legend of Kishore Kumar began 37 years back, when a young
lad from Khandwa turned up in Bombay, to meet his brother Ashok
Kumar, then a superstar, and wangle an introduction to K.L. Saigal,
the great singer whom he idolised.
He never got to meet Saigal, but was coaxed, cajoled, bullied into
stardom and ended up becoming the most successful comic hero Hindi
films has ever seen. With a long string of hits to his credit and
an unfulfilled ambition to be the most famous singer in the land.
The ambition he realised much later, as his songs began to find
a bigger and bigger market in the land. So he quit the grime and
greasepaint and stuck to warbling. Becoming a bigger and bigger
star in the process.
Married to four of the most interesting women in filmdom, at different
times of his life -Ruma Devi, Madhubala, Yogeeta Bali and Leena
Chandavarkar - Kishore Kumar's penchant for the comic and the bizarre
has created a strange reputation for him. Everyone thinks he is crazy
and the stories doing the rounds are absolutely incredible. If rumours
are to be believed, he has turned cuckoo several times already.
Pritish Nandy met the singing superstar last week, just after his
announcement that he was quitting everything and going back to his
ancestral village at Khandwa. To sit back and watch the sun set in
its glorious hues.
Who would like to stay in this hell hole?, declaims Kishore Kumar.
Bombay stinks. So does this stupid, juvenile film industry where
money alone speaks the language of power, talent and authority. I'd
rather go back to my roots.
He doesn't smoke. He doesn't drink. He has no friends and never
socialises. And there's one thing he treasures more than money.
His solitude. That's Kishore Kumar for you, the man with the golden
voice, who has reigned over the world of popular music for almost two
A madcap genius, fiercely committed to the bizarre and the outrageous,
he has over the years nurtured carefully his image as a strange,
unpredictable man who defies definition. At the same time he has sung
and danced his way into the hearts of millions of Indians who swear
by him. So the film industry, always a worshipper of success, has
chased him with money and accolades. In the hope of taming him, as it
has always tamed the talented. But, to Kishore Kumar, this has meant
nothing. He has wallowed in solitude, yodelling at the moon. He has
married four of the most interesting women in the industry and picked
up more money than you and I can ever dream of. And, what is perhaps
most important, done it without compromising anything whatsoever. On
his own terms. Always.
At his peak, when for almost a decade he was number one to number ten,
all rolled into one, and there was no one to be seen anywhere around,
he would be running from one recording studio to the next. Singing
sometimes four to five songs a day. And charging exactly one rupee less
than Lata Mangeshkar - in deference to her seniority. What precisely does
that mean in terms of actual figures? Well, if rumours are to be believed
- and usually relaible industry sources - every song recorded would make
him Rs. 15000 richer. Multiply that by several songs a day, and a reign
over almost two decades, and you have Fort Knox at Juhu.
Not bad for a man who never had any formal training in music nor a guru.
Who still can't read notations and cannot name more than three classical
Indian singers without prompting. He has only four idols in life.
K.L. Saigal; Marlon Brando; Boris Karloff; and Topol of Fiddler on
the Roof fame. All over his house you will see their giant-sized photo-
graphs and posters framed. And, if you share his enthusiasm for them,
he might just condescend to give you the time of day. Otherwise you
might never get to see the man - so ferociously does he preserve his
privacy. Interviews are out. Visitors rarely get past the front gate.
Kishore Kumar Ganguly, for that is his full name, arrived in Bombay in
the late forties, in the hope of meeting K.L. Saigal, his childhood idol.
But pecualiar circumstances - and the fact that his eldest brother Ashok
Kumar was already a hit hero of those days - forced him into bit roles
as an actor. He hated acting but was too scared to tell his elder brother
that. So singing got pushed into the background and he started to make
a living as an actor.
