I was hardly six years old when I watched Ramu Kariat's classic blockbuster Chemmeen (1965), which took the Malayalam film industry by storm. It is a film, which every Malayali is initiated into, right from his childhood. The only scene I retained for a long time to come was the one where Pareekutty (Madhu) sings a ballad calling for his love Karuttamma (Sheela). The song was Manasa mayine varu. I was surprised years later, when I came to know from my mother that the songs of Chemmeen, which evoked a rich imagery of the coastline of Kerala, were composed by Salil Chowdhary, a Bengali. But then, Manna Dey too was a son of Bengal, whom the Malayalis lapped up for this song.
I had seen Raj Kapoor and Nargis under the umbrella in a rainy night singing Pyar hua ikrar hua several times, without knowing that it was Manna Dey who gave us this memorable number. There were many such gems from the golden era of Hindi cinema, which were immortalised by him. To think of it, he was the last living male singer from that era in our midst. Mukesh passed away in the mid 1970s, while Rafi and Kishore Kumar left a decade later. Talat Mahmood died quite a silent death in 1998; we had not heard from his right from the 1960s. Mahendra Kapoor passed away in 2008. But a fact not known to many is that Manna Dey began his singing career in films before any of them, in 1942, even before Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle got their first solo song.
Among the earliest songs he sang was Tyagmayi tu gayi, for Vijay Bhatt's Ram Rajya (1943). His uncle KC Dey, who was a leading singer, was supposed to sing it but suggested his nephew's name instead. At the age of 24, Manna Dey sang a song that was picturised on the character of an aged Valmiki. For some reason, throughout his career, Manna Dey ended up singing more songs picturised on character artistes, than the young heroes. Many a time, he did not even know that the song would end up being picturised on old men or wandering minstrels (as in Boot Polish, Parineeta and Devdas).
A huge opportunity came to him in the mid 1950s, when Mukesh decided to focus on acting career (which never took off) and gave a pause to his singing. That was when Raj Kapoor approached Manna Dey to sing the songs of Shree 420 and Chori Chori. In one of his interviews, Manna Dey recollected how Raj Kapoor and Nargis had enacted the entire sequence of Pyar hua ikrar hua before him and Lata as the song was being recorded. The result was magical. Both these films were huge musical hits, with the magic of Shree 420 travelling to Russia and the Middle East. The partnership with Raj Kapoor extended to movies like Dil Hi Toh Hai (Laaga chunri mein daag), Teesri Kasam (Chalat musafir moh liyo re) and Mera Naam Joker (Ae bhai zara dekh ke chalo). But at the end of the day, Mukesh remained etched in popular memory as Raj Kapoor's voice.
In complete contrast to the philosophical overtones of these songs, he was also the voice of Mehmood and gave an unbelievable tit-for-tat to Kishore Kumar in Ek chatur naar (Padosan). Who can forget his Hum kale hain toh kya hua dilwale hain (Gumnaam). It became an anthem for those Indians, who were undeterred by their dark skin in their pursuit of love. Who didn't gyrate to the peppy party number Aao twist karen, again picturised on Mehmood in Bhoot Bangla?
But more than anything else, he shone most in his classical numbers and was given those rare opportunities, which even Rafi could never get, for all the backing he got from Naushadl. In the 1950s, when Shankar Jaikishen (till then seen as makers of popular music) got a chance to prove their mettle in classical music, they decided to recreate a similar spectacle as Naushad did with Baiju Bawra. They roped in Pandit Bhimsen Joshi for the jugabandi Ketaki gulab juhi and had Manna Dey at the other end to reply to his musical might! Manna Dey shirked at the prospect of having to challenge the legend. Even Naushad had someone like Ustad Amir Khan to face a titan like Pandit DV Paluskar in Baiju Bawra. Not only did Manna Dey shine through with brilliance, he even won praises from Pandit Bhimsen Joshi for his flawless rendition.
As a matter of fact, Manna Dey could have easily made a career in classical music as well. But he chose to be in films. His voice had the depth and gravity to pull of any difficult bandish. In the 1970s, he got many offers to sing for younger actors like Rajesh Khanna and Dharmendra and he immortalised songs like Zindagi kaisi hai paheli (Anand) and Yeh dosti hum nahi todenge (Sholay). It was his genius that he adapted his voice so well for actors across ages at the same time - character actors like Balraj Sahni (Ae meri zonrajabeen) and Pran (Kasme vaade pyar wafa) on one hand and the young upcoming ones on the other. I cannot even write in detail about his Bengali songs, where his contribution was immense. But the one rendition that I will carry forever was his adaptation of Harivanshrai Bachchan's Madhushala. Every couplet got a new meaning in his voice. Perhaps, he did not win the rat race because he never participated in it.
Jinhone sajaaye yahan mele, sukh dukh sang sang jhele,
Wohi chunkar khaamoshi, yun chali jaaye akele kaha