Friday, July 31, 2009

Remembering Mohammed Rafi

This post first appeared in the PassionForCinema blog on July 29, 2009.

Come July 31, and it is Mohammed Rafi’s death anniversary. So much is written about Rafi (1924-1980) that I don’t quite know where to begin and what new to say really. I am stumped. It should just suffice if I say that Rafi was one of the most versatile singers in the history of Hindi film music. His pan-Indian (and beyond) appeal seems to get only stronger with time. From the doleful Jugnu (1947) to the patriotic Shaheed (1948) to the classical Baiju Bawra (1952) to the effervescent Mr. and Mrs. 55 (1955) to the regal Raj Hath (1956) to the poetic Pyaasa (1957) to the meltingly romantic Barsaat Ki Raat (1960)—phew! the list is endless—Rafi sang it all. And more.

Equally at home on different turfs, Rafi could convincingly slip under the skin of characters that were poles apart: he sang for the brooding Dilip Kumar in Deedar (1951) with the same ease with which he lent his voice to a frolicking Johnny Walker in C.I.D. (1956). And, truly, it is difficult for the listener to decide where Rafi excels more.

In his earlier years, before he had fully come into his own, Rafi sang for Ghulam Mohammed (Naushad’s protégé) a lovely duet with Lata in Pardes (1950), called “Akhiyaan milaake zara baat karo jee,” a song to which I am very partial for two reasons: Madhubala’s striking beauty, and Rafi’s deep, powerful rendering that is reminiscent of Pankaj Mullick, not to mention a very young Lata’s exquisitely honeyed voice.

In the lines of the second stanza, “Dil ke khazaaney koyi aaya hai lutaney aji din hain suhaney chaley aao naa,” Rafi’s inflection has a strong, decisive tinge of Mullick’s style of singing; it is one of those nuances that just cannot be overlooked. I have not heard such likeness to the Bangla maestro in any of Rafi’s other songs. (Of course, there are many Rafi songs—his earlier ones, especially—that I have not heard; so there might easily be other instances as well.)

Moreover, for various reasons, some songs are not as well known as they deserve to be (one does not find these in the typical compilations), and this particular Rafi-Lata duet is a prime example. (By the same logic—or lack of—Ghulam Mohammed was one of those vastly—and most unfairly—underrated composers.) Here is the song, on Rahman and Madhubala: Song 1:

As the decade of the 1950s unfolded, Rafi’s own distinct style—with its almost nonchalant attitude to the vagaries of life—firmly stuck roots. This is the quintessential Rafi, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the “Le chala jidhar ye dil nikal padey” number from Miss Bombay (1957), picturized on Ajit (much before he turned villain for the screen).

Bombay—that teeming metropolis, teeming then in the 1950s just as it is teeming today—the land of opportunities—was masterfully captured by lyricist Prem Dhawan to composer Hansraj Behl’s tune that is born for the harmonica. (Its more famous precursor that spoke of urban vicissitudes, also tailor-made for the harmonica, is, of course, “Ay dil hai mushkil jeena yahaan” from C.I.D. in 1956.) Here is Rafi in Miss Bombay: Song 2:

I am going to end this piece with “Dil ki tamanna thi masti mein,” a hit song from Gyaara hazaar ladkiyaan (1962), a film that is, nevertheless, not easy to come by. Rafi and Asha Bhonsle sing for Bharat Bhushan and Mala Sinha, under the music direction of N. Dutta (another underrated composer). On a personal note, this is one of my mother’s favorite songs—it takes her back to her college days, when she and her friends would attend matinee shows, spellbound by their favorite heroes. And, of course, they would also get the latest fashion tips from the reigning screen queens of the day, whose sari styles or hair buns they would imitate. That nostalgia has badly rubbed off on me, too; it just underscores the cross-generational appeal that Rafi’s songs have. So here is going back to another era: Song 3:

Friday, July 17, 2009

The enduring power of certain old Hindi film songs

This post first appeared in the PassionForCinema blog on July 15, 2009.

