First Superstar of Bollywood

Excelsior Correspondent
KL Saigal was a perfect gentleman, full of compassion and generous. He is often known to have given away his money, also clothes, to the poor and needy. It is said that his salary was collected by his family direct from the New Theatres’ office for fear that he might part with it on his way home. Once, he is said to have given away his diamond ring to a widow in distress at Pune.
Kundan Lal Saigal was a singer, and actor in the early days of the Indian cinema. He is generally acknowledged to be the first Bollywood superstar. He was really the first male superstar of Indian cinema who set the tone for musical melodrama acting in the 1930s and 40s. SAIGAL was born on April 11, 1904 at Nawa Shahar of R.S Pura, Jammu. His father Amar Chand SAIGAL was a Naib Tehsildar in State Revenue Department. His mother Kesar Kaur was a deeply religious lady who was very fond of music. She used to take young Kundan to various religious functions where bhajans, kirtans and shabads were sung in traditional styles. Kundan often accompanied his father to the interior parts of the state where he would drink deep into the folk music of Punjab and Kashmir straight from the shepherds and wandering minstrels. As a child, he occasionally played Sita in the Ramlila at Diwan Mandir, Jammu. At the age of 12 he got the opportunity to sing a Meera bhajan in the court of Maharaja Partab Singh. Maharaja was impressed by the voice of little Kundan and said one day this child would shine in the world of music. When SAIGAL was thirteen he lost his golden voice and that upset him and did not speak to any one for several months. Seeing his condition his mother became worried about her son’s condition and she approached a Sufi peer named Salman Yussuf to regain his lost golden voice.
He also spent much time at the shrine of the Sufi saint Salaman Yussuf, there he sang and practiced along with other musicians and devotees. The singing tradition he assimilated had little classical rigour but emphasized the poetic blending of syllables into musical forms like the thumri and ghazal. His renditions of Mirza Ghalib’s poetry and his identification with its tragic iconography formed the famous SAIGAL persona.
As a young man he had several occupations. After he dropped out of school, he worked for a while as a railway timekeeper. Later he worked as a salesman for the Remington Typewriter Company. This occupation gave him the opportunity to travel widely in India.
All the time that he was travelling in his job, he was signing on an amateur basis. He used to sing in gatherings with friends and met many people. On one occasion he met Mehar Chand Jain; would become one of SAIGAL’s early friend and supporter. In his travels, he also met B.N Sircar the founder of New Theatres. It is said that it was Sircar, who persuaded SAIGAL to go to Calcutta.
SAIGAL’s life in Calcutta was steeped in music Although he briefly worked as a hotel manager, his interest was in the music scene. He was a frequent participant in mehfils. He also recorded number of discs of songs written and arranged by Harishchandra Bali. These were released through Indian Gramophone Company. His reputation as a singer was growing.
The film business at that time was in the midst of a shake-up. The talking picture was just introducing so the film companies were clamouring for actors that knew how to sing. We must remember that these were the days before the custom of “playback” singing came into fashion. The actors and actresses sang their own songs and musical ability was considered and important prerequisite for a successful film career. SAIGAL’s immensely popular music recordings proved to be his stepping stone into the films. While in Calcutta, SAIGAL was introduced to R.C Boral. It was Boral who signed SAIGAL to a contract with New theatres.
He was payed Rs 200 a month to work on their films. His first film to act in was the Urdu film roles in “Subah Ke Sitare” and “Zinda Laash”. Those were released in 1932. These were by no means hits, but they did demonstrate that SAIGAL had what was necessary in the film industry.
During this period SAIGAL continued to make disks. Hindustan Records Company of Calcutta brought out several disks, of which Jhulana Jhulao attracted much attention from the public. He continued to sing and act in a number of films. However the film that made him famous was “Chandidas” (1934). After that he had many offers to do more films, but the one which earned him a place in film history was “Devdas” (1935). After the phenomenal success of “Devdas”, there was a doubt that SAIGAL was a formidable entity in the film industry. SAIGAL was fortunate in that he worked for an institution like New Theatres. Known for their quality film making, SAIGAL featured in many of the studio’s masterpieces – Didi (Bengali)/ President (hindi) (1937), Saathi (Bengali)/ Street Singer (Hindi) (1938), Zindagi (1940).
In Street Singer, SAIGAL’s rendition of Babul Mora was done live in front of the camera. Though playback had come into vogue, he convinced director Phani Mujumdar he would do a better job live in front of the camera.
Thus SAIGAL ‘walked the streets’ in the studio singing Babul Mora, with the entire orchestra following him out of the camera’s reach. The result was magic! Seeing the popularity SAIGAL had, Sagar Movietone launched Surendra as a answer to SAIGAL and though he had a distinguished career of his own, SAIGAL was still SAIGAL. It was during this period that his personal life developed as well. In 1935 he married Asha Rani. Together they had three children. There was a son named Madan Mohan (no connection to the director of the same name) and two daughters, Nina (b. 1937) and Bina. While in Calcutta, SAIGAL became proficient in Bengali.