Widely regarded as the greatest and most influential music director in the history of Indian cinema, Naushad Ali helped shape the Bollywood musical, delivered unforgettable hits, discovered legendary singers and elevated iconic movies to a higher level with his wonderful compositions.
This week, fans will be remembering the late great legend, who passed away on May 5, 2006, at the age of 86. To mark the death anniversary of the genius music director, Eastern Eye looked back at his remarkable life and work.
Born and raised in the culturally rich city of Lucknow, Naushad was the son of a city clerk and expected to follow in his father’s footsteps by securing a safe job that would provide a steady income.
But Naushad was enamoured with music from a young age and would watch live performances whenever possible, even if it meant travelling long distances alone. Then one day his father gave him an ultimatum.
“My father said you can stay in the house or you can choose music. I chose music and left home at the age of 17,” said Naushad in an interview.
He got work repairing instruments for meager pay and received formal training in classical Indian music from renowned exponents in the craft including Ustad Yusuf Ali and Ustad Babban Saheb. Then a friend told him talkies had become popular and to try his luck composing for films in Mumbai.
He landed up in the city of dreams with little money and no contacts in the film industry in 1937. Naushad stayed with an acquaintance from Lucknow in the central Mumbai district of Colaba and would walk miles to the suburbs daily because that was where all the cinematic activity was happening. Finally he moved to the suburbs, and at one stage was forced to sleep on the footpath.
After a lot of struggle, the aspiring hopeful got work as an assistant to established music director Ustad Jhande Khan, who had been his childhood hero. But that initial break almost didn’t happen.
“I went for the audition to work with him and heard all these great musicians from the outside. I got scared and started walking away, but was spotted and asked to come in and audition. Thankfully I was selected,” said Naushad.
The first thing he learned from the maestro was the importance of putting real emotion into songs. He then he got work as a pianist in composer Ustad Mushtaq Hussain’s orchestra.
The hard-working youngster delivered a few classical-based songs as an assistant in films including Mirza Sahiba (1939), and it was then that established lyricist DN Madhok noticed his talent. They became friends and he introduced Naushad to renowned filmmaker Mohan Bhavnani, with whom he was working on Prem Nagar (1940).
“Madhok saab was a good man and I only got my first big break because of him. He said to Mr Bhavnani, ‘get him to compose the songs for the film and if he messes up you can keep the money you were gonna pay me for the story and lyrics. Just give him a chance’,” said Naushad.
At that time there was no studio, and songs were recorded in open areas like parks after midnight when the noise of traffic had died down. He used a basic recording device with one microphone to capture the music.
“The singers and musicians had to move towards the microphone when it was their part, and then drift away,” he recalled.
Naushad worked hard on the songs of Prem Nagar and they were successful when the movie was released. He really got noticed a couple of years later after delivering songs for the film Sharda (1942), and this was particularly special because he discovered a 13-year-old called Suraiya, who by the end of that decade would become the number one leading lady and singer in India.
It was Rattan (1944), which took Naushad to the very top and made him the highest paid music director in Bollywood. The songs were such a rage that music sales helped gross more than three times the film’s budget.
“The songs were such a success that you could hear them in all the streets. The music sales for it broke all previous records,” said Naushad.
This helped Bollywood producers realise how much of an important revenue stream songs could become and how they could turn even an ordinary film into a box-office success.
Naushad returned to Lucknow to have an arranged marriage, and despite now being famous, was told by his family to hide his profession because the religious parents of his soon-to-be bride thought music was disrespectable. Naushad was told to pretend he was a professional tailor.
“People of Lucknow were singing my songs and the band at my wedding were also playing my songs, and there I was pretending to be a tailor,” he said.
Naushad became unstoppable and started introducing innovations into film music, including the incorporation of previously unused techniques and instruments.
Despite being offered loads of films, he concentrated on quality over quantity and ruled Bollywood until the early 1960s with landmark soundtracks. In the process he would go onto discover tremendous talents; the biggest was Bollywood’s greatest male playback singer Mohd Rafi.
“Rafi saab came from Lucknow with a letter of recommendation from my father asking me to give him a chance. He was this very shy individual and I asked him to sing for me. I gave him 10 rupees for singing the chorus line of a song.”
Naushad then gave him a song in the iconic Anmol Ghadi (1947) and that was his first step towards greatness. It was also the film which helped Noor Jehan reach the peak of her career. Her song Awaz De Kahan Hai remains popular today.
Many of his assistants, including Ghulam Mohammed, would go onto become prominent musicians in their own right. Perhaps his most enduring partnership was with lyricist Shakeel Badayani, with whom he worked for 25 years on some of the greatest songs in history. He found him and other greats like Majrooh Sultanpuri at poetry recitals and helped turn them into legendary lyricists.
His songs for super-hit film Andaz (1949) would help Lata Mangeshkar become a huge star. He honed Lata’s talent by showing her the importance of practice and diction.
By the early 1950s, the man who once slept on the footpath was rich beyond his wildest imagination and bought a palatial property in the heart of Mumbai. Naushad’s songs for Aan (1952) would help it become the biggest grossing film of all-time. For Aan, he was the first to use a 100-piece orchestra and to develop the system of western notation in India. In fact, the notation for the Aan songs was published in book form in London.
With Baiju Bawra (1954), he realised his lifelong dream of introducing pure Indian classical music into cinema, and the gamble paid off because he got the first Best Music Director award at the inaugural Filmfare Awards in 1954.
It was also the film that showed off the full range of his discovery Mohd Rafi. This inspired other music directors to introduce a classical element into their songs and to really test the vocal range of their singers.
Naushad composed songs for Mother India (1957), which would become the first Indian film to be nominated for an Oscar and the biggest grosser of all-time.
In 1960, he would compose arguably the greatest ever soundtrack for record-breaking film Mughal-e-Azam. It was the most money ever spent on a collection of songs. The movie smashed all records at the box office and the songs remain popular today.
From the 1960s onwards, the man who inspired an entire generation and laid the foundation for popular film music began to slow down, because he wasn’t willing to compromise by introducing watered-down Western melodies.
He remained connected to the classical tradition and was called upon to complete the soundtrack to Pakeezah (1972) when the film’s music director Ghulam Mohammed passed away.
In 1981, the maestro was awarded Indian cinema’s highest honour Dadasaheb Phalke Award and the Padma Bhushan in 1992.
Naushad was working right up until his death and became the oldest ever music director when in his 80s, he composed the songs for Taj Mahal: An Eternal Love Story (2005). Although it has been nearly a decade since his death, the impact Naushad made with his music remains eternal and his songs still remain relevant today.