In the year 1968, during my stint in the film weekly “Screen” when its editor asked me to interview O.P. Nayyar, my excitement knew no bounds at the prospect of meeting the music celebrity who had earned the sobriquet “Rhythm King”. At the same time I was in awe of him as he had the dubious reputation of being a different kind of a person, of possessing a mercurial temperament. I knew his career was no longer steady, it was heading towards a final fall, still who knows how he would conduct himself, I wondered.
While travelling by bus to the venue of the meeting, the Taj Mahal Hotel, nothing else occupied my mind but that his illustrious career, his evergreen hit songs, the conspicuous absence of Lata Mangeshkar throughout his two decade musical journey-an undeniable incredible phenomenon in the history of film music- a great achievement in itself.
One by one his hit songs came to my mind. His forte being beats I recalled them with relish such as “Udi jab ab zulfein teri” ; “Reshmi salwar te kurta jaali da” ; “Ek pardesi mera dil le gaya” being the more popular hits with unbeatable captivating beats with a folksy flavor of his native Punjab. From his earliest hit in this category, “Mera naam chin chin choo” to the much later the pulsating duet “Kajra Mohabbatwala” ; these were the songs that did not miss being huge hits.
In two of his songs, “Maang ke saath tumhara” and “Yun to humne lakh hansee dekhein hai” the trolling of horses served as beats thanks to his imagination.
Then my memory switched on to the sweet, tuneful melodies ones such as the slow-paced sexy “Aiye Meherbaan” ; the haunting “Jaiye aap kahan jayenge” or the heady “Deewana hua badal”. How the trill in Asha Bhonsle’s voice complimented his creations to thrill the listeners I marveled.
When I entered the hotel room, to my surprise I saw Omkar Prasad Nayyar the “Rhythm King” majestically seated waiting for me. I became tensed if I was late. Watching me nervously looking at my watch he said, “Don’t worry young lady, you are punctual to the minute, it is I who have arrived early. Time is hanging heavy on my hands. I am sure you know of late I enjoy no status whatsoever as a music director. But time was when journalists were after my life to obtain an interview with me. Now there is a reversal of situation. It is I who look forward to be spoken to and listened to in a leisurely manner.”
Smilingly, continuing his narration he said, “Don’t think I am wallowing in self- pity, I am only pondering over the contrast, the difference in the past and the present. Only a few years back, there was a time when the whole film world was at my feet and now the same world is looking away from me, showing supreme indifference. Anyway, I am enjoying basking in my past glory.”
This startling start to the interview where the maestro poured out his heart to the stranger that I was, made me tongue tied for a while. I could not believe my ears he displayed keen sense of humour, a confirmed egoist laughing at himself! It amused me a lot but embarrassed me too a little. Just unable to make out what to say, I somehow managed to utter these words. “No no, take it from me, you will make a comeback with a bang anytime.”
O.P shrugged it off with a flourish and went on philosophizing “It will never happen. The novelty of my music which was once universally hailed as being a class by itself has worn out. Mew entrants in the field have edged me out. This fate has been shared by so many of my illustrious predecessors. I cannot expect to be an exception.”
As he stopped talking I at once snatched the moment to carry out my part in the interview. I also wanted to take his mind off the past even though what all he recounted did not smack of any ill feelings towards the time-serving film industry. “What are the films you are giving the musical scores for?” I asked him in a bid to wean him away from past memories good and bad.
“Oh, my present assignments? The number is not too small, “he replied breaking into a sardonic smile proceeded in a theatrical manner. “But the banners? I who at a point of time would not settle for no less a filmmaker than B. R. Chopra, Guru Dutt or Shakti Samanth am now working with rank newcomers. And I am composing music for the lyrics penned by little known lyricists, I who was fortunate to have been associated with the great Sahir Ludhianvi and a few other famous ones like Qamar Jalalabadi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and S. H. Behar.
“These days my remuneration too is proportionate to the reputation of the banners. Not that this downfall affects me. Again, mind you, I am not boasting when I tell you I was one of the earliest composers along with Shankar Jaikishen and Naushad to charge a whoppy sum of a lakh per film. Producers would vie with each other to rope me in. In case I appeared to be reluctant to sign up, in order to cajole me they would go even to the extent of lavishing expensive gifts on me, even as costly as the latest model of new brand of limousine.”
Luckily for me the talk took a different direction when he sprang a surprise by asking me, “It is now my turn to ask you a question, tell me frankly, what is the public perception of me as a person?” I noticed naughtiness in his piercing eyes.
“ If I sense that someone is trying to act funny with me, however great that person may be I give him left and right then and there. As an example when once Dilip Kumar dropped into the room as I was trying hard to put my best into a tune for ‘Naya Daur.’ With an air of superiority he found some flaw in the tune and gave me an unsolicited advice. Stung to the quick I fiercely asked him to get lost. Adding further insult to his injured ego , I blasted him with the suggestion that he better remain confined to his domain, acting, which too was woefully below par.”
Clarifying his stand on this matter he made haste to add, “ it is not that I oppose suggestion just to assert myself. In this connection I would like to know how wholeheartedly I welcome any if it is a sensible one and put forward in a decent manner. While composing the tune for the song, “Ye chand sa roshan chehra” for ‘Kashmir kiKali’, it was suggested by director Shakti Samantha that the letter ‘taa’ in the words “tareef karun kya uski” be pronounced with a thunder like sound. Initially, I was not so willing to do it as it would enhance the impact of the song to be lip-synced by the flamboyant Shammi Kapoor I was convinced and did as they asked me to do.”
