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The unsung queen Usha Khanna

With over 200 films to her name, legendary composer Usha Khanna has built a legacy that is tall, daunting and difficult to replicate

Once at a Bollywood film party, film music historian Nalin Shah was told by his host that "Nalinjee let me have the privilege of introducing you to the first female composer of the film Industry." He took Nalin Shah to a lady and introduced her as Usha Khanna. Nalin Shah promptly said she is not, reminding that the first female composer was Saraswati Devi of Bombay Talkies. Shah was partly correct. According to film music experts, the first composer of the film industry was Jaddanbai (mother of actor Nargis). Jaddanbai was a one-woman film industry. She had produced and directed half a dozen Hindi films and even introduced her daughter, Baby Fatima (Nargis) in the film Talash-e-Haq. She wrote the screen play, produced, directed and even gave music in the film, as Jaddanbai was known to. On the contrary, Saraswati Devi was a regular music director of Bombay Talkies movies. In that way, Usha Khanna is the third female composer of Hindi films.

Born on October 7, 1941 in Gwalior, Usha's father, Manohar Khanna, worked with the water works department of the Gwalior state. He was always lured by films and moved to Bombay (now Mumbai) in the mid-1940s. He wrote lyrics and composed music for a few films. Manohar Khanna was approached by Jaddanbai to write ghazals for her film. Manohar wrote three ghazals for her under the pseudonym Javed Anwar. Young Usha had seen her father singing his own ghazals and had decided to become a singer herself. When she came to Bombay along with her father, she complicated her matriculation and joined Deodhar Sangeet Vidyalaya. She was trained in light music by composer Robin Banarjee.

Her father was writing lyrics and composing music for films including legendary Ezra Meer's Pamposh in 1953. It is said that Usha Khanna tuned some compositions for her father in this film. Usha wanted to be a singer rather than a composer. She was introduced by lyricist Indeevar to veteran producer Sashidhar Mukherjee of Bombay Talkies and Filmistan. Mukherjee had his own Filmalaya School of Acting and was planning on his own home production. When Mukherjee heard Usha's few songs, he told her, "Can you sing better than Lata and Asha?" Usha said no. On the advice of Mukherjee, she switched to composing music for films. Mukherjee signed her for his own production Dil Deke Dekho (1959), starring Shammi Kapoor and Asha Parekh in the lead. Parekh had just finished her acting course in Filmalaya and was launched and introduced here. The film was directed by Nasir Hussain.

Usha Khanna became a composer at the age of 14. She composed 10 songs of Dil Deke Dekho and each became a chartbuster of that year. Dil Deke Dekho was released on September 18, 1959 and became the super musical hit of that year. Usha had to face lot of criticism that the music of the film was in the mould of OP Nayyar. Nayyar had scored the music of Mukherjee's Tumsa Nahi Dekha (1957). In fact, Mukherjee wanted similar music in Dil Deke Dekho as there was a brewing conflict with Nayyar. Let us recall the ten songs of Dil Deke Dekho.

Mohammad Rafi and Asha Bhonsle did full justice to Usha's compositions. Rafi sang four solos including the title track Dil Deke Dekho, Dil deke dekho, dil deke dekho ji…, Bolo bolo kuch to bolo, Rahi mil gaye rahon mein and Hum aur tum aur woh sama (this song was in Asha's voice also). The popular duets of the film were Yaar chulbula hai haseen dil ruba hai and back-to-back number Megha re bole ghananghanan (Rafi/chorus) and Bade hain dilke kale (Rafi/Asha), and Do ekam do, do dunichaar, Kaun ye aaya mehfil mein…hey dilruba meri neeta (Rafi/Asha) were written by Majhrooh Sultanpuri.

After the splendid success, Mukherjee signed Usha Khanna for Filmalaya's next production Hum Hindustani (1960), starring Sunil Dutt, Asha Parekh and Joy Mukherjee. Its chartbusters were, the title song of the Nehruvian era Chhodo kalki batein, kalki baat purani, naye daur mein likhange milkar nayi kahani, hum Hindustani hum Hindustani (Mukesh/chorus). Khanna also composed Nilinili ghata o bheegi bheegi hawa (Mukesh/Lata) written by her father. Lata's solo, Chori chori aayi hai radha and Majhi meri kismat ke jee chahe jaan le chal were written by Rajendra Krishan. Shahir also wrote one song Hum jab chale to ye jahan jhume (Rafi/chorus).

