Friday, September 26, 2008

Lata Mangeshkar Songs With Less Famous Composers - Part I

If there is any artiste I absolutely worship, it's Lata Mangeshkar. As she turns 79 this weekend, I'm wondering how I can pay a tribute to her on her birthday. Earlier this year, I did a series of posts on my favourite Lata Mangeshkar songs from 1946-2007.

This was a very effort-intensive exercise, but ultimately very satisfying. What can I do differently on her birthday this year? Why not talk about some of her collaboration with less famous music directors? That should be a good tribute on her birthday.

When we talk about her famous songs, around 15-20 music directors come up as the usual suspects. But Lata Mangeshkar has sung songs for more than 180 music directors, many of whom have composed great songs for her. I thought it would be a great idea to talk about some of those music directors, who might not have been very prolific or terribly under-rated or maybe not so consistent, but did some good to great work during their time.

Before I talk about these music directors, let me emphasize that the songs I list below are just meant to give a peek into their compositions, and in no way represent their best work with Lata Mangeshkar.

Chitragupta: This may seem like a controversial choice among less-famous composers. Connoiseurs of old Hindi film music surely know about him, but his name gets kind of lost amidst more popular names. Chitragupta Srivastava, in my opinion, is one of the most under-rated music composers of Hindi film industry. Despite having composed from close to 140 Hindi films and numerous Bhojpuri films, he was never counted among the A-list music directors. Most of the films he composed for were not very successful, but he never compromised on the quality of music. It might come as a surprise to many that Lata Mangeshkar sang around 240 songs under Chitragupta's baton, which is more than what she sang for Madan Mohan, or Sachin Dev Burman, or Naushad, or Roshan. I pick two Lata songs by Chitragupta as a sample of his output.

Haye Re Meri Zulfein from Burmah Road is a sensuous number, rendered beautifully by Lata in a style one doesn't normally associate with her.

Haye Re Meri Zulfein (Burmah Road, 1962, Majrooh Sultanpuri)

The other Chitragupta number I pick is a classical Tarana from Shiv Bhakt.

Kailashnath Prabhu Avinashi + Tarana (Shiv Bhakt, 1955, Gopal Singh Negi)

Shri Nath Tripathi – Like Chitragupta, his mentor S. N Tripathi composed music for a lot of films (90+), but he was never considered in the big league thanks to the fact that most of his films were B-grade historicals and mythologicals. His compositions were mostly based on classical music. His most famous film is Rani Roopmati, which had the popular Aa Laut Ke Aaja Mere Meet as well as the beautiful classical-based Rafi-Lata duet, Jhananana Jhan Baaje Payalia, which I like for Lata's effortless taans towards the end of the song.

Jhananana Jhan Baaje Payalia (Rani Roopmati, 1957, Bharat Vyas)

Bulo C. Rani – Best known for his compositions in Dilip Kumar's Jogan (1950), Bulo C. Rani is hardly a known name now. He was not very prolific but his compositions were steeped in melody. Lata Mangeshkar sang around 22 songs for him, most of which are quite rare and hard to find. Surprisingly, I found a youtube clipping of a Lata Mangeshkar song from his last film, Sunehre Qadam. Listening to this melodious composition will give you an idea of what his other songs would be like.

Na Baaz Aaya Muqaddar (Sunehre Qadam, 1966, Mahendra Pran)

Sunhere Qadam also had another gem by Lata - Mangne Se Jo Maut Mil Jaati sung with loads of pathos by the legend.

Maagne Se Jo Maut (Sunehre Qadam, 1966, Mahendra Pran)

Jamal Sen – Hailing from Rajasthan, Jamal Sen was given his first break by Kidar Sharma in the film Shokhiyan (1951). The film was a commercial disaster, but it has some really great song. Being a Suraiya film, majority of the songs were sung by Suraiya. There was, however, a Lata gem that I would probably include among Lata's best of all time – Sapna Ban Saajan Aaye.

