Three books on Bollywood’s musical greats make worthwhile reading, even if the quality is uneven.
As a team, Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar were great storytellers. The biggest hits of the late 1960s and 1970s were scripted by them. But the most intriguing proof of their skill is that they sold the same story to two different producers in the early 1970s.
Both films got made, were released in the same year (1973) and were super hits. Such was the narration that those who had already seen Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer felt no hesitation, nor déjà vu, in watching Nasir Hussain’s Yaadon ki Baraat. They were seduced a second time even though in both films the same actor, Ajit, killed the hero’s parents, prospered for about 15 “film years”, and died a violent death in the climax.
There is one more thing.
Zanjeer follows a linear script of one man’s campaign against injustice, allowing space only for one chartbuster in Yaari hai imaan mera. In Yaadon ki Baraat, Dharmendra (who, along with Dev Anand and Raj Kumar, had refused Amitabh’s part in Zanjeer) hunts down Ajit with the same intensity as Amitabh did in Zanjeer, but his track jostles for screen space with Vijay Arora’s wooing of Zeenat Aman. The third brother grows up to become a stage singer. The second script created room for an album which, along with Rahul Dev Burman’s other works in Hare Rama Hare Krishna and the older Teesri Manzil, changed the face of Hindi film music.
There were several other films in that period whose songs became popular. The most successful music directors of the time, Lakshmikant Pyarelal, managed to be prolific as well as successful, but their music, great as it was, continued on the trail of Kalyanji Anandji (L-P were assistants to them) and Shankar-Jaikishen.
Rahul Dev Burman’s music, on the other hand, introduced new sounds of funk and jazz, with percussion, new instruments and RD’s infrequent grunts. The strums on a guitar and clinking of glasses that formed the prelude to Chura liya struck an instant chord with the masses, few of whom knew that it was lifted from the 1969 film, If it’s Tuesday, it must be Belgium. Aapke kamre mein introduced Hindi cinema to a concept commonly used in Hollywood musicals: Songs woven into dialogues.
Some 25 years later, when India’s teeth were already sunk deep into satellite television, Spice Girls were belting out their few hits, so-called Indi-Pop was enjoying its brief moment in the sun, and remixes were casting a gloom on the musical scene, RD was rediscovered. As Asha Bhosle, his wife, chose to wade into the remixed opportunity, unlike the angry disapprobation of sister Lata, O mere sona re (Teesri Manzil) and Chura liya ruled the charts again, albeit with strange new sounds added. Remixes were little more than abominable adulteration. They also came with ridiculous videos, one of Asha’s had this bluish-grey ghost of RD, as if made of smoky sulphur. But they rediscovered RD for India. So much so that he became more popular after his death than he was in the last few years of his career. Those last few years, with due respect to RD worshippers, were largely barren, especially once Kishore was gone, unless you insist on thinking of Zalzala, Aag se Khelenge and Hifazat as musical scores.
The new music directors (Vishal Shekhar, Jatin Lalit) began to swear by RD and Sujoy Ghosh made an entire film, Jhankar Beats, on his music. However, RD’s re-interpretation as a “trendy” musician has, to an extent, obscured many of his semi-classical songs as well as his finest album, Amar Prem. That is a pity of the same scale as the establishment’s general reluctance to bestow too many awards on RD, a problem that A R Rahman has not faced.
Music historians will one day try to explain why RD’s decline as an active music director coincided with the rise of A R Rahman. Rahman burst on to the Hindi film music scene with Mani Ratnam’s Roja (1992), which, ironically, was a Tamil film dubbed into Hindi, including all its songs. Since then, he has done many films in many languages, become rich, and won many awards, among them a Golden Globe, a Bafta and two Oscars. These days he is less prolific in India because he has to — the average music follower would tell you with a touch of pride — devote more time to international projects.That is a far cry from the lament, unusual for an obituary, in
Filmindia’s tribute to K L Saigal after his death in 1947. “Tempted by money he came to Bombay to work in Ranjit and other studios. He did quite a few pictures in Bombay: Bhakt Surdas, Tansen, Bhanwara, Shah Jehan, Tadbir, Omar Khayyam, but not in one of them could be heard the old magic of Saigal’s golden voice. Gold had taken the golden out of his voice in this city where the smoke coming out of the mill chimneys smells of humans souls.”
No one grudges Rahman his dollars, but that is not the only thing that has changed from Saigal’s era. He was the country’s first singing-acting star, probably the first and last of them to get so identified with their songs that you won’t remember the composer or lyricist. Saigal’s songs are all his. After him, Hindi film music came to be associated with music directors: Naushad became synonymous with songs based on the classical ragas, C Ramchandra became the rhythm king, RD’s father Sachin Dev took Naushad’s tradition forward with more popular elements, and Shankar-Jaikishan espoused western-style orchestration before RD and Rahman did their bit. But Saigal… he was different. It is said that the multitudes rushed to a see and hear Saigal often without knowing the name of the film.
It is an enduring puzzle why Hindi film music, with all its rich repertoire, has not spawned commensurate literature. There have been very few authoritative books on it. In a burst, three have come out. There will be debate over their merit. Sadanand Menon in Outlook took apart Pran Nevile’s tome. One may empathise with Menon in that the best piece of writing in the book is the aforementioned obituary, which comes as an appendage. But, for all its faults, Nevile’s book has attempted to tell Saigal’s story, not much of which is known to even keen followers of Hindi film music.Nasreen Munni Kabir’s book is based on her conversations with Rahman drawn out over four years starting 2007. It is just that: A long, often interesting conversation and a refreshing format for a book. The real deal is the Bhattacharjee and Vittal effort. Music critic Raju Bharatan, in his A Journey Down Melody Lane, speaks witheringly of writers today presuming to hold forth on the Hindi film music “as if they were ‘there’ when it all happened”. Bharatan, who likes to put a lot of himself in his writing, was, of course, there — in music sittings, rehearsals and recordings. But he should see what an IIT-Kharagpur graduate working with IBM and an employee of The Royal Bank of Scotland have managed to achieve through old-fashioned rigour and research.
A R RAHMAN: THE SPIRIT OF MUSIC
Author: Nasreen Munni Kabir
Publisher: Om Books International
Price: Rs 599
K L SAIGAL: THE DEFINITIVE BIOGRAPHY
Author: Pran Nevile
Price: Rs 299
R D BURMAN: THE MAN, THE MUSIC
Authors: Anirudh Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vattal
Publisher: Harper Collins
Price: Rs 399