Indian films have had their share of actor-singers: KL Saigal, Ashok Kumar, Noor Jahan, Suraiya, Kishore Kumar, Sulakshana Pandit. Talat Mehmood acted in over a dozen films in the 1940s and 50s. Even Mukesh acted in some films in the 1940s and 50s.

I haven’t included other actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Dilip Kumar, Nutan, Ayushmann Khurrana, Farhan Akhtar, Diljit Dosanjh and others. By profession, they are actors, not singers. Their singing adds a novelty value, showcases their talent beyond acting. But they do not have to sing for their supper. They are basically actors.  

It is therefore strange when other singers have sung for these actor-singers. Why did that happen?

Let’s begin with Ashok Kumar. In the 1930s and 40s, simultaneous song recordings required the practice of using singing actors. However, not all singing actors were selected for their vocal prowess.

Ashok Kumar was a leading actor in that era (and, of course, way beyond) and sang many songs in his acting career, even though he was not a trained singer. About 50 odd songs were sung by him, including ‘Khet Ki Mooli Baag Ko Aam’ and ‘Main Ban Ki Chidiya Banke’, both with Devika Rani (Achhut Kanya, 1936); ‘Aaj Mausam Salona Salona Re’ with Rehmat Bano and ‘Ek Chatur Naar Kar Kar Singaar’ (Jhoola, 1941); ‘Dhire Dhire Aa Re Badal’ (Kismet, 1943).

Despite his enormous box-office appeal, he was not known for his singing talent. In 1940, in a letter to the editor of a film magazine, a reader requested Ashok Kumar to stop singing in pictures.

The shift happened gradually. The song ‘Dhire Dhire Aa Re Badal’ (Kismet, 1943) mentioned above, was sung by Ashok Kumar in the film but music director Anil Biswas used the voice of another actor called Arun Kumar for the record. Those days, very often, it would happen that the record version was not the same as the film version.

Once playback came in, it was not necessary for actors to sing. However, this did not apply to actors such as KL Saigal, Noor Jahan and Suraiya, who were known more for their singing than acting.

One of the songs sung by Ashok Kumar, ‘Koi Humdum Na Raha’ (Jeevan Naiyya, 1936) and composed by Saraswati Devi, was sung many years later by his brother Kishore Kumar in his debut film as music director (Jhumroo,1961). And, of course, his ‘Ek Chatur Naar’ (Jhoola, 1941) became a cult-classic 27 years later in Padosan, sung yet again by Kishore Kumar, and Manna Dey. – Koi Humdum – Ashok Kumar

Some of the memorable songs sung onscreen in the latter part of Ashok Kumar’s career when other singers did the playback for him included ‘Sab Kuchh Luta Ke Hosh’ (Ek Saal, 1957) by Talat Mehmood; ‘Poochho Na Kaise Maine Rain Bitai’ (Meri Surat Teri Aankhen, 1963) by Manna Dey; ‘Naache Man Mora’ and ‘Tere Bin Soone Nain Hamare’, both sung by Rafi (Meri Surat Teri Aankhen, 1963); ‘Beqaraar Dil Tu Gaye Ja’ (Door Ka Rahi, 1971) sung by Kishore Kumar.

Not that Ashok Kumar did not sing at all in this period. He sang ‘Babu Samjho Ishare’, along with Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey (Chalti Ka Naam Gadi, 1958); ‘Jhingapore Taqur Taqur’ and ‘Naav Chali’ (Aashirwad, 1968); and ‘Chalo Haseen Geet Ek Banayein’ along with Chirasree Bhattacharya (Shaukeen, 1982).

Let’s take the case of Surendra. He acted and sang in several films as main lead in the 1930s and 40s. He then switched to character roles. Who can forget his duet with Noor Jahan ‘Awaaz De Kahan Hai’ (Anmol Ghadi, 1946)?

When she visited Mumbai in 1982, Noor Jahan sang this song, and when she came to Surendra’s part (he was still alive, died five years later in 1987), she sought his permission to sing it. However, when he played Tansen in Baiju Bawra (1952), his playback was done by Ustad Amir Khan for all his songs – ‘Raag Darbari Sargam’, ‘Aaj Gawat Maan Mero Jhumke’ (Pandit DV Paluskar for Bharat Bhushan), ‘Langar Kankariya Ji Na Maro’ (Pandit DV Paluskar for Bharat Bhushan), ‘Ghanan Ghanan Ghan Garjo Re’ (deleted from the movie) and ‘Tori Jai Jai Kartaar’.

Surendra again played the role of Tansen in Mughal-e-Azam. This time Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan did the playback (reportedly for Rs 25,000 – an astronomical sum those days) for two songs – ‘Prem Jogan Ban Ke’, and ‘Shubh Din Aayo Raj Dulara’ (played in the background). Obviously, Tansen required a modern-day equivalent, and Surendra had to yield to the two ustads who did an outstanding job. Tansen would have approved. – Raag Darbari Sargam – Surendra

Some singers have played a cameo role on screen. Rafi appeared on the screen for the songs, ‘Tera Jalwa Jis Ne Dekha’ (Laila Majnu, 1945), and ‘Woh Apni Yaad Dilane Ko’ (Jugnu, 1947). He sang his own songs. However, in an ironic twist of fate, GM Durrani, the famous playback singer of the 1940s, who was Rafi’s idol, and whose singing style inspired Rafi, had Rafi doing the playback for him in the song ‘Unke Khayal Aaye Toh’ (Lal Patthar, 1971). – Unke Khayal Aaye – GM Durrani

Sulakshana Pandit’s career spanned the 1970s and 80s. Though she usually sang her own songs, yet there are some instances of other singers doing her playback. For instance, Lata in Sulakshana’s first film Uljhan (1975) – ‘Subah Aur Shaam Kaam Hi Kaam’ and the background title song ‘Apne Jeevan Ki Uljhan Ko’, and ‘Is Duniya Mein Jeena Hai’ (Apnapan, 1977). – Subah Aur Shaam – Sulakshana Pandit

We now come to Kishore Kumar. Singers like him are born but rarely. But he too had other singers do the playback for him in the movies he was acting in, in some cases. How did this even happen?

