Shamshad Begum: One of the first playback singers


When Shamshad Begum entered the British Raj-era film business as a playback singer, that term had not been coined. She was one of an uncredited band of behind-the-scenes vocalists who sang words through actors' lips as they mimed to pre-recorded songs.

The arrival of the first Indian talkie in 1931 created a new profession by repeating the regional theatre's trick of using songs to break up the narrative. Begum straddled the eras of anonymity and playback celebrity. She had a voice that could either melted hearts, or roar and made things right.

A Muslim, she was born in the Sikh-venerated city of Amritsar in 1919. By the age of 13 she was recording for the Jien-o-phone record label. In 1937 All India Radio Lahore opened as Punjab's only radio station. Word went out for local talent; actors, broadcasters and musicians attended. She passed the audition. Initially, she specialised in Punjabi folksongs. Her fame spread because the Lahore signal, especially at night, could reach Bahawalpur, Jhang, Montgomery (now Sahiwal), Lyallpur (now Faisalabad) and Rawalpindi.

Punjabi-language film took off slowly from 1934. This started to change with Gul Bakawli (1939) and its follow-up Yamla Jatt (1940). Both had music by the "music director" – in fact the composer – Ghulam Haider. They introduced the 11-year-old child star Noor Jehan, one of the emergent greats and, after Partition in 1947, Pakistan's foremost female playback singer. Yamla Jatt brought Shamshad Begum and a later mainstay of Bombay cinema, the actor Pran together.

Pictures were seen as wartime morale-boosters and Begum found work singing in many of the films shot in Lahore, then the hub of Punjab's regional film industry (later nicknamed "Lollywood"). "Northern Hindustani" – as Punjabi was known for census purposes – was on the brink of greater recognition and she was part of the brave new world of Punjabi arts. A measure of her impact is that Lata Mangeshkar, subsequently hailed as India's greatest female playback singer, won a talent competition in Pune by singing two of Begum's hits from Khazanchi, Haider's 1941 breakthrough film.

Haider moved to Bombay, where national rather than regional reputations were made, and Begum moved there from Lahore to Bombay. She arrived as an established regional singer with a strong reputation and Haider as her mentor. Bombay was the centre of the Hindustani film industry and she sang for both Hindi-language and, to a lesser extent, Urdu pictures.

In 1949 the industry secret that many of the actors and actresses were not doing the singing was blown. In Mahal Lata Mangeshkar was revealed to be the voice of Kamini, played on screen by the leading actress Madhubala. The heartthrob actor-singer KL Saigal and the actress-singer Suraiya were notable exceptions; although Saigal and Begum had sung in Shahjehan (1946), they did not meet. When they eventually did, he praised her singing. It was her lifelong regret that they never sang a duet.

Shamshad Begum became part of the new wave of singers whose names appeared in the opening credits. In an essay on female voices in film song in his book Light of the Universe (2003), Ashraf Aziz memorably described her as "gifted with a robust, sharp, minty voice" and continued that she had had "no difficulty in maintaining a decided edge over [male playback singers] Mukesh, Talat Mahmood and Kishore Kumar" in, respectively, Mela (1948), Babul (1950) and Naya Andaz (1956).

Of the male playback singers, only Mohammed Rafi counted as her true equal. As evidence of her as a team player, she and Asha Bhosle, Rafi and Manna Dey singing "Dukhbhare Din" in the celebrated melodrama Mother India (1957) takes some beating.

For her, the maxim that applied was the song is the thing. What she delivered for millions was the sheer entertainment value – and, sometimes, mystery – of song. Bombay films represented an alternative or antidote to Hollywood's vulgarity, violence and dubious morals (though Bollywood would change that). Her core legacy from the 1940s to 1960s is firmly rooted in more innocent, less vulgar times. Unusually, Begum chose to sidestep the bright lights and avoided live appearances. She is survived by her daughter and son-in-law, in whose home she had lived quietly after her husband's death in 1955.

Shamshad Begum, playback singer: born Amritsar, Punjab, British India 14 April 1919; married 1934 Ganpat Lal Batto (died 1955; one daughter); died Mumbai 23 April 2013.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Assistant Management Accountant - Part Qualified CIMA / ACCA

£30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: We are recruitment for an Assistan...

Recruitment Genius: Field Sales Executive - OTE £50,000

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Recruitment Genius: Logistics Analyst

£23000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be a part of ...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Manager - R&D - Paint

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This growing successful busines...

Day In a Page

Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea