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Legacy of Mohammed Rafi: The clone trail
New Delhi, December 24, 2019
One of the ways in which the legacy of the peerless Mohammed Rafi continues to live on is through the playback voices of subsequent generations that have attempted to copy his style.
Till the time melody ruled, and traditional songs dominated the screenplays of commercial Hindi films, Rafi-style songs continued to be in demand, long after he breathed his last on July 31, 1980.
In the early eighties, songs picturised on the Bollywood hero were strictly divided into "Kishore Kumar songs" and "Rafi songs". Very few other styles of singing still continued to make an impact for the male voice.
Kishore Kumar's steady rise through the seventies had slowed down the glorious era of Mohammed Rafi by the later portion of that decade, but the odd song was still being created specifically for the "Rafi style" of rendition by composers such as Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Kalyanji-Anandji, Anu Malik and Rajesh Roshan, among others.
The first solid impact was left by Anwar, who has probably shared the closest and most uncanny resemblance with Rafi in his singing among all the clones that would follow. Incidentally, Anwar's entry into Bollywood happened a year before Rafi's death in 1979, with the film "Janta Havaldar" starring Rajesh Khanna. One song from the film sung by Anwar, "Humse ka bhool huyee", particularly became a hit, and he became an overnight name.
However, Anwar lacked the rich mellifluous quality of Rafi's voice. After Rafi's demise, when he did get the scope to fill the shows, his voice sounded a tad coarse for the lilting numbers composers normally created in the Rafi genre. He scored the odd superhit number like "Mohabat ab tizarat ban gayi hai" ("Arpan") but that was not enough.
As Anwar faded away, Laxmikant-Pyarelal were already on the hunt for a new "Rafi voice".
Laxmi-Pyare, as they were called, had traditionally banked on Indian melody and instrumentation to score their hits. Even when they suitably adopted Western beats, there was always a strong impact of sounds of the soil left in their songs, which suited Mohammed Rafi's style of singing. In the sixties and the seventies, through their years of steady rising in Bollywood, Laxmi-Pyare score many hits with Rafi. At the start of the eighties, after Rafi's death, they needed to fill the gap.
They found a quickfix solution in Shabbir Kumar who, in 1983, rose to stardom as Sunny Deol's voice in the actor's debut film "Betaab". The romantic tracks of the film, composed by R D Burman, became blockbusters. In an industry where Rafi was no more, and Kishore Kumar had become increasingly choosy about work, Shabbir Kumar suddenly saw a meteoric rise.
A string of quick hits followed for Shabbir Kumar through the early to mid-eighties, triggered off particularly by the success of the Mithun Chakraborty-starrer "Pyar Jhukta Nahin". Shabbir sang all the main songs of the romantic blockbuster for Laxmi-Pyare along with Lata Mangeshkar. A musical star was born. In no time, Shabbir Kumar was the top choice for all contemporary top heroes including Amitabh Bachchan in Manmohan Desai's 1985 blockbuster, "Mard".
However, it did not take long for the industry to realise the warts in Shabbir Kumar's singing. Forget scaling a Rafi high, Shabbir Kumar was technically an imperfect singer who, it often seemed, was mimicking Rafi rather than singing a song.
Bollywood was quick to find a new "Rafi voice". By the time Shabbir Kumar was barely finding his voice in "Mard", Mohammad Aziz had already scored a Bachchan hit belting out the title song of that film. It did not take the industry to gravitate from Shabbir Kumar to Mohammad Aziz, who has also been credited in many films as Munna, his pet name.
Aziz had been in the industry for a while now when his career really took off in the mid-eighties. He never had a gala debut hit, as Shabbir Kumar did. Rather, he eased his way into the audience mindset. A reason could be that the audience was hungering for a viable Rafi-styled singer and he looked like the only formidable young voice around.
Aziz was technically a better singer than Shabbir Kumar, but they shared the same problem. Their singing lacked imagination. He was a mere clone like Shabbir Kumar, happy to repeat in numerous interviews how honoured he was to carry Rafi Saab's legacy forward.
Perhaps the most successful among singers of the eighties and the nineties, who tried copying Mohammed Rafi, was Udit Narayan. He had been struggling in Bollywood for nearly a decade before his big break as Aamir Khan's voice in the 1988 superhit, "Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak". By then, the tenure of both Shabbir Kumar and Mohammad Aziz was all but over.
Udit's advantage was that he managed to carve an identity as an original voice despite a marked Rafi hangover in his singing. He was also seen as a new-age singer, singing mostly for Shah Rukh, Salman, and Aamir Khan, besides Akshay Kumar and Ajay Devgn, actors who represented GenNow Bollywood back then. To Udit's advantage, too, he has always been a good singer. He went into direct competition with Kumar Sanu for the male playback supremacy in the nineties, and ultimately gained immense popularity.
Despite limited pitch, Udit made his mark as a versatile singer, which let him survive and thrive, and also chalk out a semblance of originality rather than become a blind clone of Rafi.
Rafi's legacy would survive all these singers. As Udit faded and Sonu Nigam took over as the voice of the new millennium, composers such as Himesh Reshammiya, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Anu Malik, and Jatin-Lalit found the voice that has perhaps come closest to Rafi's god-gifted talent.
Sonu had the edge of being a classically-trained singer whose voice was malleable enough to pull off just about any genre, from semi-classicals, to sad numbers to romantic songs to party anthems. He revealed a defined Rafi influence in his singing in the formative years of the nineties, and many felt, given his proven talent, he would have been better off carving a 100 per cent original style. However, although, he did create a specific style of rendering songs by the 2000s, when he rose to the top, Sonu could never really rid his voice of the Rafi hangover.
Worse, he never really tried carving an original image. Even as he was a top draw in the late 2000s, he launched an album named "Rafi Resurrected" where he recreated the iconic singer's songs with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. This was also accompanied by live shows. Although the album was a hit in India and many parts of the world where Rafi is still revered, it stamped Sonu as just another Rafi clone permanently. He never really managed to emerge from the tag, despite his phenomenal talent.
There have been many other singers who have revealed shades of Mohammed Rafi in their singing, even though they may not have consciously copied the maestro. These include Suresh Wadkar, Mahendra Kapoor, SP Balasubramanyam and Sukhvinder. These voices used the Rafi influence to constructively create a unique space in the film industry.
Is Rafi's legacy still relevant today? It is, considering composers of many remix numbers choose to retain his original voice amid the wanton rehashes of EDM and rap that accompany the actual song. There hasn't been a Mohammed Rafi clone in Bollywood for a while now. Perhaps that's a good thing.
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