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.
I came to this film by way of a song (that happens with unsettling frequency to me).
Five years ago, when Shamshad Begum passed away and I was researching a song list featuring her voice, I came across Jaiyo jaiyo sipahiya bazaar, and was blown away. Not just by Shamshad Begum’s ability to sing in multiple languages, but by the general appearance of the song. There was apparently something fun going on here. So I made a mental note that if I came across Nishaan on Youtube, I’d watch it.
Well, I did. And, in a refreshing change from a lot of those films I’ve seen because of songs, this one turned out to be pretty good. It’s a classic raja-rani film, with feuding families, a really black-hearted villain, twin brothers as heroes, and an enterprising heroine.
When I began April 2013 on my blog, I’d promised this month would be dedicated to celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema—not merely Hindi cinema, as I tend to do, but regional language cinema as well. Apart from a review of the first full-length Indian feature film (Raja Harischandra) and a post on 100 years of Hindi film music (and how could I not post that, in a month commemorating Indian cinema’s centenary)?—I have tried to stick to my promise.
But, the day I was posting Songs for all times, I received a sad piece of news: that Shamshad Begum had died, just a little over a week after her 94th birthday. I did fit in a small tribute to Shamshad Begum in that post, but I had to say a fonder farewell, with a longer post showcasing this singer’s wonderful, very distinctive voice.
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.