In the film Ragini (1958), whose music director was OP Nayyar, the semi-classical song ‘Man Mora Bawra’ picturized on Kishore, was sung by Rafi, who was a trained singer unlike Kishore. I had quizzed OP Nayyar, who, I knew, about it.

Kishore had sung some delightful songs for OP Nayyar, including many from the same film. So why Rafi?

OP Nayyar stated that this semi-classical song could only have been done by Rafi. For the pure classical songs, OP Nayyar went beyond Rafi and used Ustad Amir Khan for ‘Jogiya Mere Ghar Aaye’ during the introductory film credits, and Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and Fateh Ali Khan for ‘Chhed Diye Mere Dil Ke Taar’, picturized on Kishore. – Man Mora Bawra – Kishore Kumar

Similarly, ‘Preetam Daras Dikhao’ (Chacha Zindabad, 1959) was a classical song which Manna Dey and Lata rendered under the baton of Madan Mohan.

In the film Naukri (1954), Salil Choudhury preferred Hemant Kumar to do the playback for Kishore for ‘Chhota Sa Ghar Hoga’. It took a lot of effort on the part of the filmmakers to convince Salil to take Kishore for the song. However, for the sad version, Salil didn’t budge and took Hemant who sang in the background with Kishore on the screen. – Chhota Sa Ghar Hoga – Kishore

KISHORE KUMAR acknowledged Hemant’s talent for certain kind of songs and used him as a singer in his own film Door Ka Rahi (1971) in ‘Chalti Chale Jaaye Zindagi’. Such objectivity by a singer/actor/director/music director that Kishore was in this film, to enrol another singer to do playback for him (albeit as a background song), is truly remarkable. He had done this earlier too – in Door Gagan Ki Chhaon Mein (1964), where Hemant sang all the three parts of ‘Rahi Tu Mat Ruk Jana’, once during the film credits, and twice in the background with Kishore on the screen. 

In Shararat (1959), the song ‘Ajab Hai Dastaan Teri Aei Zindagi’ was sung by Rafi. It is reported that Kishore was not the original choice for the lead actor and some songs had already been recorded when he came on board. In any case, this song too required a singer having the range and classical background that Rafi could provide. Rafi provided the perfect high pitch during the crescendo. He was the man for the job, and that is why Shankar-Jaikishan used him.

This film had another song sung by Rafi on Kishore – ‘Tu Mera Copyright, Main Teri Copyright’. Even though Shankar-Jaikishan hardly used Kishore, the few numbers that he sang for them were delightful – case in point – ‘Chhoti Si Yeh Duniya’ (Rangoli,1962) and ‘Nakhrewali’ (New Delhi,1956). 

Bhagam Bhag (1956), with OP Nayyar as music director, had Rafi in ‘Humein Koi Gham Hai’, as well as ‘Chale Ho Kahaan’. Why it happened remains in the realm of mystery.

However, it perhaps makes sense in the song ‘Le Lo Sone Ka Laddoo’ (Paisa Hi Paisa, 1956) where Kishore had a double role, in which one character has Rafi do the playback, the other, Kishore; though Kishore could have done it for both – if both looked the same, they could sound the same too. But music director Anil Biswas wanted authenticity.

Krorepati (1961) had songs sung by Manna Dey – ‘Aap Hue Mere’ and ‘Pehle Murgi Hui Thi Ki Anda’. It is reported that payment issues were the reason why Kishore didn’t sing himself. ‘O Meri Maina’ from the same film bizarrely had both Kishore and Rafi do the playback on Kishore in the same song.

Rafi sang ‘Apni Aadat Hai’ (Pyar Diwana, 1972). It was strange to see Kishore not do his own playback in 1972 when he was numero uno in the film industry and ruling the charts at that stage. The reason is that this black and white film had begun production many years earlier and took several years to make.

And the list goes on.

Some more songs include ‘Main Is Masoom Chehre Ko’ (Baghi Shahzada, 1964) by Rafi; ‘Apne Haath Ko Pehchan’ (Apna Haath Jagannath, 1960) by Rafi; even Mahendra Kapoor has done playback for Kishore – ‘Humne to Dil’ (Albela Mastana, 1967). The list is not exhaustive.

The days of the actor-singer are over now. Both the disciplines are rigorous and require a specialized skill set which needs to be honed to perfection to achieve success. Even earlier, the actor-singers were not equally adept at both.

KL Saigal, for instance, was a far better singer than actor. Ashok Kumar was the opposite. Kishore was an exception. Many people may not have liked his style of acting, but he couldn’t have acted in 88 films just like that.

The place of the actor-singer is now part of the glorious Hindi film history, and all forays by actors these days into the recording studio, and vice versa, is just a casual occurrence adding flavour to the role – inviting sometimes awe like in the case of, say, Ayushmann, Amitabh or Diljit, or an indulgent smile, in case of others.

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It is indeed strange when other singers have sung for highly popular actor-singers in Bombay cinema. So why did that happen?
When Rafi sang for Kishore Kumar