Khemchand Prakash is today remembered for giving Lata Mangeshkar her big break with Aayega Aaanewala (Mahal, 1949). But we tend to forget that it was the same composer who introduced Abhas Kumar Ganguly aka Kishore Kumar as a playback singer in Ziddi (1948). (Technically, Kumar had made his debut in 1946 with the group song O Rangeela from Shikari, under the baton of SD Burman.)

Prakash died in 1950, aged only 42, unable to partake in the success of his wards. It is perhaps only fair then that the first song on our list of 10 offbeat Kishore Kumar tracks is a Khemchand Prakash composition. Jagmag Jagmag Karta Nikla (Rimjhim, 1949) sees the singer in KL Saigal mode. The film was produced and directed by and starred Kishore Sahu, the actor who would go on to play Waheeda Rehman’s archaeologist husband in Guide (1965).

Jagmag Jagmag Karta Nikla, Rimjhim (1949).

There is an interesting story related to Jagmag Jagmag Karta Nikla. When Bimal Roy signed up Kumar as the leading man for Naukri (1954), Kumar insisted he wanted to sing the songs in the film too. But music director Salil Chowdhury would have none of it.

To present his case, Kumar approached the composer with records of two of (what he thought were) his best songs. One of them was Marne Ki Duaen Kyon Maangoon from Ziddi, the other was Jagmag Jagmag Karta Nikla. The composer wasn’t impressed though; he felt Kumar’s singing was “laboured.” (He did relent, as we know.)

One wonders what Chowdhury would have made of the next song on our list, the waltzy Woh Meri Taraf Yun Chale Aa Rahe Hain from Kaafila (1952). The Saigal influence still shows, but one gets the impression that the singer is finding his own voice. Kaafila had music by Husnlal-Bhagatram, and starred Ashok Kumar and Nalini Jaywant. Woh Meri Taraf was written by Vrajendra Gaur, who is remembered more for his screenplay and dialogue writing.

Woh Meri Taraf Yun Chale Aa Rahe Hain, Kaafila (1952).

For Kishore Kumar the actor, 1953 can be considered the breakthrough year. It saw the release of HS Rawail’s Lehren, Shahid Lateef and Ismat Chughtai’s Fareb and MV Raman’s Ladki. Kumar famously got the latter role when the producer-director came away impressed by his acting while they were recording the song Kusoor Aapka for Bahar (the 1951 film that we remember today chiefly for the Shamshad Begum classic Saiyyan Dil Mein Aana Re.) Raman and Kumar would later combine to give one of their biggest hits with Aasha (1957).

With the success of films like Aasha, Kumar’s screen image of the lovable scamp was established. The titles of his films from the 1950s and ’60s tell their own story: Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi; Bhagam Bhaag; Dilli Ka Thug; Bombay Ka Chor; Shararat; Naughty Boy; Man-Mauji; Bewaqoof; Jaalsaaz; Half Ticket. As a viewer, you knew what you were in for. The opening lines of a song from Krorepati (1961) sum it up best: “Dekhne walon thaam lo dil ko; Apna tamasha shuru ho gaya.”

The next song is not one of those boisterous, madcap numbers we associate with those films; in fact, it’s a lullaby. But Rajinder Krishan’s sharp writing makes Chup Ho Jaa (Bandi, 1957) memorable. This was a very popular song of its time, but we hardly get to hear it now.

Chup Ho Jaa, Bandi (1957).

Hemant Kumar, who composed the songs of Bandi, was also the music director of Girlfriend (1960) where Kumar was cast opposite Waheeda Rehman. Girlfriend has at least two brilliant but under-heard songs – Kashti Ka Khamosh Safar Hai, surely one of the great romantic duets; and the soulful solo Aaj Rona Pada To Samjhe. Unfortunately, since we are not including duets here (that deserves a separate piece) and as we already have one Hemant Kumar song, neither features on our list.

We often tend to forget that once his acting career took off, Kishore Kumar only sang for himself and Dev Anand, a friendship that went all the way back to Ziddi. The only exception he seems to have made was when he agreed to sing the Rabindranath Tagore song Aami Chini Go Chini Tomare in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata (1964).

The next song on our list is also from 1964, the charming but overlooked Chand Chup-chaap Hai, composed by C. Ramchandra for the Kumar-Nimmi starrer Daal Mein Kala.

Chand Chup-chaap Hai, Daal Mein Kala (1964).

By the late ’60s, however, after a string of flops, Kumar’s acting career was in a tailspin. (His personal life wasn’t in great shape either.) The Burmans came to his rescue, allowing him the space to transition from an actor-singer to a full-fledged playback singer who occasionally dabbled in acting.

The ’70s belonged to Kishore Kumar the singer. Today, these songs are an integral part of our lives. However, given the sheer volume of songs, it is not surprising that there are several outstanding tracks that have largely escaped notice.

Take, for instance, the slowed-down version of Rang Doonga Sabko from Andhera (1975), an early Ramsay Brothers film. The composers Sonik-Omi did some really admirable work in a series of forgotten, mostly B-grade films in the ’70s, and this is one of their best. I would also highly recommend two other Kumar solos for the same composer duo: Roop Ki Woh Taksaal from the deliciously named Doctor X (1972), and the absolutely delightful Tumhari Berukhi Se (Yauwan, 1973).

Rang Doonga Sabko, Andhera (1975).

