This is the story of the sister and her brother, both superstars, one the highest awardee in India and the other of Pakistan. The sister is known as Lata Mangeshkar and her brother, though born as Yousuf Khan is better called Dilip Kumar. This story is of two Indias, two social classes, two kinds of geniuses, one supporting the other as siblings growing up together and responsible towards the same family. They bonded by rakhi, a ceremony that creates families where blood always does not flow. This piece is the story of such a family of the sister and her brother.
The sister, Lata Mangeshkar is born utterly middle class to one Dinanath Mangeshkar, who is a talented singer, composer and lyricist and has put together his music company called the Balwant Music Company. This is a travelling company, singing songs to audiences, supported in his endeavours mostly through princely patronage. Dinanath died in 1942 and Lata Mangeshkar, all only 13 years of age became the patriarch and breadwinner of the family. The age of 13 is fortuitous for both Babar and Akbar became the rulers of their kingdom at the age of 13. While reading Harish Bhimani’s rather untidily written account of Lata Mangeshkar, I understand that Lata’s father was undergoing an enormous mental strain. The overflying bombing aircrafts used to disturb and distress him especially as the family was used to sleeping in the open terrace in summers and with the war on, they were huddled in clammy rooms. This was very stressful since he felt constrained and claustrophobic of forcibly having to take cover of cramped walls and low ceilings. The gathering momentum towards Independence after the Government of India Act in 1937 in which his patrons, namely the princely states were on the anvil of dissolution also disturbed him. The middle class means that families live off current incomes without a pile of family wealth accumulated over generations to fall back upon; it becomes difficult to withstand existential challenge to that source of wealth.
We now turn to Dilip Kumar, as he is yet Yousuf Khan. He too witnesses the rise of communal politics; he too witnesses terror in the form of the British military on a spree of killing innocent Pashtun tribals. As the War breaks out his family moves out of Peshwar into Bombay. While Lata’s family has travelled widely in Maharashtra and Goa, Dilip Kumar spent the best days of his life in Deolali, a military town in Maharashtra and his later illustrious days in Bombay. But Dilip Kumar’s family remains staid in the face of threats to their property and livelihood, precisely coming from an upper class of fruit merchants, they have accumulated wealth which can cushion the present generation and perhaps even beyond. However, Dilip Kumar too is the breadwinner of his family, not because he had to but because he earned the most and hence raised the standards of living to a higher level. Principally, Lata should have had a better time since she was not a minority community while Dilip Kumar should have felt more insecure with the two-nation theory. But it is he who remains unfazed while it is Lata’s family which is rattled.
Dilip Kumar’s higher social class helps him to remain above the communal frenzy, but Lata suffers an exposure to the world of work and this makes her, as yet a teenager somewhat fearful and jumpy. As Dilip Kumar constantly opens himself out into the world, he being a male helped as well, Lata, being a girl cocoons herself up, draping herself ever tightly in a sari, careful to wear mainly white lest any hint of colour may fetch unwarranted attraction. Dilip Kumar grows as an institution, Lata revels as a professional.
The circumstances of employment of the two are also interesting. Dilip Kumar is employed with Bombay Talkies, a corporate body while Lata is hired as a playback. The film industry is still more or less organized into studios, which are corporations in charge of film production, direction, script writing and music composition and here actors are hired as salaried personnel. Lata Mangeshkar comes into playback, a branch that was perhaps the first one to enjoy the technology breakthrough in form of the record, recording and playback independent of the actor. Lata joined films as an actor because she was needed to sing but soon enough, she was freed from her ordeal before the screen and concentrated wholly on being behind the heavy glass walls of the recording room. Dilip Kumar’s career moves are about him absorbing the various aspects of film making and into becoming an institution even when the studio system falls, and individual production houses take shape with hired free lance artists. Dilip Kumar tries to imbibe more and more with variations in characters and stories. Lata intensifies here; she is withdrawn and avoids socially mingling with the world she professionally inheres. Unlike Dilip Kumar, whose private world and the professional life fulfils each other, for Lata these are hermetically separated, as if one would corrupt the other. It is interesting to note that while Dilip Kumar was a Gandhian, having also been in jail for Gandhian speeches during the Quit India Movement, Lata’s family were devoted to Veer Savarkar.
The different political affiliations appear to be matters of two distinct social classes and their respective vulnerability to and the immunity to the vagaries of the working world. While Lata is vulnerable, Dilip Kumar is immune. The nature of danger is to the body; Lata is vulnerable to possible attacks on the female body in local trains, to untoward advances from male colleagues and so on. Dilip Kumar is much safer, his social class, his masculine gender, his family of surviving male members and the state of his employment as a salaried star gives him a sense of trust towards the world.
