In this candid interview, the legendary singer talked about his love for nature and why he decided to move from Bombay to Khandwa in Madhya Pradesh.
Pritish Nandy: I understand you are quitting Bombay and going away to Khandwa…
Kishore Kumar: Who can live in this stupid, friendless city where everyone seeks to exploit you every moment of the day? Can you trust anyone out here? Is anyone trustworthy? Is anyone a friend you can count on? I am determined to get out of this futile rat race and live as I’ve always wanted to. In my native Khandwa, the land of my forefathers. Who wants to die in this ugly city?
Pritish Nandy: Why did you come here in the first place?
Kishore Kumar: I would come to visit my brother Ashok Kumar. He was such a big star in those days. I thought he could introduce me to KL Saigal who was my greatest idol. People say he used to sing through his nose. But so what? He was a great singer. Greater than anyone else.
Pritish Nandy: I believe you are planning to record an album of famous Saigal songs….
Kishore Kumar: They asked me to. I refused. Why should I try to outsing him? Let him remain enshrined in our memory. Let his songs remain just HIS songs. Let not even one person say that Kishore Kumar sang them better.
Pritish Nandy: If you didn’t like Bombay, why did you stay back? For fame? For money?
Kishore Kumar: I was conned into it. I only wanted to sing. Never to act. But somehow, thanks to peculiar circumstances, I was persuaded to act in the movies. I hated every moment of it and tried virtually every trick to get out of it. I muffed my lines, pretended to be crazy, shaved my head off, played difficult, began yodelling in the midst of tragic scenes, told Meena Kumari what I was supposed to tell Bina Rai in some other film – but they still wouldn’t let me go. I screamed, ranted, went cuckoo. But who cared? They were just determined to make me a star.
Pritish Nandy: Why?
Kishore Kumar: Because I was Dadamoni’s brother. And he was a great hero.
Pritish Nandy: But you succeeded, after your fashion….
Kishore Kumar: Of course I did. I was the biggest draw after Dilip Kumar. There were so many films I was doing in those days that I had to run from one set to the other, changing on the way. Imagine me. My shirts flying off, my trousers falling off, my wig coming off while I’m running from one set to the other. Very often I would mix up my lines and look angry in a romantic scene or romantic in the midst of a fierce battle. It was terrible and I hated it. It evoked nightmares of school. Directors were like school teachers. Do this. Do that. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. I dreaded it. That’s why I would often escape.
Pritish Nandy: Well, you are notorious for the trouble you give your directors and producers. Why is that?
Kishore Kumar: Nonsense. They give me trouble. You think they give a damn for me? I matter to them only because I sell. Who cared for me during my bad days? Who cares for anyone in this profession?
Pritish Nandy: Is that why you prefer to be a loner?
Kishore Kumar: Look, I don’t smoke, drink or socialize. I never go to parties. If that makes me a loner, fine. I am happy this way. I go to work and I come back straight home. To watch my horror movies, play with my spooks, talk to my trees, sing. In this avaricious world, every creative person is bound to be lonely. How can you deny me that right?
Pritish Nandy: You don’t have many friends?
Kishore Kumar: None.
Pritish Nandy: That’s rather sweeping.
Kishore Kumar: People bore me. Film people particularly bore me. I prefer talking to my trees.
Pritish Nandy: So you like nature?
Kishore Kumar: That’s why I want to get away to Khandwa. I have lost all touch with nature out here. I tried to dig a canal all around my bungalow out here, so that we could sail gondolas there. The municipality chap would sit and watch and nod his head disapprovingly, while my men would dig and dig. But it didn’t work. One day someone found a hand – a skeletal hand- and some toes. After that no one wanted to dig anymore. Anoop, my second brother, came charging with Ganga water and started chanting mantras. He thought this house was built on a graveyard. Perhaps it is. But I lost the chance of making my home like Venice.
Pritish Nandy: People would have thought you crazy. In fact they already do.
Kishore Kumar: Who said I’m crazy. The world is crazy; not me.
