The story begins in the sleepy town of Khandwa. A 16 year old Abhas Kumar Ganguly takes his friends for a film Jeevan Naiyya that stars his brother, Ashok Kumar. The year is 1936, the time when Master Vithal's sway over the industry is weakening but his influence as the highest paid action star of silent films is overpowering.
It has only been five years since the first talkie--Alam Ara (1931), was released, also starring Master Vithal. The teenage gang goes to the theatre again.
We can't visualise popcorn and fizzy drinks to enhance the pleasure of big screen, so the film is all that is there for a few hours of entertainment. Abhas Kumar's excitement soon turns into horror as big brother gets slapped in one of the scenes. Abhas is the butt of jokes. Not a happy incident.
Abhas Kumar writes a letter to Ashok Kumar warning him that if he didn't want to lose his audience back home there better be some adrenalin pumping action in the next film. The next film is Acchut Kanya and Ashok Kumar is a star.
Nevertheless two years later Abhas Kumar joins Ashok Kumar in Mumbai, changes his name to Kishore Kumar and lands his first singing assignment--Marne ki duayen kyon mango in Ziddi (1948).
Kishore Kumar's only interest in life so far had been singing. He would sing Ashok Kumar's hit song Mein Ban Ki Chidiya from Achhut Kanya in family gatherings, which his father would reward with money. In college he would even sing the Malthusian theory in an effort to memorise it.
Kishore was good at imitating and his favourite singer, someone he adopted as an absentee guru, was K L Saigal. Kishore Kumar would often visit his brother in Mumbai but he was never able to meet his idol. His debut in Ziddi didn't help his playback aspirations. He did bit roles in films and one film Andolan as the lead star. His career still not being able to take off, he approaches S D Burman, who had earlier appreciated his singing skills.
This time his song is a hit -- Qusoor aapka in Bahaar. His acting career takes off with Ladki (1953) in which he is paired with Vyajantimala. It is due to his spontaneous antics that the film was a success. He becomes the first star to draw applause for his punch lines than punches. He is also the first one to bring comedy into the central domain, that of the stars.
He may have created a laugh riot on screen but according to his own admission he never wanted to be an actor. The reluctant film star's soul lay in music. From copying his idol K L Saigal to becoming the staple voice of stars like Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna, and Amitabh Bachchan, it was only his success as a singer that made him happy. According to his own admissions, people were bent upon making a success of him as an actor only because he had Ashok Kumar as elder brother.
Although Kishore had moved from Khandwa to a big city, he was never at peace with it. Duped and exploited within the industry, he was beset with financial and tax problems for years. He also refused to work for free and became very particular about being paid on time, a move that made him unpopular with the producers.
The 60s was a bad time for him. Fraught with tax problems, with the producers avoiding him, having given up playback singing earlier, he had to take up odd singing assignments and his acting talent languished in C-grade comic capers. Stories of his being eccentric and unpredictable spread among his fans and in the industry.
One of the oft-repeated tales, is one of Kishore telling an interior designer that he wanted a stream flowing through the living room with the table chained to the bottom, boats instead of chairs, monkeys hanging from the ceiling and crows on the walls. Although it is the truth that Kishore loved nature, as far as this story is concerned, in one of his interviews he owned up to doing it only to upset the the Saville-Row clad designer.
It is also true that he tried to dig a canal surrounding his house so that he could have a taste of Venice right in Mumbai. The attempts were forsaken when the diggers chanced upon some pieces of a skeleton in the debris. Kishore Kumar tried his hand at directing, making films straight from the heart, saying things the way he wanted to say them. Unfortunately, none of his films were successful.
Kishore was a bundle of contradictions. He never wanted to carry on acting, yet he delivered hits; he never wanted to stay in Mumbai but he carried it like a burden till his death -- a loner who liked talking to his trees yet he married four times.
Apart from having a professional life that was far from pleasing, he went through immense pain on the personal front. His marriage to Ruma Devi fell apart because she wanted a career and he wanted a home, after which, for the sake of a promise, he entered into a loveless marriage with Madhu Bala who had already been diagnosed with a hole in the heart.
He nursed Madhu Bala with all affection and dedication for nine long years. It broke his spirit to see his beautiful wife edge towards her death. He then had a brief marriage with Yogita Bali who later claimed that Kishore would sit up all night counting money. The only marriage that worked for him and brought him peace was his last one with Leena Chandravarkar, who was only two years elder to his son Amit Kumar.
Kishore was resurrected as a singer as late as Rajesh Khanna's Aradhana. From singing for himself, he became the voice of the leading stars for decades. He was the note of longing, love, despair, romance, seduction, ecstasy and every other emotion that the faces on the silver screen could emote. From bhajans to ghazals, from Khemchand Prakash to R D Burman, Kishore had the nation hypnotised. No one has ever been able to surpass, or ever match the richness and versatility of his voice.
Having experienced dejection and success in proportionate amounts, he finally decided to quit everything and move back to Khandwa. Unfortunately, Kishore Kumar never managed to turn the clock back to the innocent, carefree days when he visited the theatres only to watch big brother act and hear K L Saigal sing. In 1987, he passed away of a heart attack, in the "stupid, friendless city" of Mumbai, far from home.
This article was published in NDTV. Thanks to my dad who is a great fan of Kishore Kumar and injucted same interest in me. I saw almost all his movies and like all most all of his songs. He is a complete entertainer.