Though he had a fairly successful career as a playback singer, Mahendra Kapoor never really got his due as he should have. Coming in to the film industry at a time when the likes of Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood, Manna Dey, Hemant Kumar and Kishore Kumar were well established and ruled the roost, Mahendra Kapoor nevertheless created his own space and distinct individualistic style but, unfairly, was always considered a rung lower than them. However he made the most of the opportunities given to him and will always be remembered for songs like Chalo Ek Baar Phir se (Gumrah (1963)), Neele Gagan ke Tale (Humraaz (1967)), Mere Desh ki Dharti (Upkar (1967)) and Hai Preet Jahan ki Reet Sada (Purab aur Paschim (1970)) among countless others.
Mahendra Kapoor was born in Amritsar on January 9, 1934, belonging to a family of cloth dealers. The family shifted to Bombay when he was still very young. Interested in music since childhood, he trained under stalwarts like Ustad Meherji, Ustad Niyaz Ahmad Khan and Pandit Tulsidas Sharma. In Bombay, Mahendra Kapoor studied at St. Xavier's School Bombay and auditioned for All India Radio but was rejected! However, he got his first break when Music Director Snehal Bhatkar got him to sing Tere Dar ki Bheekh Maanti Hai Daata in Diwali ki Raat (1956). That year he also sang a song in Lalkar (1956), Is Man ki Nagaria se with Sabita Banerjee but made no waves with his singing.
A big fan of Mohammed Rafi, he finally came to the fore in the 1957 when he won The Metro Murphy All-India talent singing competition. Among the judges of the competition were eminent Music Directors Naushad, Anil Biswas, Madan Mohan, Vasant Desai and C Ramchandra. Things began to move immediately thereafter. Naushad gave him the song Chand Chhupa aur Taare Doobe to sing for Sohni Mahiwal (1958) starring Bharat Bhushan and Nimmi, Vasant Desai gave him a chance to sing in Schoolmaster (1959), Anil Biswas gave him the duet Stella O Stella from Char Dil Char Rahen (1959) while C Ramchandra gave him songs like Yeh Maati Sabhi ki Kahani Kahegi and Aadha Hai Chandrama Raat Aadhi, a duet with Asha Bhosle, for V Shantaram's Navrang (1959), the last proving extremely popular.
However Mahendra Kapoor's breaththrough film was Yash Chopra's directorial debut, Dhool ka Phool (1959), produced by BR Chopra. Though Rafi naturally got the meatiest song in the film, Tu Hindu Banega Na Musalman Banega, Mahendra Kapoor still scored heavily in the film through songs like Tere Pyar ka Aasra Chahta Hoon and Dhadakne Lagi Dil ki Taaron ki Duniya. Dhool ka Phool was also the beginning of an extremely fruitful partnership between Mahendra Kapoor and the BR banner. Mahendra Kapoor would go on to sing some of his finest songs for BR films, composed by Ravi right through to the 1980s in films like Nikaah (1982) and Dehleez (1986). Of these special mention must be made of his songs in Gumrah (1963) and Humraaz (1967).
Gumrah is a triumph for Mahendra Kapoor. He single-handedly carries the burden of being the sole male playback singer in the film most competently. The film, also one of BR Chopra's finest, sees some of Mahendra Kapoor's best ever songs like In Hawaon Mein, Aap Aaye to Khayal-e-Dil-e-Nashad Aaya, Aa Bhi Jaa and of course that gem, Chalo Ek Baar Phir se Anjnabi Ban Jaayen Hum Dono, arguably his greatest song ever. Mehandra Kapoor went on to win the Filmfare Award for Best Male Playback singer for the film, a feat he would repeat in Humraaz. Humraaz sees Mahendra Kapoor in top form and at his peak as he beautifully glides through Neele Gagan ke Tale, Na Moonh Chhupa ke Jiyo, Tum Agar Saath Dene ka Vada karo, Kisi Pathhar ki Moorat se and Tu Husn Hai Main Ishq Hoon, the last a duet with Asha Bhosle. Neele Gagan ke Tale, in particular, proved most popular.
However, his most popular song that year, was undoubtedly Mere Desh ki Dharti from Manoj Kumar's Upkar (1967) based on Lal Bahadur Shashtri's call of Jai Jawan! Jai Kisan! The song remains one of the greatest ever patriotic songs in the history of Indian cinema and went on to win the National Award for Mahendra Kapoor. He formed an extremely effective partnership with Actor-Director Manoj Kumar singing for him in films like Yaadgar (1970), Purab aur Paschim (1970), where some feel the duo even outdid Mere Desh ki Dharti with Hai Preet Jahan ki Reet Sada and Roti Kapda aur Makaan (1974), for which he would win his third Filmfare Award for Best Male Playback.
Among Music Directors, apart from Ravi, special mention must be made of OP Nayyar who utilized Mahendra Kapoor most effectively and gave him several memorable songs to sing in the second half of the 1960s in films like Baharen Phir Bhi Aayengi (1966), Mohabbat Zindagi Hai (1966), CID 909 (1967) and, in particular, Kismet (1968), where he sang such lovely Nayyar compositions like Lakhon Hai Yahan Dilwale and Aankhon Mein Qayamat ke Kajal.
Besides Hindi films, Mahendra Kapoor also sang in Marathi films (he was particularly effective as the 'voice' of Dada Kondke!), Gujarati films, Bhojpuri films and Punjabi films. In Punjabi films where he was more often than not billed as Mohinder Kapoor, his songs in films like Yamla Jatt (1960), Jijaji (1961) and Shehar di Kudi (1968) proved to be quite popular. He is also known for his devotional songs in various languages and for the title song in BR Chopra's extremely popular TV serial, Mahabharat, made in the 1980s.
Apart from his National and Filmfare Awards, Mahendra Kapoor was a recipient of the Padma Shri from the Government of India and the Lata Mangeshkar Award from the Government of Madhya Pradesh. He also won the Punjab State award thrice and the Gujarat State Award an incredible six years in a row!
Mahendra Kapoor had been ailing for sometime. He died of cardiac arrest on September 27, 2008. He is survived by his wife, three daughters and a son, Rohan, who had a small stint as a leading man in films like Yash Chopra's Faasle (1985) and Love 86 (1986) before accompanying his father on his various stage shows.