Sunday, June 29, 2008

Remembering Madan Mohan & Pancham

June is the month when Hellen Keller was born. June is the month when Thomas Hardy was born. Robert Stevenson, W B Yeats, Salman Rushdie, Donald Trump, Meryl Streep….all born in June – the month that has greatness written all over it!.

And, if I didn't mention it earlier, I was born in June too!  Smile

This week marked the birth anniversaries of two Hindi film music composers who I am quite fond of – Madan Mohan Kohli and Rahul Dev Burman. It is difficult for me to say exactly why I have such fondness for their compositions, but the fact is that I return to their compositions quite frequently.

As my tribute to Madan Mohan and RDB, I can easily come up with a Top 10 list or something like that, but after the hugely involved listing exercise I indulged in for close to 3 months, I don't think I want to do any other list (at least for some time).

I thought it would be cool to dig out some gems from the oeuvre of these composers, which are usually not talked about. Some of these songs might be well-known, but they usually get overshadowed by other creations of these composers.

Madan Mohan Kohli: When we talk of Madan Mohan today, it's mostly in reference to his association with Lata Mangeshkar. Together they created endless masterpieces. Given how much everyone loves to talk about the Lata-Madan Mohan combo, it would come as a surprise to many that the number of Madan Mohan songs sung by Asha Bhosle is not significantly lesser than those sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Agreed that the proportion of 'great' Lata-MM songs far exceeds those by Asha, but there still exist many gems. Here are some non-Lata compositions by Madan Mohan that I want you to savour.

Saba Se Ye Keh Do (Bank Manager, 1959, Jalal Malihabadi): This is one of Asha Bhosle’s finest songs not only with Madan Mohan, but with any music director.

Shokh Nazar Ki Bijliyan (Woh Kaun Thi, 1964, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan): This song would easily figure among the one of the best Madan Mohan compositions, and in my opinion is among Asha's best as well. Wonder why this song has been so badly ignored. Asha's singing in this song (particularly note the antaras) makes this song sound a bit like an O P Nayyar creation, but I guess that was because this song came at a time when Asha Bhosle was heavily under the influence of OPN's style.

Zameen Se Humein Aasman Par (Adalat, 1958, Rajinder Krishan) - Madan Mohan is mostly known for his solo compositions, but one of my all time favourite romantic duets is his composition - Zameen Se Humein by Mohd. Rafi and Asha Bhosle.

Ae Dil Mujhe Bata De (Bhai Bhai, 1958, Rajinder Krishan) - One could almost say that Madan Mohan's choice of a female singer started at Lata Mangeshkar and ended with Asha Bhosle, but this is one number by Geeta Dutt that ranks among the biggest hits of Madan Mohan's career.

Rahul Dev Burman: Like Madan Mohan, Pancham's pet singers were the sisters as well. Come to think of it, so complete was the domination of the sisters till the 70s, that a major chunk of any composer's work would include songs by either of them. I am picking up 3 songs from Pancham's huge repertoire of songs, which were sung by female singers other than Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle.

Hari Din To Beeta Shaam Huyi (Kitaab, 1977, Gulzar) - This song was sung by Rajkumari, one of the top female singers of the 1940s, who had settled into retirement in the 50s except for a few odd songs in between. This evocative song was penned and picturised wonderfully by Gulzar. Watching this song, there can be little doubt that this was the perfect voice for this song. The quivering in the voice brought about by ageing seems tailor-made for this song. Watch this video to see how Rajkumari's voice seems perfect for Dina Pathak.

Kabhi Kuchh Pal Jeevan Ke (Rang Birangi, 1983, Yogesh) - Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Rang Birangi is one of my favourite comedy films of all time. Who can forget the character of Dhurinder Bhatawadekar? The film's music never caught on, but it had a lovely same-sex duet by Anurada Paudwal and Aarti Mukherjee. Who would have thought that Anuradha Paudwal, who had been the most vocal 'victim' of the so-called 'Mangeshkar Monopoly', would  be called to sing by Pancham, a ghar ka aadmi? This could well have been a Lata-Asha duet and there is nothing special that Anuradha or Aarti lend to the song, but as a composition it's an under-rated gem. Watch this video (Anuradha sings for Deepti Naval and Aarti Mukherji for Parveen Babi... ignore the minor goof-ups -once in the middle and once at the end - when the two actresses seem to undergo an sudden inexplicable change in voice)

