It was Mohammad Rafi who had "pioneered" and "perfected" the art of serenading in Bollywood with his songs lip-synced by all leading "heroes" of the time.
The 1950s and '60s were a time when male-female intimacy and friendship were still a hush-hush thing. The hero serenading the heroine was the best excuse for filmmakers of those days to show the first few meetings between them in a socially acceptable manner before the actual romance between them blooms. And they would achieve this purpose with songs (Bollywood has its own genre of romantic songs) which were usually full of light-hearted banter that also gave filmmakers a chance to rope in a bit of situational comedy and a dash of "ada" and "nakhras".
Moreover, these songs also gave an opportunity to the filmmakers to present their heroines in the trendiest of clothes, as film those days used to show heroines in glamorous attires only during songs while they remained demurely draped in saris in rest of the film.
A good example is that of Sharmila Tagore shooting an entire song sequence in An Evening In Paris for the “Aasman se aaya farishta” wearing a bikini. A few reels later, she was clad in the usual sari.
Many singers contributed their bit to this unique-to-Indian cinema genre, but only one of them could pose a serious challenge to Rafi sahab – Kishore Kumar.
Here are some of Rafi's famous romantic songs. But perhaps his best-known serenading songs were - "Aasmaan se aaya farishta" and "Tareef karoon kya uski" (Kashmir Ki Kali), both picturised on Shammi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore. Let's begin with them:
Aasmaan se aaya farishta (An Evening in Paris, 1967)
Rafi had a divine gift. He knew exactly what would suit each leading hero of the time. Almost all his songs, particularly the ones featuring Shammi Kapoor, were sung as though the hero himself was singing. This one falls in that category. I am not aware of any singer in the entire history of Bollywood – except Kishore Kumar – who had this amazing quality.
He made the task of the heroes so much simpler!
An interesting trivia associated with this song is that a day before this song was to be shot, Shammi Kapoor told director Shakti Samanta that it would be a great idea if he could descend from the sky literally for this song. Shammi was shocked a few hours later when the director told him that he has arranged for a helicopter for him so that he could do that. Shammi was kicking himself as he had a terrible fear of heights. The song was to be shot early in the morning in Beirut (though the rest of the film was shot in Paris). Shammi helped himself with a couple of whiskey shots to overcome his fear and the rest is history!
Tareef karoon kya uski (Kashmir Ki Kali, 1964)
It’s a cult song of the serenading genre. Sharmila Tagore proved to be destiny’s child as she made her debut in this musical chartbuster from the legendary music director OP Nayyar. Shammi Kapoor's pyrotechnics on a small boat (emulated rather admirably eight years later by Amitabh Bachchan in a packed moving bus in "Dekha na hai re socha na" nunber in Bombay To Goa) and the beautiful rendition by Rafi complete the magic.
Main kahin kavi na ban jaoon (Pyaar Hi Pyaar, 1969)
This famous Rafi song was a huge, huge hit. His lilting voice and the unique style of picturisation - where the hero, Dharmendra, serenades Vyjantimala in a lift - cast a different kind of spell on the Indian audience. This song also triggered a spate of "lift songs" and romantic situations shot in lifts in Bollywood films for decades.
Tu Ganga ki mauj main Jamuna ka dhara (Baiju Bawra, 1952)
This song is today 65 years old, but it’s soulful music by Rafi’s mentor Naushad as well as the masterful rendition by the great singer have ensured that this subtle banter retains its appeal till today. It was highly unusual in those times for the hero to woo the heroine in front of a whole village. The way Rafi has thrown his voice in this song needs to be heard to be believed. Add to all that the amazing lyrics by Shakeel Badayuni.
Sample these lines from this song: “Chhupoge bhanwar mein to chhupne na denge, chhupne na denge; dubo denge naiya tumhe dhoondh lenge…” (Should you try to hide in the whirlpool, I won’t let it happen; Will sink the boat and find you)!
Lal chhadi maidan khadi (Jaanwar, 1965)
This song became such a rage that there was hardly a college-going boy or girl who hadn’t heard of this song. Yet another Rafi-Shammi magic. This song, and another - "Tum se acchha kaun hai"- from the same movie, contributed in a big way to the commercial success of the film.
Now, some lesser-known romantic songs of Rafi
Ye teri saadagi (Shabnam, 1964)
How many of you would have thought that Usha Khanna would have composed this one. Indeed she has and with what magical effect. Who would have thought that Mehmood would have sung this song on screen. Notice the Persian strains in the music. Rafi proved with this song that he was the undisputable master and it doesn’t matter really who is the music director.
Also, this rendition of the same song by Sonu Nigam is worth listening to:
Hami se mohabbat hami se ladai (Leader, 1964)
Naushad was not known for composing such romantic songs. This used to be the forte of Shankar-Jaikishan and OP Nayyar, and later Kalyanji Anandji and RD Burman. But this one is a gem, mainly because of Rafi. In a typical Naushad-esque manner, not many musical instruments were used and the humble tabla provided the rhythm. And of course, there is the famous long, reverberating "taan" of Rafi in between stanzas. Also worth noticing is how the heroes used to woo the heroines fifty years ago. A three-and-a-half minutes romantic song and he doesn’t even touch her once!
Yun rootho na hasina (Neend Hamaari, Khwab Tumhare, 1966)
Here Rafi is at his very best. His mellifluous voice, the lilting music of Madan Mohan and the soulful romantic lyrics by Rajendra Krishan weave a magical spell. It's worth mentioning how beautifully a stylish Shashi Kapoor and a coy Nanda acted (so naturally) as the song meanders on.
Nazar na lag jaaye kisi ki rahon mein (Night in London, 1967)
Singing a song for a hero wooing the heroine on the riverside and then on a motorboat was nothing new for Rafi and he did it with perfection here again. But what sets apart this song is the way he sung it - music soaked in romance. Music directors Laxmikant-Pyarelal would have had a flop film, but for this song which turned out to be a part of their all-time great album. Mala Sinha is a perfect foil to a dapper Biswajit here.
Deewane ka naam to pucho (An Evening in Paris, 1967)
Shankar-Jaikishen were at the peak of their glory. This was the time when at least seven to eight of the Top 10 songs in Binaca Geetmala used to be from the Shankar-Jaikishen stable. Shammi Kapoor always made it a point to be in the studio whenever Rafi was to sing a song for him. When Rafi was recording for this film, Shammi was out of Mumbai shooting for a film. When he heard the recording of this song and another song from the same film - "Aasmaan se aaya farishta" - he called up Rafi and said he thought he has sung the song himself.