Raichand Boral

Of all the Raichand Boral (1903-1981) songs I have listened to—not that many, given how rare these songs are—my favorite has to be Binota Roy’s rendering of “Manwa kaahey phir tadpaayey” from Calcutta-based New Theatres’ Wapas (1943). The world of old Hindi films is full of so many beautiful songs that make it very difficult, if not plain impossible, to pick out favorites. Moreover, selecting favorites is purely an exercise in subjectivity and, indeed, self-expression; what appeals to me may not appeal to another.

To put it in a different way, I have noticed that certain songs have this unfailing power to make me feel completely in tune with myself, irrespective of when and where I listen to them, irrespective of my circumstances in life, irrespective of everything—and “Manwa kaahey phir tadpaayey,” with its charming Bangla intonation, simply has to be one of those songs. Here it is: Song 1:

I place these melodies in a category that I call “instant elevation.” My “instant elevation” songs are what I turn to when I feel weary of life, when I feel uninspired and lost, when I desperately need perspective, and even when I am a bit too smug for my own good. And I have never been let down. For this, I am extremely grateful—it is the one comforting thing in a world of here-today-gone-tomorrow. I hope I never lose this capacity to draw joy from this little well of mine.

The first time I heard this R. C. Boral composition, I was in standard X, feverishly mugging the “21 sets” preparation material (is it still around?) for the Maharashtra State Board exams. After every hour of mugging, I would reward myself with one “instant elevation” song, and then, inspired, return to mugging. Nearly two decades down the line, this literal interspersing of “instant elevation” songs with life’s many duties continues.

I also remember my habit (I still do it, much to the exasperation of my poor husband) of recording a single song repeatedly onto a whole side of an audiotape, sometimes even both sides, and listening to it non-stop. My one-song tapes would draw an irritated remark from my grandmother, “Why is the same song playing over and over again?”

Other culprits in the one-song tapes were, to name a few: Lata’s famous “Tum na jaaney kis jahaan mein kho gayey” from Sazaa (1951), composed by S. D. Burman; two Khemchand Prakash ditties from Ziddi (1948)—Lata’s lively “Chanda rey jaa rey jaa rey” and the delightful Lata-Kishore duet, “Yeh kaun aayaa”—the latter sounding very Pankaj Mullickesque; and M. S. Subbulakshmi’s “Main Haricharanan ki daasi” from her Hindi version of Meera (1947), composed by S.V. Venkatraman. (Incidentally, Binota Roy’s “Manwa kaahey phir tadpaayey” reminds me, in some subtle way, of M.S.’s songs in Meera—it could be the style of singing, the orchestration, the heartwrenching melody; I am unable to pinpoint it. It is just one of those things that strike me afresh every time I listen to it.)

I also have another name for my “instant elevation” songs: instant levelers. They elevate, and, by the same token, they level: during moments of hubris, when I revel in self-importance, nothing is more humbling than the majesty of my favorite music.

The years come and go, people come and go; even memories fade. As they say, nothing’s forever. But I find I am able to hold on to the beauty of a R. C. Boral song. On that note, I will leave you with (the quite literally not-to-be-forgotten) “Bhool na jaana aaj ki baaten” melody from Wapas, sung by actor-singer Ashit Baran, and Binota Roy. Here goes: Song 2:

A page from Indian film history: The Court Dancer (1941)

This post first appeared in the PassionForCinema blog on June 21, 2009.

1941: World War II was raging on in Europe and, back home in India, Tagore passed away. The year also saw the first trilingual production of an Indian film—Wadia Movietone’s The Court Dancer or Raj Nartaki, directed by Modhu Bose (1900-1969), which was released in English, Hindi, and Bengali. According to the film credits, The Court Dancer was “the first Indian film with dialogue in English to be entirely produced in India with an all-Indian personnel.”

Once, in the late 1980s, Doordarshan broadcast the English version of The Court Dancer in the late-night slot. (Unfortunately, old classics are typically relegated to the hours of slumber.) After finishing my school homework well in advance, I was up that night with my video recorder to capture this momentous piece of Indian film history. I was very curious to hear the cast speak English, especially given that the film was set in early 19th century Manipur.

