‘Aa jaa re pardesi’: why I am haunted by Hindi film songs


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THE editor asked for an article about the pleasure one derives from film music, and to make it personal. I chose to write about two of my favourite Hindi film songs, ‘Aa jaa re pardesi’ and ‘O sajana barkha bahaar aayi’, and the many aspects of enjoying them beyond the actual hearing. The soundscape of Hindi film songs has been part of my professional and private life for several decades. They are what led me to discover the pleasures of Hindi cinema in the first place, and are where the genius of this form lies, pulling all the elements of the film together and enhancing them. They then live on outside the cinema.

I have learnt many languages though few in depth. I enjoy studying them, looking at grammars, learning vocabulary and playing with them. I retired last year so am finally reading a little Bengali and Marathi. However, I learnt Hindi – what Hindi I know – through film songs. The enjoyable sounds of the songs took on meaning as I matched them to the subtitles on Nasreen Munni Kabir’s ‘Movie Mahal’ series for Channel 4 television, then via repeat listening to the audio cassette tape (remember them?) in the car, then CDs before online options allowed me to pick up a filmi vocabulary. Even this skewed knowledge can come in useful. When a rat disturbed my flat in Bandra, I called security about the ‘bada chua’ and finally got to say ‘Bachao!’ The chowkidar responded well with his equally filmi, ‘Daro mat, Madame, main aa gaya!’


Particular songs remind me of my travels in India which I began as a teenager. I didn’t know the songs when I first visited and it was only years later I understood why roadside Romeos in the early 1980s called me ‘Julie’. When I started to recognise the songs in the late ’80s and ’90s, it seemed every time I visited India there was one song that was played everywhere. ‘Oye oye’ takes me straight back to Baroda, 1990.Then they came thick and fast. ‘Juma chumma de de’, ‘Pardesi pardesi’, ‘Tujhe dekha to yeh jaana’… These songs evoke my own personal nostalgia but there are many which do so for a time I’ve never known, notably the India of the 1950s and early 1960s.

It’s always great to have a conversational icebreaker. The weather works well in the UK but is met with blank looks overseas. In India, films and cricket are good but I have zero interest in the latter. A good topic is to define what a Hindi film song is, though we can all recognise it when we hear it, and indeed even hazard a good guess at how it would be ‘picturised’. Scholars such as Anna Morcom (2007) have tried to define it more formally but we can agree that it’s any song from any genre of music that appears in a film; though there is a certain style in which it is arranged, performed and sung, that is striking, dramatic, complex and ornamented.

Film music changes over time, absorbing current fashions throughout its history. Rock ‘n’ roll, disco and rap are all part of Hindi film music, along with some rather obvious ‘inspirations’ from other songs. This is as old as film music itself: S.D. Burman who wrote and sang beautiful bhatiyalis could put a Latin beat to some of Sahir’s best Urdu lyrics,‘Yeh raat yeh chandni’ (Jaal, dir. Guru Dutt, 1952).

One of the great appeals of the Hindi film song is its attempt to be national, despite the fierce resilience of India’s many other cinemas and their songs. Hindi tries to be a national cinema, but there is so much variation that it’s not really possible.

Hindi cinema uses the language(s) of the North (Hindi, Urdu, Hindustani), its characters are usually high caste North Indians (casteless in the 1950s, then often Khatris in the ’70s and now often Brahmins – especially if villainous), wearing vaguely North Indian clothes, the stars themselves being mostly North Indian men but women may be from many regions, songs composed by musicians from all over India, vocalised mostly by Punjabi and Bengali men and mostly by two Maharashtrian women and based in a city where Hindi-Urdu is a lingua franca and one of the largest language groups is Gujarati but it is the capital of the linguistically defined state of Maharashtra.


I like many films from the southern industries too, though I need subtitles or dubbed versions. I adored the Baahubali films and had one of my most fun evenings ever interviewing the cast and crew on stage then saw it with a live orchestral accompaniment at the Royal Albert Hall. I watch some Bengali films as Satyajit Ray’s films were the first Indian movies I saw, and try to see any noteworthy films today.

