Singer Asha Bhosle has been the soundtrack for millions of people’s lives for decades. With some 60 years behind her as one of the queens of Indian music, and with more than 20,000 documented songs in her recording catalog, she shows no signs of slowing down. Quite the opposite, in fact: this iconic vocalist, now 73 years old, is reinventing herself once again.
Morphing between personas is a skill that comes quite naturally to Bhosle. In the legions of filmi sangeet—the songs that have been the backbone of Indian popular cinema since the early 1930s—which Bhosle has recorded over the course of her career, she has taken on countless roles, from the widest-eyed innocent to the most jaded vamp. She is the actress behind the scenes, even as another actress portrays a role on film. Bhosle’s career doesn’t stop in the film world, either: fans rush to get her recordings of ghazals, Indian pop, regional musical styles, and North Indian classical music as well.
A bit of background: Indian popular film prizes the art of artifice, giving the audience the biggest bang for its hard-earned rupees. Bollywood movies are about total entertainment: a single film often straddles several styles (for example, a romantic comedy/family melodrama/action flick). Since the early 1930s, singing and dancing sequences, delivered at regular intervals, have goosed up storylines, contributing further to the films’ escapist fantasies.
The idea exploded in Indian cinema, and a big idea was born: moviegoers are treated to the prettiest faces—and so why not give them the most beautiful voices as well? Thus started the thriving business of playback singers, to whose recordings Indian actors and actresses lip-sync and dance.
Like her older sister Lata Mangeshkar—the only other filmi singer with a comparable career—Bhosle, who was born in 1933 (in Sangali in the state of Maharashtra), started her career while still a teenager. The girls’ father, Dinanath Mangeshkar, was a very well-known actor and singer whose specialty was sangeet nathak, a Marathi tradition of music and theater.
After Dinanath’s unexpected death in 1942, his widow Shrimati moved the family to Bombay, now called Mumbai, in 1944. Bombay was already the epicenter of India’s film industry, and their proximity to the business helped boost their burgeoning careers. (In fact, Lata soon began appearing in a number of films as an actress, performing in both the Hindi and Marathi languages.) Asha’s first film song was made for a Marathi movie in 1943 and her Hindi film debut came in 1948; in the meantime, Lata found real success with a breakthrough hit song, “Dil Mera Toda,” from the 1948 film Majboor.
Around this time, Bhosle’s personal life turned rocky. When she was just 16 years old, Asha eloped to marry a man twice her age named Ganpatrao Bhosle. “When I first got married,” Bhosle reflects, “I thought, I’ll have to stay home now, look after my husband.” But she learned quickly that life would lead her along a different path. The couple married against Asha’s family’s wishes, and unfortunately it was an ill-fated match.
Bhosle’s husband and his family mistreated the young girl and, eventually, Bhosle returned to her own family’s home with two small children (son Hemant and daughter Varsha) in tow and pregnant with her third child, son Anand. Bhosle, who knows that this story is already familiar to generations of fans, observes quietly, “I soon learned that music is my life.” Performing as a playback singer earned the income to support her young family.
“I was very young when I started singing,” Bhosle reflects. “I didn’t think about what I was doing—it was just work, work, work. But after some years, maybe 10 or 20 years, I saw that life is very difficult. I understood that if you don’t have anything to fall back on, what will you do? I am not a learned person—I’m not a doctor or a