Kundan Lal Saigal was really the
first male superstar of Indian Cinema who set the tone for musical
melodrama acting in the 1930s and 40s. Though not conventionally
good-looking and balding (in fact he always wore a wig to cover his
baldness), people responded to his everyman demeanor and to that
voice…even when articulating dialogue.
Saigal was born in Jammu and as a child occasionally played Sita in the
Ramlila of Jammu. His only formal training apparently came from a
little known Sufi peer, Salman Yussuf. The singing tradition he
assimilated had little classical rigour but emphasized the poetic
blending of syllables into musical forms like the thumri and ghazal.
His renditions of Mirza Ghalib's poetry and his identification with its
tragic iconography formed the famous Saigal persona.
A school dropout, he worked first as a railway time-keeper and then as
a typewriter salesman before B.N. Sircar recruited him at New Theatres.
Saigal's style was substantially shaped at New Theatres by R.C. Boral,
Pankaj Mullick and Timir Baran.
Saigal's first film was Mohabbat ke Aansoo (1932) but it was with the
success of Chandidas (1934) that he became a star.
The following year saw him in his career-defining role - the title role
in Devdas (1935) directed by P.C. Barua. The film was a triumph for
Saigal and took him to dizzying heights. Saigal brought alive the
character of Devdas creating the archetype of the relentlessly
luckless, tragic hero. His brooding looks, the vagrant lock of hair,
the resonant voice filled with love and despair drove the nation into a
frenzy. His songs in the film Balam Aaye Baso Mere Man Mein and Dukh ke
Din Ab Beete Nahin became smash hits. In the latter song Saigal
obliterates the artificial barriers that separate prose, recitation and
song as he breaks the melodic progression of the song by laughing
bitterly at his own squalour. In fact, Saigal remains the definitive
Devdas even though the role has subsequently been played by such
thespians like Dilip Kumar and A. Nageshwara Rao.
Saigal was fortunate in that he worked for an institution like New
Theatres. Known for their quality filmmaking, Saigal featured in many
of the studio's masterpieces - Didi (Bengali)/ President (Hindi)
(1937), Saathi (Bengali)/ Street Singer (Hindi) (1938), Zindagi (1940).
In Street Singer Saigal's rendition of Babul Mora was done live in
front of the camera. Though playback had come into vogue, he convinced
director Phani Majumdar he would do a better job live in front of the
camera. Thus Saigal 'walked the streets' in the studio singing Babul
Mora, with the entire orchestra following him out of the camera's
reach. The result was magic!
Seeing the popularity Saigal had, Sagar Movietone launched Surendra as
an answer to Saigal and though he had a distinguished career of his
own, Saigal was still Saigal.
In the early 40s Saigal moved to Bombay working with Ranjit Movietone.
Bhakt Surdas (1942) and Tansen (1943) were big hits and consolidated
The songs of Tansen are resplendent in their royal glory. The film
successfully shapes the classical and semi-classical thumris and dadras
to the need of cinema. Above all, the film is still remembered for
Saigal's astonishing rendering of Diya Jalao in raga Deepak.
Saigal returned to New Theatres to do Meri Bahen (1944). The film is
technically one of Saigal's best films at New Theatres and was known of
course for its music with songs like Do Naina Matware and Ae
Qatib-e-Taqdeer Mujhe Itna Bata De.
However alcohol was by now fast overtaking Saigal's life. It was said
he could only sing only when fortified with liquor. His health began
failing. A last ditch effort at abstinence proved useless as he was too
far-gone and in early 1947 Saigal passed away in Jullunder. But not
before giving us such melodic gems like Mere Sapnon Ki Rani, Ae
Dil-e-Bekaraar Jhoom, Jab Dil hi Toot Gaya - from Shah Jehan (1946).
Such was the power and mystique of Saigal's singing that singers like
Mukesh and Kishore Kumar started their careers singing in the 'Saigal
style' before etchingout their own identities.
It is over half a century since Saigal passed away but his haunting resonant, voice continues to enthrall listeners.