Memories of despair, songs of love


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THE film song is the soundtrack to everyday life in India. Be it a bus stop or a paan shop, a living room in a middle class apartment or cramped quarters in an urban slum, the Hindi film song is the beating heart of cultural life in North India. Yet the Hindi film song is not merely an aural analogue to the flows of everyday life, it often discloses the moods of public emotion.

If one wants to access the optimism of post-Independence India, for instance, all one needs to do is to tune in to Sahir Ludhianvi’s Saathi haath badhaanaa (Comrade, lend me your hand!), from Naya Daur (1957). But if one would rather recall the disillusionment of post-Independence India, all one needs to do is to tune in to Sahir Ludhianvi’s Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahaan hai (Where are those who take pride in India?), from Pyaasa (1957). Not only did Sahir give expression to these contradictory moods, it is useful to remember that both Naya Daur and Pyaasa were released in the same year.

If the songs of Naya Daur epitomized the Nehruvian idealism of the 1950s, the songs of Pyaasa anticipated the despair of the Indian middle classes that would turn to anger by the 1970s (an anger that exploded into rage by the late 1980s and early 1990s). The Hindi film song archives the history of not just our hopes and dreams but also our despair and disillusionments. It is not surprising then that some of the most memorable Hindi films songs are about dreams.

A year after the songs of Pyaasa, Sahir could still compose these beautiful lines: Phaili huyi hai sapnon ki baahein / Aa ja chal de kahin door (The arms of dreams are open / Let us travel elsewhere). Here the mood is neither of optimism nor of despair but more of a romantic pragmatism (a romantic pragmatism which Bollywood would make all its own): Dhundhlii fiza mein kuchh khoyein kuchh paayein (In this dreamy haze, let us lose a few things, let us find a few things).

Even as Sahir gave voice to public and political moods, he could as easily unravel the intimate intricacies of the private: can one think of as poetic an understanding of love gone wrong as in Chalo ik baar phir se ajnabi ban jaayen hum dono (Let us once again become strangers to each other!). The songs of Sahir retrieve forgotten memories of lost selves and abandoned futures in the ruins of Indian presents. But Sahir isn’t alone among the Hindi film lyricists in this capacity to return us to fundamental questions of our historical experience. Can there be a better song about the discontents of revolutionary politics in post-independence India, for instance, than Neeraj’s Karvaan guzar gaya gubaar dekhte rahe? Let us take the opening lines of this song from the film Nayi umar ki nayi fasal (1967):

Swapan jhare phool se

Meet chubhe shool se

Lut gaye singaar sabhi

Baagh ke babool se

Aur hum khade khade bahaar dekhte rahe

Karvaan guzar gaya gubaar dekhte rahe

(Dreams withered away like flowers

Friends, comrades pierce like lances

All the adornments of the garden are lost

The Spring has passed us by

The caravan too has moved on

All that is left is a trail of dust)


In the same song, we come across the following poignant line: Neend bhi khuli na thi ki haaiy dhoop dhal gayi (We had barely woken up from our dreams that the sunshine slipped away). Can one isolate this sentiment from the despair and Left melancholy in the following line from the Makhdoom Mohiuddin ghazal: khush the hum apni tamanaoon ka khwaab aaye ga (We were happy in waiting for the dream of our desires). Can this awareness of the inescapability and impossibility of the revolutionary dream in turn be isolated from Ghalib’s Hai khwaab mein hunuz jo jaage hain khwaab mein (Those who have woken up to a dream are still lost in dreams)?

Neeraj’s unique blend of Hindi and Urdu as well as his call elsewhere to ‘make humans’ (insaan ko insaan banaya jaaye) is anticipated in the political and existential songs of Kavi Pradeep. Even a few songs of Kavi Pradeep give us a better introduction to Indian existentialism than any academic work on the subject. We only need to consider the following songs: Insaan ka insaan se ho bhaichaaraa yehi paigham hamara (This is our message: a human being love other human beings), Dekh tere sansaar ki halat kya ho gayi bhagwaan kitna badal gaya insaan (Look at the state of your world, God, how human beings have changed!) and Aaj ke is insaan ko kya ho gaya (What has become of the humans of today?). Can one separate these meditations on the condition of the insaan (human) in the modern world from Ghalib’s lament: aadmi ko bhi mayassar nahi insaan hona (Man can scarcely become human).


