May 22, 2022

Charlie Doodle

Unique Art & Entertainment

Remembering Bollywood Music Legend Lata Mangeshkar With 5 Essential Tracks

4 min read

For over 70 years, Lata Mangeshkar’s voice was inescapable in the world of Bollywood film, an industry that continues to expand beyond its native India, attracting sizable audiences in the U.S., China, Europe, and the Middle East. She provided the vocals for thousands of songs that were subsequently lip-synced onscreen by iconic actresses including Madhubala, Madhuri Dixit, Kajol, and Priety Zinta. Her ribbon-like soprano could convey a wide range of feeling—deep yearning, lust, playfulness—and over the years it became ingrained in contemporary Indian cinema as well as the country’s popular imagination. Following her death this week at age 92, India announced two days of national mourning.

In South Asia, Mangeshkar and her sister Asha Bhosle, an equally famous playback singer, are household names and perhaps the best-known Bollywood singers across the last three generations. In 2001, Mangeshkar became one of very few musical artists to win the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award. (France also granted her a similarly prestigious honor in 2007.) Talking to Rolling Stone earlier this week, the Los Angeles-based ​​Indian-American singer Raveena said, “The first songs I was exposed to, probably since I was in the womb, were examples of Lata’s voice. […] I feel like a lot of people from India can relate to how much I love Lata because her voice is like your childhood.”

Mangeshkar was known for her versatility of style and her ability to sing in character—to acutely express the emotions of a film through song. She was so respected that actresses would sometimes only sign on to do a film if they knew she would sing for them. Mangeshkar also had an impressive four-octave range, and legendary music directors such as Naushad Ali and S.D. Burman often composed songs specifically with her voice in mind.

While eulogized in loving terms—she is referred to as The Nightingale of India, as the soul of Indian music, and is generally called ‘Didi,’ the affectionate Hindi term for older sister—many South Asian Bollywood fans wondered how to approach celebrating her complicated legacy considering her support for nationalist and Hindutava politicians. Still, her musical importance remains undeniable. Across her career, she recorded over 25,000 songs in 20 different languages, making it virtually impossible to briefly summarize her finest work. So consider these five songs, then, a broad introduction to her outstanding impact on South Asian cinema, music, and popular culture.

This sparse, eerie track from the cult classic horror film Mahal was Mangeshkar’s breakthrough. In the movie, the main character enters a house and is surprised to find a painting of a man who looks just like him. As he explores the home, this song starts playing. Mangeshkar once said that her producers purposely recorded her voice to sound far away—the microphone was in the middle of the room, and she started out singing in the corner and slowly walking towards the mic—to add suspense to the scene. Though its inclusion in the film was originally debated, the song went on to become a hit. Mangeshkar’s name wasn’t listed on the record, but as soon as fans heard the song on the radio, they started calling in to ask about that voice. A star was born.

The Pakeezah soundtrack, on which Mangeshkar sang almost every song, was one of the best-selling of the 1970s. Every track is stellar, but “Chalte Chalte Yun Hi Koi” is particularly resonant. In the film, it is sung by Sahibjaan, a woman who has fallen in love with a nobleman but feels she cannot be with him because of her background as a sex worker. The song uses straightforward, repetitive lyrics—“While walking I met someone”— a looped tabla beat, and Mangeshkar’s skillfully restrained vocals to relay a passionate but ill-fated love. It’s the yearning and uncertainty in Mangeshkar’s voice that lingers with you, the feeling that her character has so much more she wants to say.

“Tujhe Dekha To” from 1995’s Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge

This film, which launched the careers of would-be Bollywood superstars Shah Ruhk Kahn and Kajol, tells the story of two Indians living abroad who fall in love during a trip across Europe. It pioneered the concept of the “NRI (non-resident Indian) film”—movies that appealed specifically to members of the South Asian diaspora who were living abroad. From its 1995 debut to the COVID shutdowns of 2020, it never left theaters, making it the longest-running Hindi film of all time.

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