Luck stood by the shy young man and within a couple of years he hit the
big league. As the funny hero, who sang, danced and entertained - as
against the usual dour-faced, romantic kinds, who would break into tears
at the slightest pretext. It worked. And Kishore Kumar became a runaway
success. So popular was he in those days that he could hardly keep track
of the number of films he was doing. And his habit of trying to always play
truant began the legend of the eccentric. Producers and directors were
always chasing him - and he was perpetually trying to run away from the
sets. Where? To the privacy of his home, where he lived alone. For Ruma,
his first wife, had already left him and gone to Calcutta - where she
settled down with a little-known film-maker.
So busy was he in those days that once in a while someone else had to
playback for him. Like Mohammad Rafi did in Shararat. Unbelievable for
someone whose first love was singing and who was determined to ultimately
get down to it seriously.
He now married for the second time. Madhubala, the most exquisite heroine
that Indian cinema has perhaps ever produced, was his second wife. But,
she, alas, was a very sick woman then and they spent nine tormented years
together - during which period he virtually sat by and watched her die
of a congenital heart ailment that no one could cure.
Meanwhile the legends grew. Of his weird ways. His strange, outlandish
lifestyle. His miserliness. His quirks. His kinky behaviour. Legends he
encouraged because they helped him to preserve his solitude and kept the
industry at a distance. An industry he had nothing but contempt for.
The stories are legion about how he taught erring producers lessons.
Particularly those who failed to pay him his dues in time. Once he turned
up on the sets with exactly half his face made up because the producer
had only settled half his dues. Another time, an unluckier producer found
him with half his head and half his moustache shaved off because he had
not paid him more than half his money. The shooting schedules had to
be cancelled for almost a month. Mehmood, one of the few people in the
industry he can still call a friend, has described how he once had to
hire a pistol to threaten Kishore Kumar so that he could come to the sets.
He laughs off most of these stories today as exaggeration but concedes
that he had to try every trick in the trade - and many outside it as well
just to make people pay him his legitimate dues in an industry notorious
for its unkept promises.
As for the money he has made, he claims that the income tax authorities
virtually reduced him to penury by taxing him on not just whatever he has
earned but adding on interest on all delayed payments. It will take me more
than another lifetime to settle all my dues with them, once and for all,
rues the singer in one of his rare serious moments.
After living alone for quite some years after the legendary Madhubala's
death, Kishore Kumar tied the nuptial knot again. This time, with the
young and upcoming actress, Yogeeta Bali. It was his shortest marriage
and collapsed even before it got going, thanks to the bitter feud between
the actress' ambitious mother and the irritable husband. A quick divorce,
and a reportedly large settlement, and she was out of his Gaurikunj like
a shot - to marry Mithun Chakravarty, the actor, shortly thereafter.
In the meantime, Kishore - who had switched lanes from the singing star
to the king of the playback empire - kept doing better and better, for
those were the golden days of both the film industry and the music business.
Piracy had still not arrived on the scene and big films were raking in
big money. The record companies were competing with each other for
the high stakes in the music business and everything was ticketty boo.
The king of the bompitty boom boom boom boom was yodelling away to
glory, sitting on top of the heap.
But things are no longer the same these days. The death watch is on
in the movie business, with rampant video piracy and popular television
wooing away the audiences. The bottom has dropped out of the music
industry and the recording companies are virtually counting their last
days. The great music directors have died or have simply faded away.
And even though Kishore still remains on the top, he is a sad, dis-
illusioned man filled with memories of better days.
He is now married again. To actress Leena Chandavarkar, who has borne
him another son. And they live together as a happy family, surrounded
by thousands of horror film cassettes and memories of years gone by.
The kinks remain. The skull in the bedroom with red light emerging from
its eyes. The upturned chairs in the living room. The relics of the
old car that played the protagonist in Chalti ka Naam Gadi. The large
photographs and posters of his idols staring down at you from every
corner of the house. The cuckoo clock in the living room. The board
outside Gaurikunj that warns you to enter at your own risk. The phone
that rings and rings for hours before anyone attends to it.
