I know I’m a bit late to the party here; Anu had already written about Bhattacharjee and Vittal’s latest book over at her blog, and Harini reviewed it recently on her blog—but better late than never, I guess.
Bhattacharjee and Vittal’s book’s subtitle says it all: 50 Classic Hindi Film Songs. They define ‘classic’ too, in the prologue to the book, where they discuss what is for me truly a classic, the brilliant Baabul mora, by KL Saigal. A timeless song, a song as capable today as it was in the 30s of touching hearts, of making people catch their breath in sheer awe at the music, the lyrics, the rendition—and a song with a story behind it: the story of the exiled Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, ousted from his Awadh and sent away to Calcutta. A song rendered repeatedly by different singers, including some of the greatest voices. And the story, too, of its filming in Street Singer.
Gaata Rahe Mera Dil: 50 Classic Hindi Film Songs (Harper Collins Publishers India, ISBN 978-93-5136-456-6; Rs 350; 300 pages) then moves on to the fifty songs it focuses on. Fifty landmark songs from fifty different films, spanning the years from 1941 (Chale pawan ki chaal, from Doctor) to 1992 (Dil hai chhota sa, chhoti si aasha, from Roja). Plus a couple extra: Baabul mora, at the beginning; and to end, a landmark non-filmi song (Ae mere watan ke logon) and a song for the new millennium (Ae ajnabi tu bhi kabhi, from Dil Se).
Each song is discussed in a new chapter, prefaced by a screenshot from the song, along with basic details: film, song title, year of release, lyricist, composer(s), and singer(s). Then comes the nitty-gritty about the song itself: insights into what makes it special, interesting anecdotes about how it was created (and sometimes, not just about the song, but also about the film itself), observations on the picturization, and—to bring forth the relevance of the song itself—a brief setting of context.
For me, my lack of technical understanding of music led to some of the descriptions going completely above my head. Take this as an example (from Mera toh jo bhi kadam hai, from Dosti): “…The composers use two Komal notes—Dha and Ni—in the mukhra where all the other five shudh notes give the song a major-scale colour. The antara, with the emphasis shifting to a Komal Re, creates the transitory feel of a change in scale. The use of Komal notes—the Ga and Ni—creates an aura of unconventiality and underlines the desolate cry of grief…”
Yes, I can guess at some of what that means, but I’m not absolutely sure.
That, therefore, didn’t work for me, but what did work were the meticulously researched stories behind the songs. Vittal and Bhattacharjee have obviously spent a good bit of time and effort interviewing various composers, lyricists, singers, musicians, actors, and others in the know—and the result shows in the delightful behind-the-scenes tidbits about these songs and these films. For instance, I hadn’t known that my favourite patriotic song—the wonderful Ae mere pyaare watan (Kabuliwala)—shares an interesting link with India’s first talkie, Alam Ara: the man who lip-synchs to Ae mere pyaare watan, WM Khan, was also the man who sang (and acted) the first ever song in Hindi cinema, which was in Alam Ara.
There’s fascinating information here about everything from how the songs for Kashmir ki Kali were chosen (from a corpus of fifty-two tunes composed and played by OP Nayyar) to who was the first choice to sing Kasme vaada pyaar wafa. The trivia, for me, was what made this book so fascinating: there’s loads of it here, and relevant trivia too. (Though I have my doubts about one passing remark, about Asha Parekh having played the young Gauri in Baiju Bawra—that little girl really looks rather more like Tabassum than Asha Parekh).
Even as I read this book, occasionally I’d think: “Why on earth did they choose this song instead of that one?” Why Main yeh sochkar uske dar se utha thha from Haqeeqat instead of Zara si aahat hoti hai or Hoke majboor mujhe? Why Mera toh jo bhi kadam hai from Dosti instead of Jaanewaalon zara mudke dekho mujhe? Why Woh shaam kuchh ajeeb thhi instead of Tum pukaar lo?
But the answer lies in the epilogue, where Vittal and Bhattacharjee list the criteria for their inclusion (or exclusion) of a song: the nostalgia it evokes, its recall value, sustained admiration for the song, its elements (words, musical arrangement, rendition), and something special in its picturization. Songs, basically, that stand out. The authors admit that they’ve had to drop some of their own favourites from the list. And, all said and done, there are a lot of my favourites in this book: Poochho na kaise maine rain bitaayi, Lag jaa gale ke phir yeh haseen raat ho na ho, Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haai, Ae mere pyaare watan, Chalte-chalte yoon hi koi mil gaya thha…
So, yes. For me, overall, this was a satisfying read. Slightly befuddling at times because of the technicality, but despite that, enjoyable. I just wish there’d been an accompanying CD included, with the songs.