After many years, I recently revisited my videotape of the film, this time to digitize it, to make it last forever. And here, I will have to necessarily digress a bit. In the last few months, I have had to wade through unknown waters. (I am still wading.)

As someone with zero technical knowledge, I have been faced with many questions: sitting here in America, where the NTSC format prevails, how do I digitize my Indian VHS tapes (PAL format) so that they will work universally? What multi-system VCR must I invest in? What kind of a converter box will I need? How do I go about all this without getting ripped off? After being assailed by umpteen other such doubts, and after long months of research, I finally figured out what exactly I need and, hey, the process of digitization has finally begun.

Now I have moved on to the next stage: I am immersed in researching the world of media storage! So what is the best way to store these newly digitized films? Should I copy them onto DVDs with their painfully small storage space, in which case, am I to split each film into two or three DVDs, and add to the clutter of my tiny apartment? Or should I copy them onto Western Digital-manufactured passport drives that come in terabytes, where a one-terabyte passport drive can, amazingly, store up to 666 hours of material? Just the other day, I learned about the My Book external hard drive that can even be plugged into the television.

More than anything else, I am terrified of losing these priceless films, so what about backups? I am still deciphering all this and more. End of digression.

So, getting back to The Court Dancer (which is still sitting on my computer hard drive while I decide where to store it permanently), the film tells the tale of doomed love between a courtesan and a prince—as such alliances are usually doomed to be. (For starters, think of the unsanctioned love of Anarkali and Prince Salim.) Based on a Bengali play by dramatist Manmath Ray (1899-1988), the film starred the legendary Prithviraj Kapoor (1906-1972), one of the doyens of Indian cinema, as Prince Chandrakirti (Jyoti Prakash replaced Kapoor in the Bengali version); and the accomplished Sadhona Bose (1914-1973), an exponent of both Kathak and Manipuri dance forms, in the role of the court dancer Indrani. (Interestingly, Sadhona Bose, the wife of director Modhu Bose, was the granddaughter of Keshab Chandra Sen, the Brahmo social reformer, 1838-1884. Sadly, in her later years, she was reduced to begging in the streets of Calcutta.)

Here is a brief write-up of the film, with excerpts.

In keeping with the Vaishnava tradition of 19th century Manipur, the film opens with a musical celebration of Lord Krishna’s love for Radha, in the court dancer Indrani’s garden. It is the night of the full moon and, to the accompaniment of Timir Baran’s music that sounds appropriately regal, the viewer is introduced to His Highness Prince Chandrakirti as he grandly enters the garden of his beloved. As his eyes eagerly look for Indrani, the camera follows suit and pans to a striking Sadhona Bose. Indrani and Chandrakirti are swathed in their love for each other. Thus begins a story of human love that is intertwined with divine love, in the background of the Raas Leela. Watch the beginning of the film, with an introduction from Doordarshan:

Soon the strains of “Jai madhava mukunda murari” herald the arrival of the High Priest Kashishwar Goswami and his followers in the grove. Indrani, with sincere devotion, performs the Raas Leela with her group (choreographed by Bose herself), which touches the heart of Kashishwar who tells her, “I have never seen such devotion before, my child”. He is about to offer her “the most valuable treasure of the Vaishnava,” which is the “sacred dust from Lord Chaitanya’s feet,” when Chandrakirti’s father, King Jaisingh, arrives at that critical moment and shouts to Kashishwar that Indrani is a court dancer. Kashishwar recoils in horror. Chandrakirti looks on helplessly as Indrani is reminded of her stigma, her fate—something that will happen over and over again as the story unfolds. Indrani is a courtesan with the proverbial heart of gold—or should we say purity, of selfless love, for her prince as well as for Lord Krishna. But this is not recognized by society: how can a nautch girl have any stake in spiritual matters, let alone dream of marrying a prince? Watch the Raas Leela, and Kashishwar recoiling from the court dancer:

Later, Indrani is turned away from the royal temple, where she goes to offer worship. And then a melody wafts through the air as these words fill the screen: “The tortured soul of Indrani found solace in a broken temple whose keeper was a singing hermit.” Comforted by the kind hermit, she offers her prayers in this dilapidated, desolate temple on top of a hill and regains her peace.

