In an otherwise non-controversial career, the row over the payment of royalty is what irked the even-tempered Mohammed Rafi. In the early 60s, Lata Mangeshkar demanded a half-share from the 5% royalty that a film’s producer obtained from the music company. But Rafi did not support her in this argument. A man who continued to be modest about his achievements, Rafi always felt that the playback singer was only re-creating a song and that the credit belongs to the lyricist and the composer. This led to a royal war of words between them prompting Rafi to declare to Lata that he would not sing with her. Lata retorted that she was more than happy not to sing along with him.
The Lata-Rafi spat led to a spate of female singers to their moment of glory, though short-lived, in Bollywood due to Lata’s absence from the scene. Music director Salil Chowdhury was recording the song “Tasveer Teri Dil Mein” for Maya (1961). Lata ended up quarreling with Rafi over the rendition of a certain passage of the song. Chowdhury took Lata’s side which hurt Rafi. It was music director Jaikishen, who brought them together after almost a decade but things were never the same. The personal rapport that they shared was lost forever.
Again, a few years before his death, Rafi contested the claim of Guinness Book of World Records that Lata had recorded the highest number of songs, that is, 25,000 songs. Music aficionados have rubbished this number saying that this is highly exaggerated. But Rafi lost his battle with the Guinness Book.
He passed away at 10.25 pm on 31 July 1980 following a massive heart attack. The last film for which he sang was Ramanand Sagar’s Aas Paas (1981) that starred Dharmendra, Hema Malini and Prem Chopra. The film bombed at the box office.
Over 10,000 people attended his burial. It is not clear if Rafi had undergone any preventive health checkups – had he undergone them, he could have lived for some more years – but can you deny that he had literally overworked himself? The government of India announced a two-day public mourning in his honor.
Lata Mangeshkar, after the singer’s untimely death, profusely praised Mohammed Rafi commenting that the latter’s vocal range was much superior to any other singer. Manmohan Desai likened Rafi’s voice to that of God. Today, Mohammed Rafi has a huge fan following. His songs move his legions of fans.
Rafi was fond of playing badminton, carrom and flying kites. His wife Bilquis Bano was his pillar of support throughout. She was completely distraught after he passed away all of a sudden.
though Rafi accepted the Padma Shri bestowed on him even though many felt that he deserved a Padma Bhushan. Rafi wasn’t too happy when the government of Maharashtra announced 1967 as the year of silver jubilee of Lata Mangeshkar.
In hindsight, it appears that Rafi was the only one who took on Lata Mangeshkar even as everyone else cowered under of the clout wielded by Mangeshkar who literally called the shots in Bollywood then.
There have been singers like Anwar, Shabbir Kumar and Mohammed Azeez who tried to sing like Rafi. But Rafi himself was astounded that Anwar’s voice matched his. Rather than feeling jealous about it, Rafi encouraged Anwar.
Today, Mohammed Rafi has become an icon in Indian film music. There were certain songs that only Rafi could sing because of his innate nature suffused with humanity and egalitarianism. There were no controversies surrounding him despite the fact that he sang with so many women during that era. Female playback singers doted on him because of his protective nature – he was like a guru, a mentor to them. Usha Timothy, Sudha Malhotra, Kamal Barot, Suman Kalyanpur, Sulakshana Pandit - these female singers shared a great rapport with Mohammed Rafi. Mahendra Kapoor remained his devoted chela mentee till he passed away on 30 September 2008.
The Lakshmikant-Pyarelal duo remained forever grateful to Rafi for singing the songs of Dosti and Parasmani – two films that overnight made the composer pair a musical sensation. “Woh Jab Yaad Aaye” and “Chahoonga Main Tujhe” remain eternal favorites among all the music lovers. The love for music transcends all geographical and language barriers and Rafi’s popularity stands testimony to this fact.
It has been more than 40 years since Rafi passed away but the very fact that he is still remembered by all his fans across the world speaks volumes about the great singer that he has. But more than that, he was a great human being. This is what makes him so endearing to all of us.
(This is the concluding part of a three-part series)
(After working in the corporate world for close to two decades, Bhagyalakshmi Seshachalam started her second career innings as a head-hunter. She is passionate about Hindi movies and loves retro music. When her family shifted to Chennai in the 80s, Bhagya had a taste of Tamil cinema too. In the long term, she plans a book on two of her favourite directors – Guru Dutt and K Balachander. She travels across the country on work and is based in Mysore.)