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Melody in film: the Hindi film song as a cultural product – Part II

by Roshni Sengupta

Hindi cinema’s transition from a colonial to a post-colonial narrative has been accompanied by haunting, melodious, often colourful music. From the socialist undertones of Main Garibon Ka Dil (Abe Hayat, 1955) by the inimitable Hemant Kumar to the piquant strains of Aye Mere Dil Kahin Aur Chal (Daag, 1952), one of Talat Mahmood’s musical gems, the film song articulated the imagination of resurgent nationhood. One of the path-breaking manifestations of ideology – particularly addressing the class question – remains the establishment of the gothic horror noir genre enunciated through the recurring theme of reincarnation. In most of these fascinating narratives, the class divide remains the bulwark of the plotline emerging onto the foreground through the imaginative use of the film song. For instance, the male protagonist in Mahal (1949) discovers his uncanny resemblance to an image from a previous life as Lata Mangeshkar sings Ayega Aane Wala in the background. Bimal Roy interspersed his noir offering Madhumati (1958) with exquisitely composed music by Salil Chowdhury – both Suhana Safar by Mukesh and the delicate Aaja Re Pardesi by Lata Mangeshkar notably posit the male and female protagonists as belonging to divergent social classes as social position dictates the progression of the narrative. Similarly, the silken notes of the melancholy Kahin Deep Jale Kahin Dil (Bees Saal Baad, 1962) reverberate with the panache of unrequited love as well as set the tone and tenor for the larger narrative of the film which predicates the exploitation of the poor villagers – sexual and material – by the wealthy, socially dominant landholders.

The class narrative gained currency at the turn of the decade with the lonely wife singing Na Jao Saiyyan Chudake Baiyan in Sahib, Biwi Aur Ghulam (1962), signifying the forbidden nature of love and longing between an aristocrat’s wife and a lowly servant. Waheeda Rahman’s character Rosie – the daughter of a courtesan – in Guide (1965) comes into her own as she dances to the stupendous vocal rendition of Kaaton Se Kheench Ke Yeh Aanchal, tied down as she was by her tumultuous relationship with a patrician archeologist. Based on the theme of equitable distribution of wealth and positing the rebellious bandit as a crusader for equality, Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960) hinges on two songs that cement the complex narrative of resistance and social justice – Hoton Pe Sachai Rehti Hai which resonates with the same post-colonial logic of building a socially just nation as Naya Daur and Hum Hindustani and Aa Ab Laut Chalein, replete with references to loyalty to the nation as well as entitlement to the fruits of a just society. In 1964, songs from Dosti – a cinematic appraisal of the plight of the subaltern in a nascent democracy – Jane Waalon Zara and Chahunga Main Tujhe Saanjh Savere soulfully presented the glimpse of a society in perpetual transition increasingly leaning towards narcissistic materialism. The legend of socialist revolutionary Bhagat Singh was brought to life for the first time in 1965 in Shaheed, helped immensely by the popularity of the songs dotting its narrative landscape – from Aye Watan, Aye Watan to Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna and Mera Rang De Basanti Chola, Mohammad Rafi and Mahendra Kapoor’s breathtaking vocals brought to life Ram Prasad Bismil’s revolutionary poetry.

Although a number of films had been produced in the 1960s in colour, the 1970s could be described as the first decade of the colour medium in Hindi cinema. Accompanying the dawn of colour, however was an embryonic sense of general despondency in politics – the Nehruvian era had come to an end and with it the raucous positivity and enthusiasm for nation-building; diplomacy – India had badly lost a war with China and society – post-colonial power structures were beginning to gain ground and solidify. More than ever, this was an era where the creative impulse of the previous decades needed to be kept alive, accomplished to some extent as Amar, Akbar and Anthony sang Anhoni Ko Honi Kar De, Honi Ko Anhoni (Amar, Akbar, Anthony, 1975) picturized on the leading men of the day – Amitabh Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor and Vinod Khanna – the narrative instituting the Hindu, Muslim and Christian as the main stakeholders in a developing nation. Sholay’s (1975) role as a national allegory has been well documented.

The sensuous Helen dancing to the tunes of Mehbooba, Mehbooba creates a visual image of a mobilized usurper indulging in the very lifestyle he abhorred and which led him to pick up arms. Reminiscent of the rebellious bandits of Aa Ab Laut Chalein, Gabbar Singh represents a challenge to the feudal social order, while the Yeh Dosti Hum Nahi Chhodenge boys – Jai and Veeru – are the subaltern hirelings of a waning class of zamindars resisting the onset of social transformation.

The 1970s can also be described as an era which saw the beginnings of what came to be known as middle-class cinema or – as Rachel Dwyer has termed it the ‘Mumbai Middlebrow’ – more popularly the Hrishikesh Mukherjee-style of cinema. Mukherjee directed Anand in 1971, known not least for its fantastic musical score by Salil Chowdhury and Abhiman in 1973 which had S D Burman composing for Mohammad Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. The lament in the lyrics of Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaye not only narrated the tragic story of Anand in a few verses, it also showcased Mukesh as the voice of melancholia in Hindi film history. Anand is known as mush for the poetry of Gulzar and Yogesh as it is remembered for the astounding performances of Rajesh Khanna (playing the titular role) and Amitabh Bachchan – fast emerging as the matinee idol of the era, delivering a mellow turn as the jealous husband in Abhiman, the narrative of which was aided by songs such as Teri Bindiya Reand Loote Koi Man Ka Nagar.

Bachchan’s advent coincides also with the decay of the general enthusiasm that marked the first two decades after independence. What began as a fairly passionate project of building a fledgling nation had more or less deteriorated into a seething society where communal cleavages, regional realities and a morbid sense of disillusionment started taking root, showing up from time to time. Much of this was the result of the collapse of the Nehruvian dream – an unstable and volatile economy and social apathy started manifesting itself on the silver screen and in the image of the angry young man symbolized in the personage of Bachchan. The predicament of the urban subaltern classes captured quite sublimely in two musical numbers from Prakash Mehra’s 1973 superhit, ZanjeerDeewane Hain Deewano Ko Na Ghar Chahiye and Yari Hai Iman Mera, where social power structures are at play. Pran’s martial dance steps in the Yari Hai Iman song accomplished another liminal task – that of transcending the boundaries of community and religion in taking head-on the challenge of a rotting system, moth-eaten and corrupt. As Yesudas sang Kitabon Mein Chhapte Hain Chahat ke Kisse, Haqeeqat Ki Duniya Mein Chahat Nahi Hai in Trishul(1978), an entire generation of cinegoers noticed the brooding yet powerful presence of Bachchan in the frame dominated by the vivacious Shashi Kapoor and the beauteous Hema Malini. Not only did the song represent, in a nutshell, the larger argument of the narrative but also resonated with the sentiment of the wider mass of people, now moving towards more explosive times in the 1980s.

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