No singer could portray hurt and pain quite like Mukesh. His was a voice that could on one hand be deeply melancholic and on the other hand exude a profoundly innocent and mellifluous sweetness. It was an exquisite blend of torment and anguish, of tenderness and joy. To quote music maestro Salil Choudhury for whom Mukesh had sung several memorable songs in films like Jagte Raho (1956), Madhumati (1958), Anand (1970) and Rajnigandha (1974), “Each word from his lips was a pearl. No one could sing the way Mukesh did with the right diction, inflexion and intonation. His vocal timbre was out of this world.”
Mukesh Chand Mathur was born on the 22nd of July, 1923 in a small middle class family in Delhi. The first person to notice Mukesh from the Film Industry was the actor Motilal. A distant relative of the singer, he had attended Mukesh’s sister’s wedding in Delhi and was deeply impressed by the young man’s voice. Motilal brought him to Bombay, kept him in his own house and arranged for Pandit Jaganath Prasad to groom him. Mukesh even did a Hindi film during this period as hero, Nirdosh (1941) but sadly for him, it flopped miserably.
After years of struggle, his first real break in films as a singer came in 1945 under the baton of Anil Biswas in the film Pehli Nazar (1945). The song Dil Jalta Hai to Jalne De was incidentally picturized on Motilal! Though a huge hit, admittedly it sounded as if the young man was just another Kundan Lal Saigal imitator. It was under Naushad with Anokhi Ada (1948), Mela (1948) and particularly Andaz (1949), that Mukesh finally discovered his own style and voice. Andaz (1949), particularly, was a major triumph for Mukesh. All his four solos were raging hits – Tu Kahe Agar, Jhoom Jhoom ke Naacho Aaj, Hum Aaj Kahin Dil Kho Baite, Toote Na Dil Toote Na. It is interesting to note that though Mukesh in later years was regarded as the voice of Raj Kapoor and Mohammed Rafi that of Dilip Kumar, in Andaz, Mukesh’s songs went on Dilip Kumar while Mohammed Rafi sang for Raj Kapoor. Strangely as quickly as Naushad built up Mukesh, he switched almost entirely to having Dilip Kumar as his main male singer thereafter. He would utilise Mukhesh’s services as a singer a whole 19 years later with the Rajendra Kumar-Vyjayanthimala starrer Saathi (1968).
The Mukesh-Raj Kapoor pair gave Hindi cinema some of its most remembered songs. Mukesh’s voice fitted Raj Kapoor’s on-screen persona perfectly and it is difficult to distinguish the actor and the singer in their numerous songs together. The partnership with Kapoor started with Aag (1948) where Kapoor’s feelings of despondency and despair were vividly caught by Mukesh in Ram Ganguly’s composition Zinda Hoon Is Tarah, and ended with RD Burman’s Ek Din Bik Jayega in the film Dharam Karam (1975). In between was an endless list of hit after hit. Among them are the evergreen songs of Awara (1951), Shree 420 (1955), Parvarish (1958), Anari (1959), Sangam (1964), and Mera Naam Joker (1970). Songs like Awaara Hoon, Mera Joota Hai Japani, Aansoo Bhari Hai, Sab Kuch Seekha Humne, Dost Dost Na Raha, Jane Kahan Gaye Woh Din and many more. Barring Parvarish, where Dattaram scored the music, in the other mentioned films, the inimitable team of Mukesh-Raj Kapoor-Shankar-Jaikishen-Shailendra-Hasrat Jaipuri was responsible for producing one memorable hit after another for almost two and a half decades starting from Barsaat in 1949.
However, life was not always that easy and smooth. Following Awaara’s success, Mukesh almost ruined himself when he sidelined his singing career to pursue acting – to try and make it as a singing star. Mashuqa (1953) with Suraiya and Anuraag (1956) with Usha Kiron both sank at the box-office. He also did a small role as a tangewala enacting his own song – Choti Si Zindagani in Aah (1953). Wizened by the ordeal, Mukesh returned to playback singing only to find that offers had dried up. The situation reached a point that his children Nitin and Ritu were turned out of school as they were unable to pay their fees.
It was finally with Yeh Mera Deewanapan Hai from Yahudi (1958), that Mukesh finally came back with a bang. Other hits songs that year from Madhumati, Parvarish and Phir Subah Hogi meant there was now no turning back. Even SD Burman, who had not utilized Mukesh’s services for over a decade following the Dev Anand-Suraiya starrer Vidya (1948), composed those two masterpieces for him – Chal Ri Sajni from Bombai Ka Babu (1960) and O Jaanewale Ho Sake To Laut Ke Aana from Bandini (1963).
Mukesh thereafter flourished right through the 1960s and mid 1970s with soulful hits like Main to Ek Khwab Hoon (Himalay ki God Mein (1965)), Jeena Yahaan Marna Yahaan (Mera Naam Joker), Maine Tere Liye hi Saat Rang ke Sanpne Chune and Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaaye (Anand), Main na Bhoolonga (Roti, Kapda Aur Makan (1974)) and of course Main Pal do Pal ka Shayar Hoon and Kabhi Kabhie Mere Dil Mein (Kabhi Kabhie (1976)). Apart from Raj Kapoor, he also made a most effective playback voice for Manoj Kumar.
In 1974, Mukesh received the National Award for the song Kahin Baar Yun Bhi Dekha Hai from Rajnigandha (1974). His last recorded song was Chanchal, Sheetal, Nirmal, Komal from Satyam Shivam Sundaram (released after his death in 1978) as he passed away on 27th August 1976, of a sudden heart attack in Detroit, while on a concert tour of the USA.
His son, Nitin, had a fairly successful stint as a playback singer in the 1980s and early 90s, particularly as the voice of Anil Kapoor, while today his grandson Neil Nitin Mukesh is an actor.