“Hi, do you know that Shailu is here? You had told me last time that you wanted to meet him.” I am quite perplexed when I get this call from my ex-college-mate, who now happens to be one of UAE's leading dermatologists. I am well-aware of her effusive speaking manner but still cannot really make head or tail of who this 'Shailu' might be! Thankfully she enlightens me, “Arre, it's Shailendra Singh- yaar! After his daughter's wedding he will be staying in Dubai for next few weeks. He happens to be a good family-friend and I can set you up for an interview.”
A middle-aged Shailendra Singh marrying off his daughter! I somehow cannot come to terms with that image. In my mind I can only see him as a tall, handsome young man with a playful romantic voice. The man, who as a singer, sang 'Main Shaayar To Nahi' for Bobby's Rishi Kapoor and as a hero, romanced Rekha in Agreement. The icon from my impressionable school-days. Then the realization sinks in. Time has moved forward by almost four decades from those heady years in the 70s! I eagerly tell my friend to get me an appointment for an interview.
On the day of the interview, as usual, I am lost finding my way in Dubai's plush Jumeira locality. It is almost 4 pm, when I finally locate the villa where the singer-actor is currently staying. A house-servant ushers me into a big living room. As Shailendra Singh walks in, I notice that his tall handsome looks are still very much intact. When he starts talking, I find that even his voice still retains its youthful charm. The man has certainly aged well.
Speaking to him is a pleasure. He is friendly, funny and candid. And yes, his impromptu imitations of other artistes are plain hilarious! Taking a trip down the memory lane, he shares with me many moments from his career. A checkered career, which saw spectacular successes and frustrating failures.
Here are the excerpts from our hour-long interaction.
Let's begin with your selection process as Bobby's lead singer. How did that happen?
My father was the In-charge of publicity for Rajshri Films. He had a friend called Mr. V. P Sathe, who was the owner of Bombay Publicity and who also was a script-writer for RK films. It was Mr. Sathe, who first recommended my name to Raj-saab (Raj Kapoor).
What were you doing at that time?
I came from a filmi background and had aspirations to become an actor. When you are young, the mirror tells you that you have a handsome face to become a star- I also got wrapped in the same misconception. I had joined Pune's Film Institute in 1971. The next year, I was called to Bombay by my father and Sathe- saab, who told me that RK was searching for a new voice.
What was your musical background back then?
Back then, I was also formally learning music. I have always had strong musical connections in my family. My mother was a good singer, even though she never sang professionally. One of my maternal uncles was a renowned Tabla-player and another was a noted music critic.
But how come your singing prowess got noticed at that time?
That time, HMV had released a few of my ghazals on records and even though those ghazals never made it big, they did get me noticed.
How was your first meeting with Raj- saab?
It was Raj- saab, who selected me as the new voice. In our first meeting, I sang some ghazals for him and he liked the quality of my voice. He asked me my name and when I said – 'Shailendra Singh', he very happily said, 'Aaj tumne mere yaar ki yaad dila dee!' (Today, you reminded me of my friend!) The late lyricist Shailendra was his favourite friend.
Raj-saab then took me to Laxmikant- Pyarelal and told them that I would be the new singer for Bobby. LP were working for the first time with RK and naturally they were quite apprehensive about trying out a newcomer. They had wanted Rafi-saab to sing those songs. There were also other singers like Amit Kumar, Mehboob Chauhan and Ajit Singh in the fray. But Raj-saab was insistent that he wanted only my voice. It was he who assured LP that I would do fine!
But the selection process went on for a quite a few months, as in between Raj- saab was very busy in his family affairs. That was the time when his father (Prithviraj Kapoor) and mother passed away one after another and even, Dabboo's (Randhir Kapoor) marriage took place. Finally in the late June of 1972, my first song for Bobby was recorded.
What was that song?
It was Main Shhayar To Nahi. It had to be a big hit – not because I sang it but because at the time of that recording, Lataji (Lata Mangeshkar) came there to bless me and she broke the auspicious coconut before that recording ! What else could I have dreamed of? Because for me, music begins and ends with her voice! I can't think of any other female voice beyond her and when she came there personally to give her blessings, I already knew that song would be a big hit!
Later in the same film, I also got a chance to sing duets with her and Manna Dey. I don't think any other singer has ever got a better break than what I had in Bobby! Yes, there may have been many better singers than me but no one has ever got such a fabulous break – not even Rafi and Kishore!
