Asha Bhosle: The Ageless Bollywood Diva

[This post originally appeared here.]

Asha Bhosle started her Hindi film career in 1948 and unlike many of her peers who’ve hung up their boots, she continues to work and travels the world giving concerts.

Asha Bhosle’s best songs came under the baton of two men – O.P. Nayyar and R.D. Burman. Long posts could be written for the songs she sang for each of these two legends but given her long and textured career, I thought I’d pick songs she sang for 10 different music directors in this post.

C. Ramchandra – Eena Meena Dika (Aasha, 1957)

Asha Bhosle was relegated to Bollywood’s wastelands for almost a decade after she started her career. The music directors of the time were so enamoured of the voice of her elder sister, Lata Mangeshkar, that opportunities with big name composers in big name films were few and far between. The point of inflection in her career came in 1957 with O.P. Nayyar’s “Naya Daur” and “Tumsa Nahin Dekha” and S.D. Burman’s “Nau Do Gyarah” and “Paying Guest”. One of the hits of that year was C. Ramchandra’s madcap, rock n’ roll song “Eena Mina Dika”. The songs nonsensical hook lyrics were strung together by C. Ramchandra based on the nursery rhyme “Eeny meeny miny mo” and the Konkani words “maka naka” contributed by his Goan assistant John Gomes. While it pales in comparison to Kishore Kumar’s version, I do enjoy the Asha version.

Hemant Kumar – Meri Baat Rahi Mere Man Mein (Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, 1962)

It is fascinating to imagine the real-life tension that must have been a part of the music making for “Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam” (1962). Geeta Dutt refused to sing for Waheeda Rehman’s character in the film and was pitted against the singer O.P. Nayyar ditched her for, Asha Bhosle. Given this backdrop, both singers did exceedingly well and proved to be an even match. I picked “Meri Baat Rahi Mere Man Mein” over three excellent songs – “Saqiya Aaj Mujhe Neend Nahin”, “Meri Jaan O Meri Jaan” and “Bhanwara Bada Naadan” – because it was the one song in the film that shows us the somber, more reflective facet of her singing.

Madan Mohan – Shokh Nazar Ki Bijliyan (Woh Kaun Thi, 1964)

Madan Mohan’s affection for Lata Mangeshkar and her voice is well known. Lata Mangeshkar called Madan Mohan Ghazalon Ka Shahzada and Madan Mohan gave her his best compositions. “Woh Kaun Thi” was one film in which this equation was visible. While Lata got four melodic compositions with romantic angles, Asha Bhosle got light, fun, pop songs. Be that as it may, Asha’s “Shokh Nazar Ki Bijliyan” holds its own against Lata’s timeless classics from “Woh Kaun Thi”. This songs demonstrates that while ghazals were Madan Mohan’s sweet spot, he was also quite capable of the kind of rhythmic melodies that O.P. Nayyar was famed for. Asha Bhosle’s vocalizations in the song are charming and the saxophone interludes are wonderful counterpoints.

Shankar – Jaikishan – Paan Khaye Saiyan Hamaro (Teesri Kasam, 1964)

This was the toughest pick and bit of a toss-up. Eventually, the song’s rustic beauty and Waheeda Rehman’s winsome screen presence won me over.

Ravi – Aage Bhi Jaane Na Tu (Waqt, 1965)

Although not as celebrated as her partnerships with R.D. Burman and O.P. Nayyar, Asha Bhosle’s work for Ravi is substantial and replete with gems. “Waqt”, a superlative album with three solos and three duets by Asha and no songs by Lata Mangeshkar, is a case in point. We must be thankful to Shankar – Jaikishan for declining “Waqt” because B.R. Chopra insisted on Sahir Ludhianvi as the lyricist. Sahir’s words, the simplicity of Ravi’s melody and Asha’s rendition in this song are balm for weary souls.

S.D. Burman – Raat Akeli Hai (Jewel Thief, 1967)

S.D. Burman was another composer who would not look beyond his favorite “Lota” if he had his way (except for the few years in the late 1950s when they temporarily fell out with each other). In “Jewel Thief”, he saved Lata’s voice for leading lady Vyjayanthimala and Asha sang a song each for Tanuja and Helen. My favorite Asha song in the film is the one picturised on Tanuja, “Raat Akeli Hai”. Tanuja’s come-hither moves on screen find superb expression through Asha’s voice as she alternates between the coquette and the sexual being.

O.P. Nayyar – Chain Se Humko Kabhi (Pran Jaye Par Vachan Na Jaye, 1973)

“Chain Se Humko Kabhi” was the only O.P. Nayyar song for which Asha Bhosle won a Filmfare Award. It was also the last song she would sing for him as she ended her already strained relationship with him. O.P. Nayyar lost his lead singer and his muse and never quite recovered from this setback. The acrimony in their relationship was such that Asha Bhosle did not attend the ceremony to collect the award. What went on behind the scenes is anybody’s guess, but it does feel like the two artists poured the angst of their relationship into this song.

Jaidev – Zahar Deta Hai Mujhe Koi (Wohi Baat, 1977)

There were some delectable Asha Bhosle songs in Jaidev’s limited discography. I included one from “Hum Dono” (1961) in my post on Jaidev. In this post, I include another classic form a lesser-known film, “Wohi Baat”. This may be unfair, but one can’t help but compare the two solo versions of “Zahar Deta Hai”, one by Asha Bhosle and the other by Bhupinder. Considering the fact that Bhupinder was a ghazal specialist and Asha a generalist, I think Asha Bhosle does an admirable rendition of this song. Another thing becomes evident in this song – while most singers peak before they hit their forties, Asha Bhosle continued to get better. With age, her voice gained character and depth.

Khayyam – Dil Cheez Kya Hai (Umrao Jaan, 1981)

Asha Bhosle reinventing herself at the age of 48 was a bit of an accident. Muzaffar Ali had initially engaged Jaidev for “Umrao Jaan” but Jaidev left the project after composing a few songs and Khayyam was brought on board. There are different stories of Jaidev’s exit but one thing is certain – Asha Bhosle would not have been Umrao Jaan’s voice if Jaidev had composed the film’s music. Khayyam extracted some magnificent renditions by Asha Bhosle by asking her to sing at a scale lower than her usual. Khayyam won both the Filmfare Award and the National Film Award for the music and Asha Bhosle won the National Film Award for “Dil Cheez Kya Hai”.

R.D. Burman – Mera Kuchh Saaman (Ijaazat, 1988)

Starting with “Teesri Manzil” (1966), specifically the song “Aaja Aaaja”, R.D. Burman created a new Asha Bhosle avatar – full-throated and completely uninhibited. Through the 1970s, the two moved on from being colleagues to a couple and created some of the most memorable music to come out of Hindi films. Somewhere along the line though, Asha became a victim of her own success with Pancham and got pigeonholed in a slot that became a little predictable. Pancham’s struggle with his career in the 1980s didn’t help. That changed when Pancham came up with an inspired, fresh-sounding score for “Ijaazat” (1988). With four brilliant Asha solos, “Ijaazat” was probably Asha’s best work with Pancham in that decade. It took a Gulzar to challenge and inspire R.D. Burman to give the director his best. My pick is the award-winning “Mera Kuchh Saamaan”.

A much longer list of Asha Bhosle’s best Hindi film songs can be found here.