In the company of Naushad Ali – 1987


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IN 1987/88, I produced and directed perhaps one of the first television series on Hindi cinema titled Movie Mahal. The 49-part series was made for Channel 4 TV, UK, and was hugely popular among British Asian audiences with its many interviews and numerous song clips – Movie Mahal was made years before YouTube came into being, so seeing the old favourite songs, coupled with insightful comments by a variety of leading Hindi film practitioners, was a special thrill. Pirated VHS tapes of Movie Mahal circulated all across the UK, even finding themselves posted to different parts of the world where people of the Indian subcontinent had settled. Years later, I remember meeting a prominent Indian scholar from Uganda who spoke about the series nostalgically, as the songs featured in the programmes brought back forgotten memories.

Movie Mahal also featured extended interviews profiling major history-makers of Hindi cinema, many of whom have now passed away. I was particularly pleased when the ground-breaking composer Naushad Ali kindly agreed to be interviewed on camera and the result was a three-part programme that looked at his life and career.

On the morning of 3 May 1987, along with my small crew, cameraman Peter Chappell, sound recordist Mandy Rose and two assistants, Shobu Kapoor and Manish, and I arrived at Naushad Sahib’s sprawling two storey bungalow, aptly called ‘Ashiana’, on Carter Road in Bandra West. In those days, there was no promenade along Carter Road, nor was it a place where people went for their evening walks. Carter Road was a quiet sea-facing road dotted with a few bungalows. Even today Naushad Sahib’s house, painted light-green, stands under the shade of a large leafy tree proudly showing its old-world charm and beauty. The name on the gate reads ‘Naushad’ and it is where his family still live. In 2008, Carter Road was renamed Sangeet Samrat in memory of this hugely talented composer whose long and most successful career spanned from 1940 to 2005.

It was the month of Ramzan when we went to film. His family members were all in their respective rooms and the house was silent. We were asked to set up our gear in his music room on the ground floor. In the corner of the room, where once hundreds of songs had been composed, in collaboration the excellent Urdu lyricist Shakeel Badayuni, stood an upright piano. A harmonium was placed on the table and a sitar on a sofa. Half an hour after our arrival, Naushad Sahib came to his music room and the filming began.

This exceptional composer enthusiastically shared many of his experiences. A natural storyteller, he peppered his accounts with poems in Urdu that he had proudly written. I have translated the highlights of his fascinating conversation from the Urdu and edited out my questions for easy readability. Naushad Sahib started the interview with stories of his early life in Lucknow...


I would like to tell you how music came into my life. At the age of ten, I became completely obsessed with music. Each year I would visit the shrine of the venerable saint, Haji Waris Ali Sahib [twenty-six kilometres from Lucknow] with my parents. A flute player used to come there and play some notes of a raga. I was instantly drawn to his music, though I was too unlearned to know which raga he was playing. In later years, and unconsciously, I used that raga [Bhairavi] in the music I came to compose. I became obsessed with music but it made my father most unhappy. He wanted me to do some other work, he even asked me to train as a wrestler. He used to say: ‘Music? No respectable family will give their daughter to you in marriage. What’s this obsession? Music is not for decent folk.’ I would pretend to agree with him, but his disapproval did not change my mind.


Finally there came a time when my father sat me down and said:

Decide today! Do you want music or do you want a home?

Father, this is your house. You’re welcome to it! Give my music to me.

I got ready to leave the family home and the city of my birth, Lucknow, when my mother started crying. She pleaded with me not to go, but I did and did not look back. I thought to myself: If Allah wishes, I’ll become worthy and only then will you see me again.

Naushad arrived in Bombay in 1937. Years of struggle followed but it soon became apparent that his was a formidable and unstoppable talent. By the mid-fifties, film posters prominently featured his name and nearly every song he composed was a hit. From his early films, Naushad brought innovative ideas to film music. He introduced star singers, including Suraiya and Uma Devi (Tun Tun) to the screen, and also encouraged the use of musical instruments like the dholak that was not previously used in film music. Naushad is also credited for bringing to the popular cinema North Indian folk tunes and classical music. NMK


I have always felt that we must introduce classical music to a wider audience through films. In the old days, when maharajahs ruled, musicians used to play music in their darbar. But ordinary folk were not allowed in. All these ragas and raginis only graced the courts of rulers. Now that India is independent, I believed these chains must be broken too.

