First playback voice
The 1929-born singer enters her 85th year on September 28, and has been the first voice of choice for multiple top heroines down the years. Strangely enough, her reputation as the first playback voice of actresses began only when she was past 30 – as the dew-fresh vocalist of a fragile Saira Banu in her debut film Junglee (1961) in the twinkle-toed 'Kashmir ki kali hoon main' as well as the sober 'Ehsaan tera hoga'.
Yes, she was the magical voice of debutant Nimmi in the timeless 'Hawa mein uddta jaaye' from the 1949 Barsaat, but after that point, strangely enough, Lata was never considered the vocal prima donna for new heroines, despite also being Nutan's first voice in the 1950 Hamari Beti (though she shared the onus with Geeta Dutt and Nutan herself) and that of Nanda in her first adult role in Toofan Aur Diya (1956). Later, Lata Mangeshkar was to become the most frequent choice of composers for – besides Nutan herself – Vyjayanthimala, Waheeda Rehman, Asha Parekh and Sadhana in particular, but each of these heroines had other playback singers in their debut films!
After Saira Banu, the number of heroines for whom Lata was the voice fell into two categories: those with whom she was only the playback singer in the songs they had in the film and those with whom she collaborated on true-blue musical blockbusters.
It was Lata Mangeshkar who sang the maiden songs of Babita (Raaz in 1967, that had 'Akele hain' in the female version and two other songs), shared Hema Malini's debut ('Seekha nahin sabak' and 'Nadaan ki dosti' from 1969's Sapnon Ka Saudagar) with singer Sharda, and rendered the first songs filmed on Raakhee (the evergreen 'Jhilmil sitaron ka' from the 1970 Jeevan Mrityu).
Yogeeta Bali (in the haunting hit 'Tere bina jiya na lage ' and others from Parde Ke Peechey in 1971), Zeenat Aman (in the melodious and popular duet 'Suraj se jo kiran ka naata' in the 1971 Hungama before Hare Rama Hare Krishna), Moushumi Chaterjee (in her first release Anuraag in 1973 and her first signed film, Kucche Dhaage, which released a few months later), Tina Munim ('Aap kahen aur hum na aaye' and 'Jaisa des waisa bhes' from the 1978 Des Pardes) and Poonam Dhillon ('Gapuji gapuji gam gam' in Trishul the same year) were other new actresses who started out with Lata till the late '70s.
In 1981, Lata was Vijayeta Pandit's main voice in Love Story ('Yaad aa rahi hai' and others, though Asha too sang a song for the actress). With Asha again came Jawaani (1984) that introduced Neelam, and Lata was again the only singer for Farha in Faasle (1985).
There was also the debutant Meenakshi Seshadri in Painter Babu (1983) and Manisha Koirala in Saudagar (1991), in which Lata 'shared' her with two young singers but nevertheless sang the immortal 'Teri yaad aati hai' and 'Radha nachegi.'
Finally, even though Ramya Krishnan had enacted a hit song in Dayavan in a cameo, her first leading role was in Parampara (1993) in which Lata sang one of her own last sizzlers – 'Tu saawan main pyaas piya'.
With other debutant heroines, Lata Mangeshkar and her diverse composers and filmmakers were to come up with musical milestones. The list is long, and it begins with Dastak (1971), in which Lata delivered three brilliant numbers, 'Mai re main kaase kahoon', 'Hum hai mataa-e-kuchaa-o-bazaar ki tarah' and 'Baiyan na dharo' as part of a four-song score that clinched Madan Mohan the National Best Music award. All these popular beauties were filmed on Rehana Sultan.
Dimple Kapadia was next, in that dazzling teenage musical Bobby (1973) that saw Raj Kapoor patch up with Lata Mangeshkar under maestros Laxmikant-Pyarelal. Kapoor could not visualize the film minus his pet voice with whom he had been estranged for almost a decade. Cult anthems like 'Hum tum ek kamre mein band ho' and 'Jhoot bole kauwa kaate' resulted in this record-breaking score.
L-P also used Lata with stunning effect for two Southern imports, Jayapradha being the mute dancer who sang in her dreams in the 1979 Sargam, and Rati Agnihotri as the spunky Punjabi maiden in love in the 1981 Ek Duuje Ke Liye (in which one song was sung by Anuradha Paudwal). 'Dafliwale' from the former movie, and 'Tere mere beech mein' from the latter became endemic hits that led these two all-popular scores.
R.D. Burman added his bit for Amrita Singh in the superb songs of Betaab (1983), led by the delicious duet with Shabbir Kumar, 'Jab hum jawan honge'.
It was in 1985 that Raj Kapoor introduced yet another star, Mandakini, in his dream film Ram Teri Ganga Maili. Six of the eight songs in the film were lip-synched by the actress, all in Lata's voice. 'Sun sahiba sun', Tujhe bulaye', 'Ram teri Ganga maili' and 'Ek Radha ek Meera', the four solos among them, were specially loved then and endure to this day, like most of Lata's songs in this list. Under the same banner, Lata vocally 'introduced' two more leading ladies, Pakistan's Zeba Bakhtiar, and Marathi film import Ashwini Bhave in Henna (1991) under the same RK banner. And the nation reverberated to magnificent numbers like 'Main hoon khushrang Henna', 'Anar dana', 'Chitthiye' and 'Jaanewale o jaanewale' filmed on Zeba and 'Der na ho jaaye' and 'Main der karta nahin' on Ashwini.
That Lata is the nightingale of India is as well-known, perhaps, as New Delhi being our capital! But the reasons why Lata was the first choice in so many cases had to do with three aspects: her huge range, her capacity to reinvent – with composers, time and trends – and her commercial status, which actually was because of the first two qualities!
All those years of training under her father Dinanath Mangeshkar and the various composers who tirelessly honed her singing skills – Anil Biswas, Datta Davjekar, Ghulam Haider, Naushad, Husnlal-Bhagatram, Shyam Sunder and Khemchand Prakash among the most important – bore fruit not just for her but to millions of music lovers.
Her own matchless dedication, riyaaz and detailed observation of singing greats like K.L. Saigal, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Ustad Amir Khan and Noorjehan added to her armamentarium to finally create the icon that was Lata.
And so it was that a bevy of giant composers too could not imagine starting out without her as the solo or principal singer – Shankar-Jaikishan (Barsaat), Kalyanji Virji Shah (Samrat Chandragupta), R.D.Burman (Chhote Nawab), Laxmikant-Pyarelal (Parasmani), Rajesh Roshan (Kunwara Baap) and finally Shiv-Hari (Silsila).
As someone once said, "There is only one sun, one moon, and one Lata!"