King Jaisingh is, meanwhile, busy forming a marriage alliance for his son with the princess of neighboring Tripura. Since Manipur and Tripura are not on good terms, binding the two kingdoms in wedlock seems strategic: as Tripura’s envoy informs King Jaisingh, if this alliance is not finalized soon, Tripura will invade Manipur. “To keep the envoy in good humor,” the king orders Indrani to perform in the court, and this is followed by the envoy’s announcement of the to-be royal wedding. A shining crescent moon, glittering stars, and a flower garland are all momentarily transposed onto Indrani’s fingers during the dance sequence: the imagery has stuck in my mind. Watch the dance sequence and Indrani’s reaction:

As a dejected Indrani returns to the temple on the hill, Chandrakirti rushes there to vow before the idol that he loves only her and will not marry anyone else. Later, at Indrani’s house, a furious King Jaisingh arrives and orders his son to leave the place at once. Watch the father-son encounter:

Not caring for the disastrous consequences of breaking a marriage alliance with Tripura, Chandrakirti tells Indrani that he will come at dawn and take her to the faraway Shyamsunder temple where they will get married. Indrani is ecstatic. The disturbed king, sensing trouble from his son, confides in Kashishwar, who, in the interests of Manipur, decides to talk Indrani out of marrying the prince. He finds Indrani in the broken temple; she has gone there, one last time, in the middle of the night, to thank the lord.

Kashishwar successfully dissuades Indrani from her goal of marrying the prince by painting a picture of doomsday to her: the people will never accept her as the queen, the army will rise in revolt, Tripura will invade, Manipur will be destroyed, and Chandrakirti will certainly perish. He reminds her of her duty to her country, to her religion, and most importantly, to her prince: if she really loves him, she will give him up for his own sake, for his own life. A broken Indrani collapses to the ground. Kashishwar walks away relieved, although sad for Indrani.

When the prince comes to take away Indrani at dawn, she feigns rudeness. When Chandrakirti tells her that he has given up his right to the throne so that they can live together happily, Indrani spurns his love—a love “without the pomp and grandeur of palaces.” A disbelieving prince concedes, “Oh, a court dancer after all” and stomps out. Indrani is shattered. Watch the Indrani-Chandrakirti encounter:

The royal wedding is announced for the next day, an auspicious occasion when Kashishwar will distribute the “sacred dust of Lord Chaitanya’s feet” to all devotees. Indrani is ordered to dance on the festive occasion, which she does, but faints towards the end. Considering this an ill omen, the king contemplates postponing the marriage. Meanwhile, the people of Manipur are clamoring for the sacred dust from Kashishwar, who is suddenly not to be found, much to the consternation of the king and the people.

Touched by Indrani’s selflessness and duty towards her country, Kashishwar has gone to Indrani’s house to give her the sacred dust, which he had once denied her. Meanwhile, the captain of the guards arrives at Indrani’s house to escort Kashishwar back to the palace to distribute the sacred dust. Kashishwar sternly replies that the people must come to Indrani, who will dispense the sacred dust with her own hands. As the horrified captain leaves, Kashishwar gently tells the surprised Indrani that he knows of nobody more deserving of the sacred dust than Indrani herself and begs her to accept it.

Meanwhile, the captain spreads rumors among the people that Indrani is a witch, for she has even trapped a holy man. As an angry mob marches to Indrani’s house to kill her, a faithful maid runs to the prince to ask him to go save Indrani and tells him of her sacrifice; Kashishwar also confesses to the prince his role in Indrani’s pretence. As the prince rushes to save Indrani from the mob, she spots her finger ring containing poison and quietly swallows the powder. She dies in his arms. Watch the last scenes:

A conclusory note: The Court Dancer is a simple love story, told simply and effectively. Some may consider the acting to be exaggerated, but that is in keeping with the theatrical style of acting common in those days. After all, many of the early legends of Indian cinema started out in theatre—Prithviraj Kapoor notably. Timir Baran’s music brilliantly recreates royal Manipur and conveys the soulful devotion of the Vaishnava poets. At 80 minutes in duration, The Court Dancer is a short film by Indian film standards.