Naushad Ali during the interview for Channel 4 TV’s Movie Mahal, directed by Nasreen Munni Kabir, May 1987, Mumbai. (Photograph: Peter Chappell)

In the film Baiju Bawra [1956], I tried to introduce classical music and classical singers. Usually, classical singers sing at a concert for a hundred or so people. But if they were to sing in a film, millions would hear them in one go. People might grow to like classical music, and it could become a regular feature in films. In Baiju Bawra, I based every song on a different raga. In the last competition scene, I asked the celebrated singers Pandit Paluskarji and Amir Khansahib to sing. The great Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar, both singers trained in classical music, sang the other songs. ‘Insaan bano, karlo bhalaayi ka koi kaam’ is based on Raag Todi. ‘Tu ganga ki mauj mein jamna ka dhaara’ is based on Bhairavi, ‘Bachpan ki mohabbat ko dil se na judaa karna’ is based on Maand Thaat, and Raga Bhairo was used for ‘Mohe bhool gaaye saawariya.’

Every song was based on a raga. I felt the audience would be put off by a heavy dose of classical music early on in the film, so the earlier songs were light, playful tunes so people unfamiliar with classical music could enjoy them. I gave a heavy dose in the final scene – in the contest between Baiju and Tansen [Pandit Paluskarji and Amir Khansahib singing ‘Aaj gawat hai mann mero’] and the audience applauded.

Since then classical music has become a feature in some films. Before that it was the Cha Cha Cha or the Rumba. That music does not belong to our country. I don’t say it’s bad music, it’s music too. It has been composed in the same seven notes. But why can’t we bring our culture to people? That was my wish.


In Mughal-e-Azam I asked Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khansahib to sing. There’s a wonderful story about that. The film’s director, K. Asif, asked me who would sing Tansen’s song and I said: ‘The Tansen of our day of course.’ Asif Sahib took a drag on his cigarette – which he held between his second and third finger, that was his style – flicked the ash and said:

Who is the Tansen of today?

Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, but he doesn’t sing for films.

Asif Sahib asked me nevertheless to make an appointment and we went to see the great singer. I paid my respects and he asked why we had come:

Sir, a film is being made, Mughal-e-Azam. It’s one of a kind. You stand above all others. If you would cooperate with us and help us, there’s a raga that Tansen will sing in the film, and we would like you to sing it.

I don’t sing in films. Organise a concert, I’ll sing there, son.

Asif took another drag, flicked the ash and added: ‘Khansahib, you’ll sing for us.’ Ghulam Ali Khansahib was startled and looked at both of us and then turned to me and asked me under his breath:

Who is this man?

The film’s producer and director.

Who cares? Why is he trying to force me to sing?

Asif repeated: ‘You’ll sing. Just name your price and I won’t argue.’ Khansahib quietly asked me to come with him to the balcony where he said:

Shall I say something that will make him run away?

Sir, that will be my loss.

Why is that?

I’ll lose the respect I would gain from your singing in the film. But what will you tell Asif Sahib?

I’ll quote him such a high price that he’ll run away.

That is your privilege, Khansahib. Do as you wish.

We returned to the room where Asif Sahib was waiting and Khansahib said: ‘All right, I’ll sing but I’ll charge you 25,000 rupees for one song.’


In those days, the most famous of famous playback singer would ask for only 500 or 1000-rupees for a song, and here he was asking for such a sum! But Asif Sahib immediately said: ‘Is that all? Sir, you are priceless. It’s a deal. Here’s a 10,000-rupees advance. A film like Mughal-e-Azam will never be made again.’

Astounded, Khansahib whispered to me as we were leaving: ‘He’s a man who knows how to respect others!’ That is how Ghulam Ali Khansahib came to sing in Mughal-e-Azam. [Naushad Sahib laughs]

Naushad Sahib then explained how the raga was finally recorded. NMK

We had one rehearsal before we were to record the song which was intended for the love scene between Prince Salim and Anarkali. The scene has no dialogue... it is built around the raga. Before the recording started, Asif Sahib told me: ‘Ask Khansahib to sing very softly. Half the night has passed, Anarkali’s face is brushed by a feather. Here he must sing in a velvety soft voice.’

I mentioned this to the great singer and he said: ‘Show me the film, then I’ll sing.’ So we postponed the recording for the next day and edited the film. The next day we made a loop of the scene and projected it for Khansahib who said: ‘I’ll sing while the film runs.’

The scene played on the screen and he sang to it.You will observe how he varies his singing for the close-ups and the long shots. That’s how it was recorded.

There was another song in Mughal-e-Azam that I want to mention, it might interest people. At that time, ‘Zamaana ye samjha ke hum pi ke aaye’, the song from the film Anarkali had become very popular. So Asif Sahib said: ‘I have the same situation in my Mughal-e-Azam. The song is sung in the court of Akbar and Salim is there and Anarkali is dancing. The situation in both films is the same but our song must be different.’