Do Naina Aur Ek Kahani (Masoom, 1984, Gulzar) - Talking of Aarti Mukherji, one cannot help but talk about this wonderful song from Shekhar Kapur's Masoom. This solo fetched the singer a Filmfare Award. Personally, I don't like Aarti Mukherji much. She has a nice voice, but what is lacking is the clarity of enunciation. The words do not come out very clearly when she sings them. Anyway, we're talking about Pancham here and this is surely among his many good compositions.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Aamir - When the Leader is Led

Twenty minutes into Aamir, Raj Kumar Gupta's impressive directorial debut, we see the protagonist – Aamir – getting stuck in a traffic jam and, in his desperation to reach the destination defined by the abductors of his family, he gets down from the taxi and takes it on himself to smoothen out the traffic. Within minutes, he is in complete control of the situation. Ironically, at this very moment he is losing control over his own life.

चिराग़ कब तक यहाँ जलेगा ये कौन जाने
हवा की रफ़्तार तय करेगी जले कि हो गुल

Here we have a free-thinking man who believes in writing his own destiny…

हमको करेगा ये जहाँ अन्जाम से आगाह क्या
जिसको हो मन्ज़िल की ख़बर वो होगा फिर गुमराह क्या

Someone who knows exactly what he wants….

है ऐतिमाद जिनको न ताले’अ शिनास पर
जेहाद-ए-ज़िन्दगी में वो मन्सूर होते हैं

But, someone is hell-bent on taking control over his destiny and making him do things that his rational mind would never endorse. Aamir - the leader - is being led now!

Traffic under control, but Aamir – an educated, secular-minded Muslim – is getting hopelessly sucked into the irrational world of Islamic fundamentalism. Like Orwell's Big Brother, his seemingly ubiquitous tormentor keeps a close tab on every move of his, and sends him on a mindless 'treasure-hunt' through the most squalid bylanes of Mumbai, with the objective of opening his eyes to the dichotomy that exists within the community – uneducated vs. educated, poor vs. financially sound, independent minded vs. easily manipulated. The idea being - if Aamir sees the pitiable condition of his 'brethren', he would not feel any remorse in accomplishing the mission he has been put on.

Aamir is one of the better efforts of filmmaking in recent times. Many films have been made on the subject of Islamic fundamentalism, but in most cases – like the recent Black & White – these films end up sounding like a sermon, their preachy-ness in fact turns counterproductive. Where Aamir scores is that the entire film is structured as a thriller – and a very good thriller at that. So you get the 'message' without getting a feeling of being talked down. A few minutes into the film I was completely engrossed in Aamir's ordeal, and as the film accelerated to its climax – a predictable but truly heart-rending one – I was completely bowled over.

हो जल्वागर कुछ देर तक फिर राख में तब्दील हो
क़िस्मत में है हस्ती-ए-फ़ानी एक अदद चिन्गारी की

If one were to look at the various aspects of the film, almost everything seems just right for the script. The camerawork is simply superb, as is the wonderful background score. The songs have also been used very well, my favourite being Ha Raham Farma Aye Khuda – a Sufi Qawwali.

Rajeev Khandelwal as Aamir is impressive. If I'm saying this, it must mean a lot because I simply hated him as Sujal in Ekta Kapoor TV Serial – Kahin To Hoga. However, I would wait for a few more films before calling him a good actor. Who knows he might as well follow the footsteps of Vivek Oberoi and Shiney Ahuja, who impressed me hugely in their first film and then the cracks began to show!!

There has been enough debate about how Aamir is 'plagiarized' from Cavite (2005). If Anurag Kashyap (the film's "Creative Producer") says it isn't, I would take his word. Yet my rational mind is unable to understand how two ideas coming from two different parts of the world can have such uncanny resemblance. I guess I need to watch Cavite now!

Sunday, June 01, 2008

How Thomas Hardy Introduced Me to Allama Iqbal

I have a few obsessions in life: old Hindi film music (specifically Lata Mangeshkar songs) and Urdu poetry. My initiation into the wondrous world of old Hindi film music was through a Lata Mangeshkar compilation called I Remember Madan Mohan, so Madan Mohan is also special. Although I wouldn't call it an obsession, I'm very fond of reading classic literature as well.