I enjoy all kinds of Hindi film songs though, like everyone, I have my favourites. I’m fond of the music of the ’50s, though not to the exclusion of other eras. Although we tend to think of the 1950s as the beginning of the ‘Punjabification’ of Hindi cinema and of its music, some of the great composers of this time – S.D. Burman, Hemant Kumar, Salil Chowdhury – were linked to Bengal and Calcutta, yet apart from particular folk songs, I wouldn’t be able to define their music as ‘Bengali’ as they are – or were – as central to the Hindi repertoire as the Punjabi song, though they also were well known in Kolkata for their Bengali songs too. Their music was cosmopolitan in style, drawing on a wide range of sources, and their orchestration of the Hindi film seems absent of any unique features, perhaps because of the way they worked with Goan arrangers (see below).


Although I don’t have a ‘trainspotter’s mind’ (perhaps a ‘quizzer’s mind’ makes more sense in India) for categories and details, I enjoy reading popular biographies which have extensive interviews and often surprisingly candid information about the person or the industry itself. It can be a refreshing change from academic books, where the lived experience and the obsession of the fan, who has an incredible amount of facts and has clearly discussed the topic widely in the community of other fans and people from the industry, can make connections and links I hadn’t imagined.

The biographies, though often anecdotal, are invaluable sources on the people behind the film industry, though their writing varies from good to squirm-inducing. (I’ve listed some biographies I’ve found useful in many ways for writing this paper, such as Bhattacharya 1994, 2009; Kabir’s interviews, 2009). They can be used in conjunction with other sources, such as Naresh Fernandes’ Taj Mahal Foxtrot (2015), a history of jazz in Bombay, or ethnomusicologists such as Anna Morcom (2007) on the Hindi film song, Greg Booth on the oral history of the musicians (2008) and Beaster-Jones on cosmopolitanism (2014), and collected papers such as Beaster-Jones and Sarrazin (2017), Booth and Shope (2013), Gopal and Moorthi (2008).

I enjoy making the connections and tying up the web that links the film industry together and gives respect to people who haven’t received the attention they should, such as the musicians themselves, the arrangers and the dynamics between the many people whose work went into the films.


I have enjoyed reading several biographies of S.D. Burman of late (Bhattacharjee and Vittal 2018, Burman 2013, Chowdhury 2018, Saran 2014) and was delighted when the author of one, Anirudha Bhattacharjee took me to see the musician’s house in Calcutta five years ago). I had no idea before I read them that S.D. Burman was so keen on sports, such as tennis (where he was said to play to a professional level), fishing and football, or that he sent arrangers to see western films then write down the music as a way of learning about it.

I have read only one biography on Hemant (Premchand 2020) which shows how much of his career was devoted to Rabindra sangeet, and it’s more a musical biography. There’s a useful book on Salil Chowdhury (Rao 2008), with many articles and histories of him, in English, Bengali, Hindi and Malayalam. It gives an idea of the range of his work, both in Calcutta and Bombay (as were), although I get little idea of him as a person, I read about his Bengaliness, and how he had another life in Calcutta.

I know little of Chowdhury’s work in other cinemas, although I love the songs of Chemmeen (dir. Ramu Kariat, 1965), about which there is a delightful anecdote that, as Manna Dey sang the lovely ‘Manasa maine varu’, this is why people today still sing it with a slight Bengali accent. (I massacred it once when I met the star of the film, Madhu, at the Kerala International Film Festival, who thought I was just being polite when I said I loved the song.)

I’ve written about film music (such as Dwyer 2017), but for this essay, I chose to move away from the general to the specific, and picked two of my favourite songs to explain why I love them so much: ‘Aa jaa re pardesi’ (Madhumati, 1958) and ‘O sajnaa’ (Parakh, 1960). They don’t have a single author but are the combined work of so many of the people whose work in Hindi cinema I most enjoy. Bimal Roy, one of the truly great directors of Hindi cinema; Shailendra, perhaps underrated despite the vast number of hit songs he wrote, as he was a lyricist first and a poet second; Salil Chowdhury, famed for his background scores almost as much as numerous hit songs; and if I had to choose one song of Lata Mangeshkar, who has brought so much joy to her fans, it would have to be ‘O sajnaa’.


