Vinay Shukla

Old is Gold
Songs Zindabad

By - Vinay Shukla

Special note - Please do watch the songs in sync for complete experience

At the outset, my apologies to those who have not watched and enjoyed the films of 50s, 60s and early 70s. Most of my examples come from there. Not only because that was the time of my growing up, but also because songs during that period were not looked down upon, or used randomly and meaninglessly. They were treated as part of the narrative: even those that were meant to merely regale the audience had a context.

I wonder what would’ve been the course of the story in Mughal-e-Azam had Anarkali not sung Jab Pyaar Kiya Toh Darna Kya in front of Akbar, openly expressing her love for Salim. Given her shy nature and humble station, she could’ve never expressed her feelings in the presence of a third person, let alone defiance in front of the Emperor. That’s the unique strength of a song: it allows to express what otherwise would not be possible to convey without breaking the limits of decency, or decorum.

Songs, along with Melodrama, are the two distinctive features of Indian scripts.

Like Siamese twins, the two are conjoined together in more ways than one, and effectively serve the same function: to let the narrative progress along the

emotional and dramatic spine of the story and save it from trudging along obligatory logical details. The primary aim of these story-telling elements is to command the audience’s undivided attention.

Our culture permeates our life through songs, dance and music. Songs were a part of Sanskrit drama.  We celebrate every season, every festival, every occasion with a song: we have songs for the postman, for hurling abuses at wedding guests; we have songs even to mourn death. It will not be far from the truth to say that we are a country of songs. So it was but ordained that Indian films have songs. Our very first talkie Alam Ara had seven songs in it. The absolutely extraordinary success of the film set two mandatory norms for our films: rhetoric and songs.

Of the seven songs in Alam Ara, the one that achieved maximum popularity was the wandering minstrel’s song, De De Khuda Ke Naam Par... and from then on the wandering minstrel or the Sufi fakir kept appearing in our films, like the Sutradhar commenting on the proceedings in a Sanskrit play. Examples are numerous, but the one that comes to my mind right now is Pran’s Malang Baba in Upkar singing Kasme Waade Pyaar Wafaa.

The lyrics commented on the situation and turned the local concern of the characters into a universal one: thus stoking the audience’s empathy at a key dramatic point and enhancing their emotional experience. This is the role that a theme song plays. It universalizes a specific dramatic situation and offers ‘deep philosophical insight’ into it. As our understanding of the medium grew, the need for a physical representation of the Sutradhar became unnecessary and the theme song began to be used in the background instead.

Perhaps, the most celebrated example would be from Kaagaz Ke Phool where the entire journey of the protagonist is punctuated with parts of the theme song. The irony of the situation, the angst of the character, and the ruthlessness of society are all conveyed through the song.

In Godmother, I used Maati Re Maati Re to mark crucial emotional junctions in the journey of the central character, Rambhi. A drought forces her to leave the village with her family: the act of uprooting is very painful- it creates a void that’s never filled. Each one of us who left home early in order to pursue their dreams, experiences now and then the haunting resonance created by the soulful twang of our memory. Nothing could convey Rambhi’s sorrow as effectively as the song:

“Des chootha, gaanv chootha, chhoote ghar aangan
Kat he dale dukhon ne janmon ke bhandhan
Dard ne hi dil ki khaee pati re…”

The song allowed me to express her grief through subjective images of her departure from the village.

Or later in the film, when her son murderously assaults his rival in love and she confronts him; he unrepentantly replies that he’s merely following her path: “What you cannot get, you grab!” Her son’s response stuns Rambhi. It brings her to the point where she is compelled to question her role as a mother.

The moment of introspection also needed to incite transformation and the logic had to be convincing: one would have needed a Shakespeare to write a soliloquy, but fortunately we have the tradition of songs; and how aptly Javed saab’s lyrics describe her dilemma and provide closure:

“Ghaat kaisi kar gaya mujh se mera jeevan

Kiska mukh dikhla raha hai mujhko yeh darpan

Ho gayee kaise main itni naati re…”

The song was hauntingly composed by Vishal Bhardwaj.

An Emperor walks the burning sands of the desert in scorching heat to seek the blessings of a Muslim saint for an heir; and that very heir, when grown up is put in front of the mouth of a canon, which when fired, will blow him into pieces – his crime? Love! Love for a lowly court dancer. In walks a Sculptor, inadvertently the author of the love saga, singing a song that immortalizes love and condemns the throne:

Taaj, hukumat jiska mazhab phir uska imaan kahaan

Jiske dil mein pyaar na ho woh patthar hai insaan kahaan

Pyaar ke dushman hosh mein aa, ho jaayega tu barbad

Zindabad, zindabad – ae mohabbat zindabad


Through his song, he sculpts a moment in Time that shapes love into martyrdom.

