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Melody in film: the Hindi film song as a cultural product – Part I by Roshni Sengupta

The truth is – I am an enormous fan of Hindi film songs of the 1950s, 60s and 70s – so much that the mellifluous, honeyed voices of Talat Mahmood, Hemant Kumar, Mohammad Rafi, Mukesh, Geeta Dutt, Noorjahan, Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle circumambulate my waking senses to such a degree that making space for newer, more numerous voices becomes an arduous task.

Coming from such a position, it becomes terribly tedious to introduce even a modicum of criticality to any impending analysis of popular Hindi film music from what is arguably regarded as the Golden Age of Hindi cinema. Film music as material culture acquires greater resonance when viewed at par with other forms of music prevalent in India – classical – both Hindustani and Carnatic – traditional folk and the more recent, modern versions of folk, classical-folk hybrids such as the Sufi qawwali and the devotional as well as the fantastically nuanced, poetry-in-music – the ghazal. The film music genre is often described as a multi-hybrid sub-form combining the sublime ethos of traditional, classical forms with folk elements, even vestiges of Western classical and performance music, giving rise to a cumulative yet ontologically distinct form of cultural expression. Through the subsequent paragraphs of this article, divided into three parts, I am making a very rudimentary attempt at understanding the language of the Hindi film song and its veritably irreversible nature as a cultural product.

Andy Bennett and Steve Waksman contend, in their introduction to The Sage Handbook of Popular Music that much of the recent work on the global aspects of popular music production and consumption and the place of popular music in everyday life has been done from within the field of ethnomusicology. This field of study however discounts commercially produced forms of popular music and focuses primarily on those varieties of musical practice that circulated less widely through the channels of capitalist production. If Jayson Beaster-Jones’ description of Hindi film music is anything to go by, the primary function of a song in Hindi cinema has been to interrupt the narrative flow mirroring the tradition of the Hollywood musical – both exemplifying capitalist production and consumption.

The didactic binary between the Hindi film music (filmi sangeet) – musical pieces or interludes undergirding the narrative – and film song (filmi geet) – musical-vocal pieces that are foregrounded in the narrative – is seen to represent the capitalist nature of the film song which are packaged as products that not only promote the sale of the film, but stand alone as commercial products. The inadequacy of Western analytical frameworks to fit the teleological universe of Hindi film music, which I view as a larger, more comprehensive category, with the film song as a sub-genre or category, propitiates an effort to deduce an effective and useful historiographic framework for popular Hindi film music.

The hagiographical canvas of popular Hindi cinema remains a crucial albeit hitherto ignored source of visual material providing rare insight into film as a cultural artefact as well as its function as a reflection of fundamental political, social and historical transformations. Musical content in films have been the perfect aid to visual narratives that chronicled the history of India through images, visuals and even memorable tunes, lyrics and renditions. As India emerged from the violence of the Partition and embarked on its post-colonial journey as a nascent nation-state, songs such as Saathi Haath Badhana (Naya Daur, 1957) and Chhodo Kal Ki Baatein, Kal Ki Baat Purani (Hum Hindustani, 1960) heralded the birth of a new nation and the advent of a remarkable new century with immense possibilities and potential. As Dilip Kumar lip-synced to Yeh Desh Hai Veer Jawanon Ka in Naya Daur and Manoj Kumar performed Mahendra Kapoor’s hugely successful Mere Desh Ki Dharti (Upkaar, 1957), the visual foundations of a newly resurgent nation were being laid on the silver screen in a resonant, musical, even mystical manner. Guru Dutt’s magical Pyaasa (1957) remains one of the most searing cinematic critiques of the moth-eaten, virulent aspects of the idea of India, not least through its poetic numbers sung by the silken-throated Hemant Kumar (Jaane Who Kaise Log The Jinke) and the effervescent Mohammad Rafi (Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye Toh Kya Hai). Even after more than 50 years, songs from the film create a kind of phantasmagoric reality subsuming past and present political discourse and practice within its phenomenal musical landscape. Who can forget the unforgettable Talat Mahmood – voice like silk – crooning Jalte Hain Jiske Liye in Bimal Roy’s Sujata (1959), a film that explored caste and its varied implications through love between an upper-caste Brahmin man (Sunil Dutt) and an untouchable woman named Sujata (Nutan) or Hemant Kumar rendering the eternal tunes of Tum Pukar Lo in Khamoshi (1969), the narrative of which stands out as an examination of forbidden love culminating in a psychiatric condition for the woman protagonist. Not only did these undying melodies unleash a wave of sentiment and emotion among the listeners but also, in a liminal way conveyed the hermeneutical aesthetic of the films.

Tum Pukar Lo...

Epic in its narrative and visual proportions, Mother India (1957) was Mehboob Khan’s visual critique of Katherine Mayo’s polemical book of the same name, at the same time foregrounding the inherently humane and sacrificial nature of the Hindu woman – embodying and echoing at the time the superfluous statist perspective on ideal society and as the upholder of its honour, the ideal Indian woman. Helping along the storyline based on Khan’s earlier, pre-independence film Aurat (1940), were musical interims like Duniya Mein Hum Aye Hain Toh and Dukh Bhare Din Beete, establishing the representational trope of the ideal Hindu woman employed by Khan for one of his most successful ventures. Both the songs depict the female protagonist as the ultimate sufferer, where the maladies of life are compared with poison, emerging victorious and vindicated in the end. The success of the aural nature of the songs went along with the visual aspect, creating space for filmi geet which did not appear as superfluous and deliberately foregrounded but as a musical rendition of the narrative itself.

The Hindi film song has continuously been the launch vehicle for the film as such, particularly so for the historical genre. Consider the heartbreakingly beautiful Jo Wada Kiya (Taj Mahal, 1963) or the extraordinary Jab Pyar Kiya Toh Darna Kya(Mughal-e-Azam, 1960) – stand out musical renditions supporting a generic form that thrived on scale and visual appeal. Hence, as the ethereal Madhubala danced to the tunes of the musical genius Naushad and Dilip Kumar set the screen on fire with his histrionics in Mohabbat Zindabad, the history of Hindi film recorded Mughal-e-Azam as a cinematic masterpiece and a benchmark for a genre often faulted for its visual opulence and extravagance. Distinguished as ‘Islamicate’ by scholars and commentators, the genre often also categorized as the Muslim social has been well served with a plethora of musical tour de forces such as Pakeezah (1972) and Umrao Jaan (1981). Definitive in its indictment of the classical-profane binary, Pakeezah plays effectively to the gallery through the foot-tapping Inhi Logon Ne, going on to attain cult status primarily because of the brilliance of Lata Mangeshkar and her rendition of haunting numbers such as Chalte Chalte and Chalo Dildar Chalo. Not only did Kamal Amrohi imbibe the narrative with the astounding presence of Meena Kumari, he, also managed to locate the courtesan outside the stereotypical boundaries of an Indian society in transition.

Jab Pyar Kiya toh darna kya...

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