Late last year, an editor from ForbesLife India wrote to me, telling me they’d be doing special ‘100 years of Indian cinema’ editions this year. Would I be interested in contributing an article? That was a no-brainer (or so it seemed), but when I got over my initial excitement and began to think, I realised that:
(a) I know virtually nothing about Indian cinema in general. Hindi cinema, yes; other Indian cinema, almost negligible.
(b) It was too vast a canvas. What would I write?
Much thought later, I offered to write about something I know something about: Hindi film music. What follows is a version of the article that appeared in the April-June 2013 issue of ForbesLife India. Do buy yourself a copy to read the final article—and to read some more interesting writing on a century of Indian cinema.
In May 1913, Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harischandra was released—the first indigenously produced full-length Indian feature film. Raja Harischandra proved a big hit and heralded the start of what has become the world’s largest cinema industry. Largest, and also, in some ways, very distinctive—and one of those fairly distinctive characteristics of Indian (not merely Hindi) cinema is the use of songs.
Alam Ara (1931) marked the advent of sound in Hindi cinema, and with that came songs specially written, composed and sung for films. (Do note that, in a carry-over from the nautanki tradition, even silent films did have songs: musicians—ranging from large orchestras in big towns to a lone tabalchi in smaller theatres in the countryside—would play during the screening). With Alam Ara and the chance to finally fill a film with songs, Hindi cinema became synonymous with ‘all-singing, all-dancing’ films.
Songs are remembered long after the films they featured in have been forgotten. Songs are parodied, and made the basis of jokes (“Most Hindi film heroines change outfits many times during a song; why, then, does Waheeda Rehman’s character wear only one sari throughout Gaata rahe mera dil?—because Dev Anand’s character sings to her, ‘Badle duniya saari, tum na badalna’”). Film songs are India. They reflect India, and India reflects them.
So, as we celebrate 100 years of Indian cinema: a look at some of Hindi cinema’s landmark songs. Songs that mirror the times in which they were made. One song for every decade of sound.
Baabul mora naihar chhooto hi jaaye (Street Singer, 1938; Singer: KL Saigal; Composer: RC Boral; Lyricist: Nawab Wajid Ali Shah): The first decade of Hindi film songs was the decade of composers like RC Boral, Pankaj Mullick, and Hindi cinema’s first female music director, Saraswati Devi (of Main ban ki chidiya fame). This was a period of frenetic activity—almost as if Hindi cinema was making up for its twenty years of enforced silence. The average film featured nine songs; many had more. Playback singing, though it was introduced midway through the decade, did not completely dominate the scene; some songs continued to be sung and recorded in front of the camera.
Baabul mora was one of these. Composed by RC Boral (the ‘Father of Hindi film music’), its lyrics had been written by Nawab Wajid Ali Shah when the British exiled him from Awadh to Calcutta. Baabul mora is a thumri, set in raag bhairavi—and sung here by the legendary KL Saigal, who imbues it with all the pain and longing of a man in exile. It’s hauntingly beautiful, and sung perfectly onscreen. The director Phani Majumdar and his crew sat in a truck that moved slowly along, while Saigal followed, singing as he walked—a difficult feat in itself.
Aaj Himalaya ki choti se (Kismet, 1943; Singers: Amirbai Karnataki and Khan Mastana; Composer: Anil Biswas; Lyricist: Kavi Pradeep): The 1940s saw the rise of Rafi, Lata, Noorjehan, Suraiya, and Mukesh. Among the music directors, there were Anil Biswas, Khemchand Prakash (whose Aayega aanewaala catapulted Lata to fame), and Naushad. What with World War II and the freedom movement—followed by Independence, Partition, and the migration of some of Hindi cinema’s greatest talents to Pakistan—the 40s were, however, a turbulent time for the industry.
Of the hit songs from the 40s, one of the most memorable for me is Aaj Himalaya ki choti se, the ultimate ‘cocking a snook at the Brits’ song. The cinema industry of the Raj days, no matter how much its individuals supported the freedom movement, were repressed by censors. This song is a delightful thumbing of the nose at the censors themselves. The refrain—“Door hato ae duniyawaalon, Hindustan hamaara hai”—is in obvious defiance of British rule. But a couple of lines tucked away in the song talk about repelling the Germans and Japanese. Who could, technically speaking, find fault with that?
Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye (Pyaasa, 1957; Singer: Mohammad Rafi; Composer: SD Burman; Lyricist: Sahir Ludhianvi): The 50s were the golden age, the names associated with the songs of this period a veritable who’s who of Hindi film music: Manna Dey, Rafi, Geeta Dutt, Shamshad Begum, Lata, Asha, Suraiya, Talat, Mukesh, Hemant, Kishore… and, among the music directors, greats like SD Burman, Salil Choudhary, Roshan, Madan Mohan, Naushad, O P Nayyar and Shankar-Jaikishan.
From the vast corpus of memorable 50s songs, one that stands out for me is Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye. SD Burman’s music showcases Rafi’s voice as it travels from slow, almost slurring, to a full-throated crescendo. Sahir Ludhianvi’s cynical, bitter poetry hurls contempt at a materialistic world which places wealth and power above all else.
The 50s was a period of nation-building (exemplified in songs like Saathi haath badhaana from Naya Daur and Mehnatkash insaan jaag utha from Insaan Jaag Utha); but along the way, perhaps a sense of disillusionment had begun to creep in. India was free; India was making progress—but at what cost? Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye was an uncomfortable reminder of all that was rotten in the still-fledgling republic.