David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice (1954)

This post first appeared in the PassionForCinema blog on June 10, 2009.

Laughton as Hobson
There lived in England, between 1545 and 1631, a man named Hobson who owned a horse-rental business. He was quirky in that in he would rent out horses only according to his choice. It was, quite literally, Hobson’s choice for his customer who could either ride away in the horse that was offered or not ride at all. By the end of the film, David Lean’s Hobson’s Choice (1954) turns out to be exactly that—an instance of Hobson’s choice—for the portly Henry Hobson (played by Charles Laughton, 1899-1962), who has no say anymore, neither at home nor in his business. The film comes a full circle with the authoritarian, although bumbling, Hobson of the early frames firmly cut down to size.

Hobson, a bootmaker in 1880s Salford, Northern England, has three chief pursuits: bullying his three daughters, bullying his shop employees, and drinking at his favorite Moonrakers inn. The daughters are unmarried and stuck at home because their father is not willing to give them settlements—the settlement being a woman’s passport to a good marriage in Victorian society. The employees in his boot shop are also stuck in their dead-end jobs, given the class system of the times. Hobson unfairly calls his daughters the “rebellious females” of his household, just as he is quick to a peeve when a rich customer praises the bootmaking genius of his star employee, the meek Willie Mossop. Hobson is used to his own supremacy, and his girth dominates the frames, literally.

Hobson’s eldest daughter, Maggie, however, has a mind of her own and is determined to liberate herself. Maggie is entrepreneurial, ambitious, and has a deadly practicality about her. To her father’s horror, she fixes a marriage-business deal for herself with the socially inferior Willie Mossop. She believes in the combination of her brains and Willie’s hands, and persuades the wide-eyed Willie too. This marriage of business and romance is an astounding success and, as the narrative unfolds, a disbelieving Hobson finds himself eating his own words. The tables turned, a bankrupt Hobson finds himself faced with a bad case of Hobson’s (read Mossop’s) choice.

Lean tells this tale of reversal in fortunes, based on Harold Brighouse’s play of 1916, in his characteristically British, understated, and imaginative way. Lean’s world here is very Victorian—late Victorian, to be specific—with the “ayes,” the cobblestone streets where marketplaces stir to life every morning, the in-fashion bustles (or “humps” as Hobson calls them mockingly) of women’s dresses, the class system—and yet, like Dickens, the other great chronicler of Victorian England, Lean tells a story that is timeless and universal in appeal.

The singular thing about this film is the ease with which it straddles different realms, and welds worlds, much like a Dickens novel. The comic and the sublime come together—as in the scene where an inebriated Hobson catches sight of a beautiful full moon in the street puddles and then proceeds to trample over all the puddles, one by one. The comic is treated poetically, and the poetic is treated comically. Each signifies the other, and, temporarily, I am reminded of another portly gentleman—Mr. Pickwick in Dickens, although, of course, Pickwick is a kind and noble soul, quite unlike the boor that is Lean’s Hobson.

Here is a humorous film (not typical for Lean) whose underlying themes are essentially heavy duty. It is the story of one woman’s determined fight against the gender and class stratification of her times. Maggie is delightfully pragmatic, and not even the sphere of romance is exempt from her pragmatism: in an early scene, an optimistic Maggie assures an awkward Willie, who is too much in awe of his employer’s daughter to see her in a romantic light, that if he cannot bring himself to love her immediately, “then we’ll get along without it”. Lean’s portrait of the romance between Maggie and Willie is at once comic and poignant, and the viewer looks on amused as Lean masterfully captures the changing subtleties of their relationship. By the end of the story, Willie fondly tells his wife, “you are growing on me”. The pragmatic gives way, quite effortlessly, to the poetic, and Lean’s genius for recording the endless variety of life is, it seems, quite inimitable.

