Uma Devi, better known as Tun Tun, always wanted to excel despite several shortcomings that obstructed her resolve. Growing up as an orphaned child in Mathura, with no formal training in singing, she headed to Mumbai in 1946 when she was 13 to meet music composer Naushad because she wanted to sing for the best.
It was precisely this blind ambition that helped her sail through. Uma Devi’s first break as a singer came for the film Wamiq Azra (1946), in which she sang “Hai Do Dil Milte Milte Reh Gaye” on a soundtrack that included Mallika Pukhraj. The achievement encouraged her to approach Naushad, who had the same year given a resounding hit Anmol Ghadi, which featured seasoned performers such as Shamshad Begum, Noor Jehan Zohrabai Ambalewali and Suraiya.
When Uma Devi met Naushad, she joked that if he didn’t give her a chance, she would jump into the Arabian Sea. As it so happened, his bungalow was right across the sea. Naushad heard her for 10 minutes and she was signed on by AR Kardar for Kardar Productions in a binding contract that did not permit her to sing outside the banner. She was too thrilled to contest the terms.
For the film Dard (1947), Uma Devi sang three solos and a duet with Suraiya called “Betaab Hai Dil” for Naushad. Of all the songs in a soundtrack in which the weighty names of Shamshad Begum and Suraiya titled scales in their favour, Uma Devi’s lightweight rendition of “Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon” stands out for its tune and the discovery of a fresh new voice.
Naushad considered Uma Devi a lucky mascot and kept two songs in subsequent films for her. In 1949, when music composer Khemchand Prakash offered her the song “Aayega Aanewala” for the film Mahal, she had to turn it down because of her contract with Kardar Productions.
The song went on to establish Lata Mangeshkar and signalled the beginning of the end for singers with limited tonal quality such as Uma Devi and Shamshad Begum. In the 1948 film Chandralekha, Uma Devi breached her contract to sing classical-based songs for composer S Rajeswara Rao. It was a tightrope act for her, but she was praised for her effort at testing her vocals for raag based compositions.
Kardar terminated the contract. Singing offers slipped away and Uma Devi sought Naushad once again to revive her career as an actress. She wanted a role opposite the best, referring to Dilip Kumar. Naushad laughed and sent the plump actress for a comic role in Babul (1950), which starred Dilip Kumar alongside Nargis.
Uma Devi had the part of chasing Dilip Kumar around, which she did so diligently that she often out-ran him. In the melee, he fell on her and decided to re-christen her Tun Tun for her affable personality. Thus, she began a second innings in films. In playback singing, she is best remembered for “Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon”, which led to a besotted fan asking her hand in marriage. She agreed.