Pritish Nandy: Why do you have this reputation for doing strange things?
Kishore Kumar: It all began with this girl who came to interview me. In those days I used to live alone. So she said: You must be very lonely. I said: No, let me introduce you to some of my friends. So I took her to the garden and introduced her to some of the friendlier trees. Janardhan; Raghunandan; Gangadhar; Jagannath; Buddhuram; Jhatpatajhatpatpat. I said they were my closest friends in this cruel world. She went and wrote this bizarre piece, saying that I spent long evenings with my arms entwined around them. What’s wrong with that, you tell me? What’s wrong making friends with trees?
Pritish Nandy: Nothing.
Kishore Kumar: Then, there was this interior decorator-a suited, booted fellow who came to see me in a three-piece woollen, Saville Row suit in the thick of summer- and began to lecture me about aesthetics, design, visual sense and all that. After listening to him for about half an hour and trying to figure out what he was saying through his peculiar American accent, I told him that I wanted something very simple for my living room. Just water-several feet deep- and little boats floating around, instead of large sofas. I told him that the center-piece should be anchored down so that the tea service could be placed on it and all of us could row up to it in our boats and take sips from our cups. But the boats should be properly balanced, I said, otherwise we might whizz past each other and conversation would be difficult. He looked a bit alarmed but that alarm gave way to sheer horror when I began to describe the wall decor. I told him that I wanted live crows hanging from the walls instead of paintings -since I liked nature so much. And, instead of fans, we could have monkeys farting from the ceiling. That’s when he slowly backed out from the room with a strange look in his eyes. The last I saw of him was him running out of the front gate, at a pace that would have put an electric train to shame. What’s crazy about having a living room like that, you tell me? If he can wear a woollen, three-piece suit in the height of summer, why can’t I hang live crows on my walls?
Pritish Nandy: Your ideas are quite original, but why do your films fare so badly?
Kishore Kumar: Because I tell my distributors to avoid them. I warn them at the very outset that the film might run for a week at the most. Naturally, they go away and never come back. Where will you find a producer-director who warns you not to touch his film because even he can’t understand what he has made?
Pritish Nandy: Then why do you make films?
Kishore Kumar: Because the spirit moves me. I feel I have something to say and the films eventually do well at times. I remember this film of mine – Door Gagan ki Chhaon mein – which started with an audience of 10 people in Alankar. I know because I was in the hall myself. There were only ten people who had come to watch the first show! Even its release was peculiar. Subhodh Mukherjee, the brother of my brother-in-law, had booked Alankar(the hall) for 8 weeks for his film April Fool- which everyone knew was going to be a blockbuster. My film, everyone was sure, was going to be a thundering flop. So he offered to give me a week of his booking. Take the first week, he said flamboyantly, and I’ll manage within seven. After all, the movie can’t run beyond a week. It can’t run beyond two days, I reassured him. When 10 people came for the first show, he tried to console me. Don’t worry, he said, it happens at times. But who was worried? Then, the word spread. Like wildfire. And within a few days, the hall began to fill. It ran for all 8 weeks at Alankar, house full! Subodh Mukherjee kept screaming at me but how could I let go the hall? After 8 weeks when the booking ran out, the movie shifted to Super, where it ran for another 21 weeks! That’s the anatomy of a hit of mine. How does one explain it? Can anyone explain it? Can Subodh Mukherjee, whose April Fool went on to become a thundering flop?
Pritish Nandy: But you, as the director should have known?
Kishore Kumar: Directors know nothing. I never had the privilege of working with any good director. Except for Satyen Bose and Bimal Roy, no one even knew the ABC of filmmaking. How can you expect me to give good performances under such directors? Directors like S.D. Narang didn’t even know where to place the camera. He would take long, pensive drags from his cigarette, mumble ‘Quiet, quiet, quiet’ to everyone, walk a couple of furlongs absentmindedly, mutter to himself and then tell the cameraman to place the camera wherever he wanted. His standard line to me was: Do something. What something? Come on, something! So I would go off on my antics. Is this the way to act? Is this the way to direct a movie? And yet Narangsaab made so many hits!
