Movie Lover wrote on May 5 2009 6:14PM
Kundan Lal was born at Jammu, where his father Amar Chand was a tehsildar at the court of the Raja of Jammu & Kashmir. His mother Kesar Bai was a deeply religious lady, who was very fond of music. She used to take her young son to religious functions where bhajan, kirtan and shabad were sung in traditional styles based on classical music. Kundan was the fourth-born child of five children and his formal schooling was brief and uneventful. As a child he occasionally played Sita in the Ramlila of Jammu. His only formal training apparently came from a little known Sufi peer, Salman Yussuf. Saigal dropped out of school and started earning money by working as a railway timekeeper. Later, he worked as a typewriter salesman for the Remington Typewriter Company, which allowed him to tour several parts of India. His travels brought him to Lahore where he befriended Meharchand Jain (who later went on to start the Assam Soap Factory in Shillong) at the Anarkali Bazaar. Meharchand and Kundan remained friends when they both moved to Calcutta and had many a mehfil-e-mushaira. In those days Kundan was a budding singer and Meharchand encouraged him to pursue his talent. Kundan Lal often remarked that he was what he was because of Meharchand's encouragement and early support. He also briefly worked as a hotel manager. Meanwhile, his passion for singing continued and became more intense with the passage of time.
In the early 1930s, he was hired by B.N. Sircar, head of the Calcutta-based film studio, New Theatres. Here, Kundan met R.C. Boral, the highly respected music composer of the pioneering film company. R.C. Boral took an instant liking to his talents. Saigal was employed by New Theatres on a contract basis of Rs. 200/month. There he came into contact with contemporaries like Pankaj Mullick, K. C. Dey and Pahari Sanyal. In a short span of time, he stood tallest among them with his brilliant singing and popularity. Saigal's style was substantially shaped at New Theatres by R.C. Boral, Pankaj Mullick and Timir Baran.
The first film in which Saigal had a role was the Urdu film Mohabbat Ke Ansoo, followed by Subah Ka Sitara and Zinda Laash, all released in 1932. However, these films did not do very well. It was in 1933 that his four bhajans for the film Puran Bhagat created a sensation throughout India; thereafter, Saigal never looked back. Films that followed were Yahudi Ki Ladki, Chandidas and Rooplekha. Chandidas made him a superstar. As a youngster, India's melody queen herself, Lata Mangeshkar, is alleged to have said that she wanted to marry K.L. Saigal after seeing his performance in Chandidas. In 1935, Saigal played the role that would come to define his acting career: that of the drunken title character in Devdas, based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay's novel of the same name and directed by P.C. Barua. His songs in the film, Balam Aaye Baso Moray Man Mein and Dukh Ke Ab Din Beetat Naahi, became feverishly popular throughout the country.
Saigal picked up Bengali very well and acted in seven Bengali films, produced by New Theatres. Rabindranath Tagore first heard Saigal before giving consent for the first time to a non-Bengali singing his songs. Saigal endeared himself to the whole of Bengal through his Bengali songs.
Saigal's association with New Theatres, who were known for their quality film making, continued to bear fruit in subsequent films that became all the rage, which created success after success with films such as Didi (Bengali)/President (Hindi) in 1937, Saathi (Bengali)/Street Singer (Hindi) in 1938, and Zindagi in 1940, with Saigal in the male lead. These films were lapped by audiences mainly for Saigal's songs. There are a number of immortal songs of this era which form the rich heritage of film music in India. Also, it is well-known that in Street Singer, Saigal rendered the song Babul Mora live in front of the camera, even though playback was becoming the preferred method of singing songs in films. 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!
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 people like Dilip Kumar and A. Nageshwara Rao.