How was it like working with masters like LP?
Pyarelal mainly looked after the orchestration and arrangement and he was a real master in that. He was a soft-spoken man and stayed in the background. Laxmiji (Laxmikant) used to teach me the new tunes and he'd take my rehearsals. For Main Shaayar To Nahi, I had rehearsed for around 2 weeks before he was satisfied. He was not at all strict and was quite easygoing and fun to work with. Chewing on his paan and tobacco, he would mischievously ask – 'Aur aaj kal kyaa chal raha hai?' (What's going on nowadays?) He was a Maharashtrian and would call me – Shailendra Sinh.! After explaining the song's situation, mood and lyrics, he would just say- “Ab aage tu jamaa de!” (Now you add your own colour to the song!) He was very particular about the singer's voice- throw and he always said that I had a good throw of voice!
In Bobby, you sang many popular duets with Lataji. As a rank newcomer, how was your experience of singing with the melody queen?
I was just nineteen when I sang for Bobby but Lataji never made me feel that I was a newcomer. The first song that we sang together was Chaabhi Kho Jaaye. If you remember that song, it begins without any musical cue. So it was important to get that first note right. In Famous Studio we were rehearsing and I sang the first line – 'Baahar Se Koi Anadar Naa Aa Sake'. Immediately Lataji said, 'You are correctly singing the note'.
I have one peculiar trait in me that I never get nervous in front of anybody. I have always followed my Guruji's advice that as a co-singer, never take anybody lightly and never feel small in front of anybody. In addition, I have always had a mischievous streak in me. So immediately after Lataji's comment, I said to her - “Oh, that note had to come right. Otherwise you would have thrown me out of here!” With a sweet 'Nahi Nahi Nahi'- denial, she lapsed into laughter!
One problem, which I initially faced while singing with her was that even while standing next to her, I could not hear her voice. That means I could just see her lips move but her sound only could be heard on the speaker. That is her special gift as a singer. Slowly I learned to co-ordinate my lines by looking at her lip movements while singing.
How do you analyze her singing success?
I feel that in commercial singing, the thinner female voices sound the best on the mike. Lataji has such a piccolo voice, which straightaway pierces through the heart. Musicality, expression, pronunciation – she is simply the best in every department. I especially love her songs like Kucchh Dil Ne Kahaa and Jaa Re Jaa Re Ud Jaa Re Panchhi. Whenever we sang together, the song was a big hit.
I think the beginning conversational piece 'Pahle Tum Pahle Tum' in the Bobby- duet 'Aksar Koi Ladka' is done superbly.
Yes, that was quite a long conversational piece, which needed to be done in tune and in beat and it was okayed in the first take. The main song needed a few retakes. Dabboo liked my singing a lot in that particular song!
How was your relationship with Rishi Kapoor?
He is exactly one month older to me. He is born on 4th September and I on 4th October. We immediately struck great friendship, which continued throughout. Before Bobby, he was quite overweight and was asked to lose weight by Raj- saab. But within six months, Rishi became slim and trim to suit the role!
How was the success of Bobby like?
In those days, there was no television. People only had radios. After Bobby was released, wherever I went, I started hearing only my songs on the radio. I remember that back then once I had gone to Kolkata for a Durga -puja show. In every street, Pooja festivities were going on and everywhere only Bobby- songs were being played at full blast on loud-speakers! It was a heady feeling. Anyone else in my place would have got a swollen head after that but I was raised into being level-headed. Only that's why I could maintain my sanity!
Raj-saab had organized my interviews in every major Indian daily and magazine. On the same day that we recorded Main Shaayar To Nahi, Raj-saab had organized the Muhurat Party. I finished the recording in Navrang Studio and then went home in Worli to change into a suit for the party. When I came for the party, practically every big name in film and music industry was there. Shankar- Jaikishan, R.D. Burman, Madan Mohan, Feroz Khan – you name them and they were there.
In that party, Rishi, Dimple and I were made to stand on high wooden benches. Raj- saab first introduced the leading pair to the audience and sought everyone's blessings. He then came to me and said, “And this is today's star, whose song you are now hearing in the background.” He praised me a lot and then garlanded me. I have still kept the photograph of that memorable moment!
In that party, he later told me, “Beta, you will become a big star now. But you remember one thing for life. When you are climbing the ladder of success, never forget to bow before the people who are coming down!”