Pritish Nandy: Why didn’t you ever offer to work with a good director?
Kishore Kumar: Offer! I was far too scared. Satyajit Ray came to me and wanted me to act in Parash Pathar – his famous comedy – and I was so scared that I ran away. Later, Tulsi Chakravarti did the role. It was a great role and I ran away from it, so scared I was of these great directors.
Pritish Nandy: But you knew Ray.
Kishore Kumar: Of course I did. I loaned him five thousand rupees at the time of Pather Panchali-when he was in great financial difficulty- and even though he paid back the entire loan, I never gave him an opportunity to forget the fact that I had contributed to the making of the classic. I still rib him about it. I never forget the money I loan out!
Pritish Nandy: Well, some people think you are crazy about money. Others describe you as a clown, pretending to be kinky but sane as hell. Still, others find you cunning and manipulative. Which is the real you?
Kishore Kumar: I play different roles at different times. For different people. In this crazy world, only the truly sane man appears to be mad. Look at me. Do you think I’m mad? Do you think I can be manipulative?
Pritish Nandy: How would I know?
Kishore Kumar: Of course you would know. It’s so easy to judge a man by just looking at him. You look at these film people and you instantly know they’re rogues.
Pritish Nandy: I believe so.
Kishore Kumar: I don’t believe so. I know so. You can’t trust them an inch. I have been in this rat race for so long that I can smell trouble from miles afar. I smelt trouble the day I came to Bombay in the hope of becoming a playback singer and got conned into acting. I should have just turned my back and run.
Pritish Nandy: Why didn’t you?
Kishore Kumar: Well, I’ve regretted it ever since. Boom Boom. Boompitty boom boom. Chikachikachik chik chik. Yadlehe eeee yadlehe ooooo (Goes on yodelling till the tea comes. Someone emerges from behind the upturned sofa in the living room, looking rather mournful with a bunch of rat-eaten files and holds them up for Kishore Kumar to see)
Pritish Nandy: What are those files?
Kishore Kumar: My income tax records.
Pritish Nandy: Rat-eaten?
Kishore Kumar: We use them as pesticides. They are very effective. The rats die quite easily after biting into them.
Pritish Nandy: What do you show the tax people when they ask for the papers?
Kishore Kumar: The dead rats.
Pritish Nandy: I see.
Kishore Kumar: You like dead rats?
Pritish Nandy: Not particularly.
Kishore Kumar: Lots of people eat them in other parts of the world.
Pritish Nandy: I guess so.
Kishore Kumar: Haute cuisine. Expensive too. Costs a lot of money.
Pritish Nandy: Yes?
Kishore Kumar: Good business, rats. One can make money from them if one is enterprising.
Pritish Nandy: I believe you are very fussy about money. Once, I’m told. a producer paid you only half your dues and you came to the sets with half your head and half your moustache shaved off. And you told him that when he paid the rest, you would shoot with your face intact…
Kishore Kumar: Why should they take me for granted? These people never pay unless you teach them a lesson. I was shooting in the South once. I think the film was Miss Mary and these chaps kept me waiting in the hotel room for five days without shooting. So I got fed up and started cutting my hair. First I chopped off some hair from the right side of my head and then, to balance it, I chopped off some from the left. By mistake I overdid it. So I cut off some more from the right. Again I overdid it. So I had to cut from the left again. This went on till I had virtually no hair left- and that’s when the call came from the sets. When I turned up the way I was, they all collapsed. That’s how rumours reached Bombay. They said I had gone cuckoo. I didn’t know. I returned and found everyone wishing me from long distance and keeping a safe distance of 10 feet while talking. Even those chaps who would come and embrace me waved out from a distance and said Hi. Then, someone asked me a little hesitantly how I was feeling. I said: Fine. I spoke a little abruptly perhaps. Suddenly I found him turning around and running. Far, far away from me.