The songs are lovely in themselves but also the emotion and the mood of the films are dependent on all of them. I begin by looking at the songs themselves, their music and lyrics, before examining their picturisation by Bimal Roy and his cameraman and then the role they play within these two films as performed by stars. The songs are far from the work of a single auteur but are created by teams of creative people and technicians, whose labour produced so much pleasure, that remains undiminished after more than sixty years.

I loved the music for ‘Aa jaa re pardesi’ long before I loved the lyrics, which I got to understand only when I saw the film itself. It’s a hugely popular song, famous for winning Lataji her first Filmfare Award for Best Singer and Salil Chowdhury the award for Best Music Director (1959) and included in Bhattacharjee and Vittal (2015).


The arrangement of the song is fascinating. The music is based on Raag Bageshri, a night raga associated with a woman waiting for her lover, and was first heard in the backing music of Jagte raho (dir. Amit Maitra and Sombhu Mitra, 1956). The sthayi ‘Aa ja re pardesi’ begins with two western flutes, then a dhol playing a simple rhythm which propels the tune forwards, and accompanies Lata Mangeshkar’s vocals which are ornamented rather than supported by the melody. The interlude after refrain on the mandolin later appears in the song ‘Ghadi ghadi mor dil dhadke’ which is also based on Raag Bageshri and employs similar instruments though adds the ghunghroo bells for rhythm.

I was surprised at the use of the organ with the simplicity of the dhol and the flutes or the striking use of the mandolin, but I suspect that may have been the influence of Sebastian D’Souza, the arranger of Shankar-Jaikishan, who also arranged the music of ‘Awaara’ and worked with many other music directors on songs such as ‘Mera naam hai Chin Chin Choo’ and ‘Ajeeb dastan hai yeh’. Salil Chowdhury notes (Booth 2008: 243) that D’Souza played a very important role in the history of Hindi film music, but wasn’t always given credit for his work.

It sounds more like a cinema organ than a church organ and plays occasionally sometimes with the flute but as an ornament rather than an accompaniment to the vocal which is probably part of D’Souza’s famed skills with counter melody. He was well known for his violin obbligato so his massive swooping violins before the second antara (‘tum sang janam janam ke phere’), give great dramatic effect.

The lyrics are by Shailendra who has perhaps not received the critical attention he is due, although I enjoyed the essay on him by Aziz 2003. He was from an oppressed caste (dalit) and little is said about how this impacted his life – was it insignificant within the film industry or was he discriminated against, and how? While the (mostly Urdu) poets who published outside the film industry, such as Sahir Ludhianvi, are taken seriously, those who were primarily lyricists may be harder for us to study.


How are we to judge what makes a good Hindi film lyric? We can look at the lyrics as poetry but how do we consider them as lyrics? Only through the success of the song and whether it touches the audience? Does it make a difference whether the tune or the lyrics came first? For these two songs, the tune started it all, then Shailendra supplied the words, so it makes them have ‘lyrics’ rather than being poetry set to music.

Shailendra wrote lyrics for many directors and music composers, his work comprising many of the most loved songs of the 1950s, in particular with Shankar-Jaikishan, S.D. Burman and Salil Chowdhury. They are so numerous and can easily be looked up, but he wrote the lyrics for many songs in Shree 420 (dir. Raj Kapoor, 1955), Guide (dir. Vijay Anand, 1965) and won three Filmfare awards, assuring him of a major place in the history of the Hindi film lyric.

The lyrics of ‘Aa jaa re pardesi’ can be understood without the film as a song of love in separation (viraha). A woman addresses a pardesi, the traveller, the one who has gone abroad. She is weary of waiting for him and anxious that he has forgotten her so may not return. However, the bonds that tie them together are strong and their love exists across rebirths. Perhaps it is surprising that she compares herself to a river that is thirsty/desirous, with a secret that is deep but small, that without him everything is dull.


It’s in the filming of the song that the lyrics come alive. In the context of the film, the lyrics have a much deeper meaning. This really is a story of love across births, of murder and separations which are overcome. We, the audience, know that Devinder is telling about his former birth as Anand and Anand and Madhumati have not yet met, at least in that birth. The song implies they had met in a previous birth and we will find out that they met in their next birth as Devinder and Radha (I think it’s OK to give spoilers after sixty years), so their connection really is in many births.