Tell us about your Film Institute (FTII) experience.
I joined the Film Institute in 1971 and passed out in 1973. We had a good batch with people like Shabana Azmi, Rita Bhaduri, Zareena Wahab and Kanwaljeet Singh.
Mr. Taneja, who had been trained in LA, US, had introduced an acting course based on those training methods. We had different subjects like diction, movement, improvisation, film appreciation and even Katthak dancing! Later we had to act in short films. Former alumni like Danny, Asrani, Jaya (Bhaduri), Radha Saluja and Navin Nischal used to come as teachers and examiners for us. Then there was a beautiful dance- teacher Mandakini Malviya, who was every male student's favourite!
For our music exam, I had sung a duet with Shabana. We had sung Gum Hain Kisike Pyaar Mein from Rampur Ka Laxman. In our Film Appreciation exam, we were shown Anand. I remember that I had surprised the examiner by telling him that I appreciated Amitabh's role more! I had explained to him that Rajesh Khanna's title- role, brilliant as it was, was an author-backed one. But the way Amitabh had portrayed the doctor's introvert nature and frustration was something special.
Now the heady days of institute are long over but still I keep going back there to soak in that atmosphere.
After passing out of the institute, were you in any dilemma whether to pursue acting or to concentrate only on singing?
No, I was quite clear in my mind that I wanted singing as my main profession. But since I had already done the acting course and also kept getting offers to act, I ended up acting in 3- 4 films. I took those acting offers more to satisfy my hobby rather than as a passion.
Did your acting hamper your singing opportunities?
No, I don't think so. I think the only reason my singing career suffered only because some people in the industry did not want me to sing and they made sure of that!
Your partnership with Rishi Kapoor was something that never reached its full potential. Why did that happen and how did that affect your career?
I do agree with your observation. It all started from Khel Khel Mein. I had recorded the first song Humne Tumko Dekha for the film but Kishore sang rest of the songs. Rishi first objected to that change but finally agreed. I think that he should not have agreed! Because once that happened, doors were opened for other singers to come in. So later on, singers like Rafi-saab and Suresh Wadkar also started singing for Rishi. No doubt, all these singers did a good job but I still feel that my voice suited Rishi the best and if we had continued our partnership, it would have benefited my career as well his.
Time and again, I lost major opportunities to sing for Rishi. In Zehreela Insaan, I had recorded the first two songs. Later we had rehearsed and were all set to record the song O Hansini. But when RD and myself reached Film Centre, we were told that musicians' strike had begun. That postponed the recording for two months and after that the song got recorded in Kishoreda's voice! Even in Saagar, I was told by Ramesh Sippy that I would be singing for Rishi and Balu (S.P. Balasubramaniam) would be singing for Kamal Hassan. But after I recorded the first song Paas Aao Na, it was Kishore who sang the rest of the songs for Rishi!
But your were a good friend of R.D. Burman. Didn't you ask him why he changed the singers midway?
Yes, I asked him the reasons and he offered some. But they were not very convincing.
Perhaps it was because as a friend, he was closer to Kishore.
Yes, that is quite possible.
How was the overall experience of working with RD?
It was real fun working with RD and his team. I had first met him in that Bobby- launching party but got my first chance to work with him in Khel Khel Mein. I was really thrilled when I was first called to sing for him; because in the industry everyone eagerly waited for such a call!
For my first rehearsal, I went to meet him at his home, a nice terrace flat. After the initial greetings, he coolly asked me, “Kuchh peeta veeta hai?” (Do you drink or not?) I said, “ Haan, kabhi kabhi.” (Yes, occasionally.) He was pleased and said, “Baithenge phir kabhi.” (We will sit together sometime.) After two weeks of rehearsals, we had our first evening drinks together and from then on, it was a great friendship. He liked to socialize with his singers.
As a composer, he was very careful about making the singer comfortable. He composed tunes in the scale which perfectly suited that particular singer's pitch and range, unlike some other composers who made the singers unnecessarily stretch their vocals! Rehearsals were carried out in extremely relaxed manner with jokes and anecdotes flying around all the time. He would keep saying- “Haan- abhi 95% aa raha hai. Aur thoda try karte hain.” (Yes, now we are 95% okay. Let's try for a little more.) Only when he was fully satisfied, he would say, “Ab 100% hai. Let's record it.” (Now it is 100%. let's record it.)