Pritish Nandy: But are you actually so stingy about money?
Kishore Kumar: I have to pay my taxes.
Pritish Nandy: You have income tax problems I am told….
Kishore Kumar: Who doesn’t? My actual dues are not much but the interest has piled up. I’m planning to sell off a lot of things before I go to Khandwa and settle this entire business once and for all.
Pritish Nandy: You refused to sing for Sanjay Gandhi during the emergency and, it is said, that’s why the tax hounds were set on you. Is this true?
Kishore Kumar: Who knows why they come. But no one can make me do what I don’t want to do. I don’t sing at anyone’s will or command. But I sing for charities, causes all the time[Note: Sanjay Gandhi wanted Kishore Kumar to sing at some Congress rally in Bombay. Kishore Kumar refused. Sanjay Gandhi ordered All India Radio to stop playing Kishore songs. This went on for quite a while. Kishore Kumar refused to apologize. Finally, it took scores of prominent producers and directors to convince those in power to rescind the ban]
Pritish Nandy: What about your home life? Why has that been so turbulent?
Kishore Kumar: Because I like being left alone.
Pritish Nandy: What went wrong with Ruma Devi, your first wife?
Kishore Kumar: She was a very talented person but we could not get along because we looked at life differently. She wanted to build a choir and a career. I wanted someone to build me a home. How can the two reconcile? You see, I’m a simple-minded villager type. I don’t understand this business about women making careers. Wives should first learn how to make a home. And how can you fit the two together? A career and a home are quite separate things. That’s why we went our separate ways.
Pritish Nandy: Madhubala, your second wife?
Kishore Kumar: She was quite another matter. I knew she was very sick even before I married her. But a promise is a promise. So I kept my word and brought her home as my wife, even though I knew she was dying from a congenital heart problem. For 9 long years, I nursed her. I watched her die before my own eyes. You can never understand what this means until you live through this yourself. She was such a beautiful woman and she died so painfully. She would rave and rant and scream in frustration. How can such an active person spend 9 long years bed-ridden? And I had to humour her all the time. That’s what the doctor asked me to. That’s what I did till her very last breath. I would laugh with her. I would cry with her.
Pritish Nandy: What about your third marriage? To Yogeeta Bali?
Kishore Kumar: That was a joke. I don’t think she was serious about marriage. She was only obsessed with her mother. She never wanted to live here.
Pritish Nandy: But that’s because she says you would stay up all night and count money..
Kishore Kumar: Do you think I can do that? Do you think I’m mad? Well, it’s good we separated quickly.
Pritish Nandy: What about your present marriage?
Kishore Kumar: Leena is a very different kind of person. She too is an actress like all of them but she’s very different. She’s seen tragedy. She’s faced grief. When your husband is shot dead, you change. You understand life. You realize the ephemeral quality of all things.. I am happy now.
Pritish Nandy: What about your new film? Are you going to play hero in this one too?
Kishore Kumar: No no no. I’m just the producer-director. I’m going to be behind the camera. Remember I told you how much I hate acting? All I might do is make a split second appearance on screen as an old man or something.
Pritish Nandy: Like Hitchcock?
Kishore Kumar: Yes, my favourite director. I’m mad, true. But only about one thing. Horror movies. I love spooks. They are a friendly fearsome lot. Very nice people, actually, if you get to know them. Not like these industry chaps out here. Do you know any spooks?
Pritish Nandy: Not very friendly ones.
Kishore Kumar: But nice, frightening ones?
Pritish Nandy: Not really.
Kishore Kumar: But that’s precisely what we’re all going to become one day. Like this chap out here (points to a skull, which he uses as part of his decor, with red light emerging from its eyes)- you don’t even know whether it’s a man or a woman. Eh? But it’s a nice sort. Friendly too. Look, doesn’t it look nice with my specs on its non-existent nose?
Pritish Nandy: Very nice indeed.
Kishore Kumar: You are a good man. You understand the real things of life. You are going to look like this one day.
(This interview first appeared in 1985. Read the original piece here)