Stars are normally advised to take stardom with a pinch of salt … Saigal took his with a pint of spirits. This singing superstar of the 30s and the 40s became famous for his extremely popular songs like `Gham diye mushtaqil’ and `Dukh ke ab din’ — each number a new elegy to the death of the romantic dream — before eventually drowning his creativity in the numbing depths of inebriety.
The sonorous sweep of Kundal Lal Saigal’s voice still comes back to haunt us on early morning radio even in the ’00s. Almost a century ago, Saigal began life in Jallandhar, Punjab. Adulthood saw this school dropout turn into a typewriter salesman in Calcutta with a monthly salary of Rs 80. His desire to get into the movies was fulfilled when B N Sircar of Calcutta’s premiere studio, New Theatres, signed him on for a princely salary of Rs 200. However, his debut in Mohabbat Ke Aansoo (’32), went unnoticed and it was only with the successful Chandidas (’34), that Saigal attained stardom.
In 1935, Saigal appeared in the career-defining role of Devdas, a dysfunctional drunk who mourns his lost love in a perpetual abyss of despair. Despite his acting limitations, Saigal brought Saratchandra’s desperate character to life. The film was a ground-breaking success. Overcome by the dark eroticism of his brooding looks, that vagrant lock of hair and his nasal singing, women were even reported to have fainted in the theatres. Saigal became the first male superstar of Hindi cinema.
Saigal was no swashbuckler, he was not even conventionally goodlooking; in fact, he always wore a wig to cover his baldness. But people responded to his everyman demeanour and of course to that voice, even when articulating dialogue. In De–vdas, where the married Paro asks Devdas to stop drinking insisting anything is possible, he retorts: “Turn aaj raat mere saath bhaag sakti ho?” (Can you run away with me tonight?) This immortal line was sighed upon by the youth of the 30s as the ultimate in romantic futility.
Devdas, however, was only the first peak that Saigal conquered. Exercising his stardom in an age when studios often exploited stars, he did only one or two films a year for New Theatres. But in keeping with the studio’s erudite reputation, films like President (’37), Street Singer (’38) and Zindagi (’40), were quality films that also attained country-wide popularity. In Bombay the career of singing star Surendra was launched explicitly in answer to the Saigal wave from New Theatres. However, in 1941, Saigal himself left Calcutta for employment at Bombay’s Ranjit Studios at a fantastic salary. Saigal’s popularity was substantiated when Bhakt Surdas and Tansen too proved successful.
Whether in Calcutta or Bombay, the fawning adoration of the public was to a large extent based on songs like ‘Babul mora’, `Soja rajkumari’, and `Diya jalao’. He was pitted against awesomely talented singing-heroines like Kanan Devi and Khurshid but Saigal held his own. So confident was he of his voice that he freely indulged his passion for spicy chutneys and pickles which luckily did not affect his throat.
Another passion that was not as innocuous was alcohol. It is said that Saigal could sing only when fortified with liquor. To the ironic lyrics of his last chartbuster from Shahjehan (’46), ‘Ham jee ke kya karenge’, Saigal chased away his personal demons with increasing quantities of spirits. A last ditch attempt at abstinence could not salvage his failing health and in 1947, he died in his beloved Jallandhar.
After Saigal’s death, his son, also a singer, continued to reside in their ancestral home in Jallandhar. The house, Saigal’s only surviving asset, now stands ravaged and dilapidated. Ironic, considering Saigal once captivated a whole country with his vision of his dream house: `Ek bungla bane nyara.’