Dilip Kumar plays the role of a hero, he is morally upright and a pacifist. His heroism lies in self-abnegation. He sacrifices his interests to the larger status quo of the world, Devdas being central to his stardom. Andaz, Ganga Jumna, Bairag and even Naya Daur in which he does enters into a conflict with the forces of mechanisation. He is visible and he, is his image. Lata is in fact never really seen; she is heard and if seen, then we see her through other bodies. Lata’s invisibility, her lack of footprint in the visible sphere, her staid persona, reclused existence are galvanized and expressed on screen in which she must generate what the cinematic music must always do, movement. Her songs generate huge movements, sometimes through the song and dance with vigorous movement and sometimes with only emotions which can shake up the frames of the cinema. I find it so interesting that she has her sari around her shoulders, her hair oiled and braided, demeanour so girlish and as she has always been warned by her younger brother that her face must never bear any expression of the songs she sings, Lata is a complete anomaly in what she does, namely produce the erotic. Lata’s superstardom is her erotica and the reason for the erotic is the wide range and exhaustive movements she can bring into the screen. The erotic is the movement that it generates, a superstar is one who can engender very wide range of movement. Lata is a genuine superstar because she can generate movements which seems to exhaust the filmic space.
I can literally see the movements when I hear Bindiya Chamkegi, or Kaanta Laaga or Jai Jai Shiva Shankar, I can see the heroines dancing filling up the entire visual space of the frame. When I listen to Banake Kyun Bigaara Re or Naam Ghum Jayega, I can sense the emotions of the protagonist searing through the film discourse. The voice brings about a movement that breaks the very limits defining the space and this breaking out of the limits is erotic. Lata Mangeshkar is perhaps a greater hope in our times than Dilip Kumar is. Ours is a time of fascism, Lata truly fits into a fascist social strata, conservative, apprehensive, jealous of her boundaries in life, careful never to really transgress of her limits, but here she is with unbounded ambition and unparalleled talent and all of this manifests in the expression of the erotic. Lata’s superstardom is thus her expression of the erotic essence within the notation of the song; this she catches very fast and deftly. No wonder she is so confident that while there are many who can imitate her, there are none who can really sing like her, because the erotica is her trade secret, somehow none have been able to discover what is it about Lata that no one quite has.
Asha Bhonsle has a sexy voice and that’s what everyone speaks of her. But Asha’s voice expresses desire, desire seems to be contained within the voice. Lata’s voice invokes desire in the other. Asha still dresses up, is much married and with children. Lata is careful to deflect attraction away from her person because she invokes strong sexual desire in the other towards the singing voice. If she sings for films, we have the heroine on screen to take in the onslaught of admiration. Lata’s break was Ayega Anewala in Mahal, the haunting allure calculated to attract and this magnetism in expression rather than the voice that has made what Lata is today. Dilip Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar are siblings through rakhi; it had to be because Dilip Kumar is one who everyone wants to attract and Lata’s voice is one which can surely attract. It was better for Lata to tie a rakhi lest passions spill out professionally.
It is interesting that we look at the production as well as the power of erotica in the rise of the individualism. Professionalism too is individualism. The individual as a moral agent is still not as alienated as the professional person. The moral agent commands capital; the professional individual is alienated. She is left with the task of moving remotely, affecting things which she does not command. Unlike the moral agent, the professional individual must create her impact on objects which do not belong to her, the only bond between her and the object seems to lie in the attraction which she develops towards something that does not belong to her. Affection, the way Saratchandra looks at passion, too are emotions that belong to this category of remoteness between the subject and her object of operation, whether that is a human, or an animal, or the nation or for that matter, the machine. Eroticism is a separation, alienation where the isolated human’s only bond is to seek beyond into entities over which she has no ownership. I think that moral agency alone cannot produce the erotica that the alienated professional individual can.
What do we see in our times? The alienation yes, but the rise of fascism which is anti-erotic. Few of us note that the rise of fascism is the collapse of the power of the professions. This is bound to happen in times of the stagnation of technology and the rise of the mega capital. With stagnating technology and lowered barriers to entry, predatory capitalism kicks in to resume control of the sundry and petty entrepreneurs. When all can produce the same stuff through technology which is accessible to all, the big players with more money power can gobble up the sundry entities. The power of the professional declines yielding way to the manager. The manager must be an odd identity for she controls capital without commanding it, she manages the professional without knowing her craft or art. She is thus an impersonator of a moral agent, devoid of her agency in the erotic economy. The falsehood of such an entity is the perfect trap for the fascist self.
Just as the relief from fascism lies in the emergence of new knowledge, whether in industry, or in biospace, or in the forms of governments and politics, we need new knowledge to once again move on to the technology growth curve and hence to new activities. Then we will have the new professional, new knowledge, and again the new individual who wants to move matter in a new way; then we have the renewed desire for the erotic.