The lyrics begin with a simple sthai – a plea to the lover to come back. The first verse is her complaint that she has waited too long but is still waiting in the hope that he is coming. The delay is increased by the perspective of the slopes and the obstacle of the river, so Devinder can hear her but not yet see her, even though her eyes are tired. Her claim that she is standing on this shore’ (paar) could mean simply the bank of the river or also mean this very birth. (Just before this scene, Anand sees a sign which forbids the forestry workers to cross to the side where Madhumati lives – ‘Us paar jaanaa manaa hai/Forbidden Territory’). She is indeed a candle that can neither burn nor be extinguished until the mystery is revealed.

Even after she dies, she will wait for Devinder before taking a new birth. She is full of love but desires love because she needs him, and has spent her life so far in this birth awaiting his return. This is the secret, and the film is about the characters and the audience finding out the mystery. She likens herself to a river, which is an obstacle and a spectacle, as she is identified throughout the film with nature and the jungle.

Bimal Roy’s images are always extraordinary, perhaps not surprising given his earlier work as a cameraman with the great studio, New Theatres, Calcutta. Yet little is said about the cameraman on this film, Dilip Gupta, who is largely forgotten. He was born and worked in Calcutta, being an assistant to Nitin Bose on Charu Roy’s silent film Chor kanta (1931), produced by Birendra Nath Sircar the year he founded New Theatres. After working more with Bose, one of whose other assistants was Bimal Roy, he trained at Paramount and Disney before moving to Bombay in 1943.


The film was mostly shot near Nainital (as Bimal Roy’s daughter, Rinki, describes in her book on the film, 2014), but it’s hard to say sometimes which are studio shots, and which are at Igatpuri dam near Nashik, though some say at Vaitarna dam. The river picks up the reference in the song but this valley and the mist suggest she has not seen him while he is looking for her – but we don’t know if she sings the song every day or she is singing it now because she is away her pardesi is returning. The lovers move up and down the steep valley with ease in their search.

The images of this song, like the music, are atmospheric and uncanny, appropriate to the film’s Gothic elements of ghosts and rebirth in this story by Ritwik Ghatak, one of the great Indian film makers who worked in Bengal. The Gothic features in several of Rabindranath Tagore’s short stories, seen clearly in two films of them made by two other celebrated directors in Bengali: Khudito Pashan (dir. Tapan Sinha, 1960) and Monihara (one of films in Teen Kanya, dir. Satyajit Ray, 1961). Bombay Talkies, which had a largely Bengali personnel though made films in Hindi, also manifested these Gothic elements in its great Mahal (dir. Kamal Amrohi, 1949; see Dwyer, 2011) and seen in other films of the period including Amar (dir. Mehboob Khan, 1954) and Woh kaun thi (dir. Raj Khosla, 1964).

Lata Mangeshkar’s voice gives a ghostly effect in all these Hindi films, here sounding somewhat distanced, and in Madhumati, the sthai of this song is used several times in the film to call Anand, though others cannot hear her, to show she is still around and waiting for him to join her. It introduces Madhumati in the film as a beautiful but somewhat mysterious presence and makes us eager to find out more about her.


The whole soundtrack is one of the best in Hindi cinema, for its variety: a Santhal song from Assam ‘Bichua’; generic folk in ‘Zulmi sang aankh ladi’; an adaptation of the Polish folksong ‘Szla dzieweczka do gajeczka’ in ‘Dil tadap’; ghazal/nazm in ‘Hum haal-e-dil’ and ‘Toote hue khwabon ne’; romantic geet in ‘Ghadi ghadi’ and ‘Suhana safar’ and comedy in Johnny Walker’s ‘Jangal mein mor nacha’. Many of the great singers are here: Mukesh, Rafi, Mubarak Begum, Manna Dey, Lata, Asha. The songs aren’t mere pleasurable diversions as Bimal Roy makes them essential to the narrative and to the emotions of the film.

The non-Bengali personnel in the film are mostly associated with words. The stars are from all over India: Vyjayanthimala from Madras and Dilip Kumar (Yusuf Khan) from Peshawar, Pran (Pran Kishan Sikand) from Delhi, Jayant (Zakaria Khan) from Peshawar and Johnny Walker (Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi) from Indore. The dialogue writer, Rajinder Singh Bedi, was from Sialkot and lyricisit Shailendra (who never used his surname), was born in Rawalpindi of Bihari ancestry.


