Bollywood playback singers from back in the day are evergreen. As Dreams organizes a tribute to"Kaka" Rajesh Khanna on 15 March at Soaltee Crowne Plaza, let’s peep into the playback singers of his era, and playback singing in general.


Before anyone thinks otherwise, I want it to be known that I don’t have a problem with Yo Yo Honey Singh’s vocal skills at all. He is currently one of the most popular singers in Bollywood for a reason. What I do have a problem with is calling him a “playback” singer. In most of his Bollywood tracks, he is “seen” on the screen, and that, by my definition, is not playback singing.


What’s the value of playback then?
Playback singing has been popularized by Bollywood. In earlier times, when the likes of Manna Dey, Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhonsle, Talat Mahmood, Hemant Kumar, KL Saigal and their contemporaries gave their voices to a film, the sound would be coming out of their vocal chords, but would emanate from the mouths of our favorite actors - Guru Dutt, Raj Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Zeenat Aman, Dharmendra, Jeetendra, Hema Malini, Sharmila Tagore, and, of course, the legend - Rajesh Khanna.

In an interview given during his final days, Khanna mentioned the story of a young audio cassette producer who had come up with an album that had the actor’s face on the cover. It was titled Dard Bharey Nagmein. The producer was so enthralled by Khanna’s performance in Mehbooba that he thought Mere Naina Sawan Bhado was sung by the actor and not the actual singer, Kishore Kumar.

To people back then, this type of misconception wasn’t a fallacy as they knew who the singers were, but they rationally connected deeper with the actors. Be it Mohammad Rafi’s Gulabi Aankhein, and Mukesh’s Kahin Dur Jab Din, or Kishore Kumar who served as playback singer for most of Rajesh Khanna’s songs. From peppy numbers like Jay Jay Shiv Shankar to ones like Chingari Koi Bharke that tug on the heartstrings, it’s impossible to picture these tunes without the presence of Rajesh Khanna.


The same rule applies to a lot of other actors. Director, producer and actor Guru Dutt, who was also an accomplished singer, once said, “People don’t entertain with mediocrity. If it’s a good output they want, then we should be able to give them the best.” Maybe that’s why Dutt always had Mohammad Rafi providing his voice to his movies—all of those songs are now considered immortal.

Although playback singers are still as important as they have always been to the film industry, the advent of cable television brought about some changes. After 1989, when Indian television channels started getting terrestrial and there was a steep competition in program production, reality TV began. Most of these shows were singing contests. Because of popular programs like Antakshari, people started “seeing” the singers, who were otherwise always behind the curtains. But while singers slowly started to make a bigger name for themselves, those years saw the formation of “legends” declining. Instead, most started settling on the lesser “superstar” tag.


This is where the turn of events took place.
After the era of legends, Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan Jha singlehandedly established the superstars of the next generation – Sanjay Dutt, Salman Khan, etc. In the late 1990s, playback singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya’s voice was directly connected to Shah Rukh Khan. But there were also singers like Sonu Nigam who attempted to break into the forefront. This is when Bollywood numbers started losing their charm, at least in terms of actors “singing.” Sonu Nigam’s distinct vocals would stand out so clearly that it would seem completely unsuitable for a lean Shah Rukh Khan or a hard bodied Sunil Shetty.

Now, let me get back to Yo Yo Honey Singh. He isn’t a bad singer by any stretch—his singles have topped the charts week in, week out. But I guess that’s where it all stops. Like Lucky Ali, Atif Aslam, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Adnan Sami, and Falguni Pathak before him, Honey Singh is destined to be a superstar. But a legend like Kishore Kumar? Maybe not.!