This song from Mughal-e-Azam also gives enough cinematic time to build up the tension and arouse the audience to shift to the edge of their seat anxiously awaiting the outcome.

Yes, that is what these filmmakers of yore did – they navigated the course of the story to a point where drama merged into poetry and created a plateau from where the audience could view the situation and savour the emotion to its heart’s fill.

A song has the cinematic advantage of condensing, or expanding time and space. Satyajit Ray, on his visit to the Film Institute, had mentioned that the song-picturisation in Hindi films made the best use of the cinematic language.

In our films, where we tend to tell epic stories, at least until the new breed of filmmakers emerged and some of them chose to narrate their stories with a metropolitan sensibility; it was important that time and space lose their specificity and flow in one continuation to give a wholesome and larger than life experience. Songs help us in achieving this.

For example, a montage song permits us to gloss over the unnecessary and dreary details, while a mood or an event or an activity continues over a long period. It leads us smoothly to the next higher point in the story without letting up our emotional experience.

In Chak De India, after the girls’ shattering first defeat, the title song takes us through their rigorous training and their winning streak to the finals without letting us feel the passage of time – the song also forges a meta-filmic connection between our expectations and the renewed energy of the players on screen.

Sometimes a moment is expanded for the audience to empathize with the character’s emotional state. In such an instance, the time seems to stand still. A space is created that is filled with echoes of the emotion the song conveys. Such songs are expressions of inner feelings, conflict that is raging within- they are like soliloquies addressed directly to the audience to make them an active participant. Numerous examples rush to my head: Waqt Ne Kiya Kya Hansi Situm from Kaagaz Ke Phool, written by Kaifi saab and composed by SD Burman is my all time favourite. The two protagonists feel for each other what is morally barred to them, yet it is important that they know each other’s feelings for the story to move. It is a conversation that is carried out in silence. It is a cultural compulsion that the silences in our films are underlined with words and music in order to impart their full impact.

Imagine the silent dilemma of a mother who is married to an outlaw. Their wandering and homeless state compels her to worry about the future of their child. She can only foresee the unforgiving noose of the law tightening around the tender neck of her infant son. How does she convey her deep concern to her husband to mend his ways? The change of heart of such a ruthless bandit within the space of a scene would have seemed unconvincing. What better way could the wife have sustained her argument over a period of time than by way of a song.

Mere munne, mere gulzar ke nanhe paudhe

Tujhko halaat ki aandhi se bachane ke liye

Aaj mein pyaar ke aanchal me chhupa leti hoon

Kal ye kamzor sahara bhi na haasil hoga

Bediyaan leke lapakata hua qanoon ka haath

Tere maa-baap se jab tujhko mili ye saugat

Kaun layega tere vaaste khushiyon ki baraat

Mere bachche tere anjaam se jee darta hai

Tere bachpan ko jawani ki dua deti hoon aur dua deke pareshan si ho jaati hoon...”

The song does bring about the desired change – the bandit decides to surrender to the law: I cannot think of a more effective example than this Sahir and Jaidev creation from Mujhe Jeene Do,  where time is both contained by the continuation of an emotion and expanded by way of action: and an argument is effectively made.

Songs can also be used as an effective diversion. A dramatic situation is created and left at a high point where its outcome is awaited with bated breath. We cut to a romantic subplot and have an obligatory song; and return to the earlier situation with renewed energy. The best example I can think of is from Deewaar. After a fellow worker who had refused to pay hafta to the goons is killed, Amitabh’s Vijay mentions to Yunus Parvez’s Rahim chacha that the following week one more porter will also refuse to pay hafta. The scene then shifts to the romantic track between Shashi Kapoor and Neetu Singh where they sing a song. During the song, latently our curiosity is being whetted; and when we come back to Amitabh Bachchan, we watch the outcome with recharged tension. Structurally, I find this the most clinical use of a song.

We are a country of faith, superstition, and religion. We believe in miracles: when you are in distress, turn to God – He would do the needful.

At one time, no family drama was complete without a devotional song. In the generation prior to the current crop of heroes, I don’t think there was a single hero whose films did not have a devotional song.

My generation is well too familiar with a situation when a character with no chances of survival is sinking on the hospital bed and a main female character runs to the end of the corridor where a large statue of a deity is waiting for her to come running and break into a song so that it can perform the miracle and save the patient.

What such a song does is that it stimulates our faith and arouses it to the level of ecstasy where we are too willing to believe in miracles because it gratifies our basic urge of wishful thinking. A song thus becomes a bridge between the credible and the incredible and we walk it. I did.

In Manmohan Desai’s classic Amar Akbar Anthony, when Nirupa Roy hearing Rishi Kapoor’s qawwali, Shirdiwale Sai Baba enters the shrine and a light from Sai Baba’s statue travels to hit her eyes and she regains her eyesight, I, for one, did not question it. The song had already created the platform where the question of logic had become irrelevant.

