I think it was sometimes during 1935/36 that Sohrab Modi spotted me as a singer. I was then giving performances over the radio. Singing before a mike came quite naturally to me. But when Sohrab Modi told me that I would have to face the camera and enact the role of a court singer, I was a little apprehensive.
The film was Saaed-e-Hawas, a historical – historicals, you may know, were Sohrab Modi’s forte. The music director was the classical musician Bundu Khan popularly known as “Taan-Talwar” Bundu Khan.
The song was a popular ghazal written many years ago by a well known poet. I forget his name … but the words went something like this “Mastonko shem farz hai peena Sharab ka, gutti mein meri padh gaya qatara sharab ka.” (The happy-go-lucky people imbibe liquor for euphoria but I drink because my first morsel of food had a drop of liquor in it). The lyrics were, I agree, beautiful, but the composition by Bundu Khan had overtones of taans which sounded a bit out of place for a ghazal. However, I dare not object since Bundu Khan was sensitive about his compositions.
“We had several rehearsals before the actual picturisation and I was confident that I would sing well before the mike. I just didn’t realize that I would be facing a movie camera for the first time in my life and not just microphone. “On that day, a Friday – it was the most unforgettable day of my life. I went to Minerva Studios two hours before the shooting, humming the tune and telling myself that I could sing the song with ease. I asked for a harmonium and a tabalchi, the rhythm accompanist. After a slight warm-up session I began singing with ease. We went through the rehearsals at least four times. During the fifth rehearsal I was interrupted by an applause and “Wah Wah’s.”
“Beautiful,’ said Bundu Khan. ‘But I think you shouldn’t strain your voice any further. I would like you to remain fresh for the actual shooting.’ ‘Ah, yes!’ said Modi. ‘It’s time you tried out the costume and had your face made up.’ “I had to wear a heavy brocaded robe and also a turban. I was made to sit in front of a large mirror. A person like me who had never even used talcum powder was subjected to an awful lot of grease paint and to top it all the make-up man took out a glaring red lipstick. ‘I am not a woman, I won’t wear that lipstick,’ I protested. ‘Sorry, sir, but this is a must for films. I am afraid you’ll have to,’ he said. I looked at myself in the mirror and was very embarrassed.
“Exactly at 11 a.m. I arrived at the sets. It was gorgeous. There were some extras with liquor glasses in their hands, representing the audience in the durbar of the King. Suddenly I got cold feet. I couldn’t support the musicians. The director, sensing my panic, pointed his finger to a group sitting behind the camera. They waved at me. I felt relieved. But I felt something was missing. There it was! Momentarily blinded by the glare of the arc lamps, I couldn’t spot the mike – it was hanging 10 to 12 feet above my head. When I asked the director if the mike would be able to catch the sound, he laughed. ‘Not only will this mike catch your voice but it will even catch the orchestra which is behind the camera’ he said.
“On the sets, when I had just began singing, Bundu Khan said “Cut,’ and ‘Durrani, tumhari awaz sunayi nahin deti, ooncha gaao’ (Your voice is inaudible, sing louder). “Agar ooncha gaoon to awaz phat jayegi, Mike ko neeche kar deejiye.’ (If I sing louder my voice will crack. Please lower the mike). “‘No,’ screamed the director, ‘if we lower the mike, it will either cast a shadow on the sets or will come within the field of vision.’ It meant that I had to strain my voice. To add to the problem, all that I could hear from the orchestra was the rhythm. After three to four rehearsals, I was ready for the take. The make-up man came and dabbed my face with cotton wool. I was apparently perspiring. But it was more due to the intense heat of the arc lamps than stage fright…
“Those days there wasn’t much scope for hundreds of cuts in the song picturisation. Technically we were at disadvantage. The camera movements were limited to trucking forward and, to some extent, cuts to close-ups or medium shots – my song, I think, was shot in medium shot. “After that I did sign more films, but they are not worth mentioning because by 1939-40 playback singing had been introduced in the films and I was lucky to be one of the first to lend my voice for a film titled Bahurani. The film was made by Sagar Movietone and its music director was my Guru, Rafiq Ghaznavi. I was then working as a fulltime artist in AIR. Those were British days and we were not allowed to do any private recordings. But Rafiq Saab insisted. I laid down some conditions, like; the recording should be fixed on a Sunday night so that no outsiders would be allowed to enter the studio. Secondly, I said my name shouldn’t appear in credit titles or on discs. The song was a duet with Miss Rose, an Anglo-Indian, who didn’t have much experience as a singer.
“I was paid Rs.75 for the song as against my salary of Rs.70 a month at AIR. I chucked up my job on 31st December, 1940. Thereafter I sang for, among others, noted music directors like Naushad, Shankar Rao Vyas and A. R. Qureshi (Better known as Alla rakha, Pandit Ravi Shanker’s famous tabla accompanist) for films like Humlog, Magroor, Shama, Namaste, Sabak and scores of others. Singers like Lata, Geeta Dutt, Shamshad Begum, were the early singers for my duets.
” … What do you think about singing today? I still do sing – but for myself ! Now and then I do some commercials as a commentator, I would like young singers to be given a break – but I do think, even in the very commercial set-up of today’s cinema, they should be committed to singing.’ – By Vijay Padukone
Ek yaad kisi ki, Music – Ghulam Haider, Singers – G.M. Durrani, Film – Shama, Year – 1946