One way of thinking about the enduring significance of the Hindi film song to everyday experience in India is to trace the way these songs connect the modern and the pre-modern aspects of the Indian self. The power of India’s literary cultures and the buoyancy of its folk traditions are nowhere as evident as in the Hindi film song. But to attempt such a genealogy of the Hindi film song is impossible because it would be an attempt to know everything about the self. Here I have restricted myself to just one of the sources of the magic of the Hindi film song, i.e. Hindi-Urdu poetry. Even though the Hindi film song is often discussed in relation to the great music composers or singers of the Indian film industry, it is impossible to think of the Hindi film song without the Hindi-Urdu film lyricists: the poets of Hindi cinema. Can we think of the Hindi film song without Sahir, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Gulzar, Shailendra, Kaifi Azmi, Pradeep, Shakeel Badayuni or Neeraj?

Some of my earliest memories of the Hindi film song are connected to All India Radio where the rhythms of the day were measured by songs fading in and fading out of each other as mornings turned into afternoons and afternoons into evenings. I can think of no better way of sharing some of my own memories of the Hindi film song than to imitate the flow of an afternoon on AIR.


I first learned about socialism not from books or a political rally but from the song in the film, Mazdoor (1983): Hum mehnatkash is duniya ke jab apna hissa maangenge / ik baagh nahin ik khet nahin hum saari duniya maangenge (We, the workers of this world, when we will demand our share / We will not just demand an orchard or a farm, we will demand the whole world). This was in Shiraz cinema in Srinagar. The hope of a new dawn in this film was again helmed on screen by Dilip Kumar as he would keep doing even in such 1980s films as Karma (that Dilip Kumar starred in films such as Vidhaata and Mashaal in the 1980s where the idealistic Nehruvian hero of Naya Daur is forced to turn to a life of crime was a reflection of how the early post-Independence optimism had soured in three decades).

When an exhausted and disillusioned Dilip Kumar put together a ragtag army to fight off the new threats to the nation in Karma (1986), one could also sense that an older optimism had been irretrievably lost. The song from Mazdoor was by the lyricist Hassan Kamal. The opening line was borrowed free from a Faiz taraanaa (song): Hum mehnatkash jagwaalon se jab apna hissa maangenge / Ik khet nahin ik desh nahin hum saari duniya maangenge (We, the workers of this world, when we will demand our share / We will not just demand a farm or a nation, we will demand the whole world). Kamal was not to blame: it is a tradition in Urdu poetry to borrow from the greats and Gulzar had just taken a similar liberty with Ghalib in his Dil dhoondhta hai phir wahi fursat ke raat din in Mausam (1975) giving us one of the best Hindi film songs of all time.

Gulzar had substituted Ghalib’s ji for his dil. Kamal had excluded the desh from all the things that Faiz wanted the workers to negate. It was already clear by the 1980s that you could no longer reject the desh in the hope of a universal socialism. I had ended up in Shiraz cinema because of a ‘treat’ (a popular Indianism) from a cousin who had found a job working at a showroom in Chennai (then Madras). The dreams of a bright future turned out differently for the cinema hall itself as it was converted into a makeshift torture and interrogation centre in the insurgency years.


The rapidly deteriorating situation in Kashmir was yet another side to the slide from an older optimism. My last memory of Shiraz is the huge painting for the film, Qayamat se Qayamat tak (could there be a better title for the everyday apocalypse of love?) which I skipped to watch the Anil Kapoor-starrer Tezaab (how many people now remember his rise as a superstar in the interregnum years between the regimes called Amitabh Bachchan and Shahrukh Khan?).

The Hindi film song was a philosophical attitude and an education. I learned fundamental lessons about modernity not from Heidegger but Shailendra: in one of the finest songs of Hindi cinema from Shri 420, a distraught Raj is invited back to the utopia of Indian village life with the following words: Us desh mein tere pardes mein sone chandi ke badle mein bikte hain dil / Is gaanv mein dard ki chhaanv mein pyaar ke naam par hi dhadakte hain dil (In your world, your foreign world, they trade hearts for money and gold / In this village, in the shade of its pain, hearts beat only for love).


A whole politics was at stake in the nostalgia for a past, and its pain, which lived on but was not easily accessible. It is also on the radio that I recently came to know about an interesting anecdote about the beginnings of Shailendra’s journey in Bombay cinema. It seems that once a director promised some work to Shailendra but had subsequently forgotten about it. Shailendra sent him a note with the following lines: Chhoti si yeh duniya pehchaane raaste hain / Tum kahin to miloge kabhi to miloge to poochenge haal (It is a small world and all the paths are known / I will meet you at one of its crossroads and ask how you are). The director remembered his promise and these lines became the opening to a hit song in the 1962 film, Rangoli.