Rang Doonga Sabko featured Sameer Khan, the younger sibling of Sanjay and Feroz Khan. While his career never took off, he was fortunate enough to get a handful of very good Kishore Kumar songs in his brief foray. As was Deb Mukherjee, the younger brother of Joy Mukherjee. (In his case, I would particularly recommend Yeh Dil Sada from Aansoo Ban Gaye Phool, 1969.)

Among other Kumar featuring lesser-known actors in the ’70s and which deserve to be better known, there is the languorous Baadal Kaala Koyal Kaali (Ang Se Ang Lagana, 1974), which was composed by Pradeep Roy Chowdhury and featured Satish Kaul on screen. Then there’s the spirited Hum Log Hain Aise Deewane (Umang, 1970), featuring Satish and a certain Subhash Ghai.

And let’s not forget those two Chitragupt stunners, Chanda Ki Kirnon Se (Intezar, 1972) and the title song of Saaz Aur Sanam (1971).

The next song on our list features Mahendra Sandhu, who is remembered, if at all, for his turn as the original Agent Vinod. Yeh Mehfil Yun Hi Sajegi is a groovy, RD Burmanesque number by Sapan-Jagmohan, and snugly fits into the criminally underrated category.

Yeh Mehfil Yun Hi Sajegi, Aaj Ki Dhara (1979).

When Ashok Kumar made his debut in 1936 with Bombay Talkies’s Jeevan Naiya, playback singing was yet to catch on. So he sang in the film under Saraswati Devi’s baton.

Kishore Kumar, a Saigal devotee, was unimpressed by his brother’s singing abilities. However, one of the film’s songs seems to have made a deep impression on him. Years later, while composing for Jhumroo (1961), he retained the same tune and mukhda for what would become one of his most-loved songs, Koi Humdum Na Raha.

Kumar sang for two female music directors. The first, of course, is Usha Khanna. The other is Sharda Iyengar, the singer who (inexplicably, some would say) achieved brief fame in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Three of her compositions for the singer – Kabhi Khili Dil Ki Kali (Garibi Hatao, 1973); Suryamukhi Hai Mukhda Tera (Tu Meri Main Tera, 1973) and Andhe Safar Mein (Kshitij, 1974) – remain largely unknown, and I cannot recommend them enough. The next song on our list, though, is one of Usha Khanna’s more obscure contributions.

Tere Jaisa Koi Dekha, Pyar Ki Manzil (1981).

Khanna also composed the dreamy Bas Qayamat Ho Gayi (Haye Mera Dil, 1968). Strongly reminiscent of another Kumar song, Khoobsoorat Haseena (Mr X In Bombay, 1964), it starts off with lines that could well serve as the singer’s epitaph: “Duniya kehti mujhko paagal; Arre, main kehta duniya ko paagal.”

The singer’s madness was on full display in 1985 when he suddenly announced he wanted to stop singing. He was going back to his hometown Khandwa, he declared, where he intended to “spend all afternoon swinging in a hammock under a mango tree”.

The announcement sent shockwaves through an industry that was yet to recover from Mohammed Rafi’s demise. Why would Kumar want to do this? Yes, two heart attacks had slowed him down, but the voice was still going strong, as is evident from this unheralded Rajesh Roshan zinger from Ulta Seedha (1985).

Dakan Ki Ek Haseena, Ulta Seedha (1985).

Ultimately, Kishore Kumar did not carry out his threat to retire and move to Khandwa. But, two years later, he was gone forever. “In response to the question ‘After Kishore, who? all that could be heard was the echo of the dead singer’s rich and resonant voice,’” wrote an India Today journalist.

It was not only the echo that resonated. The voice itself was heard as films for which he had recorded songs kept releasing for some years. A real find from the post-1987 phase is the buoyant Yeh Sach Hai from the obscure Wafaa (1990) starring Farooque Shaikh and Vijayta Pandit. Another standout is Tanha Main Akela from Dev Anand’s extraordinarily asinine Sachche Ka Bolbala (1989).

But my pick is Mann Kare Yaad Woh Din, a soulful Salil Chowdhury composition from the Mithun Chakraborty starrer Aakhri Badla (1989). (Another lesser-known Chowdhury composition I would highly recommend is the upbeat Mil Gayi Achanak Mujhe from the little-remembered 1981 film Agni Pareeksha, which had Amol Palekar and Rameshwari as the leads.)

Mann Kare Yaad Woh Din, Aakhri Badla (1989).

Among the films Kishore Kumar had recorded some songs for but which never saw light of day was his home production Pyar Ajnabi Hai, featuring him and fourth wife Leena Chandavarkar. The film had at least two solos, including a ghazal, Hamari Zid Hai, which, according to Amit Kumar, was written on the spot by lyricist Yogesh when Kumar had a flash of inspiration while recording the title song.

For the final song on our list, however, we go back to the ’50s, to yet another unfinished home production with the actor-singer and his second wife in the lead. Madhubala’s ill-health meant that Neela Aasmaan was never made. And the pared-down, moody, brilliant Akela Hoon Main remained largely unknown. Written and composed by Kumar, the song also reveals another side to the man, one that has largely remained hidden behind his exuberant screen persona and innumerable stories of his eccentric behavior, what Javed Akhtar has referred to as his “mask”.

Akela Hoon Main, Neela Aaasmaan, unreleased.