Sapna Ban Saajan Aaye (Shokhiyan, 1951, Kedar Sharma)

While Jamal Sen demonstrated his grip on classical music in the above song, he turned to folk music for another song from the same film. The rambunctious percussion and the catchy chorus in Door Desh Se Aaja Re make it one of my favourite chorus songs of all time. This song is also noteworthy in that it is one of the only 5 Lata-Suraiya duets.

Shaukat Dehlvi 'Nashad' – Given the phonetic affinity of his name to that of the much more popular composer, Nashad's most famous compositions are wrongly credited to Naushad in sections of media. He did not do too many films, and later migrated to Pakistan. Baradari is his most famous work in India, where there is a folksy Lata number that I love.

Ab Ke Baras Bada Julm Hua (Baradari, 1955, Khumar Barabankvi)

Dilip Dholakia – Dilip Dholakia worked as an assistant to Chitragupta, S N Tripathi and Laxmikant Pyarelal. In 1962 he worked as an independent music director for a film called Private Secretary. It had a few Lata solos, my favourite being Ja Ja Re Chanda, which starts with a charming piano piece.

Ja Ja Re Chanda (Private Secretary, 1962, Prem Dhawan)

This was just a random list of a few music directors about who probably are not very famous, but who created some great compositions for Lata Mangeshkar to sing. I will try to talk about more such music directors in subsequent posts. Any suggestions are welcome.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

The Last Lear - There's Something About Harry

The key to establishing a connection with the retired Shakespearean theatre actor, Harry, in Rituparno Ghosh's The Last Lear is to know your Shakespeare well. A neophyte journalist in the film learns it the hard way when he is quite literally thrown out of Harry's house because he doesn't know his Oberon from Oberoi, and Robin, for him, is – so obviously – Robin Hood. On the other hand, his friend, Siddharth, a film director, is welcomed with open hands because he can precisely quote the play, act and scene from where Harry picks a few lines to recite.

It's not much different for the audience of the film as well. One doesn't necessarily need to be extremely well-versed in Shakespeare to appreciate the film. But one definitely needs to have the same quality of mind and sensibility that is required to understand and appreciate Shakespeare. Appreciating the art and technique of Shakespeare's work also requires a certain level of patience and an open mind to decipher a language that is possibly alien in today's times. The same holds true for The Last Lear. The vocabulary and grammar (and I don't mean it in only in reference to the spoken word) of this film is markedly different from most films we get to see these days.

Rituparno Ghosh's films are an acquired taste. Given his predilection for long conversations between characters, it is easy to dismiss most of his films as ponderous, boring or verbose. But that's his style – his vocabulary, his grammar. Once one gets used to it, just listening to two characters talk in his films can be delightful. The way he sets up the conversations, the way the dialogue slowly develops, the way a scene builds up – I have come to appreciate all this after having watched Rituparno's films like Unishe April, Utsab, Chokher Bali, Raincoat and Antar Mahal. Having said this, I realize that I am generalizing the characteristics of his films based on a very few examples, which probably do not represent his best work even But this helped me set my expectations when I went to watch The Last Lear, and I must say that I came out mostly satisfied.

The film uses a fragmented, non linear narrative where the protagonist, Harry (Amitabh Bachchan), is revealed to the audience through two parallel recollections by a journalist (Jishu) and the conversations between women (Priety Zinta and Shefali Shah) who have been associated with Harry. Harry, as it is revealed, was a Shakespearean theatre actor who in his heydays had played almost every major Shakespeare character on stage – from Prospero to Oberon – but due to a whimsical decision walked away from the world of theatre and an opportunity to play the role he always wanted – King Lear. He has become a recluse, confined to his house, with the only connection with the outside world being the window of his room that provides his distractions in the form of shouting at casual passers-by who urinate against the wall of his house.

