The first thing that strikes one when you hear Geeta Dutt sing was that she never sang. She just glided through a tune. Of all her contemporaries her musical training was perhaps the sketchiest but what she lacked in training and technique, she more than made up with her ability to breathe life and emotion into any song she was singing. To quote Raju Bharathan, Music Critic…
“Geeta Dutt was thandi hawa and kaali ghata rolled into one. The moment she came, you got the refreshing feeling of aa hi gayi jhoom ke. There was a rare swing in her voice. She hit you like a thunderclap……….This made Geeta Dutt the one singer that Lata Mangeshkar really feared. In training and technique Lata was way ahead but neither training nor technique was of much use when pitted against Geeta in the recording room……..This put Lata on the defensive and I think she avoided singing with Geeta as far as possible. I vaguely remember Lata acknowledging this fact when Geeta died on July 20, 1972.”
Geeta Roy was born in Faridpur District in East Bengal on November 23, 1930. In 1942 when she was just twelve her parents shifted to Mumbai. Over there in their modest flat at Dadar music director Hanuman Prasad heard her singing casually. He gave her two lines to sing in the film Bhakt Prahlad (1946). But her rendering of those two lines stood out and astonished everybody in the recording studio. A minor incident became the genesis of a great musical career.
Her major assignment came the following year, 1947, with Do Bhai. The music of that film clicked in a big way particularly Mera Sundar Sapna Beet Gaya and Geeta became a top playback singer. 1947-1949 saw Geeta Roy rule as the number one playback singer in the Mumbai film industry as she moved from strength to strength. However four films released in 1949. Barsaat, Andaz, Dulari and Mahal. All four smashing hits. The music of each film better than the other. In all four films, the heroine’s songs were sung by a young lady who had also made her debut in playback singing but till then had not made any significant headway in her career. The success of these films and her songs changed all that. In particular, the song Aaega Aanewala from Mahal soared to heights of till then unseen popularity. ( It remains an all time favourite even today ) The singer was … Lata Mangeshkar. Lata went on to become the greatest playback singer the Indian screen has ever seen. Only two singers managed to survive the Lata onslaught in the 1950s, Shamshad Begam and Geeta Roy. Though relegated to the second spot, Geeta managed to hold her own against Lata for more than a decade and she and Lata were the premier two female playback singers of the 1950s.
Initially Geeta was a singer well known for bhajans and weepy, weepy sad songs. But 1951 saw the release of Guru Dutt’s Baazi. The jazzy musical score of the film by SD Burman revealed a new facet to Geeta’s singing. The sex appeal in her voice and the ease with which she went western was marvelous to behold. While every song in the film was a raging hit, one stood out for special appeal – Tadbir Se Bigdi Hui Taqdeer. Such was her impact that from then on in the 1950s for a club dance or a seductive song, the first choice was Geeta. During the recording of the song she met the young and upcoming director of the film, Guru Dutt. The two fell in love and the romance culminated in marriage on 26 May, 1953. Geeta went on to sing some of her best songs in Guru Dutt’s films while continuing singing in various outside assignments as well. It was however a stormy marriage as the couple fought and made up repeatedly.
SD Burman was among the earliest to discover the magic in her voice with Do Bhai. He effectively used the Bengali lilt in her voice memorably in films like Devdas (1955) and Pyaasa (1957). The song Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Lagalo from the latter is one of the finest examples of the Bengali kirtan ever put over on the Hindi screen. In fact, no female singer has better articulated the spirit of Burmanda’s music in its early years than Geeta.
OP Nayyar developed the side of Geeta which had emerged with Baazi. Under his freewheeling baton Geeta developed into a really hep singer who could belt out any number – soft, sultry, happy, snappy, romantic, teasing or tragic. It was Geeta Dutt’s rare gift that she could effervescently sing for both the doll and the moll. And it was OP who got Geeta to stop being overtly emotional in sad songs. Quoting him on Geeta, ” ……….Who will deny there is a unique quality to her singing. Give her a blatantly westernized tune this momentand a complex classical composition the next, and she will do equal justice to both with an ease of expression which a singer can only be born with. She is particularly good for songs accompanying boisterous jamborees. With that tantalizing lilt and fascinating curves she puts into her singing,she is the ideal choice if it is seductive allure you want in a song……..Geeta Dutt is an asset to any music director.”
By 1957, her marriage had run into rough weather and was on the rocks. Guru Dutt had fallen for his new leading lady Waheeda Rehman. The breaking up of her marriage also began having repercussions on her career. To quieten things down Guru Dutt launched a Bengali film, Gouri (1957), with her in the lead. She was to be launched as a singing star and it was to be India’s first film in CinemaScope but the film was shelved after just a few days shooting. This was the time when one heard complaints from music directors about her not being easily available for either rehearsals or recordings.
In fact, in 1957 when he fell out with Lata Mangeshkar, Burmanda was looking to make Geeta his main singer rather than the upcoming Asha Bhosle. After all by then Geeta was a mature singer while Asha was still raw. But due to her troubled marriage Geeta was not free to practice in the style required by SD Burman who was a hard taskmaster regarding rehearsals. He joined OP Nayyar in shaping Asha rather than wait for Geeta. Consequently Asha not only took her place but also went beyond her. And to make things worse, Geeta began finding solace in drinks.
On October 10, 1964 Guru Dutt passed away. Geeta was a broken woman, shattered by his death. She suffered a nervous breakdown. When she recovered she found herself in a financial mess. She did try to resume singing again, cutting discs at Durga Puja and giving stage shows and even doing a Bengali film, Badhu Bharan (1967) as heroine! But her health kept failing as she drank herself to a point of no return. She died of cirrhosis of the liver on 20th July, 1972. But not before she showed she still had it in her were she given a mike to sing. The songs of Basu Bhattacharya’s Anubhav (1971), Meri Jaan Mujhe Jaan Na Kaho Meri Jaan, Koi Chupke Se Aake and Mera Dil Jo Mera Hota represent some of the finest work that Geeta Dutt ever did.
Apart from Hindi songs, Geeta was a leading playback singer for Gujarati films singing for scores of films under the baton of music maestro Avinash Vyas. And in the period from the mid 1950s to the early 60s, Geeta Dutt returned to her roots so to say and sang some of the most sublime and well-known songs in Bengali Cinema during its golden period. Most of these were for Hemanta Mukherjee although she did some brilliant work for music directors Nochiketa Ghosh and Sudhin Dasgupta as well. Some well-known Geeta Dutt film songs in Bengali include Tumi Je Amar (Harano Sur (1957)), Nishi Raat Banka Chand (Prithivi Amara Chhaye (1957)), Ogo Sundor Jano Naki (Indrani (1958)), Eyi Mayavi Tithi (Sonar Harin (1959)), Ei Sundar Swarnali Sandhya (Hospital (1960)) and Aami Sunchi Tomari Gaan (Swarilipi (1961)). She also sang several Bengali modern songs and cut discs at Durga Pooja as well.
Header photography courtesy Arun Dutt.