On an aside: Around 1954, the year this film was made, which of Laughton’s contemporaries in Hindi cinema, I wonder, would have fitted the bill for the role of Hobson. Purely wishful thinking on my part, but if I could go back in time, I would cast Gope, that much-forgotten rotund comedian, the “piya” of the famous “Mere piya gaye Rangoon” song from Patanga (1949).

Image credit:

Rantings of an old-movies buff

My very first post, which first appeared in the PassionForCinema blog on June 3, 2009.

I sit in my California apartment, happily surrounded by my old, tottering VHS tapes of Hindi films from the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. Like King Midas with his gold, I proudly survey my precious collection, which is my only tangible link to a world that is far away in both space and in time. Having just embarked on the process of digitizing my film collection, I realize, though, that I will have to fortify myself. Case in point: When my tape of Calcutta New Theatres’ film Wapas (1943) jumps, my heart jumps too—heavily. The pain of seeing that vintage, irreplaceable treasure in that tattered condition is no less than the pain of seeing a dearest person wasting away. In my desperation, I find myself thinking, perhaps irrationally, that I would even trade in all my jewelry just to restore Wapas to its glory. I am just inconsolable. I even go on a hunger strike, convincing myself that if I rebel hard enough, Wapas will somehow regain its celluloid life and come back (“wapas”) to me.

When I explain this to people, many are puzzled. The typical response goes like this: “Old movies are easily available these days. Just check out this Indian DVD store…. They stock everything. It is not worth wasting your money on all this equipment converting VHS to DVDs when you can just buy them.”

To which, I enquire eagerly but doubtfully, fervently hoping for an affirmation, hoping against hope, “Oh really, do they have Buzdil (1951), or how about Khazanchi (1941)?” The response comes, somewhat indignantly even, blatantly bypassing my query—“Of course, they have old movies. There is Aradhana (1969), Seeta aur Geeta (1972), those Rajesh Khanna-Mumtaz starrers and those 70s movies.” These are, quite often, the same people who conflate the Burmans—S.D. and R.D. Indeed, much before Kishore Kumar teamed up with R.D., he sang for S.D. the “Dekho dekhojee” duet with Lata in Naujawan (1951), picturized on a dapper Premnath and a chirpy Nalini Jaywant.

As the years go by, of course, it is understandable that movies from the 1970s should rise in seniority—that is the law of chronology—just as the passage of time has earned me the suffix of Nivedita aunty. (I myself am a product of the mid-70s.) But with “old” becoming increasingly equated with the 60s and 70s, what epithet must one, then, use for movies of the Silent Era, the 30s, 40s, and 50s? For a die-hard vintage-movie buff who unequivocally (and rigidly) considers “old” to be pre-1960, it is disquieting that an Aradhana is more easily available than a Buzdil.

I remember once catching the tail end of the utterly haunting “Ada se jhoomtey huey,” a Shamshad Begum-Rafi duet from Sindbad the Sailor (1952), on a program called Raymond (later Centura) Sargam Smriti that used to air once a week on Bombay radio in the early 1990s. I still recollect being utterly mesmerized by this Chitragupt composition and kicking myself for not having been ready with my cassette recorder. For awhile, I even went into the Sindbad phase, constantly humming the tune to myself, in a bid to keep it alive within. Much later, I found the audio of that song, but I am still dying to lay hands on the film itself, which was directed by Nanabhai Bhatt and starred Naseem Bano and Ranjan. But at least I have managed to get a glimpse of Naseem and Ranjan, thanks to a kindred spirit who has uploaded the “Ada se jhoomtey huey” song onto Youtube that is fast becoming a haven for people like me in search of old treasures.

But the question remains: why are our old films doomed to anonymity, to sheer atrophy in cinematic memory? Why should getting hold of a P.C. Barua film of 1936 (I refer to New Theatres’ Manzil that was co-written by the legendary Saratchandra Chatterjee, with music by two stalwarts, R.C. Boral and Pankaj Mullick) be so difficult, if not downright impossible? Surely the old classics deserve to be better remembered, better documented, and better exhibited.