Birth Centenary of Mukesh and Shailendra—The Sincere Singer and The Philosopher Poet

by Bharat Dogra and Madhu Dogra

Mukesh and Shailendra

This year (2023) is the birth anniversary of two stalwarts of Hindi cinema who made a very enduring contribution even though they died at a young age. The contribution of both of them was somewhat unique as they had a place in the film world that was entirely their own. What is more, some of their best work involved close collaboration with each other with Mukesh (birthdate 22 July 1923) singing the lyrics written by Shailendra (birthdate 30 August 1923).

Perhaps the most outstanding among the many qualities of Shailendra was his unique ability to capture the big, eternal truths of life in very simple words in a stanza or two. On the other hand, the most outstanding quality of the singing (and indeed of his entire personality and life) of Mukesh was his deep sincerity. It is these outstanding qualities of the two great stalwarts which combined so well to create some memorable songs. (Yet another common point was that both of them gave their best when working with Raj Kapoor the film maker and Shankar-Jaikishan the music composers).

Brought to the Hindi film world at the age of only 17 by senior actor Motilal, Mukesh had to wait till the age of 26 to get his first big break in Andaz. After this there was no looking back and soon his songs in films like Awara and Shri 420 became a rage not just in India but also in the USSR and in several socialist countries as well.

Some of Mukesh’s best songs were recorded for such well-remembered films as Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Mera Naam Joker, Sangam, Phir Subah Hogi, Teesri Kasam, Anari and of course Awara and Shri 420. Some of his songs like Mera Joota Hai Japani and Awara Hoon have been hummed so often that these became a part of daily life and still remain so after the passing of so many decades.

While some such memorable songs have very lively tunes, several sad songs sung by Mukesh with a great feeling have a very special place in the hearts of millions of people. These include Saaranga teri yaad mein, Jeena yahan marna yahan, Sab Kuch seekha hamne, Sajanva vairi ho gaye hamaar and several others. A memorable song which is very sad yet also gives hope is—wo subah kabhi to aayegi.

Mukesh was known for his deep sincerity and his unassuming simple ways of life which remained unchanged despite the great fame he enjoyed. He was one of the few stars of the film industry who took a keen interest in helping the ‘extras’ or most marginalized sections of the industry.

Despite Mohammad Rafi being the most versatile singing talent and despite the presence of such singing greats as Manna Dey, Hemant Kumar, Talat Mehmood and Kishore Kumar in this golden era of Hindi film music, Mukesh had carved out a unique place entirely his own and there were certain soulful songs for which music composers would go out of their way to ensure that Mukesh and only Mukesh sang them. The great outpouring of grief when Mukesh died suddenly at the age of only 53 in the course of one of his famous singing tours testified to the great affection he had among people which in fact went beyond merely his great singing talents.

Similarly Shailendra too had established such a unique place as a lyricist that when one of his new songs came, people would listen to a few lines and then say-this must have been written by Shailendra. Several acclaimed literary critics have also stated that Shailendra should get his due place as a leading poet of Hindi, despite the prevailing tendency in elite Hindi literary circles to deny this place to film song writers. Before coming to the film industry, Shailendra was known for the songs he used to write for struggles of workers. All his life Shailendra, who came from a dalit family, retained his deep sympathy for the oppressed. Hence the philosophical truths he reveals in his songs are rooted in a strong sense of justice and humanism, and not in mystical aspects. He could survive with his philosophy in Hindi films because of his matchless ability to state some deeper truths of life while at the same time remaining true to the situation being shown in the film. Raj Kapoor, who brought him to filmdom, always insisted on calling him Kaviraj—the king among poets. He once said that you could spend years working on a good film story, then relate it to Shailendra, and he would capture the essence of the story in two or four lines of poetry within a few minutes!  Shailendra will be remembered for his over 250 film songs and several scattered non-film songs and poems almost all of which have something important to say and convey. Some of his most memorable songs were written for great films like Do Bigha Zamin, Bandini, Awara, Shri 420, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Boot Polish, Mera Naam Joker, Anari, Anuradha and Teesri Kasam. Of course we should not forget to mention Dev Anand’s Guide among the great films that were adorned by his lyrics, particularly as the birth centenary of the evergreen Dev Anand is also being observed this year in 2023.

In the last phase of his life Shailendra also worked very hard to produce a film of great lyrical quality called Teesri Kasam. This has been praised frequently as ‘poetry on celluloid’ but Shailendra had to struggle very hard to complete this film and this was part of the reason for his very early death at the age of only 43 in 1966.

If the lists of great films of Mukesh and Shailendra are compared, many names are common, reminding us of the frequent teaming up of these two great contributors to Hindi cinema, combining sincerity and philosophic truths to create great songs.  To get a glimpse of this combination, just look at the sheer beauty and ease with which these two oft hummed lines convey a deep meaning—

Sajan re jhooth mat bolo/khuda ke pass jaana hai/ naa haathi hai naa ghora hai, wahan paidal hi jana hai (From ‘Teesri Kasam’ film).

Or else look at this other gem from ‘Anari’ film—

Kisi ki muskrahto pe ho nisar, kisi kaa dard mil sake to le udhar, kise ke vaaste ho tere dil mein pyaar, jeena isi ka naam hai.

The writers have worked together for writing some books and for spreading community libraries. Their latest book is ‘Hindi Cinema and Society’.

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