1919 was a good year for Hindi film music (though, at the time, Hindi cinema—then only six years old, since Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra was released in 1913—did not know it). Because this year saw the birth of several people who went on to define the music of the industry from the 1940s onwards. From singers like Shamshad Begum and Manna Dey, to music directors like Naushad and Sudhir Phadke—and three of Hindi cinema’s finest lyricists: Kaifi Azmi, Rajendra Krishan, and Majrooh Sultanpuri.
This is an important year when it comes to Hindi film music—because 2019 marks the birth centenary of some of classic Hindi cinema’s greatest in the field of music. Music director Naushad was born a hundred years ago; lyricists Kaifi Azmi and Rajendra Krishan were born a hundred years ago; and two of Hindi cinema’s most popular playback singers—Manna Dey and Shamshad Begum—were also born in 1919, less than a month apart.
Born in Lahore on April 14th, 1919, the day after the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar (which is just about 50 km from Lahore), Shamshad Begum never had any formal training in music. Her prowess as a singer, however, came to the fore very early, and by the time she was 10 years old she was singing in family marriages and religious functions. In the teeth of parental opposition, she was helped by an uncle who got her an audition with Ghulam Haider. In 1937, she began singing with All India Radio Lahore, and this proved a breakthrough—such a breakthrough that Shamshad Begum was offered a role as an actress and even bagged it after a screen test. Thanks to a very conservative father (who had insisted she wear a burqa even to sing!), Shamshad Begum had to finally decline the role and focus on her singing.
It’s often struck me that there are a number of Hindi film songs that could well be interpreted to refer to medical problems. The omnipresent theme of romantic love in itself has enough substance for everything from insomnia to palpitations of the heart, giddiness, and whatnot. Bung in heartbreak (hah! Another medical problem?), and you can also tag on mental illness, in the form of depression. Of course, romance isn’t the only reason for problems concerning one’s health: betrayal, fear, family troubles—everything can be cause for singing about ailments concerning one’s heart, one’s liver, and sundry other body parts.
Just a few weeks back, Anu published a delightful blog post which listed ten songs on the theme of ‘Kaun Aaya’: who is this who comes? A lover, a hope, the much-anticipated partner of one’s life. I commented on that post, liked it, liked the songs, moved on. And then, one day, happening to revisit Anu’s blog, I came across that post again, and it struck me: what about the answer to ‘Kaun aaya?’
Because there are many songs that could well be answers to the question. A name spelled out, or a description provided. The love of one’s life, or the bane of one’s existence. One person may ask, “Kaun aaya?”, and another may well have the answer to that.
Whew. That’s a long title for a song list.
But at least it covers the basics for what this list is all about.
I listen to a lot of old Hindi film music. Even when I’m not listening to one old song or another, one of them is running through my head. And the other day, remembering some old song, I realized just how uncommon it is to find a good song that’s a duet (male and female) that doesn’t have some shade of romance to it. When the song’s a solo, there seems to be no problem doing themes other than romance: the singer could philosophize, could sing of life or past childhood, of—well, just about everything. When the song’s a duet between two females or two males, it could run the gamut from friendship to rivalry on the dance floor, to devotion to a deity, to a general celebration of life.
But bring a man and a woman together, and it seems as if everything begins and ends at romantic love. They may be playful about denying their love; they may bemoan the faithlessness of a lover; they may try to wheedle and cajole a huffy beloved—but some element of romantic love always seems to creep in. Even when there’s no semblance of a romantic relationship between the two characters in question (for instance, in a performance on stage, or—in my favourite example of a very deceptive song, Manzil wohi hai pyaar ki)—they end up singing of romantic love.
So I set myself a challenge: to find ten good songs which are male-female duets, and which do not mention romantic love in any form, not even as part of a bhajan (the Radha-Krishna trope is one that comes to mind). Furthermore, I added one more rule for myself: that the actors should both be adults (because there are far too many songs which have a female playback singer singing for a child onscreen).
Not nayan, not naina, not chakshu or any other Hindustani/Hindi/Sanskrit word for eyes, but aankhen.
This post, though the immediate spur for it was Anu’s delightful list of zulfein songs, has been in the pipeline for the past several years, since a fellow writer first asked her friends (of whom I’m one) on Facebook for all the songs we could think of that were about eyes. I came up with so many that it occurred to me then that I could do a post about them. That idea stayed on the backburner for a while, but when Anu’s zulfein songs post appeared, I thought, “I have to do that one on aankhen.”
Because, just as hair are praised, so are eyes. And unlike hair—inanimate, more often than not, and compared perhaps only to the dark velvet of the night, or the spreading black of a storm cloud—eyes have a life of their own. They convey infinitely more than hair ever can, from love to fear to hatred: they cannot disguise the soul, the emotions.
Looking back at the six years this blog has been in existence, I find myself surprised that I’ve never done a post on Geeta Dutt. Geeta Dutt, née Geeta Ghosh Roy Chaudhury, the woman with that beautifully melodious, faintly nasal voice, who was known for singing bhajans and other songs with a classical or folk lilt to them—until SD Burman chose her to sing Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana de, and opened up to millions of listeners across the years the astounding versatility of this glorious voice. Geeta Dutt, who could sing with equal finesse everything from club songs to wandering minstrel ones. Geeta, who sang some of the most achingly beautiful songs in Hindi cinema.
If the title of this post stumps you, let me explain.
Anybody who’s seen Hindi films (especially from the 1940s onward, when playback singing became widespread) knows that most actors and actresses onscreen weren’t singing for themselves. Occasionally, as in the case of artistes like Suraiya, KL Saigal, Noorjehan or Kishore Kumar, they did sing for themselves, but more often than not, the recording was done off-screen, and the actor lip-synched to the song onscreen. So we have all our favourite actors, warbling blithely (or not, as the case may be) in the voices of our greatest singers.
And just now and then, while the song may reach the heights of popularity, the person on whom it is filmed may be, to most people, a non-entity. Sidharth Bhatia, author of Cinema Modern: The Navketan Story (as well as a book on Amar Akbar Anthony, which I’m looking forward to reading) pointed this out to me the other day, with a couple of examples in support of his point. Jaan-pehchaan ho, and Tum apna ranj-o-gham. Sidharth made a request: would I compile a list of songs of this type? Famous songs, but lip-synched by not so famous faces?
So here it. And, Sidharth: thank you. This was challenging, and fun.
When Shakila’s niece Tasneem Khan graciously agreed to write a guest post to mark Shakila’s birthday yesterday, I decided I ought to show my personal appreciation for Shakila by making a double bill of it—with ten of my favourite Shakila songs. Shakila, whether she was acting the vamp (in films like Aar Paar) or the heroine, had some wonderful songs picturised on her: romantic songs, funny songs, cheeky songs, melancholic songs. Car songs, train songs. Even songs in praise of Shakila’s loveliness. Plenty to choose from.
For this post, though, I’ve stuck to songs in which Shakila has actually lip-synched, irrespective of whether the song in question is a duet or a solo. That’s why you won’t find the very popular Leke pehla-pehla pyaar here, or even the hauntingly lovely Sau baar janam lenge.
What better way to launch a new year than with a post on one of my favourite actresses? That too on her birthday?
Yes, today, January 1, is the 78th birthday of the beautiful Shakila. Star of my all-time favourite ‘Bollywood noir’ suspense film, CID. Star of one of my favourite Shammi Kapoor films, China Town. Star of one of my favourite Muslim socials, Nakli Nawab. Luminously lovely. Friendly (as Edwina Lyons can probably testify). And a good actress.