Bollywood sisters bigger than The Beatles

 

Big, brash and bold, Bollywood is now a global phenomenon. More than a billion people watch the movies, its stars pose on the covers of Time and Forbes magazines, and the industry is worth billions. The formula works: improbable stories, glamour, action and songs. But behind the scenes hides another incredible success story of two sisters, mysterious, largely unknown by Westerners, who've sold more records worldwide than The Beatles or the Rolling Stones.

Bollywood actors lip-synch film songs which are actually sung by playback singers. Lata Mangeshkar (right) and her younger sibling, Asha Bhosle, have been the dominant female voices in films for over 65 years. Mangeshkar started first, in 1943 and was followed by Bhosle. Their voices, though very different from each other are mellow, intensely feminine and seemingly ageless. From the days of the British Raj to now, the sisters have delivered pleasure and solace. Every single post-independence Prime Minister has honoured them; every Asian on the planet has heard them sing. Lord Meghnad Desai, the economist, holds all their lyrics in his head; renowned British Asian composer Nitin Sawhney and film director Gurinder Chadha find them awesome.

Mangeshkar, restrained and a devout Hindu, sings intoxicatingly about love but has never married. Bhosle, the wild one, who eloped at 16, is sensual, and sings risqué lyrics. When she was in her seventies, I saw her in a packed Wembley Stadium dancing like an upright cobra with fit young men.

As a child in Uganda, I heard my mum playing sad Mangeshkar songs as she sewed for customers on an old Singer machine through the night. The beauty of the voices overcame all barriers, including language. They are loved across Africa, the Middle East, South America, Russia and the Far East.

Now in their eighties, Mangeshkar and Bhosle still sing for young actresses. And modern, fast-changing India still loves them, as I found out when I was in Mumbai to make a BBC Radio 4 show about them – the first in the UK on the 'nightingales of India'.

Mangeshkar, who rarely gives interviews, agreed to meet us. She greeted us warmly, in an elegant white sari. Diamonds twinkled on her earlobes – the only sign of affluence. She spoke about her life, her country, how she loved Nat King Cole and Harry Belafonte, and, most evocatively, about her art. We even sang together. How cool is that?

'Nightingales of India' will be broadcast today at 10.30am on Radio 4

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