Or take the situation in Lagaan, after two days of the match the native players are losing their morale and they have no will left to face their opponents on the final day; an argument or a rousing speech to boost their confidence  at this juncture would have been prosaic and a mere repeat of the earlier scenes; besides the narrative required a break that would recharge the tension with emotional fervour and the bhajan, “O Paalan hare...” brought about a moral calm which is essential to  triumph over  the enemy.

We, mostly, treat our films like fairy-tales. Even when we take up an important issue, we use it more as a dramatic background against which the story is told. There is really no serious attempt to understand and analyze the issue. In fairy-tales, the characters are representatives, and not individuals: their concerns are purely emotional, and not psychological. So when the hero and the heroine meet in our films, and sooner rather than later fall in love, the process is simplified and made believable through songs. It is an accepted part of our film grammar that if the hero sings to the heroine, she has to fall in love with him. We, as the audience, have never questioned the logic of this process. In fact, the question of logic does not arise in a fairy-tale.

There is not a single aspect of love that our songs have not touched. From serenading and courtship to betrayal and separation, memorable moments have been created by our song-makers.

In some instances, these songs have actually substituted scenes: in Mere Mehboob, which opens on the last day of the college, the hero has but one last-ditch attempt to convey his feelings to the girl with whom he had had a chance encounter and lost his heart to. The closing college function serves as the platform for the hero to literally sing his heart out to the girl and hope that she would be there in the audience and reciprocate his feelings. This song lyrically recreates the incident and sets the story in motion, functioning as a plot device.

“Mere mehboob tujhe meri mohabbt ki kasam
Phir mujhe nargisi ankhon ka sahara dede
Mera khoya hua rangeen nazara dede
Bhool sakti nahin ankhen woh suhana manzar
Jab tera husn mere ishq se takraya tha
Aur phir raah mein bikhre the hazaron naghme
Mein woh naghme teri awaaz ko de aaya tha
Yaad hai mujhko meri umr ki pehli woh gadi
Teri ankhon se koi jaam piya tha maine
Mere rug rug mein koi barq si lehrai thi
Jab tere marmari haathon ko chua tha maine…”

Jumping headlong into the story has not been our way of telling stories. We pay as much importance to the entertainment quotient as to the story. Little wonder then that barring the action genre, in most of our films the hero and the heroine introduced themselves to the audience with a song. The songs loosely described their character and its objective. A better written song also foretold their trajectory in the film.

In Bimal Roy’s Madhumati for instance, the heroine is introduced mystically through the song “Aaja Re Pardesi”. The song not only sums up the story succinctly but also lends the character an ethereal aura.

She is seen through the eyes of the hero, who can instantly sense her eternal longing,

“Tum sang janam janam ke phere,

bhool gaye kyun saajan mere,

tadpat hoon main saanjh savere...

aaja re pardesi...”

The song through the introduction of the heroine strikes the key note for the film.

When Aamir is introduced in QSQT, he tells you very plainly what his journey is going to be: that he is not going to fulfill conventional parental aspirations by being an engineer, or a doctor...but instead will choose to walk the path of love!

“Mera  toh sapna hai ek chehra, dekhe jo usko jhoome bahaar.

Gaalon mein khilti kaliyon ka mausam, aankhon mein jaadu hothon mein pyaar.

Banda yeh khubsoorat kaam karega; Dil ki duniya mein apna naam karega. Meri nazar se dekho toh yaaro, meri manzil hai kahaan.

 Papa kehte hain bada naam karega”.

Heroes, from Raj Kapoor to Ranbir Kapoor, from Dilip Kumar to Shahrukh Khan, from Shammi Kapoor to Hrithik Roshan... all have been introduced with a song. And sometimes, with memorable ones. Who can forget “Mera joota hai Japani” from Shri 420. The lyrics talk about the materialistic trappings of the First World, and yet how the heart of the protagonist remains decidedly Indian, which in inference means pure and innocent. The story progresses to show how the money-oriented aspirations lead him into conning people; but finally his Hindustani heart prevails and he not only saves the simple folk from getting conned, but also redeems his own soul. The introduction song hence, is also the character’s conclusion.


Contrast this with Akshay Kumar’s introduction in Bhool Bhullaiya,

Teri aankhen bhool bhullaya, baate hain bhool bhullaiya,

tere sapno ki galiyon mein I keep waiting for you baby...!”

I wonder if it is an appropriate introduction of a world-renowned psychiatrist, practicing in the U.S.! and I fail to fathom the connection between the lyrics and the story.

Of all the arts, subliminally, music affects us the most. Film songs are the most accessible form of music. Songs have a habit of playing and replaying at the back of our mind. Subconsciously, they influence our language and impart values expressed in them.