Dilip Kumar has several biographies (Desai 2004, Narwekar 2006, Reuben 2004) and his autobiography (2014), Pran has one (Reuben 2005), and Vyjayanthimala wrote her autobiography (Bali 2007), all of which are fascinating, sprinkled with gems of information about them and their lives, whatever they omit. It was wonderful to meet Dilip Kumar several times and he launched one of my books, though he always asked me (in Urdu) why I had an English name.

Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala played the ill-fated couple Devdas and Chandramukhi in Bimal Roy’s 1955 film and both were established stars. In Madhumati, Dilip Kumar plays the modern educated urban man, dressed in western clothes (including a fab safari suit), who comes to work at a desk job in the hills, while Vyjayanthimala plays a forest dweller, with some kind of Himachal costume including tattoos on her chin, a head cover, and clothes that mark her as ‘local’, non-urban and non-western, though as Madhu she wears a sari and dresses up like Madhumati for a stage show of Santhal music. Pran’s villainy is marked by his jodhpurs and his black shiny boots, a zamindar.

One of the things which makes Hindi films more enjoyable for me is if my husband enjoys them too. I showed him this film for the first time recently and he thought it ‘magnificent’, so I take it as a film which reaches beyond fans and academics as it is simply a well crafted work.

My second choice is my favourite all time Hindi film song and I’m glad that Lataji herself, along with thousands of others, shares my view. It’s a gorgeous composition, based on Raag Khamaj, an evening raga popular in thumri. Salil Chowdhury composed it originally as a non-film song, the Bengali ‘Na jeo na’ (‘Don’t go’), which was Lataji’s first major hit in Bengali. It has a simpler style, a traditional geet with a sthayi and antara structure, of longing, missing, asking the lover to stay as the future is uncertain and she fears never seeing her beloved again but there doesn’t seem any reason that he has to go.

Salil Chowdhury’s tune is beautiful in both versions. It’s said to be the only ‘popular’ record in the collection of the famous vocalist Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan. However, although he is said to have later regretted his remarks, Pandit Ravi Shankar said that Salil Chowdhury used too much western melody and overcomplicated the orchestration (I believe this is about the Hindi version, though it’s not clear, but quoted by Raju Bharatan 1995: 229).


Both versions are delightful but they are very different thematically as well as musically. We also know that the music was written before the lyrics. Salil Chowdhury couldn’t find a lyricist so wrote ‘Na jeo na’ himself. He and Shailendra clearly worked well together not just in songs, as Salil Chowdhury wrote the story for Parakh, while Shailendra wrote the dialogues as well as the lyrics.

Shailendra’s lyrics put the song firmly in the genre of rain songs, in particular love and longing in the rain (Dwyer 2018). However, this song is about the spring rain (barkha bahaar) rather than the monsoon. The rain touches all the senses but particularly the eyes, as it brings nectar drops like love in her eyes. The effect is internalised as emotions move her to cry out to the lover to whom the song is addressed, like the papihara, the cuckoo-like bird that lives in the woman’s heart. The word used is ‘man’, literally ‘mind’, which in Sanskrit poetry is where the emotions are located rather than in the heart.

Even while the rain falls, the fire (of passion) burns in her ‘jiyaraa’ (a slightly ambiguous word meaning life or soul but also the beloved as well as one’s ‘man’ or heart), and her eyes are desirous, or literally thirsty. ‘Rimjhim’ is a lovely onomatapoeic word for the falling rain, used in many rain songs. The rainclouds gather in the sky and she is unable to sleep although the night passes.


Rainsongs are found in many Indian languages and it’s striking that Shailendra uses a number of words from different linguistic and poetic traditions, the blend of which are at the heart of the Hindi lyric. So from Urdu, there are ‘khwaab’, ‘bahaar’ and ‘puhaar’ but ‘saamvali’, a Hindi word found often in Braj (sometimes ‘saamvariya’), used to describe Krishna, who is dark and lovely.

This is a song of love and happiness as it is a direct address to the beloved (‘O sajana’), but is about the pleasure of love and its link to the rain which stirs up the emotion. The role of nature in these songs and films is striking and not merely poetic but at the soul of the films.