Despite two consecutive musical hits, Usha Khanna didn't get offer from any big banner. She had to struggle a lot and gave some lilting numbers in B-grade films with Seikh Mukhtar, Dara Singh and strugglers like Mehmood, Firoz Khan and Sanjeev Kumar. From Flat Number 9 (1961) Gaa deewane jhoom ke raat ki zulfein choom ke (Mukesh), Aankhon se maine pee and Dhire chalo more saiyan (Lata) are some known numbers. Once again, Mukherjee signed Usha Khanna for his next production Aao Pyaar Karein (1964) starring Joy Mukherjee and Saira Bano. The film didn't fare well at the box office but a few numbers of Usha became very popular like Tum akele toh kabhi baagh mein jaya na karo (Lata/Rafi) and romantic number Dil ke aaine mein tasveer teri rahti hai (Rafi). Usha used beautiful interludes of sarangi, tabla and violin. Lata's solo Meri dastan mujhe hi mera dil suna ke roye. This was Usha's last film with Filmalaya.

Usha Khanna was getting B-grade films but her unforgettable compositions were in the film Shabnam (1964) starring Mehmood and Vijay Laxmi. Two numbers of Rafi written by Usha's father as Javed Anwer were Ye teri saadgi ye tera bak pan and Maine rakha hai mohabbat apne afsane ka naam. In Ek Sapera Ek Lutera (1965) starring Firoz Khan and Kumkum, the melodious Hum tumse juda hoke mar jayange roro ke remains memorable along with the intoxicating number Uthao jam chalo dono saath saath piyein (Suman Kalyanpur). This song was banned by Vivid Bharti but became popular once the ban was lifted. In the same year, Usha gave music in film Nishaan starring Seikh Mukhtar, Sanjeev Kumar and Nazima. Javed Anwar wrote the lyrics. Two numbers of this film – Haye Tabassum Tera (Mohammad Rafi) and duet Bolo ji bolo (Suman Kalyanpur/Mukesh) – became extremely popular. Usha Khanna also sang a number, Ae jane wafa maine dil rakh diya tere kadmo mein. Another B-grade film of Usha Khanna was Badal (1966) starring Seikh Mukhtar and S Vijaylaxmi. Manna Dey sang his motivational song Apne liye jiye to kya jiye in two parts written by Javed Anwer. Khanna's numbers in Main Wahi Hoon starring Firoz Khan and Kumkum had become popular too. Lal Bangla starring Prithvi Raj Kapoor, Seikh Mukhtar, Sujit Kumar and Jayanthi had the popular number of Mukesh Chand ko kya maloom chahta hai koi use chakor written by Indeevar.

In the 1960s, Khanna faced real threat from Laxmikant-Pyarelal, who were arrangers with several composers became independent composers with the film Parasmani (1963). They competently challenged the supremacy of Shankar-Jaikishan.

In 1970s, Usha gave some catchy numbers in Suman Kalyanpur's voice in Ek Paheli (1971), Ab to aaja dhalne lage hain ujli raaton ke saye and Pani mein jale mera gora badan in film Munimji (1972). In Sabak (1973) Mukesh sang a popular number Barkha rani zara jam ke barso.

Usha Khanna married producer-director-lyricist Sawan Kumar and gave music in his film Hawas (1974). Rafi sang his iconic ghazals Teri galiyon mein na rakhenge kadam aaj ke baad and a cabaret number Aao yaro gao (Asha/chorus) also became popular. Her marriage didn't last but they kept working together professionally.

After Hawas, Usha Khanna did not get many films but gave some popular numbers in film Dada (1978) starring Vinod Mehra, Bindiya Goswami. Usha composed a song written by Ravindra Jain Gaddi jaandi hai Chhalanga mar di (Rafi/Shailendra Singh/Hemlata/Dilraj Kaur) and Dilke tukde tukde karke muskurake chal diye (Yesu Das) also became popular. Another notable film of Usha Khanna was Saajan Bina Suhagan (1978), in which she composed three versions of song Madhuban khusboo deta hai sung by Yesu Das and in a duet Yesu Das/Anuradha Paudwal. This song also was sung by Usha in her own voice. She also gave music in Bin Phere Hum Tere where Kishore sang the title track along with a comic song Ram dulari maike gaye in Meri Biwi Ki Saadi (1979).

The only notable film of Usha Khanna in the 1980s was Sawan Kumar's Souten (1983) starring Rajesh Khanna, Tina Munim and Padmini Kolhapure. Its popular numbers were Bhairavi-based Shayad meri shadi ka khayal dil mein aaya hai (Lata/Kishore) and Zindagi pyaar ka geet hai (Kishore). Usha Khanna received a nomination for the Filmfare Award. Her last film was Sawan Kumar's Dil Pardesi Ho Gaya (2003). Khanna also gave music in several TV serials and in Malyalam films.

In a career of four or five decades, Usha Khanna scored music for 200 films. She is the only female composer to do this. For her contribution to the film Industry, she was conferred with Maharashtra government's Lata Mangeshkar Award for 2019-20.

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