If he keeps his word and quits Bombay, as he has threatened to last
month, tinseltown will be poorer. And it's just possible he might. For
his native Khandwa still beckons to him: the call of the skies, the
trees, the good earth - for a simple man who loved all these and lost
them, chasing the quick buck in Bombay's asphalt jungle. He never loved
the city. He hated the movie business and had honest contempt for
its people. All he did was make money and hope for a miracle. The miracle
never happened. The void in his heart just grew and grew. And less and
less people understood the agony and the ecstasy of his stardom, as he
found himself pushed more and more into the privacy of his own world,
searching for his own truths.
They call him crazy. But who is more crazy? Kishore Kumar or those
who try to perpetuate this ruthless, insensate rat race where only the
winners count. What victory? At what price? Let's ask Kishore himself.
In the same story, Kishore Kumar ranked HIS favourite 10 songs.
Dukhi man mere S.D. Burman Funtoosh
Jag mag jag mag karta nikla Khemchand Prakash Rim Jhim
Husn bhi hai udas udas Anil Biswas Fareb
Chingari koi Bhadke R.D. Burman Amar Prem
Mere naina saawan bhaadon R.D. Burman Mehbooba
Koi hum dum na raha Kishore Kumar Jhumroo
Mere mehboob kayamat hogi Laxmikant-Pyarelal Mr X in Bombay
Koi hota jisko apna Salil Chowdhury Mere Apne
Woh Shaam kuch ajeeb thi Hemant Kumar Khamoshi
Badi sooni sooni hai S.D. Burman Milee
PN: I understand you are quitting Bombay and going away to Khandwa...
KK: Who can live in this stupid, friendless city where everyone seeks to
exploit you every moment of the day? Can you trust anyone out here?
Is anyone trustworthy? Is anyone a friend you can count on?
I am determined to get out of this futile rat race and live as I've
always wanted to. In my native Khandwa, the land of my forefathers.
Who wants to die in this ugly city?
PN: Why did you come here in the first place?
KK: I would come to visit my brother Ashok Kumar. He was such a big
star in those days. I thought he could introduce me to KL Saigal
who was my greatest idol. People say he used to sing through his
nose. But so what? He was a great singer. Greater than anyone else.
PN: I believe you are planning to record an album of famous Saigal
KK: They asked me to. I refused. Why should I try to outsing him?
Let him remain enshrined in our memory. Let his songs remain
just HIS songs. Let not even one person say that Kishore Kumar
sang them better.
PN: If you didn't like Bombay, why did you stay back? For fame?
KK: I was conned into it. I only wanted to sing. Never to act. But
somehow, thanks to peculiar circumstances, I was persuaded to
act in the movies. I hated every moment of it and tried virtually
every trick to get out of it. I muffed my lines, pretended to be
crazy, shaved my head off, played difficult, began yodelling in
the midst of tragic scenes, told Meena Kumari what I was supposed
to tell Bina Rai in some other film - but they still wouldn't let
me go. I screamed, ranted, went cuckoo. But who cared? They were
just determined to make me a star.
KK: Because I was Dadamoni's brother. And he was a great hero.
PN: But you succeeded, after your fashion....
KK: Of course I did. I was the biggest draw after Dilip Kumar. There
were so many films I was doing in those days that I had to run
from one set to the other, changing on the way. Imagine me. My
shirts flying off, my trousers falling off, my wig coming off
while I'm running from one set to the other. Very often I would
mix up my lines and look angry in a romantic scene or romantic
in the midst of a fierce battle. It was terrible and I hated it.
It evoked nightmares of school. Directors were like schoolteachers.
Do this. Do that. Don't do this. Don't do that. I dreaded it. That's
why I would often escape.
PN: Well, you are notorious for the trouble you give your directors
and producers. Why is that?
KK: Nonsense. They give me trouble. You think they give a damn for
me? I matter to them only because I sell. Who cared for me during
my bad days? Who cares for anyone in this profession?
PN: Is that why you prefer to be a loner?
KK: Look, I don't smoke, drink or socialise. I never go to parties.