Now it was I who took him to the past questioning how he made his entry into the films, how he made his entry into films, how sound was his training in music, if he had any regrets in life, the secret of his not getting along with the Nightingale of India Lata and so on.
He was happy to answer all questions. “The filmmaker who discovered the potential in me and gave me a much desired break was the veteran Dalsukh Pancholi. The film was ‘Aasman’ made in 1951. Just a little earlier my non-filmi song the emotionally charged “Pritam aan milo” that brought out the golden voice of K. L. Saigal in the throat of the brilliant singer C. H. Atma had taken the musical world by storm. D. M. Pancholi I am deeply indebted to, the other do gooder for me was Shashadhar Mukherjee who was after I hit a rough patch in 1961. My music in his ‘EK musafir ek haseena’ had done the trick.”
“My association with Guru Dutt in three films, Aar Paar, Mr. and Mrs. 55, and last but not the last C.I.D proved fruitful for me as each of them took me one rung up the ladder to fame. Incidentally, I have a guilty feeling when a slight delay by me in meeting Guru Dutt proved my undoing. The tow of us close friends at one time had been out of touch for a long time. The night previous to his suicidal death he had conveyed through his friend a longing to see him. Through lethargy I did not go. The next morning he had bid good bye to this world. If only I had known how deeply he had sunk into depression!”
“Coming to the topic of my musical training, I had nothing worth the name. And classical music? Absolutely nil!” I then asked O.P., “How come you could create such an awe-inspiring song like ‘tu hai mera prem devata’ in raag Lalit?”
“Is it raag Lalit?’ , he wore a surprised look. By now since we had developed a remarkable rapport, I told him he was feigning ignorance about his unfamiliarity with ragas. “No what I am claiming is not false. I can’t tell one raga from the other, even the common ones. My exposure to classical music does not go beyond listening to them and never with a view to studying it. So this song along with other like “Dekhi bijli bole bin badal ke” got created by me without any conscious effort on my part, spontaneously I should say.”
As one who knew something about the complexity of classical music I at first took his claim with a pinch of salt. The next moment I argued with myself that for someone like him naturally endowed with such abundant talent this could have been possible.
“ I have given you so much information at such a short time. Does any question still remain unanswered?” “Yes, one question is there to which I hope to get a straight uninhibited answer. The question is how is that you boldly ventured to embark on your musical journey without using Lata’s voice, considered to guarantee for the popularity of a musical score? Has it more to do with your saying that her thin voice did not suit your type of songs?”
Striking his forehead with his hand in a mock gesture of disgust he answered, “If truth be told, there is much more to it than that reason. To put it plainly, not to mince words, she proved a hard nut for me to crack. I simply could not stand her. She was most unfriendly almost inimical towards me for reasons best known to her. Sorry to confess, I have nothing much to praise her as a person but,” here he stood up from his seat made a gesture of salute and with an expression of deep veneration stated “Simply hats off to her as a singer, a peerless one.”
This unexpected gesture spoke volumes for his not being chary of giving credit where it was due.
After hearing his great appreciative words about Lata, my spontaneous reaction was expressed in the words, “And sir, hats off to you on behalf of countless fans for reaching the top without using Lata’s voice.” His face brightened up at my comment.
O. P. then requested me to keep his adverse remarks about Lata strictly off the record which I agreed to. I take the liberty of sharing it with you now decades later.
As we parted our ways, I experienced a sense of fulfillment for having elicited much of his views some of which uttered philosophically was a reflection of his quixotic personality.
As all his fans know, O. P. in the last years of his life turned a recluse completely staying away from the film world, which had given him fame and fortune. Most intriguing part was his snapping the ties with his wife and children to the extent of his telling them not to attend his funeral.
“ I value my self- respect much more than any other thing in my life.” This is what he had stressed during the course of our conversation. At long last we believe he found himself at peace with himself and the world-a world with whose ways he could never come terms throughout his extraordinary life. The world did not allow him to “ Chain se humko kabhi aap ne jeene na diya” as the first part of the line of one of his last songs , a masterpiece went.
PS: Speaking of him, one can’t but hum his songs…here are the links to his songs:
“Udi jab ab zulfein teri”; www.youtube.com/watch?v=WaWp0eMM9Pk
“Reshmi salwar te kurta jaali da” ; www.youtube.com/watch?v=YQQDlClWaSA
“Ek pardesi mera dil le gaya”; www.youtube.com/watch?v=rJjxRIfAYno
“Mera naam chin chin choo” ; www.youtube.com/watch?v=c7R3IeuDQt0
“Kajra Mohabbatwala”; www.youtube.com/watch?v=kItK3kQlyko
“Maang ke saath tumhara”; www.youtube.com/watch?v=BBUBPElquj4
“Yun to humne lakh hansee dekhein hai”; www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ezpvc3lNLK0
“Aiye Meherbaan” www.youtube.com/watch?v=urUpMevl_XQ
“Jaiye aap kahan jayenge” www.youtube.com/watch?v=AajHv7NIp9g
“Deewana hua badal” www.youtube.com/watch?v=beqTRIpoos8