His first notable performance was singing in the chorus as the legendary K.L Saigal warbled Mere Sapnon ki Rani ("Shahjehan"), but Mohammad Rafi soon himself became Bollywood’s most recognised playback singer.
Blessed with an amazing versatility in bringing to life everything from soulful ghazals to exuberant qawwalis to heartfelt bhajans to romantic songs – both understated and jaunty, laments on human deceptions, classically-tinged songs and patriotic works, he would have gone much further had his over three-decade-long career not abruptly ended this day in 1980.
Rafi once or the other sang for several generations of Bollywood’s leading men – Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Bharat Bhushan and Rajendra Kumar down to Dharmendra, Jeetendra, and even Amitabh Bachchan ("Teri Bindiya Re" in "Abhimaan"). Though some of his most enduring work was with composer Naushad Ali and song-writer Shakeel Badayuni, he worked with almost every music director and lyricist of the Hindi film industry to create some of the most unforgettable film songs – songs which are still heard with pleasure today and sung (In the song section of the Aftab Iqbal-hosted Pakistani TV show "Khabarnaak", the most popular are his hits reprised by Khalid Beg).
Of his thousands of songs for Hindustani films from Gaon Ki Gori in 1945 to Zamaane ko Dikhane Hai in 1982, it is difficult, if not impossible, and highly objective in any case, to draw up a list of Rafi’s 10 top songs. But to mark his 35th death anniversary, let’s give it a try by compiling a list of popular songs across varied genres.
Romantic songs are the staple of Indian films, and Rafi essayed a lot of them in his career but among those that stand out can include the softly haunting Chaudhvin ka chaand ho ya, picturised on Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman in "Chaudhvin ka Chand" (music Ravi, lyrics Shakeel Badayuni), and the wildly imploring "Akele Akele Kahan Jaa Rahe Ho" (Shammi Kapoor and Sharmila Tagore, "An Evening In Paris", music Shankar-Jaikishan, lyrics Hasrat Jaipuri) especially when he goes up in pitch to ask "Khushamad karega to phir kya karoge..".
A third in this category can be the mildly-questioning "Main Shayad Tumhe Pahle Bhi Kahi Dekha Hai", again in chaste Urdu, (Bharat Bhushan in "Barsaat Ki Raat", music Roshan, lyrics Sahir Ludhianvi).
Another which stands out is one of his earliest hits – "Suhani Raat Dhal Chuki Hai" from "Dulari" picturised on Suresh. The music was by Naushad and lyrics by Shakeel.
Rafi was Dilip Kumar’s primary voice (after Talat Mahmood) and almost all their songs are a hit. But if choosing out of the extensive ouevre, then they can easily include "Madhuban mein Radhika Naache" ("Kohinoor", music Naushad, and lyrics Shakeel Badayuni) for the classical touch effortlessly rendered and the plaintive "Sukh Ke Sab Saathi Dukh Mein Na Koi" ("Gopi", music: Kalyanji-Anandji, lyrics Rajinder Krishan).
And following from the last, "Man tadpat Hari darshan ko aaj" (Bharat Bhushan, "Baiju Bawra", music Naushad and lyrics Shakeel Badayuni) is one that can’t be left out for the virtuosity of Rafi’s performance – the range and amount of pathos he can inject.
Rafi’s versatility was legendary – as he proved in this "children’s song". Picturised on character actor Yaqub, "Chun Chun Karti Aai Chirya" is from "Ab Dilli Door Nahin" (music Duttaram, lyrics Shailendra Singh).
Not easily categorised is the haunting "Chahunga Main Tujhe Saanjh Savere" (Sudhir Kumar in that touching film "Dosti", music Laxmikant-Pyarelal, lyrics Majrooh Sultanpuri).
And finally, who can forget that mildly philosophical, even existential "Main zindagi Ka Saath Nibhata Chala Gaya", with that casual cigarette flick and smoke exhalation by a nonchalant Dev Anand ("Hum Dono", music Jaidev and lyrics Sahir Ludhianvi).
Some voices can never fade from memories!