If Ashis Nandy called the Hindi film ‘a slum’s eye-view of Indian politics’, the Hindi film song is ‘a slum’s eye-view of Indian thinking, of Indian feeling.’ For instance, let us take the famous Nida Fazli song, Kabhi kisi ko muqammal jahan nahin milta (Nobody gets a perfect world), the two sh‘ers in this filmi ghazal (another delightful sub-genre!) bring the alienation of modern life in conversation with the disasters of history.1 The first sh‘er is:

Jise bhi dekhiye woh apne aap mein gum hai

Zubaan mili hai magar hum zubaan nahin milta

(Anyone you look at is merely lost in their own self

They have language but can no longer speak to anyone)

The second sh‘er is:

Bujhaa sakaa hai bhalaa kaun waqt ke sholay

Yeh aisi aag hai jis mein dhuaan nahin milta

(Who is able to put out the smoldering embers of time?

This is a fire which leaves no trace of smoke behind it.)

This is not tragic resignation but a deep awareness of the human condition. This filmi ghazal is not only a simple but forceful takedown of the delusions of human ego but also the naive optimism of Communist-leaning Progressive poets. But it is just one small example of the way that the Hindi film songs articulate and archive the lyric history of the modern Indian self. It is sad that despite the success of Mahesh Bhatt’s Aashiqui and Lawrence D’Souza’s Saajan in the early 1990s, the genre of the filmi ghazal has slowly faded away from Hindi cinema.


I first heard many of these Hindi film songs on All India Radio (AIR) in Kashmir. It seems only proper that I also speak of the relations between the Hindi film songs, Bollywood and Kashmir. Muhammad Rafi had such a cult status in Kashmir that for a long time I imagined him as a supernatural being, a god. The only other Bollywood icon who shared this cult status was Dilip Kumar. Rafi’s name was often mispronounced as Rafiq (Friend) by many Kashmiris suggesting an incomprehensible intimacy. Rafi’s voice and Kashmir were brought together in a romantic fantasy of Kashmir (which fascinated Kashmiris as much as non-Kashmiris) epitomized by the three words: Deewana hua badal (The cloud has gone mad!).

I can hardly think of a song that captures the magic of spring in Kashmir better than this Rafi song from Shakti Samanta’s Kashmir ki Kali (1964). The songs of Shammi Kapoor-starrers Kashmir ki Kali and Janwar (1965) were huge hits in Kashmir and elsewhere (these included Hai duniya usi ki zamaana usi ka and Meri mohabbat jawan rahegi). But before Kashmir ki Kali and Janwar, there was Junglee (1961) and Ehsaan tera hoga mujh par (an undisputed classic). It was easy to fall in love with these songs and it helped that they were filmed in scenic locations in Kashmir.


The politics of these films is troubling in retrospect but in the 1960s and 1970s the pleasures were shared and nobody was complaining. Here are some other iconic songs filmed in Kashmir: Likhe jo khat tujhe from Kanyadaan (1968); Kora kaagaz tha yeh man mera from Kati Patang (1971); Tere bina zindagi se koi shikwa to nahin from Aandhi (1975); Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein khayal aata hai from Kabhi kabhi (1976); and Jab hum jawan honge from Betaab (1983). But despite the huge popularity of Hindi films in Kashmir, there were few Hindi film songs which incorporated any Kashmiri words.

But that changed with the film, Mission Kashmir (2000), where the great Rahat Indori, who left us last year, and Sameer Anjaan incorporated lines by a popular Kashmiri poet and a folk song into the lyrics. Even though academics in film studies still debate the politics of the Vidhu Vinod Chopra film (one of the first to deal with the Kashmiri insurgency after Mani Ratnam’s 1992 film, Roja), the film was so popular in Kashmir that actress Preity Zinta’s face stared at you from countless polythene bags that people proudly used for shopping after the film’s release (these Mission Kashmir polythene shopping bags were in much demand in the year of the film’s release).