If that makes me a loner, fine. I am happy this way. I go to work
and I come back straight home. To watch my horror movies, play
with my spooks, talk to my trees, sing. In this avaricious
world, every creative person is bound to be lonely. How can you
deny me that right?
PN: You don't have many friends?
PN: That's rather sweeping.
KK: People bore me. Film people particularly bore me. I prefer talking
to my trees.
PN: So you like nature?
KK: That's why I want to get away to Khandwa. I have lost all touch
with nature out here. I tried to did a canal all around my
bungalow out here, so that we could sail gondolas there. The
municipality chap would sit and watch and nod his head
disapprovingly, while my men would dig and dig. But it didn't work.
One day someone found a hand - a skeletal hand- and some toes.
After that no one wanted to dig anymore. Anoop, my second brother,
came charging with Ganga water and started chanting mantras. He
thought this house was built on a graveyard. Perhaps it is. But
I lost the chance of making my home like Venice.
PN: People would have thought you crazy. In fact they already do.
KK: Who said I'm crazy. The world is crazy; not me.
PN: Why do you have this reputation for doing strange things?
KK: It all began with this girl who came to interview me. In those
days I used to live alone. So she said: You must be very lonely.
I said: No, let me introduce you to some of my friends. So I
took her to the garden and introduced her to some of the friendlier
trees. Janardhan; Raghunandan; Gangadhar; Jagannath; Buddhuram;
Jhatpatajhatpatpat. I said they were my closest friends in this
cruel world. She went and wrote this bizarre piece, saying that
I spent long evenings with my arms entwined around them. What's
wrong with that, you tell me? What's wrong making friends with
KK: Then, there was this interior decorator-a suited, booted fellow
who came to see me in a three-piece woollen, Saville Row suit
in the thick of summer- and began to lecture me about aesthetics,
design, visual sense and all that. After listening to him for about
half an hour and trying to figure out what he was saying through
his peculiar American accent, I told him that I wanted something
very simple for my living room. Just water-several feet deep- and
little boats floating around, instead of large sofas. I told him
that the centre-piece should be anchored down so that the tea
service could be placed on it and all of us could row up to it
in our boats and take sips from our cups. But the boats should
be properly balanced, I said, otherwise we might whizz past each
other and conversation would be difficult.
He looked a bit alarmed but that alarm gave way to sheer horror
when I began to describe the wall decor. I told him that I wanted
live crows hanging from the walls instead of paintings-since I
liked nature so much. That's when he slowly backed out from
the room with a strange look in his eyes. The last I saw of him
was him running out of the front gate, at a pace that would have
put an electric train to shame. What's crazy about having a living
room like that, you tell me? If he can wear a woollen, three-piece
suit in the height of summer, why can't I hang live crows on my
PN: Your ideas are quite original, but why do your films fare so badly?
KK: Because I tell my distributors to avoid them. I warn them at the
very outset that the film might run for a week at the most.
Naturally, they go away and never come back. Where will you find
a producer-director who warns you not to touch his film because
even he can't understand what he has made?
PN: Then why do you make films?
KK: Because the spirit moves me. I feel I have something to say and
the films eventually do well at times.
I remember this film of mine - Door Gagan ki Chhaon mein - which
started to an audience of 10 people in Alankar. I know because I
was in the hall myself. There were only ten people who had come to
watch the first show!
Even its release was peculiar. Subhodh Mukherjee, the brother of
my brother-in-law, had booked Alankar(the hall) for 8 weeks for
his film April Fool- which everyone knew was going to be a block-
buster. My film, everyone was sure, was going to be a thundering
flop. So he offered to give me a week of his booking. Take the
first week, he said flamboyantly, and I'll manage within seven. After
all, the movie can't run beyond a week. It can't run beyond two
days, I reassured him.
When 10 people came for the first show, he tried to console me.
Don't worry, he said, it happens at times. But who was worried?
Then, the word spread. Like wildfire. And within a few days the
hall began to fill. It ran for all 8 weeks at Alankar, house full!