Tell us about your experiences with other major composers and singers of that era.
I did not work much with Kalyanji Anandji. I don't know why that happened and I am sure that even if you ask them, they would not tell you the reason. Perhaps they just did not like my singing! Ravinndra Jain gave me some very good songs in Do Jasoos and Ankhiyon Ke Jharonkhon Se. Ram Laxman composed some good tunes for me in Tarana and Saanch Ko Aanch Nahi. Bappi was a talented composer but then he got into the South and Disco- rut. He would lift the whole tune as it is, not just the refrain or the stanza. I once jokingly said to him, “Other composers just adapt tunes, you 'adopt' them!”
Shankarji (of the Shankar- Jaikishan team) was the one who introduced me to my musical Guru – Chhote Iqbal. It was Shankarji again who helped me get the admission in St. Xaviers College. He just took me to the Principal's office and told him, “Father, this boy would come in useful for your Music Circle.”
I consider myself very fortunate that I got opportunity to wok with all these greats. Even if you look at the singers, I got a chance to sing with practically every legend. Lataji, Ashaji, Manna Day, Mukeshji, Rafi-saab, Kishoreda --- I have sung songs with every one of them.
Let's come to your acting stint. How was that experience?
Rajendra Kumar was a family friend as my father Jogendra Singh, (who was earlier V. Shantaram's Chief Assistant Director), had been instrumental in giving him the break in films. Once Rajendraji told me that his brother Naresh Kumar was making a film and he was in search of a newcomer actor. He knew that I had just completed my Film Institute course. I accepted the offer and that's how I came to be in Do Jasoos.
Mehmood was also a family friend and at his insistence, I ended up doing guest appearances in films like Naukar and Janta Hawaldar. My father had produced Agreement, which was a comedy where I worked with Rekha, who had graciously accepted the role as my heroine.
In Bengali, I did one film where I played the role of a singer. I was paired there with Aparna Sen. That was an interesting film, which did not run at the box-office but its music (by Shyamal Mitra) is still quite popular.
First Bobby in the 70s, then Zamane Ko Dikhana Hai in the 80s, then Gurudev in the 90s. Your singing career had many crests but each of them was followed by a trough, a lull in your career. Why did that happen?
It was fate, what else? After Gurudev, I was admitted in the hospital with the problem of Diabetes. Somebody started a rumour that I was admitted for an open heart by-pass surgery and that I won't be able to sing again! In our industry, people never confirm facts, they just believe them! This rumour affected my career a lot. Till today many people from the industry dumbly keep asking me about my poor health and I feel like slapping them!
How did you deal with frustration of failure?
If there was someone else in my place, he could have committed suicide! After experiencing so much success outright in your career, it is not at all easy to deal with the frustration of failure. One needs a heart of steel to do that. Luckily I have always been level-headed and have dealt with success and failure with equanimity. I have always tried to follow the philosophy Main Zindagi Ka Saath Nibhaata Chalaa Gayaa Har Fikr Ko Dhuen Mein Udaataa Chalaa Gayaa. Yes, it is not at all easy but I have tried my best.
So what lessons have you learnt in life from the film-industry?
I have learnt an important lesson in life that there are no permanent friends here! And one should never expect gratefulness from people he is helping. I have helped so many upcoming composers to establish in the industry but practically no one bothered to acknowledge that. They hardly, if ever, called me to sing for them once they were established.
What do you feel about today's music?
I don't think there is any music left today. Melody, words, voices – everything has changed for the worse. Today there is no composer in the true sense; most of them are just keyboard players and sound recordists!
Tell us a few of your favourite songs- some of your own and some sung by others.
From my own songs, I would pick Main Shaayar To Nahi, Goonche Lage Hain Khilne and an unreleased song from RD's Sitamgar. I had literally whispered in the mike for this last-mentioned song. Ashaji had liked it so much that she called at 11.30 pm to tell me that I should the same singing style in every song! But the song was not released on the record and was replaced by another song by Kishoreda in the film!
From the songs of others, I would choose Rafi-saab's Tere Mere Sapne Ab Ek Rang Hai; Manna Da's Aye Mere Pyaare Watan, Hemantda's Yeh Nayan Dare Dare and Mukesh's Sajnawa Bairi Ho Gaye Hamaar. The last-mentioned song was the first ever song I rendered on stage. I was just a school-boy back then and I had won the first prize for that song!