His velvet-like gentle, quivering voice made Talat Mahmood one of the all-time great playback artistes of Indian cinema, the ideal choice for soft, lilting, romantic songs and especially, ghazals.
Born on 24th February, 1924 in Lucknow, Mahmood began his career as a ghazal singer with All India Radio. Hearing his unique voice, HMV recorded their first disc with him in 1941. He broke through big time in 1944 with the song Tasveer Teri Dil Mera Behela Na Sakegi, which became one of the highest selling non-film discs of all time. The song took the music industry by storm, and he was then invited to Calcutta where he made three films, Raj Laxmi (1945), Tum Aur Main (1947) and Sampati (1949). He also recorded a number of Bengali songs under the pseudonym Tapan Kumar, which went on to become very popular.
In 1949, Talat Mahmood came to Bombay. His big breakthrough came with the Dilip Kumar-Kamini Kaushal starter Arzoo (1950) , with Anil Biswas composing Ae Dil Mujhe Aisi Jagah Le Chal for him. The song clicked in a big way and led to Talat being THE voice for Dilip Kumar in several films like Babul (1950), Tarana (1951), Sangdil (1952), Daag (1952), Footpath (1953), Shikasht (1953) and Devdas (1955). In fact, Talat’s songs like Seene Mein Sulagte Hain Arman, Yeh Hawa Yeh Raat Yeh Chandni, Ae Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal, and Sham-e-Gham ki Kasam played a big, big part in helping Dilip Kumar establish his image of the gentle, tragic lover and so successful was the duo, that even Raj Kapoor (Ashiana (1952), Anhonee (1952)) and Dev Anand (Patita (1953), Taxi Driver (1954)) attempted to ‘sing’ in Talat’s silken voice, hoping to capture the same effect. Jaaye Toh Jaaye Kahan from Taxi Driver proved particularly successful, winning SD Burman the Filmfare Award that year.
Ironically, Talat’s career in Bombay might have ended even before it started. Not sure whether he would succeed, he didn’t show up for two meetings with Anil Biswas over Arzoo. When the music director ran into the singer inadvertently somewhere, he asked him if he had already become a star and was too busy to come for recordings. Talat confessed his fear and experience with various rejections he had faced in Bombay, since he arrived in the city of dreams. Thankfully, Anilda gave him another chance! And even then, once Talat began rehearsing the song, Anil Biswas asked him to stop, asking him what he had done with the real Talat Mahmood. Talat told him he had removed he quiver from his voice as others told him it wouldn’t work. Anilda told him it was this very tremor that made his voice unique. Grateful, Talat reverted to his ‘old’ voice and the rest, as the old cliche goes, is history.
Even as Talat scaled great heights as a singer, he decided to make a go of acting as well, trying to be a singing star. However, his foray before the arc lights was not successful and though some of his films like Dil-e-Nadan (1953), Waris (1954) and Sone ki Chidiya (1958) did well enough, with some great songs by him like Zindagi Denewale Sun, Rahi Matwale, and Pyar Par Bas Toh Nahin, he didn’t quite make as strong an impact as an actor. Some other films that Talat acted in include Dak Babu (1954), Raftar (1955), Diwali Ki Raat (1956), Ek Gaon Ki Kahani (1957), Malik (1958) and Lala Rookh (1958). He did make the most of songs that were given to him outside his acting assignments in films like Devdas (Mitwa), Dekh Kabira Roya (1957, Humse Aaya Na Gaya) and of course, Mirza Ghalib (1954), where he did full justice to Ghalib’s poetry. Talat also pioneered the trend of going outside the country with an extremely successful tour of East Africa in 1956 and was among the the first Indian singers to perform at Madison Square Garden, New York and the Royal Albert Hall. London.
However, by the time he decided to focus only on singing, Talat found that singers like Mohammed Rafi had taken over the industry and had even cemented himself as the voice of Dilip Kumar. Musical styles too had changed with the advent of rock-and-roll, music was becoming more and more about rhythms and beats, rather than melody. It was a difficult world for Talat Mahmood to fit into. As it is, it was only at director Bimal Roy’s insistence that Talat sang one of his all-time great songs, Jalte Hain Jiske Liye in Sujata (1959), as composer SD Burman wanted Rafi for the song. Thankfully, Bimal Roy did put his foot down and today, it is impossible to imagine the song in any other voice other than Talat’s.
Among the last films that Talat made a solid impact were Chhaya (1961) and Jahan Ara (1964). Chhaya, in particular, saw Talat score heavily with songs like Itna Na Mujhse Tu Pyar Badha, Ankhon Mein Masti Sharab Ki and Aansoo Samajh Ke Kyon Mujhe and showed his magic was still intact, but Jahan Ara’s failure, in spite of songs like Phir Wohi Shyam Wohi Gham, all but brought Talat’s career to a halt in an industry that worships only success. It is said that Madan Mohan stood by Talat for Jahan Ara and even recorded with him at his own expense to convince producer Om Prakash, who relented after hearing Talat sing.
There was no such support, sadly, from Naushad and Manoj Kumar, however, and bowing to pressure, his part of the duet Kaisi Haseen Raat from Aadmi (1968), to go on Manoj Kumar, was re-dubbed by Mahendra Kapoor, regarded a more ‘saleable’ voice. From then on Talat more or less retired from the Hindi film industry. However, he continued to perform live shows and record non-film songs and ghazals right up to the 1980s.
A recipient of the Padma Bhushan, Talat Mahmood passed away in Bombay on 9th May, 1998 due to a heart attack.