As mentioned above, the song is based on a raga but not one associated with the rain. Salil Chowdhury said that the rhythm was inspired by the windscreen wipers of his Ambassador but it’s not clear if that was for the Bengali original.

The orchestration of the Hindi film song begins with the address to the beloved, ‘O sajana’, then the sitar and tabla come in. The sitar is not played by a virtuoso classical musician but by the film orchestra musician, Jairam Acharya, who later went on an overseas tour with Lata Mangeshkar in the late 1980s (Booth 2008: 267), and the sitar is used more in interludes than while Lataji is singing, where her voice is accented with a jaltarang whose watery nature catches the sound of the rain. Salil Chowdhury uses his trademark orchestra with violins, and a choir, possibly the Bombay Youth Choir he founded in 1958, the first secular, non-church choir. The use of a choir like this in film sound gives a ‘heavenly host’ effect and here adds to the ethereal nature of the song.

Lata’s style of singing is very different in the Hindi film, from the Bengali song, being much more dramatic. The sweep with which she sings ‘Aisi rimjhim’ onwards and her phrasing and style in ‘Sawaari saloni ghata’ is exquisite and I always look forward to this part of the song. She conveys the emotion behind the song perfectly and makes this difficult sweeping vocal range and ornamentation sound effortless and like a papihara (I squawk when I try to sing along here).


Lata’s voice is full of innocence and purity, the image of Sadhana who is styled beautifully for film. Although Sadhana was one of the most glamorous and beautiful of the Hindi film heroines of her generation, famous for her churidar style, seen in films such as Waqt (dir. Yash Chopra, 1965), here she is a natural beauty, even her stylish fringe pinned back. Her other song about the flower pendant or earring (‘Mila hai kisi ka jhumka’), associates her with nature and the pure and simple.

The song doesn’t play a huge narrative role in the film, other than a declaration of her love. The film is much more a moral fable, centred around the postmaster and his daughter (which recalls for me Tagore’s ‘The Post Office’, later another of Ray’s Teen Kanya films’), with a superb cast of character actors portraying the key figures in the village.

The other songs are also lovely – ‘Mere mann ke diye’ is a very spiritual song with more heavenly choirs, also shot in the dark with the lattice work of screens and Sadhana’s lovely face; Manna Dey ‘Kya hawa chali baba’ is a boisterous Baul song.

Again, the crew is nearly all Bengali, this time even the hero was Bengali, Basanta Choudhury who didn’t work for Hindi audiences (and isn’t even listed as one of the stars on Wikipedia), although Bimal Roy won the Filmfare Award for best director. Some were from Bimal Roy’s regular team: cameraman Kamal Bose, also from New Theatres, who was Roy’s cameraman on most of his films apart from Madhumati, later on Feroz Khan’s films such as Qurbani (1980). Keshto Mukherjee was a popular comedian in many films though perhaps remembered today for his role in Sholay (dir. Ramesh Sippy, 1975) and Asit Sen, another well known comedian, famed for his large size and slow small voice. Nazir Hussain, who, though not a Bengali, had a close connection as a member of the INA, about which he and Bimal Roy made Pahela admi in 1950, and was a founding figure of Bhojpuri cinema.


I hope I have managed to say a little about the film song as a non-ephemeral form, perhaps one that combines classical and popular, reaches across the country – and indeed beyond as so much of the talent comes from the areas that became West and East Pakistan in 1947. For me the puzzle is why these romantic songs create such pleasurable nostalgia for a time and place I didn’t experience. As the verse in the first song says, ‘Bhed ye gehra, baat zara si’ – it’s simple but has deep secrets.


Finally, it’s been a pleasure to join other film fans to talk about these films. I have been lucky enough to meet many of the people I’ve written about here. I would have loved to have met Bimal Roy, Shailendra and Salil Chowdhury. I have been honoured to meet Lata Mangeshkar several times, have her write the introduction to my biography of Yash Chopra and attend her recording sessions. I haven’t interviewed her at length but it was lovely to hear her voice in real life, her speech and laugh sounding as pure as her singing voice. I have read her biographies and interviews with great pleasure as the Hindi film song is simply unthinkable without her.


* Thanks to Michael Dwyer and Anna Morcom for their comments on the paper.


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