Subodh Mukherjee kept screaming at me but how could I let go the
hall? After 8 weeks when the booking ran out, the movie shifted
to Super, where it ran for another 21 weeks! That's the anatomy
of a hit of mine. How does one explain it? Can anyone explain
it? Can Subodh Mukherjee, whose April Fool went on to become a
PN: But you, as the director should have known?
KK: Directors know nothing. I never had the privilege of working with
any good director. Except Satyen Bose and Bimal Roy, no one even
knew the ABC of film making. How can you expect me to give good
performances under such directors?
Directors like S.D. Narang didn't even know where to place the
camera. He would take long, pensive drags from his cigarette,
mumble 'Quiet, quiet, quiet' to everyone, walk a couple of furlongs
absentmindedly, mutter to himself and then tell the camera man to
place the camera wherever he wanted. His standard line to me was:
Do something. What something? Come on, some thing! So I would go
off on my antics. Is this the way to act? Is this the way to direct
a movie? And yet Narangsaab made so many hits!
PN: Why didn't you ever offer to work with a good director?
KK: Offer! I was far too scared. Satyajit Ray came to me and wanted me
to act in Parash Pathar - his famous comedy - and I was so scared
that I ran away. Later, Tulsi Chakravarti did the role. It was a
great role and I ran away from it, so scared I was of these great
PN: But you knew Ray.
KK: Of course I did. I loaned him five thousand rupees at the time of
Pather Panchali-when he was in great financial difficulty- and even
though he paid back the entire loan, I never gave him an opportunity
to forget the fact that I had contributed to the making of the
classic. I still rib him about it. I never forget the money I
PN: Well, some people think you are crazy about money. Others describe
you as a clown, pretending to be kinky but sane as hell. Still
others find you cunning and manipulative. Which is the real you?
KK: I play different roles at different times. For different people.
In this crazy world, only the truly sane man appears to be mad.
Look at me. Do you think I'm mad? Do you think I can be mani-
PN: How would I know?
KK: Of course you would know. It's so easy to judge a man by just
looking at him. You look at these film people and you instantly
know they're rogues.
PN: I believe so.
KK: I don't believe so. I know so. You can't trust them an inch.
I have been in this rat race for so long that I can smell trouble
from miles afar. I smelt trouble the day I came to Bombay in the
hope of becoming a playback singer and got conned into acting. I
should have just turned my back and run.
PN: Why didn't you?
KK: Well, I've regretted it ever since. Boom Boom. Boompitty boom boom.
Chikachikachik chik chik. Yadlehe eeee yadlehe ooooo (Goes on
yodelling till the tea comes. Someone emerges from behind the
upturned sofa in the living room, looking rather mournful with
a bunch of rat-eaten files and holds them up for KK to see)
PN: What are those files?
KK: My income tax records.
KK: We use them as pesticides. They are very effective. The rats die
quite easily after biting into them.
PN: What do you show the tax people when they ask for the papers?
KK: The dead rats.
PN: I see.
KK: You like dead rats?
PN: Not particularly.
KK: Lots of people eat them in other parts of the world.
PN: I guess so.
KK: Haute cuisine. Expensive too. Costs a lot of money.
KK: Good business, rats. One can make money from them if one is
PN: I believe you are very fussy about money. Once, I'm told. a
producer paid you only half your dues and you came to the sets
with half your head and half your moustache shaved off. And you
told him that when he paid the rest, you would shoot with your face
KK: Why should they take me for granted? These people never pay unless
you teach them a lesson. I was shooting in the South once. I think
the film was Miss Mary and these chaps kept me waiting in the hotel
room for five days without shooting. So I got fed up and started
cutting my hair. First I chopped off some hair from the right side
of my head and then, to balance it, I chopped off some from the
left. By mistake I overdid it. So I cut off some more from the
right. Again I overdid it. So I had to cut from the left again.