Aage bhi jaane na tu (Waqt, 1965; Singer: Asha Bhonsle; Composer: Ravi; Lyricist: Sahir Ludhianvi): Although colour had come to Hindi cinema years ago (in 1937, with Kisan Kanya), it was in the 60s that it became almost universal. And with it, the films themselves became more colourful, more escapist. There had been comedies, romances, spy thrillers and suspense films before, but the ones from the 60s were more stylish, glamorous, Westernised: more masala.
Waqt was a film that stood out for its style and its glamour—both perfectly presented in Aage bhi jaane na tu. The music and its arrangement are a sophisticated blend of Indian and Western instruments and styles, Asha’s voice more alto than soprano, more suited to the quintessential 60s’ club crooner. And the lyrics, questioning the future and celebrating the present—are a perfect expression of the joie de vivre that ruled the silver screen in the 60s.
Ek main aur ek tu (Khel Khel Mein, 1975; Singers: Kishore Kumar and Asha Bhonsle; Composer: RD Burman; Lyricist: Gulshan Bawra): Flamboyance ruled the 70s. Loud prints and crocheted shawls, bell bottoms and broad belts prevailed. Young onscreen lovers were less compliant, more rebellious. Tradition was giving way to ‘progress’ (whatever that might be). In Hindi film music, too, there was a new wave—with RD Burman, despite the presence of Kalyanji-Anandji and Laxmikant-Pyarelal, being the undisputed king.
Ek main aur ek tu is unmistakable 70s music: peppy, Westernised, the aural equivalent of the fashions then in vogue. In keeping with the youth of the two protagonists (another popular 70s theme, this college romance), it’s uncluttered, easy to dance to.
Raat baaki baat baaki (Namak Halal, 1982; Singer: Asha Bhonsle and Bappi Lahiri; Composer: Bappi Lahiri; Lyricist: Anjaan): As most of you who frequent this blog might know, my blog confines itself to focussing on pre-70s films, though I do occasionally make an exception for films that seem to be—if only in spirit and style, from the 60s. This, therefore, is where I step into territory I’m relatively (not totally) unfamiliar with.
The 80s saw the nadir of Hindi cinema, both in terms of stories and music. While some films (Arth, Masoom, and Umrao Jaan among them) were good, many top grossers—like Himmatwala and Mard—revealed cookie-cutter patterns: violence engendering more violence, all of it played out by ageing male stars who had been at their peak in the 70s (or worse, the 60s). There was also a change in the way love was depicted. Kissing was still taboo, but wet saris, heaving bosoms and come-hither lyrics replaced the innocence of teen romances. The look was loud, gaudy, often tasteless. So too was most of the music.
Raat baaki, baat baaki is a more subdued, tuneful version of the ‘disco’ songs that became the hallmark of 80s Hindi films. Unlike the loud, electronic music-dominated I am a disco dancer or Disco station (both also composed by Lahiri), this one lets the voices provide most of the melody. The words themselves, encouraging the beloved to let “whatever happens, happen—in the night that is still left” aren’t really explicit, but suggestive enough.
Goli maar bheje mein (Satya, 1998; Singer: Mano; Composer: Vishal Bhardwaj; Lyricist: Gulzar ): While the 90s saw some hit romances (like Aashiqui and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai) and the comic reign of Govinda, it was the violent film that dominated. Agneepath. Narsimha: even their names conjure up images of blood, bullets and revenge. And, with socio-political issues like terrorism and communal strife becoming the subject of films, Roja, Bombay, Fiza, Mission Kashmir, and Dil Se.
This song, therefore, for the 1990s. A daaru song, a darkly comic song—yet a song apt for a film about the Bombay underworld. From the “dhishkyaoon!” sound effects to Gulzar’s lyrics—which talk of the ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ nature of these men’s lives—Goli maar bheje mein is an unpretty example of the gritty, realistic violence that took root in Hindi films in the 90s.
The 2000s (the first decade):
Maula mere le le meri jaan (Chak De India!, 2007; Singers: Salim Merchant and Krishna Beura; Composers: Salim-Suleiman; Lyricist: Jaideep Sahni): And, finally: a song from the first decade of this century. While contemporary Hindi cinema does largely remain true to its escapist form, there are signs of the influence of international cinema. We’re experimenting with ‘new’ (for Hindi cinema) genres, such as sports—and trying, too, to make films more real. People in real life, for example, do not break off conversations or stop their lives to start singing.
Maula mere le le meri jaan plays in the background as the central character in Chak De India! falls from grace—and, years later, rises again. The song never jostles its way into the story. In fact (a reflection on decreasing attention spans?), it isn’t even played all at once: one verse here, a couple of verses further on, another at the end.
And so we come, full circle. Baabul mora was the lament of a man in exile; Maula mere le le meri jaan is, too. The music, how it is recorded, how it is used in the film—these have changed. But the ethos remains the same: it is song that helps Hindi cinema express itself. That expression may evolve (perhaps even regress at times?), but it will hopefully still be a part of Hindi cinema a century from now.
Which songs would you choose, if you were to pick one song to represent each decade of Hindi film music over the past 100 years (well, 80 years, if you were to be technically correct)? Not just your favourite songs, but songs that actually reflect India—or Indian cinema—of the period in which they were made?
Lastly, a sad piece of news. Shamshad Begum, beloved doyen of Hindi film music, passed away last night, less than a fortnight after her 94th birthday.
A longer and more carefully thought-out tribute will follow sometime in the near future, but for the time being, here is one of my favourite Shamshad songs, from a film that holds its place as a classic example of ‘Bombay noir’: Kahin pe nigaahein kahin pe nishaana, from CID (1956).
RIP, Shamshad Begum. You will be missed, but your voice will live on.