There’s a room at the top of my house where I asked Shakeel Sahib [Shakeel Badayuni] to join me. I told him we had to urgently write a song. We closed the door and sat down. We tried many versions, but none of them worked. We wrote thirty-four songs! We didn’t stop. We didn’t eat, we didn’t drink, nothing. There were papers scattered all around us – I sat in front of my harmonium and Shakeel Sahib had a pen and paper in his hand. We tried this, we tried that. One of Shakeel Sahib’s attempts were the words:

Vo hain jo mera dil ko churaaye baithey hain

Nighaahen neeche kiye sar jhukaaye baithey hain

[The one who has stolen my heart is here

With head and eyes lowered he sits]

But no, it had to be something else. Then I remembered a line I had heard in the Purbi language, ‘Pyaar kiya ka chori kari?’[I have loved. Is that a crime?]

I told Shakeel Sahib we should write a song on this theme. Don’t write a ghazal. Write a song, and this is what he wrote:

Jab pyaar kiya toh darna kya. Pyaar kiya koi chori nahin ki, pyaar kiya...

[Why fear if you have loved? Love is not a crime...]


We decided that would do. But we got stuck again on the line for the shot of Emperor Akbar. He’s furious and his eyes are red with rage, so we finally found something that would work in the context and is aimed at Akbar:

Aaj kehenge dil ka fasaana

Jaan bhi le le chhaahe zamaana...

[Today I shall tell the story of my love Even if the world takes my life]

It was 6 a.m. when we stopped working.

I was recently asked by some journalists: ‘Why do the old songs have a long life and today’s songs don’t?’ I recounted this incident to them. And added: ‘Perhaps the long hours that Shakeel Sahib and I spent thinking of this song has added to its lifespan!’ We did not compose music for money. We were just obsessed to do good work.

Naushad Ali and Dilip Kumar were close friends and most admiring of each other’s talents. Naushad had composed many films in which Dilip Kumar played the lead role, starting from S.U. Sunny’s 1948 Mela. When it came to composing the classical Mohammed Rafi song ‘Madhuban mein Radhika naache re’, written by Shakeel Badayuni, and sung on screen by Dilip Kumar while Kum Kum dances in Kohinoor, Naushad Sahib shared an interesting anecdote. NMK


I thought it was a good opportunity to use pure classical music for this dance. Yusuf Sahib [Dilip Kumar] was the star of the film. It is important for me to say that in all his films, he has worked with great dedication and feeling. He becomes the character and believes whatever he does on the screen should look natural.

So I composed a song in raga Hamir called ‘Madhuban mein Radha naache re’. It is a very difficult raga. And Yusuf Sahib had to play the sitar in the scene. I told him the sitar compositions were difficult, so I would ask the celebrated sitarist Abdul Halim Jaffar Sahib to play for the close-up shots. Yusuf Sahib said: ‘Great! I will practice so the close-ups will be of my own hand movements.’

On the day we were shooting the song, I went to the studio at lunch-time. Yusuf Sahib asked me to join him for lunch. I was surprised to see his fingers were bandaged and asked him what had happened. He said: ‘You’ve made life difficult for me.You made me play those difficult pieces and now I’ve cut my fingers, practising so much!’

As our interview came to a close, I asked Naushad Sahib how he went about composing a song. NMK

Nasreen, you asked me how I go about composing a song? Let me tell you about the composition of a much-loved song from Anmol Ghadi, which was directed by Mehboob Khan. To this day Noor Jehan, whom we call our Melody Queen, sings it at every public performance. The song was ‘Awaaz de kahaan hai, duniya meri jawan hai’.

I wanted to give the song a certain spirituality, as though it was coming from the soul but I couldn’t find the right tune. I paced up and down all night thinking about it. I often composed songs that way, I would pace up and down on the pavement, walking many miles. So ten days had gone by and one night, I fell asleep thinking of the tune. As it so often happens, our conscious thought moves into the unconscious. We sleep, we dream, and the unconscious awakens. So that tune and the notes came to me in my dream. I got up in the middle of the night, sat at the harmonium and wrote down the composition for ‘Awaaz de kahaan hai...’

Two other songs came to me in a dream: ‘Dharti ko aakaash pukaare, aaja aaja prem dware’ from the film Mela, and ‘Aao saajan khade hain dwar’ from the film Babul.

I believe it is Allah’s benevolence. It is through His goodness that He gave me these tunes. I’m unworthy. It made me happy that these songs had the spiritual touch I wanted. But I did not compose these songs – they came from somewhere else.

Someone gifted them to me. Call God by any name, but it is all His generosity. I believe God loves music.