The songs Rinde poshmaal gindne draayi lo lo and Bumbroo were hits not just in Kashmir but also throughout South Asia. The politics of spectatorship is never simple but one was forced to ask what might have touched a chord with ordinary Kashmiris. Perhaps it was the song, Dhuaan dhuaan by the poet, Rahat Indori, which framed the unconscious, and metapolitical, desires of the film directed by a Punjabi-Kashmiri, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who had grown up in Srinagar.2 Indori was walking a thin tightrope between the expectations of a mainstream Indian audience and his effort to make some sense of the tragedy in Kashmir and he does so in these exceptionally poignant lines:

Yeh saazishen hawaaon ki yeh saazishen dishaon ki

Nazar zameen ko lag gayi hai jaise asmaanon ki

(This conspiracy of the air, this conspiracy of directions

It is as if the earth has been cursed by the sky)


Indori connects the tragedy in Kashmir to history (hawaayein) and geography (dishaayein) speaking at the same time in a double register to a Kashmiri and a mainstream Indian audience. Indori goes as far as one can possibly go within the political limits of the genre:

Yeh takht ki ladaai hai

Yeh kursiyon ki jang hai

Yeh begunaah khoon pe

Siyasaton ka rang hai

(This is a battle for thrones

This is a battle for chairs

In the blood of the innocent

This is the colour of politics)

And then he asks movingly:

Jale hain kyun makaan?

(Why have the houses been burned?)

Many of the hit films of the 1980s such as Asha, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Betaab, Karma and Khudgarz included songs shot in picturesque spots in Kashmir (so much so that one such spot near Pahalgam in South Kashmir is now known as the Betaab Valley). Kashmir had become inseparable from a Bollywood imaginary: Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt and Kumar Gaurav (the sons of Bollywood superstars Dharmendra, Sunil Dutt and Rajendra Kumar) were all launched with films, and songs, shot extensively in Kashmir. Much before Mission Kashmir, Kashmir itself was the subject of songs such as Kitni khoobsurat yeh tasveer hai, yeh Kashmir hai from the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer Bemisal (1982). Before Bemisal, the film Aabroo (1968) celebrated Kashmir with the song, Yeh waadi-e Kashmir hai jannat ka nazaara.


The intimacy between Bollywood and Kashmir ensured that sometimes Kashmiri words slipped into Bollywood songs: Afoo khudaya (My God!), used in Kashmiri to express wonder or surprise, finds its way into a film which was set in Kashmir, Jab Jab Phool Khile (or, more recently, the film lyricist Sameer Anjaan used the Kashmiri form of the Persian-Urdu word dilbar in the song, Dilbara, for the film Dhoom).

The film Jab Jab Phool Khile (1965) sensitively evoked Kashmiri political emotions in one of its other songs when a hapless Raja (a Kashmiri shikarawallah) lost in the world of metropolitan Bombay declares: Tere oonche shahar mein nahin mera guzaaraa / Mujhe yaad aa rahaa hai mera chhotaa shikara (I can no longer live in this mighty city of yours / I still remember my small shikara). The song itself began with the lines: Yahan mein ajnabi hoon / Main jo hoon bas wahi hoon (I am a stranger here / I am what I am). Here are a few more lines from the song:

Kahan shaam-o sahar yeh

Kahan din raat mere

Bahut ruswa huye hain

Yahaan jazbaat mere

(These mornings and evenings are different

from my days and nights

It is true that my emotions

are injured and humiliated)

The lyricist Anand Bakshi (who came up with the almost Kierkegaardian line, Pyaar kiyaa nahin jaataa ho jaataa hai in the 1983 film Woh Saat Din) uses the more sophisticated shaam (evening) and sahar (dawn) for the life of the metropolis and the more ordinary din (day) and raat (night) for life in Kashmir. He ends with a simple but prescient observation about the gathering political storm in Kashmir: Jahan ka phool hai woh wahin pe woh khile ga (A flower blooms in its own soil). Perhaps I am reading too much against the grain. Such are the private worlds of experience opened up to us by Hindi film songs.

Mani Ratnam’s Roja is a nationalist film. But it has the incredible song: Dil hai chhotaa saa / Chhotii si aashaa (My small heart / holds a small hope).One hears here an echo of the chhotaa shikara (small shikara) of Jab Jab Phool Khile. It is strange how the Kashmiri political desires inscribe themselves even into a film like Roja. Perhaps this is the magic and the miracle of the Hindi film song.

I seem to have strayed from the subject but that reminds me of yet another personal favourite, a Qamar Jalalabadi song, from Rustam Sohrab (1963) filmed on the legendary Prithvi Raj Kapoor and radiant Suraiya: Yeh kaisi ajab dastaan ho gayi hai / Chhupaate chhupaate bayaan ho gayi hai (A strange thing has happened that this tale /in hiding has been revealed).