This went on till I had virtually no hair left- and that's when
the call came from the sets. When I turned up the way I was, they
all collapsed. That's how rumours reached Bombay. They said I had
gone cuckoo. I didn't know. I returned and found everyone wishing
me from long distance and keeping a safe distance of 10 feet while
talking. Even those chaps who would come and embrace me waved out
from a distance and said Hi. Then, someone asked me a little
hesitantly how I was feeling. I said: Fine. I spoke a little
abruptly perhaps. Suddenly I found him turning around and running.
Far, far away from me.
PN: But are you actually so stingy about money?
KK: I have to pay my taxes.
PN: You have income tax problems I am told....
KK: Who doesn't? My actual dues are not much but the interest has
piled up. I'm planning to sell off a lot of things before I go
to Khandwa and settle this entire business once and for all.
PN: You refused to sing for Sanjay Gandhi during the emergency and,
it is said, that's why the tax hounds were set on you. Is this true?
KK: Who knows why they come. But no one can make me do what I don't
want to do. I don't sing at anyone's will or command. But I sing
for charities, causes all the time.
[Note: Sanjay Gandhi wanted KK to sing at some Congress rally in Bombay.
KK refused. Sanjay Gandhi ordered All India Radio to stop playing
Kishore songs. This went on for quite a while. KK refused to
apologize. Finally, it took scores of prominant producers and
directors to convince those in power to rescind the ban- Rajan]
PN: What about your home life? Why has that been so turbulent?
KK: Because I like being left alone.
PN: What went wrong with Ruma Devi, your first wife?
KK: She was a very talented person but we could not get along because
we looked at life differently. She wanted to build a choir and a
career. I wanted someone to build me a home. How can the two
reconcile? You see, I'm a simple minded villager type. I don't
understand this business about women making careers. Wives should
first learn how to make a home. And how can you fit the two
together? A career and a home are quite seperate things. That's why
we went our seperate ways.
PN: Madhubala, your second wife?
KK: She was quite another matter. I knew she was very sick even before
I married her. But a promise is a promise. So I kept my word and
brought her home as my wife, even though I knew she was dying from
a congenital heart problem. For 9 long years I nursed her. I watched
her die before my own eyes. You can never understand what this means
until you live through this yourself. She was such a beautiful woman
and she died so painfully.
She would rave and rant and scream in frustration. How can such an
active person spend 9 long years bed-ridden? And I had to humour her
all the time. That's what the doctor asked me to. That's what I did
till her very last breath. I would laugh with her. I would cry with
PN: What about your third marriage? To Yogeeta Bali?
KK: That was a joke. I don't think she was serious about marriage. She
was only obsessed with her mother. She never wanted to live here.
PN: But that's because she says you would stay up all night and
KK: Do you think I can do that? Do you think I'm mad? Well, it's
good we separated quickly.
PN: What about your present marriage?
KK: Leena is a very different kind of person. She too is an actress like
all of them but she's very different. She's seen tragedy. She's
faced grief. When your husband is shot dead, you change. You
understand life. You realise the ephemeral quality of all things..
I am happy now.
PN: What about your new film? Are you going to play hero in this one too?
KK: No no no. I'm just the producer-director. I'm going to be behind
the camera. Remember I told you how much I hate acting? All I might
do is make a split second appearance on screen as an old man or
PN: Like Hitchcock?
KK: Yes, my favourite director.
I'm mad, true. But only about one thing. Horror movies. I love
spooks. They are a friendly fearsome lot. Very nice people,
actually, if you get to know them. Not like these industry chaps
out here. Do you know any spooks?
PN: Not very friendly ones.
KK: But nice, frightening ones?
PN: Not really.
KK: But that's precisely what we're all going to become one day. Like
this chap out here (points to a skull, which he uses as part of his
decor, with red light emerging from its eyes)- you don't even know
whether it's a man or a woman. Eh? But it's a nice sort. Friendly
too. Look, doesn't it look nice with my specs on its non-existent
PN: Very nice indeed.
KK: You are a good man. You understand the real things of life. You are
going to look like this one day.