Enter Siddharth (Arjun Rampal), a film director who is making a film about an ageing circus joker. He wants to bring Harry back from self-imposed retirement and act in his film. There is a hitch, though. Harry has a strong dislike for films, which he believes is not an actor's medium as the director and technical areas like camera and editing shape a performance. It is here that Rituparno Ghosh brings to fore the theme of difference of approach between films and theatre. As the celebrated Russian film director, Andrei Tarkovsky, had observed:

"To me, it is easier to work with film than with theater. In the case of film, the sole responsibility for everything rests on me. In theater, the responsibility of the actor increases tremendously.
(In films) When an actor arrives at the set, it is not at all necessary for him to be acquainted with the director's ideas and intentions in their completeness. It is even disadvantageous that he himself shapes his own role. The film actor should act in a spontaneous and intuitive manner under the various circumstances prescribed by the director."

How Siddharth convinces Harry to act in his film sets the stage for some of the best moments in the film. Like the one where Siddharth and Harry develop a bond by watching the goings-on of the street outside on a CCTV. Or, the one where Harry demonstrates his theatre acting prowess by reciting Prospero's soliloquy from The Tempest. This particular scene takes on a surrealistic hue as the room suddenly transforms itself as though he was performing on stage.

When Harry agrees to be a part of Siddharth's film, the director wonderfully sets up a contrast. A man who has led a claustrophobic existence for a very long time gets a release when he returns to his love of acting. The director underscores this point by taking Harry out from the confines of his house to an outdoor location in the hills.

What happens after this point is immaterial, for instead of being a plot driven film, The Last Lear is a character driven film. There is an entire sub-plot with feministic shades that takes a whole lot of screen time, doesn't add much to the story, but works brilliantly in adding depth to the three female characters of the film. Shabnam (Preity Zinta), Vandana (Shefali Shah) and Ivy, the nurse (Divya Dutta) are holed up together in Harry's house on Diwali night and through their interactions, we not only learn more about Harry, but also about them. Then we have the journalist, who, at the surface, might seem like just a character introduced to frame the narrative, but really represents Siddharth's conscience.

There were a few things that did not work well for me in the film. I would have liked it more, had the director explored a bit more about the differences between theatre and film acting and how Harry copes up with it. A further insight into how Harry adjusts himself to the piecemeal, director-driven acting of films, would have made this theme richer for me. Secondly, the ending was a bit too open-ended for my liking. But these were minor deterrents in a film that was on the whole quite satisfying.

The performances by all the supporting actors are good, but Shefali Shah and Arjun Rampal really shine through. Shefali's is a finely nuanced performance, one of the very best by any actress this year. She is usually good in any role she plays, but having watched her ham uncontrollably in Subhash Ghai's Black and White earlier this year, I am convinced that she needs a good director to bring the best out of her. Film is, after all, a director's medium!

That brings me to the performance of this film. Amitabh Bachchan as Harry is charismatic, very powerful, and entirely believable. If he appears a tad over-the-top it befits the character he plays. Theatre acting is all about loud expressions and gesticulation, after all, and a person who has worked on stage for "30 years and 9 months", Harry had to be a bit over-the-top. Whenever he switches to Shakespeare, it might not be the best rendition of Shakespeare one would have seen, but his charismatic screen presence and commanding voice is such that you cannot but stay glued to the screen. That, in my opinion, is the hallmark of masterful performance. As the movie ends, you realize that Amitabh Bachchan demands applause from you, much like Prospero's final speech in The Tempest where he asks the audience let their indulgence set him free.
Now my charms are all o'erthrown,
And what strength I have's mine own,
Which is most faint: now, 'tis true,
I must be here confined by you,
Or sent to Naples. Let me not,
Since I have my dukedom got
And pardon'd the deceiver, dwell
In this bare island by your spell;
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please. Now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant,
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so that it assaults
Mercy itself and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon'd be,
Let your indulgence set me free.