Many may not be aware of his name today but K L Saigal remains Bollywood’s first ever male superstar. What’s more – he was both a superstar actor and a singing sensation – something that no other male star has ever been able to achieve. Though the ignorant media has tried to project other actors from much later as Bollywood’s first superstar (perhaps because being younger, these writers saw the later superstars’ stardom first hand and did not bother to read or research records) it is Saigal who fits into all the descriptions of a superstar – crazy fan following, name on the marquee enough to sell ticket and records like hot cakes, humongous take-home salary, top hit film of the year multiple times and incomparable public and media interest in the professional and personal life.
Born in Jammu, Saigal had to travel all over the country as a typewriter salesman. This took him to Calcutta (Now Kolkatta) which, along with Mumbai was a major Hindi/Urdu film production center with a Number of big production studios. Saigal started his career with one of the biggest, New Theaters, on a monthly contract of Rs 200.
Within the first year of his launch in 1932, Saigal started tasting minor success like a superhit song in Mohabbat Ke Aansoo. Next year he had 3 straight hits with Rajrani Meera being the biggest. Puran Bhagat was also a big hit and Yahudi Ki Ladki worked too. In 1934 his Chandidas was year’s second biggest hit but it was next year’s top hit Devdas that established him as the Numero Uno superstar of Hindi Film Industry by 1935. Also, most of the songs from all these hits were chart busters and they were all sung by Saigal himself.
Once on top, Saigal did not look back for the next 12 years until his death in 1947. In this period it was only Ashok Kumar who put up some kind of a competition for him but even he could never take away Saigal’s crown. Starting with Devdas he had 17 more hits Devdas, Pujarin, President, Street Singer, Dharti Mata, Dushman, Zindagi, Lagan, Bhakt Surdas, Tansen, Bhanwra, Meri Behen, Tadbeer, Kurukshetra, Shahjehan, Omar Khaiyaam, Parwaana four of which were solo hero top hits of the year (Devdas, President, Street Singer, Zindagi).
All stars have their tragic flaw and Saigal’s was alcoholism. His health deteriorated due to over drinking and he died in 1947. But even that year he gave a hit Parwana and died with his crown firmly on his head.