during the 1940s. Bollywood as we know it today relies on actors and actresses lip-syncing songs sung by playback singers; however, in its very early days, actresses like Suraiyya used to sing their own songs for films. In spite of their dual talents, singer-actresses were not able to survive the onslaught of the Mangeshkar monopoly in the 1950s, and the playback singing paradigm became the standard that is still maintained today in the industry. In any case, this song is based on an extremely popular Tagore composition called “sediin duujane duulechhiinuu bone.” S.D. Burman literally did a copy-paste job here, as the melody of the entire Hindi song is identical to the Bengali original. While loosely basing a mukhDaa on a previous composition is somewhat acceptable, recycling a whole song written by another composer begs the question: should S.D. Burman have given credit to Tagore for this composition?

Singer/actress Suraiyya (1929-2004)


 jaaye.n to jaaye.n kahaa.n? (Taxi Driver, 1954): S.D. Burman won his first Filmfare Award for Best Music Director for this song from Taxi Driver in 1954. As is often the case, the male version of the song (sung by Talat Mehmood) is more popular than the female version (sung by Lata Mangeshkar). Although S.D. Burman modified the raga of his composition to more closely resemble Jaunpuri, the first line of the mukhDaa is instantly recognizable as the main phrase from Tagore’s Bhairavi-based classic  “ he khoniiker otiithhii.” Note that the Tagore original that I have provided here is sung by Hemanta Mukherjee (a.k.a Hemant Kumar), who, in addition to achieving fame as a Hindi playback singer/music director, was known for his beautiful renditions of Rabindra-sangeet in Bengali.

jalte hai.n jiske liye: (Sujata, 1959): This probably qualifies as my favorite “telephone song” from a Hindi film. Here, Sunil Dutt woos Nutan over the phone with this gem as he croons to Talat Mehmood’s silky vocals on playback (notice the characteristic quiver that we know and love!). Although this composition is often considered an all-time classic song of romance, fans of this song may be surprised to know that the mukhDaa is taken directly from a Tagore composition named “ekodaa tumii priye.”

Sunil Dutt serenades Nutan over the telephone with “jalte hai.n jiske liye” in Sujata (1959)

meghaa chhaye aadhii raat (Sharmilee, 1971): Out of all the compositions listed here, the inspiration from Tagore is the most difficult to hear in this song because it does not involve the mukhDaa. Rather, S.D. Burman seems to have inserted a small segment of  laho laho tuule laho (0:26-0:40) into the antara of this raga Patdeep-based classic from Sharmilee. What a trickster, huh?

tere mere milan kii yeh rainaa (Abhimaan, 1973): By far, this is the most famous example where  S.D. Burman has been inspired by Rabindra-sangeet.  In his last hit film score (for which he won his second  Filmfare Award for Best Music Director), S.D. Burman recycles the mukhDaa from Tagore’s Mishra Khamaj-based “jodii taare nai chiinii go sekii?” in this evergreen duet of Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar. Burman’s antaras are a beautiful addition to the original composition, so we won’t give him too much trouble for his rehashing of Tagore here. Note that the Bengali original that I have linked to here is sung by Kishore Kumar, another Hindi playback singer who was famous for his renditions of Rabindra-sangeet in Bengal.

Amitabh and Jaya Bacchan sing the duet “tere mere milan kii yeh raina” on stage during the climax of Abhimaan (1973).

Although S.D. Burman was often inspired by Tagore in his compositions, he never recorded or sang a single piece of Rabindra-sangeet throughout his career. The reason behind this is, of course, family feuding–an unavoidable staple of all things related to Indian culture. Here’s the story: S.D Burman’s father Nabadwip Chandra Dev Burman was set to be the direct heir to the throne of Tripura when the current king passed away in 1862. However, the crown went to Nabadwip’s paternal uncle Birchandra Dev Burman due to some dirty palace politics. Because Rabindranath Tagore had a very close relationship with Birchandra Dev Burman, S.D. Burman avoided meeting Tagore throughout his lifetime and refused to perform Rabindra-sangeet out of principle. Nevertheless, in spite of this tiff, it is undeniable that S.D. Burman had a great deal of respect for Tagore as a musician given the influence of Rabindra-sangeet on his compositions.

–Mr. 55