Mohammad Aziz wasn’t just a first-copy version of Mohammad Rafi. That would be unfair to the artist he was.
Aziz was the first-copy version of all the actors he sang for: He was Govinda’s pelvic thrust, Mithun Chakraborty’s swagger, Rajesh Khanna’s ham, Amitabh Bachchan’s buffoonery. He was all that they were or wanted to be.
You need to understand the 1980s to understand the impact of Mohammad Aziz on the 1980s. It was quite a decade: When glitz was plastic, and glamour was gaudy, and the flamboyant and the convoluted walked hand-in-hand. We were in a zone hitherto unseen on the cultural front – in films, fashion, art, and literature – and we were rather proud of where we were going without really knowing where we were going. This was the decade when Pomeranians were the rich dogs, cordless phones outlined one’s social standing, Rupa and Dora were best-selling national brands of men’s underwear, and “Halla Gulla Mazaa Hai Jawaani” defined young people who wore headbands and paid to watch Karan Shah in Jawaani (1984).
It was the baroquest Baroque that India could ever have been.
Men wore baggy trousers and thought they were the shizz. Women wore plastic jewellery and thought they were the shizz. Hindi film villains were called Dang and Mogambo, and they thought they were the shizz. They were right, of course. Columns of earthen pots painted for the Gay Pride Parade formed the backdrop of dancing ditties featuring heroines wearing conical cholis. Heroes contorted muscles that weren’t even discovered by Science or the human body. Rekha and Jayaprada, our reigning divas, looked like the Klingon warriors from Star Trek. And everybody else looked like Rekha and Jayaprada. Including Amitabh Bachchan, Jitendra, and Mithun Chakraborty. Hamming was acting was hamming. They all signed up for the classes.
This coincided with the coming-into-being of Mohammad Aziz – famously known as Munna Aziz – in the world of Hindi Cinema. He arrived on a tanga with Amitabh Bachchan, no less, and, stayed on to simultaneously collaborate with the slushy histrionics of actors including Dilip Kumar, Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna, Dharmendra, Mithun Chakraborty, Rishi Kapoor, Anil Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt, and Govinda with equal ease, and enhanced élan.
His voice had just the right amount of ornate density that was the crying need of the hour. The motto of the decade was “Expression Without Suppression”, and Aziz was meant to be one its biggest, happiest, breeziest votaries. With Mard (1985), Karma (1986), Khudgarz (1987), Pyaar Ka Mandir (1988), Ram Lakhan (1989), Tridev (1989), and then some, he clearly was at the right place at the right time. The hummable, hammable hits were an immediate corollary. From the flashy rhythms of “Aapke Aa Jaane Se” to the simpering patriotism of “Har Karam Apna Karenge”, from the excited revelry of “One Two Ka Four” to the loud proclamation of “Main Teri Mohabbat Mein”, Mohammad Aziz reflected all that made the 1980s.
Hell, Mohammad Aziz WAS the 1980s!
Aziz entered the Hindi film music scene when there was a rather visible interval of sorts. Mohammad Rafi had just passed away and Kishore Kumar’s presence was being kind of selective. Older singers like Mahendra Kapoor, Talat Mehmood, Manna De or Mukesh were either gone or fading away. The Nadeem Shravan factory featuring Sanu and Sonu was still to happen. Udit Narayan’s Papa was yet to proclaim bada naam karega for his beta. SP Balasubrahmanyam was a glorious glint only in the Madrasi mother’s eye. The producers, directors, and music directors had reasons to believe that the best alternative to the voice of Rafi was the voice of Rafi. Therefore, Anwar, Shabbir Kumar, Mohammad Aziz and Sonu Nigam chronologically filled in, matching Rafi, husk for husk.
But Mohammad Aziz wasn’t a first-copy version of Mohammad Rafi. That would be unfair to the artist that he was. Mohammad Aziz was the first-copy version of all the actors that he sang for. He was Govinda’s pelvic thrust, Mithun Chakraborty’s swagger, Shashi Kapoor’s gravitas, Rajesh Khanna’s ham, Amitabh Bachchan’s buffoonery and Dilip Kumar’s melodrama. He was all that they were or wanted to be.
Imagine Rishi Kapoor and his sweaters singing “Tune Bechain Itna Ziada Kiya” to Sridevi in a single-screen theatre. The setting is right. The trees are around to be danced around, the lehngas in a cheerful dalliance with chunnis. There is enough “mohabbat-majboor-vaada-iraada” in the song to make the coronary arteries give warm cuddles to each other. It’s a love ballad. Only, with Mohammad Aziz, it becomes a loud and proud pronouncement of Rishi Kapoor’s feelings for Sridevi. To such an extent that it continues to hit you long after you have left the theatre. It stays with you. Forever.
And this is because Mohammad Aziz’s voice was invented for single screens. Be it the urban centres exhibiting state-of-art sound systems or mofussil towns making do with their decrepit speakers, if it is Aziz that they played, he would be heard. Whatever the quality of audio systems, it could not shake or rattle him. Why, even if there were no speakers, you could hear Mohammad Aziz!
But to know the real impact of the man, all that you had to do was travel in a video coach in the 1980s Hindi-speaking India. The worn-out video tapes may get the visuals wrong, they may skip scenes, they may even stop moving, but they would never ever EVER screw around with an Aziz song. The rickety buses all over the country were not running on diesel. They were running on Munna Aziz.
Because Munna Aziz was a concept. A phenomenon.
His presence signified the emergence of the “lesser India”. From “Beta aunty ko Chooby Chiks suna do,” it was now, “Beta, Rafi uncle ko copy karo.” He legitimised the hopes and aspirations of the middle-brow-middle-class India. He was Munna. He was one of them. One of us. That an orchestra singer could actually become part of the mainstream was the Revenge of the Also-Rans. Mohammad Aziz was the biggest tribute to the orchestra culture of India. The orchestra culture of India was the biggest tribute to Mohammad Aziz. They were the fallout of each other.
Precisely why when his time was up, he went back to where he belonged. To the orchestras. Where ill-fitting black suits with purple ties and fancy glares made for fancy people on stage. Where misogynistic jokes on co-singers made for great content. Where the singers actually thought they were the actors that they sang for, performing for an audience that actually believed in it. The middle India continued to love him back.
To be one of the cultural symbols of a decade that was culturally so decadent must not have come easy to Aziz. Which explains the quick rise and fall of not just Aziz, but all such symbols. Exactly why we need to give them their deserving place under the sun.
Mohammad Aziz must never be on the lost pages of history, or be relegated to merely becoming an apologetic footnote. Because he was an integral part of the history when it was being created.
His personal documentation of the times he lived in through the songs he sang is pure and unadulterated, even if it does not match up to our evolved sensibilities and heightened sensitivities. “Kaun hai woh. Bolo bolo kaun hai woh. Haan bolo bolo kaun hai woh,” he famously asked in “Jaane Do Jaane Do Mujhe Jaana Hai” from Shahenshah (1988).
The answer is Munna Aziz. Always.