He was impossibly photogenic no matter which angle he was filmed from. He appeared with leading actresses Madhubala, Suraiya, Mala Sinha, Nadira and Nutan in Hindi movies. Thespian Dilip Kumar was in awe of his chivalrous personality. And yet, fans did not actually want to see him as much as they wanted to hear his velvety voice. Talat Mahmood is the first name in ghazal singing, and also its brightest star.
He was born in February 1924 in Lucknow into a family that did not encourage his interest in singing. Against their wishes, he enrolled at the Marris College of Music in the city, and began singing for All India Radio at age 16. Picking up the ghazals of poets such as Mir Taqi Mir, Daag Dehlvi and Jigar Moradabadi, his voice clicked immediately. Within a year, the music label HMV signed Mahmood for a disc recording. His first song, “Sab Din Ek Samaan Nahi Tha,” was written by Fayyaz Hashmi and composed by Subal Dasgupta. When it was being recorded, music director Pankaj Mallick happened to be in the studio. He made the young man an offer to move to Kolkata and act in films. But Mahmood had unfinished business in Lucknow. He completed his course in music.
It wasn’t until Mahmood sang “Tasveer Teri Dil Mein Behla Na Sakegi,” written by Hashmi and composed by Kamal Dasgupta, in 1944 for HMV that the vibrato entered his voice. It marks a distinct shift from his adolescent voice, which emulated his idol K L Saigal’s nasality. In “Tasveer Teri Dil Mein,” Mahmood identified a tingling, quavering pitch that became a hallmark of his style. One lakh copies of the record were sold. A star was born.
Mahmood later met Mallick and reminded him of the acting offer. Rajlaxmi (1945), Tum aur Main (1947) and Samapti (1949) were rolled out, featuring him in the lead role. The movies gave listeners a face to admire along with the honeyed voice. Mahmood also sang non-film Bengali songs under the name Tapan Kumar. “Ei Rim Jhim Jhim Barasha” was hugely popular.
His songs were doing well, but his films were not. Mahmood moved to Mumbai in 1949, and more movies followed: Dil-e-Nadaan (1953), Dak Babu (1954), Waris (1954), Raftaar (1955), Deewali Ki Raat (1956), Ek Gaon Ki Kahani (1957), Lala Rukh (1958) and Sone Ki Chidiya (1958). His singing was hailed, but his acting not so much. Mahmood took the hint and decided to concentrate on his voice.
During this period, he was also crooning for the leading men of the decade, Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor. “Aye Dil Mujhe Aisi Jagah Le Chal,” written by Majrooh Sultanpuri and composed by Anil Biswas for Arzoo (1950), established Mahmood as the voice of Dilip Kumar.
Eminent film and music critic Raju Bharatan wrote in his book A Journey Down Memory Lane about Mahmood’s supreme quality of voice, which made everyone from Lata Mangeshkar to Kishore Kumar nervous. Mangeshkar, in particular, dreaded singing duets with Mahmood because she felt that his rich and smooth voice would render hers dull in comparison. Kumar remarked, “I think I better give up singing! How do I match your Urdu diction and inflexion, your soz (ardour)?”
Mahmood had set the bar very high when he sang “Dil-E-Nadaan” with singer and co-actor Suraiya in Mirza Ghalib (1954) for music composer Ghulam Mohammed. So perfect was Mahmood’s Urdu diction that he was crestfallen when composer Khayyam chose Mohammad Rafi to sing Mirza Ghalib ghazals for a 1969 album. Mahmood remarked, “How could a Punjabi possibly sing Ghalib?”
Mahmood sang over 700 songs in his career, including a rare solo “Kadale Neelakadale” in the Malayalam film Dweepu for composer MS Baburaj. His last recording was “Mere Shareek-e-Safar”, a duet with Hemlata, for the film Vali-E-Azam (music by Chitragupta). Lyricist Ahmed Wasi writes, “Mere shareek-e-safar, ab tera Khuda hafiz” (My companion in this journey, I take your leave now). It turned out to be Mahmood’s swan song. He died on May 9, 1998, at the age of 74.