Talking to Lata over telephone is something I have done (and done well!) in the past. My last such conversation- a forty-five minutes telephonic interview- took place in 1994. So there has been a full twelve year gap in between. But from others I know for sure that she has read my book (Gaaye Lata Gaaye Lata) and has even expressed satisfaction over it. But somehow I haven’t gathered enough courage to ask her opinion first hand. In fact, I haven’t even called her once in the ensuing years. ‘Stay away from the icon you love’- that has always been my motto. But the years are running out fast and now, I feel it’s high time I renewed my Lata-ties. Taking the opportunity of her upcoming birthday (Oct 28, 2006), I decide to call her up and set up some special interviews, in association with 89.1 Radio 4 FM- a local UAE-based radio station.
It’s the morning 10 o’clock UAE time-meaning 11.30 a.m. IST, when I call her Prabhukunj residence in Mumbai. Someone (I guess it was Usha Mangeshkar!) picks up the phone and inquires about purpose of my call. Then I hear her calling out-“Didi- one Dr. Mandar from Sharjah is on phone. What should I tell him?” I anxiously wait for another twenty seconds, when my receiver comes alive with that legendary voice- “Hello?” Oh my God, she is there! Lata is at the other end of the line! I quickly get over my goose-bumps, give my credentials and come to the point straightaway. “Lataji, this year for your birthday, my website Cinemasangeet.Com and Radio 4 FM-we want to do some special interviews with you. I have called to ask for your approval and appointment if possible.”
Lata is immediately but politely dismissive when she tells me, “Last year, that radio station did a one-hour interview. They had even sent me the CD of that program. This year, I won’t be really doing any more interviews. Nowadays, it has become a tedious job to go through the same questions again and again. To be frank, I have grown tired of interviews. Even the official govt. agencies are after me to record some interviews for archival purposes but I just cannot muster enough energy and enthusiasm to go through those sessions. As it is, I am not a person who enjoys talking for hours! Recently Sonu (Nigam) had called me for an interview on Radio Mirchi. He did it well but otherwise it has become a boring and predictable stuff. Where were you born, how did you train with the father and similar questions! What different questions have you planned? Ask me!”
As Lata suddenly throws this challenge at me, I am totally unprepared. Come on, this is just a phone call to secure an appointment! Now I am dumbfounded at this sudden invitation to ask a ‘different’ question to the melody queen. Still I manage to recover poise and ask her, “How would you describe the ‘Lata style of singing’?” She answers, “What style? I don’t think I created a specific style. I just tried to do full justice to composer’s tune- taking into consideration the (filmic) situation and emotions in that song. Yes, I tried to interpret it according to my own intelligence and sensitivity. That might have made them different.” Then she adds another bit-“Now this is quite similar to a question which I have already answered in earlier interviews!”
I try to salvage the situation by saying- “Lataji, I am interested in finding out what into making of the great songs of the golden era- especially the thought-process or discussions of the singer with different composers. Particularly some early era composers haven’t been talked about much- for example Vinod.” She still keeps hammering me- (in her sweet voice!) and counters, “What the composers were thinking about a song- how could I tell you? You will have to ask them that question. But then who is now remaining from that era? Plus, you have to understand that so many years have passed in between. I might have forgotten a lot of details and then, not every song was associated with some story! Now I worked with Vinod in 1948-49. How would I remember the details?”
For next one minute, I am at my vocal best to convince her how important it is for her to talk about those fading memories-especially since she remains one of the few remaining connections to the golden past of film-music. She patiently listens- even seems moved by the plea (by the slowly fading aloofness in her interjections!) and I find courage to ask her another question. “Listening to Husnlal- Bhagatram feels like listening to Himesh Reshammiya. The same formula rehashed again and again- and yet it is strangely appealing. What do you feel about their music?” She replies- “Husnlal and Bhagatram followed their elder brother Amarnath a lot. They all were classically trained but I don’t feel they could really master the technique for film-music. Their prelude-interlude music always sounded same and that robbed their songs of novelty. That’s why even though once they were such big composers in the industry- today practically nobody remembers their music.”
Encouraged by her first detailed reply, I ask her about the temperamental genius Sajjad. “Is it true that the reason for Sajjad’s decline and fall was his short temper?” Unfortunately, the question touches a raw nerve and Lata retorts- “It is all humbug! I will tell you names of ten other composers who were more temperamental and short-fused. But the film-industry has this nasty habit of spreading such rumours about every one. Sajjad-saab was a very talented musician. He had studied classical music deeply and he also played mandolin beautifully. His songs were always challenging but somehow he could never get it right commercially.”
Still in and counting my precious minutes, I ask a question which has bothered me for years. “Lataji, why didn’t you ever sing for Satyajit Ray’s films? In those years, you were singing regularly in Bengali music.” This question makes her think. Maybe I have managed a ‘different’ question at last! She wistfully says, “I don’t know why it happened. It is always a film-maker’s prerogative to decide who would sing in his film and who would not. From what I have noticed, most of his films didn’t have much of music (songs). I just remember Kishore Kumar singing once for his films- otherwise nothing much.”
Then I re-try my luck to get her agree to do a formal radio-interview by telling her-“The local radio station in UAE is planning a special commemorative program on your classical songs. For that is it possible for you to speak on some of those songs?” Lata comes back to her ‘no-show’ reluctant mode and stumps me by saying-“Which are the classical songs you are talking about? I haven’t sung many. Every time, they (radio-stations) play the same old Manmohana and that’s all.” I try to woo her by asking her in my shocked (and perhaps choked!) voice- “What kind of statement is this? If you haven’t sung classical songs in film-music- who else has?” She sticks to her guns and says-“You can count my classical songs on your fingertips. Yes, I am talking of pure classical music. Off hand, I can just remember the Lalit-song (Preetam daras dikhao from Chacha Zindabad) for Madan Mohan and a few more for Ravi Shankar. If you say semi-classical songs, then perhaps there would be more songs! But I don’t think I can talk much about them. Perhaps next time! Meanwhile, you all can select whichever classical and semi-classical songs you want and talk about them to your heart’s content!”
The last sentence is delivered in half-jest with a perfect Lataian sarcastic punch and a hint of a suppressed laughter. I take my final bow. She is very sweet in her parting pleasantries- promising me something more concrete in near future- when she is a bit less tied up! Now she has to prepare for Navratri, Dasera and there are a few recordings, too! When I keep the phone down- I am a bit disappointed but then, I look at my watch. She has talked to me for almost twenty-five minutes. Not bad- and then, there is the promise of the next interview!