It isn't very often that all of one's obsessions converge in the same thing. At the time when I had just started dabbling with Urdu poetry, I watched a 1967 Dharmendra-Nutan starrer Dulhan Ek Raat Ki on video. My primary reason for watching that film was that it was based on Thomas Hardy's Tess of the D'Urbervilles. While Indian literature had been a source for Hindi films in the 50s and 60s, there hadn't been very many instances of Hindi film taking inspiration from an English classic.

The film was expectedly quite Indianized, but retained the primary thematic thread of the original. But it isn't great cinema. What stayed with me was the soundtrack that had some melodious compositions by Madan Mohan, which included the lovely Mohd. Rafi solo Ek Haseen Shaam Ko and exquisite Lata Mangeshkar solos like the Piloo based Maine Rang Li Aaj Chunariya, the quintessential piano song Kai Din Se Jee Hai Bekal, and the melodious Sapnon Mein Agar Mere. But the song that I got completely obsessed with was the qawwali Kabhi Ae Haqeeqat-e-Muntazir. The heavily Persianized Urdu of the lyrics were very difficult for me to understand at that time, but the sound of the language appealed to me and was, in a way, an incentive to get deeper into Urdu as a language.

Watch this video that has all my obsessions converging: classic English literature, Madan Mohan, Lata Mangeshkar, Qawwali, Urdu Poetry:

I was so fascinated by this qawalli, that I wrote a poem on this tune. Since I did not understand the lyrics, I didn't realize the coincidence that my poem was about religious tolerance and the original has strong religious undertones. This is what I had written:

फ़ितरत नहीं ऐसी बची है आज कल इन्सान में
जो गुफ़्तगू हम से करे इन्सानियत की ज़ुबान में

है दीन क्या, मज़हब है क्या पूछा किये हम से सभी
है काम क्या ईमान का इस आपसी पहचान में

दीन-ओ-धरम के नाम पर कटते हैं कितने सर यहाँ
गीता में है क्या ये लिखा और क्या यही फ़ुरक़ान में

ये मन्दिरों की घन्टियाँ जैसे हों ख़न्जर की खनक
देती सुनाई मातमी आवाज़ आज अज़ान में

ये जज़्बा-ए-इन्सानियत गर कुफ़्र है काफ़िर हूँ मैं
आये नज़र है बेइमानी मज़हबी फ़रमान में

It was much later that I found out that the poem was written by Sir Mohammed Iqbal (best known in India for Tarana-e-Hind aka Sare Jahan Se Achchha, and officially recognized as the national poet in Pakistan). Thus began my quest to learn more about his poetry. I haven't read a lot of his work, but I have read his most famous poems Shikwa and Jawaab-e-Shikwa. These two poems constitute a poem-set in that they should be read together to get a complete insight into Allam Iqbal's strongly religious bent of mind. Shikwa is a complaint of a frustrated Muslim to Allah, while Jawaab-e-Shikwa is Allah's response to the complaint. It does not matter whether or not one is a believer of Islam, the eloquence, language and conviction in the two poems can be felt by anyone.

Kabhi Aye Haqeeqat-e-Muntazir also has strong religious undercurrents. In the opening verse the poet is asking God to come in an illusory form so that he can prostrate before Him. What is interesting is the way the poet uses two theologically opposite terms – haqeeqat vs. majaaz – in the first line. Urdu poetry is replete with instances of ishq-e-haqiqi (divine love) and ishq-e-majaazi (earthly love), and here the poet sort of requests for a merger of the two in the opening lines. The poem comes a full circle in the closing lines where the poet realizes that he is so engrossed in earthly love that there's no need to seek divine love. This can be interpreted in many different ways. One could be the belief that if you seek God, you need to denounce earthly love. But the way I read it is that ishq-e-majaazi is another way to reach Him.

Kabhi ae haqeeqat-e-muntazir nazar aa libaas-e-majaaz mein
Ki hazaaron sajde tadap rahe haim meri jabeen-e-niyaaz mein
Jo main sar ba-sajdah hua kabhi to zameen se aane lagi sada
Tera dil to hai sanam-aashna tujhe kya milega namaaz mein

Honestly, I don't think I have really understood this poem completely. There are still a lot of open questions. That, in a way, is the beauty: you keep working your mind to 'get' it.

It is not the intent of this post to get into the philosophical profundity of Allama Iqbal's work. I just wanted to point to an instance where a song composed by my favourite music director and sung by my favourite singer in an old melodramatic Hindi film inspired by Thomas Hardy led me to explore the profound writings of a great Urdu Poet.