The song-makers of yore were well aware of this responsibility. Even when the situation was erotically charged, they did not cheapen their art, or lower the dignity of their work in order to reach out to the masses.

Consider the predicament of Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam. Meena Kumari is a woman deprived of her husband’s love because he considers visiting courtesans as a symbol of aristocratic manliness. Passing nights with one’s wife is the majboori of lowly folks; and he is a zamindar, a feudal lord. The film was a poignant saga about the decadence of the feudal system. So what does Meena Kumari do? To stop her husband from going out for the night and be with her instead, she expresses her feelings through a song. And please note, how, indirectly yet explicitly, she conveys her longings for her husband without losing the decorum of her position which forbids her any expression of her sexual yearning. Lyrics penned by Shakeel Badayuni and composed to music by Hemant Kumar go like this:

“Machal raha hai suhaag mera,

Jo tum na hoge toh kya karungi

Na jaao saiyyan, chudha ke baiyyan

 Kasam tumhari main ro padungi...”

How else does one say this in a scene without turning it coarse!

Raj Kapoor conceived a similar situation in Sangam. But he did it by adding a heavy dose of titillation. Raj Kapor, playing Sundar, wants to visit a nightclub in Paris. His wife Radha, played by Vyjayanti Mala, wants to accompany him. Sundar of course is not willing to oblige her. So what does she do? She breaks into a cabaret: Main kaa karu Ram, mujhe Buddha mil gaya!

A brilliant mix of desi folk and videsi dance! And the situation of titillation does come from our folk tradition- be it bhaand or nautanki. Titillation is a valid form of expression in our culture- if for the proletariat it was Nautanki, then it was Mujra for the elite. Since our films borrowed heavily from Hollywood, the two native dance forms found their sangam in the cabaret: Helen did some remarkable numbers with such grace and buoyancy that she or her style of dance became an essential ingredient for box-office success. Some innovative filmmakers contextualized the cabaret number into their scripts and made their female stars do it with a little variation: Vijay Anand did this to remarkable effect in Jewel Thief: none who saw the film can forget Tanuja and the picturisation of Raat akeli hai, bujh gaye diye...

Raj Khosla was another filmmaker who used his female actors to do the sensuous numbers within the framework of the story with a folk flavour and without a shade of vulgarity: be it Jhumka gira re from Mera Saya, or Aaya aaya ataria pe koi chor from Mera Gaon Mera Desh,or Bindiya chamkegi from Do Raaste.

Recently, Vishal Bhardwaj achieved this with sparkling lyrics by Gulzar saab in Omkara, Bidi jalay le... An absolutely brilliant number in last many years!

However, titillation largely has been reduced to a non-intrinsic aspect where the only aim such songs seem to have is to cater to our baser instincts. They don’t serve any narrative purpose or stem organically from the story. They are being used without context: they appear out of nowhere like a pimple. Each song is treated like an item number. Even if the hero is serenading the heroine, there are 30 dancers in the background gyrating in pelvic thrusts to the music. Where has the tenderness evaporated? If I stretch my imagination to justify their usage, they are being used like they were in the Nautanki, or Tamasha as entertaining interruptions: but in the folk form they were better used as commentary on social and political issues having a local reference. And even if they were bawdy, they were aimed at a certain kind of audience and did not have the all-pervasive effect of the film songs.

So is it that we have gone back to the basics and turned our reference to the low brow framework – Low brow! What is wrong with that! And, we sitting in the cushioned chairs of air-conditioned auditorium enjoy condescendingly – we feel, ha! We can connect with the common folks through this trash – we know what they are all about! But, this I find a very disturbing trend. Through songs we achieved a balance where the different classes merged- be it the elite or the commoner: they all enjoyed them collectively like a celebration.

And yes, songs celebrate the moment – they celebrate the emotion. From defiance to patriotism, from romance to martyrdom, our songs have celebrated every emotion, as have they every festival and every occasion. Celebration requires collective participation from the community: however, in today’s fragmented world people are hankering for their individual space – shared participation is not on their agenda. Could this be the reason why lip-sync songs are fast disappearing from the films of new breed of filmmakers?

The other could be that today in several films, the milieu and the characters are closer to reality. The world of the story is no longer a make-believe world and that’s why it would seem anachronistic for the characters to break into a song.

A society evolves when the raw energy, the pulsating rhythm, the celebratory spirit of the common folk is married to the evolved sense of aesthetics derived from study and the tenacious pursuit of the discipline. That is what the songs of yesteryears were all about. My concern is that we are losing out on this common platform. We are creating a sharp division between the single screen and the multiplex audience; and this is all because we have stopped loving our songs.

© Vinay Shukla 2008-2014  


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