Mohammed Rafi remains easily the most popular male playback singer Indian cinema has ever seen and he is arguably maybe the most adored singer in Indian filmdom after who else but Lata Mangeshkar! But even here, to many lovers of classical film music, Rafi’s popularity goes beyond even that of the nightingale’s.
Blessed with an extremely flexible and expressive voice, Rafi could sing for anyone in any style. At one stage in the 1960s, Rafi was the voice of every hero worth his salt of Hindi cinema be it Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Rajendra Kumar, Guru Dutt, Johnny Walker, Sunil Dutt, Biswajeet, Joy Mukherjee, Dharmendra, Shashi Kapoor or Raaj Kumar! From the classical Madhuban Mein Radhika Nachi Re to the swinging Aaja Aaja Main Hoon Pyar Tera, from the soulful Hum Bekhudi Mein Aapko Pukaren to the comic Sar jo Tera Chakraye, from the philosophical Dekhi Zamane Ki Yaari to the frivolous Aiaiya Karoon Main Kya Sookoo Sookoo, he could sing anything! In fact, Rafi possessed such a wide singing range that he could easily sing in three octaves without veering out of control.
Born on December 24, 1924 in Kotla Sultan Singh village in Amritsar District in Punjab, Rafi moved to Lahore when he was 14. There he studied music under Khan Abdul Waheed Khan, Jeevanlal Matto and Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. He was introduced to Radio Lahore by composer Feroz Nizami and made his film debut as playback singer in the Punjabi film Gul Baloch (1944) singing under the baton of composer Shyam Sunder.
He then moved to Bombay in 1944 where he was given his earliest singing assignments by Naushad in Pehle Aap (1944) and mentor, Shyam Sunder, for the Noor Jehan starrer, Village Girl (1945). Naushad gave him more chances in Anmol Ghadi (1946) where he effectively sang the minor atmospheric song Tera Khilona Toota Balak and in Shah Jehan (1946) where he sang 2 lines in a duet with the legendary Kundan Lal Saigal!
Rafi finally broke through first under Feroz Nizami with the Dilip Kumar-Noor Jehan starrer, Jugnu (1947) where he sang the duet Yahan Badla Wafa ka Bewafai ke Siva Kya Hai with Noor Jehan besides playing a small role in the film as well. Jugnu was also the big breakthrough film for Dilip Kumar, being his first successful film.
In 1948, following Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination, Rafi teamed up with composers Husanlal-Bhagatram and lyricist Rajinder Kishen to literally record the moving eulogy, Suno Suno Ae Duniyawalon Bapu Ki Amar Kahani overnight. He was invited by no less than India’s Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, to sing the song at his residence and on the Independence Day of 1948 hen India turned one, Rafi was awarded a silver medal from the Prime Minister.
Rafi’s earlier singing style appeared heavily influenced by GM Durrani. This is apparent in his rendering of songs like Ek Dil Ke Tukde Hazar Hue from the Suraiya-Rehman starrer Pyar ki Jeet (1948). However, his career and individuality as a playback singer really took off with the all-time hit Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki from AR Kardar’s Dulari (1949), starring Madhubala and Suresh, with superb music by Naushad. From then there was no looking back and Rafi ruled as the undisputed king of playback singing till the early 1970s when Kishore Kumar took over.
Though he reached the top following Dulari and Dastan (1950), it took Rafi much of the 1950s to establish his superiority over rest of the competition. Some critics feel it helped Rafi that Kishore Kumar and to a lesser extent, Mukesh and Talat Mahmood were preoccupied by their acting, and that Hemant Kumar saw a decline in his singing career by the end of the 1950s while Manna Dey never really got the breaks his talent deserved. But that is being grossly unfair to Rafi. He made it to the top strictly on merit and his skill as a singer par excellence from 1960-1970, he was virtually unchallenged. But in spite of his superstardom, he remained extremely humble and soft-spoken and never ever forgot his riyaaz. Rafi has sung some of the best songs for heroes under the influence of alcohol (Din Dhal Jaaye in Guide (1965) and Chhoo Lene Do Nazuk Hothon ko in Kajal (1965)) but never drank himself!
While Rafi has sung with every top music composer and co-playback singer there was always something special when he sang under the baton of Naushad and SD Burman. Rafi is at his best in films like Deedar (1951), Aan (1952), Baiju Bawra (1952), Udan Khatola (1955), Kohinoor (1960), Mughal-e-Azham (1960), Gunga Jumna (1961) and Mere Mehboob (1963) among others under Naushad and in Pyaasa (1957), Nau Do Gyarah (1957), Kala Pani (1958), Kala Bazaar (1960) and Guide (1965) with SD Burman. In the 1960s, composers Laxmikant-Pyarelal, too, reach the top in no small measure due to Rafi being their premier male singer. As far as his work with heroes go, while the Rafi-Dilip Kumar and Rafi-Dev Anand combos undeniably scaled great heights, there was always something special about that extra zest and zing that Rafi reserved in the songs that he sang for ‘yahoo’ Shammi Kapoor. To think of one without the other is simply unimaginable.
Even as Rafi ruled the sixties, Aradhana (1969) and the Rajesh Khanna wave saw Rafi displaced by Kishore Kumar as the top male playback singer of Hindi cinema. Initially, as Kishore Kumar became the premier voice for both Dev Anand and Rajesh Khanna, Rafi was still the first choice as the voice for other heroes. But by the early 1970s, Kishore Kumar had overtaken him in this regard as well. While Rafi continued to sing and sing brilliantly in this period, his output of songs was nowhere as prolific as it had been in the previous two decades. It was a difficult time for someone who had scaled unprecedented heights in his career.
But Rafi was not one to quit and made a grand comeback first with HS Rawail’s Laila Manju (1976) and then with the Nasir Hussain musical Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin (1977) and Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony the same year, even winning the National Award for Kya Hua Tera Vada for the former. With Laila Manju, Amar Akbar Anthony, Karz (1980) and Naseem (1981), he became the go-to voice for Rishi Kapoor. Sadly however, this comeback phase did not last very long as on 31 July, 1980, Rafi tragically succumbed to a heart attack. However by then, Rafi had established that his was one of the most recorded voices in Indian cinema and till date not a single day goes by without Rafi being heard on radio or television.
Besides Hindi cinema, Rafi was extremely nostalgic about his Punjabi roots and has also sung in all important Punjabi films made in India during his lifetime. His songs in films like Bhangra (1959), Yamla Jatt (1960), Jijaji (1961), Kankan De Ohle (1971) and Shaheed-e-Azam Sardar Bhagat Singh (1974) are remembered fondly by old timers even today.