Wednesday, 16 October 2019

Gaata Rahe Mera Dil

50 classic Hindi film songs

With something for the masses as well as the aesthete, music has traditionally been the saving grace of Hindi cinema. It’s a case study in creative collaboration between people whose backgrounds couldn’t be more different. Authors Balaji Vittal  and Anirudha Bhattacharjee, on p.157 of their second book Gaata Rahe Mera Dil, narrate a music sitting for a film: “[Director] Asit Sen said, ‘Nobody knows what destiny is. I am from Bengal, you [Kalyanji-Anandji] are from Gujarat and here we are, sitting together and composing a Hindi film song. It’s a funny thing, this coincidence.’” The book goes on to describe how this philosophical remark eventually resulted in Kishore Kumar’s Zindagi ka safar.

The authors’ 2011 biography of R. D. Burman was without doubt a hard act to follow. As their next project, they undertook to select fifty Hindi film songs out of a possible hundred thousand. They have managed to rise admirably to the impossible task.

Published last year by Harper Collins, the book covers six decades of film music. Songs from 1994 onwards are not considered; the authors argue, justifiably, that a song needs at least 20 years to qualify as a classic. The cover features Dev Anand romancing Nutan in Tere Ghar ke Saamne. Fitting, since Dev is arguably the face of film music during those years. The song – Dekho rootha na karo – itself doesn’t feature in the book.

Each chapter concerns itself not just with the song in question, but with other songs of the film, the circumstances in which the film was made, the film-maker’s earlier (sometimes later) ventures, etc. The narrative is woven around interesting anecdotes and behind-the-scene incidents. To get input from Kersi Lord, Shakti Samanta, Jagjit Singh, Shammi Kapoor, Manohari Singh, Manna Dey and many others, the authors have had to travel extensively (‘… for us this book is as much a travelogue.’). All this material, in the authors’ skillful hands transforms into fifty absorbing short stories. The book is therefore much more than a mere list of songs, which you may have come across somewhere; for each song is accompanied by a chunk of history.

The selection process covers decades, composers, lyricists, cinematography, and landmark value, in addition to musical considerations. More significantly, the book attempts to cover as many genres as possible – the rain song, the cabaret, the qawwali, the romantic number, the mujra, etc. The authors make it clear that they were able to include only a fraction of their personal favorites.

A standout feature of the book is its musical analysis, something that doesn’t have a rich tradition in the sub-continent. This is where the authors’ understanding of classical music comes to the fore. Being equally well-versed in folk music, they are able to track inspiration of songs from this source as well. The reader finds out, for example, the extent to which Rabindra Sangeet has influenced film music, thanks to S. D. Burman, Hemant Kumar and Salil Chowdhury.

There are a few surprises along the way. At times it seems that the authors go out of their way to select a relatively lesser-known song at the expense of a more popular one; and one doesn’t always agree with their reasoning. Take Roop tera mastana, for example. It has an amazing melody. It’s controversial – which Burman actually composed it? With the song, Kishore displaced Rafi as the undisputed #1, and Rajesh Khanna became the first superstar. Add the sequence shot, and the song ticks all the boxes. That it still fails to make the cut is difficult to digest; the book could have done with the ‘Passion’ genre. In the Authors’ note, such differences of opinion are anticipated as an inevitable part of any selection of this sort.

As evidence of the hopelessly bleak musical scene of the 80s, a typical morning of radio ‘listening’ is described. The radio is switched off in frustration after three appalling ‘hits’ are broadcast back-to-back. The songs listed are all Bappi Lahiri’s, but the authors refrain from naming the composer. Thus they make a point that is worth making, but do so without compromising the positive tone of the book.

Quite apart from the text proper, the book offers numerous musical tidbits and interesting asides. How the Indian national anthem tune was subtly used in the mukhra of a song, for example. If you are the kind of person who is intrigued by the genesis of memorable film songs; or who sometimes wonders why Madan Mohan composed for Mausam, instead of Gulzar’s longstanding associate Pancham; you will very likely read the 300 odd pages in one sitting. Alternatively, if you know your Yaman (Aiman) from your Bhairavi, you will find the book to be well worth its price. But it’s not a ‘popular’ book; if you don’t answer to any of the above descriptions, the book may not exactly be your cup of tea.

Stories of creative collaboration need to be documented; for this is one area in which truth is definitely stranger than fiction. But the primary sources of these stories are individual memories. Recording this history, which is difficult today, will only become harder as first-hand witnesses retire, scatter, and finally pass away. Gaata Rahe Mera Dil is especially commendable when seen in this perspective.

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