Book review | Talat Mahmood: The definitive biography

Book review | Talat Mahmood: The definitive biography

An engaging biography of singer Talat Mahmood that brings radio Bollywood crackling to life

It’s impossible to race through this book. On every page, a song beckons; it is as if Talat Mahmood’s beguiling voice is calling out to you, singing softly in the back of your mind. It then becomes necessary to stop reading, and give the songs a listen. And what songs they are: from the soulful Ay mere dil kahin aur chal from Daag to the rollicking Dil mein sama gaye sanam, the duet with Lata in Sangdil, and all the amazing numbers in-between and after.

For those who love the music of the Hindi films of the 1950s to 1970s, the book will open the windows of memory—to the time when they hummed along as the numbers rolled out over radio. And, for a generation that, in its own way, is seeking melody in old numbers, this book may serve as a guide to the rich songs of the past, which encompass, in the space of three-and-a-half minutes, the genius of Talat, the composer, lyricist and singer.

Sahar Zaman, therefore, has done great service to Indian film history by writing this book. It holds evidence not just of her deep admiration and love for her granduncle, but also of her thorough research to gather facts, milestones and events from his life. It is indeed a sad commentary of our times that a book on a singer, who stands unparalleled in the style and quality of his voice even today, and who inspired an entire generation of ghazal singers, found no ready publisher. Zaman deserves praise for going ahead to publish this obvious labour of love.

The text is an easy read, particularly the early chapters, which give lesser-known information about the singer’s parents. It is interesting to know that Talat’s father was also a gifted singer; he often regaled his fellow travellers on month-long arduous sea voyages to Turkey, undertaken as a member of the Indian Medical Mission, to tend to the soldiers wounded in the Ottoman War. Much like his son’s tremulous, velvety vibrato voice, Mansoor Mahmood’s voice also packed a great throw. Equally captivating is the fact that no less a singer than Begum Akhtar had warned senior Mahmood about his son’s leanings towards a life in films, one that could lead him astray.

The tone of the book is chatty, with the author often sharing her own experiences, and reaching out to readers in first person. Stories abound; some film-related, some about particular songs, and others personal, including the singer’s courtship and marriage. Zaman picks out songs such as Sham-e-gham ki kasam, Tasveer banata hoon, tasveer nahin banti and Phir wohi shaam to tell us the stories.

Readers may be amazed to discover that Talat, who first made his name as a singer in Bengal under the pseudonym of Tapan Kumar, also sang for Malayalam and Assamese films, and belted out numbers that bordered on the raunchy for Bhojpuri films. The singer straddled both worlds as effortlessly as he held his own opposite Shyama, Nutan and Suraiya on screen in films such as Sone ki Chidiya and Mirza Ghalib.

Zaman also gives a glimpse into his huge fan-following. An example is a love letter from a fan in her seventies who, on learning about the biography, reached out to her to share her adoration for the singer. The author also writes about Talat’s generosity; he gave all the songs of Madhumati to Mukesh, who was, at the time, in dire financial straits. He also fought for royalties for playback singers.

The final chapters highlight the author’s own stage shows to keep the memory of Talat alive. The shows have been garnering audiences for some time now. One hopes the book will find readers too, and evoke the spell that the singer’s voice cast on listeners all those years ago; and not just for those from the golden generation, but also for readers from the author’s own generation.

Talat Mahmood: The Definitive Biography

By: Sahar Zaman

Publisher: Self published

Pages: 381

Price: Rs 650

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