Book review

How long must we wait for the definitive Mohammed Rafi biography?

Two new books are too uncritical to add any value to our understanding of the great singer.

Mohammed Rafi is, with the possible exception of the Mangeshi sisters, the best known name from the world of film music across the subcontinent and yet, the definitive biography on the gentleman artist whom everybody loved to love is waiting to be written.

Mohammed Rafi My Abba by Yasmin Khalid Rafi, the singer’s daughter-in-law, was released around four years ago. The memoir was mostly about Rafi the person rather than the celebrity. It described in some detail his early days, his marriage, his relationship with his children, his penchant for changing places of residence until Rafi Villa in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb became his abode, his weakness for trendy cars even though he barely drove, and his humility and benevolence as a person. The book did not quite sketch his life as a performing artist.

Over the past few months, two more biographies have emerged. Sujata Dev’s Rafi book Mohammed Rafi, Golden Voice of the Silver Screen was released in late 2015, and Mohammed Rafi, God’s Own Voice, by Raju Korti and Dhirendra Jain, was up for sale in January.

Dev’s book is a sincere and painstaking effort to gather views from an array of sources such as co-singers, composers, lyricists, actors, musicians and even comperes. Most of the interviews are original, from what one gathers. Rafi’s childhood, his family background, his early career and his last day on earth have been captured in detail and packaged with the aroma of nostalgia. There is a generous collection of photographs, some of which are rare. Dev has also thoughtfully included an introduction by the actor Dilip Kumar, for whom Rafi recorded some of his most immortal numbers. Most importantly, she has the endorsement of Rafi’s youngest and only surviving son Shahid, which gives the book the weight of an authorised biography.

But a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, needs a story. And a story needs a script with characters, sub-plots and conflicts. With so much information on Rafi already widely available, a new book demands something special to make the readers sit up. Mohammed Rafi – The Golden Voice of the Silver Screen puts Rafi on a pedestal of glory right from the beginning, doling out sugary praise page after page. The opportunity for an incisive and impartial analysis has been missed out. The grey shades of the dynamics of the composer-singer equations, the singer-hero camps and the director-singer preferences have not been covered.

For example, a personality like filmmaker Raj Khosla finds no mention, and Chetan Anand, fleetingly so. The critical turning points that lend themselves to deeper scrutiny have been glossed over. Dev’s sub-chapters read like they have been influenced by Choudhary Zia Imam’s short but well-written Hindi book Payambar-e-Mausiki: Mohammed Rafi (2011).

Dev also misses quite a few interesting stories that are not widely known, such as how “Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyar Ke Charche” (Brahmachari, 1968) was rejected by Dev Anand, a real-life qawwali witnessed by Sonik-Omi became “Raaz Ki Baat Keh Doon” (Dharma, 1973), C Ramachandra drafted Rafi to put an end to the playback career of Ashok Kumar, and many more. Notwithstanding the odd nugget, such as Rafi and Manna Dey rendering each other‘s songs at a stage show, one also misses the behind-the-scene anecdotes during composing sessions and recording.

Also, for a music book, there is almost zero technical detailing. Dev focuses too much on statistics, quoting the number of the songs Rafi sang for a particular composer or actor. The numbers do not add up to create the story the reader is pining for. Overall, the effort turns out to be more like an introduction to Rafi, one in which parts of his life have been covered very nicely, but the music plays a secondary role.

Did he really say that?

Mohammed Rafi, God’s Own Voice takes off in a manner that gives the reader the feeling that the much-awaited deep dive is finally going to take place. Co-author Dhirendra Jain had previously authored a book in Hindi on the singer titled Woh Jab Yaad Aaye, which seems to serve as the reference for parts of the new work. The authors have made immense efforts to chart the musical career of Rafi, listing out and discussing a major chunk of his songs. However, as is the case with Dev’s book, the fine-grained analysis is missing. There is far too much reliance on hearsay and myths. Also, the book seems to be written, or rather completed, in a hurried manner. Parts of the book read quite well, while some portions make you feel that the editor had gone on a sabbatical.

A major disadvantage of both books is that the authors are obsessed with proving that Rafi was the greatest in anything he ever did. Dev does not stray beyond what is publicly available. At least excerpts of the interviews she conducted are part of a DVD that has been included with her book. However, Korti and Jain do not provide references to the quotes, some of which are of a debatable nature.

For example, the authors casually pass a remark about Rafi ruling Hindi playback for 25 years, from 1944 to 1969, thereby not only rewriting their own version of history, but also being discourteous to Talat Mahmood, who was the singer to look up to during the first half of the ’50s, and Mukesh, who was equally in demand with Rafi, if not more, in the late ’50s. Rafi’s career, which was on the rise in the ’50s, actually skyrocketed in the ’60s, courtesy composers Shankar Jaikishan and O P Nayyar, and rebel star Shammi Kapoor.

There are also quite a few “he-told-only-us” kind of quotes. According to Korti and Jain, C Ramachandra, who was not exactly a Rafi votary, supposedly earmarked him as “the best singer”. Rafi was never Ramachandra’s favourite by any available account, and all throughout, he had been vocal in his negative opinion of the singer.

Similarly, SD Burman telling Manna Dey that the real “baadshah of classical” (a reference to Rafi) was in Bandra does Manna Dey injustice as well as questions Burman’s erudition. Burman, who was well-versed in classical music, knew the strengths and weaknesses of the singers extremely well. He would have been the last person to put Rafi on a pedestal higher than Manna Dey over the question of classical and semi-classical music. Once again, the authors do not corroborate their statement.

One of the most interesting quotes is by Jaikishan, in which he says that the score for Guide (1965) deserved the Filmfare award over Suraj. While there is hardly any issue about the content of the quote, one wonders what compelled Jaikishan, who died in 1971, to reach out specifically to Korti/Jain, both of whom were at best in school at the time.

The musical journey of Rafi awaits comprehensive documentation. Even in a ruthlessly competitive place like the Bombay film industry, Rafi had no foes. Neither did he lust for money or fame. In fact, he refused to accept royalties and did not know how to sign autographs until later in his career. If there is one public figure India can project as a symbol of secularity, humility, love and talent, Rafi would be the most likely choice. The efforts of Dev, Korti, and Jain will certainly fuel further research into his life and times, but future writers will need to shrug off their fandom to create an all-inclusive story.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal are the authors of Gaata Rahe Mera Dil and R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music.

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