Song(s) of the Renaissance man

Renu Sud Sinha

Since the first playback songs in Dhoop Chhaon in 1935, songs have been an integral, and often the most popular, aspect of Hindi films. There have been times when a film has tanked at the boxoffice but its songs have remained etched in public memory. 

And not just in films but in life, too, songs, especially Hindi songs, are very much part of the cultural fabric of Indian life. Can you imagine the big fat Indian wedding without any songs or those school trips or family gatherings without the ubiquitous antakshri, or those evenings of heartbreak without soulful numbers? 

Given the ubiquity of songs in the film industry and our lives, it's surprising that much has not been written about on this creative craft that caters to masses and classes alike. Jiya Jale: The Stories of Songs — Gulzar in conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir attempts to fill this gap. 

The book traces the poet-litterateur's 55-year journey from “Mora gora ang lai le” (Bandhini 1963) to songs of Raazi (2018), a journey that is still going strong. From his iconic songs to the ones that invited controversy or critique or defied understanding initially, Kabir, in her conversations, tries to gain an insight into his approach to song-writing. But in the process, the reader ends up gaining much more, because the Renaissance man that Gulzar is, also talks about his others crafts — of film-making, direction, screenplay writing, translations, etc. 

Even in his songs, the poet has never been bound by genres or languages. From school prayer (Humko mann ki shakti dena) to folksy (Beedi jalaye le) to romance (Humne dekhi hai un ankho kee) to heartbreak (Mera kuchh saaman) to sensuous (Jiya jale) to naughty (Kajra re) to Sufi (Chal chhaiyyan), his oeuvre is as expansive as his craft. Incidentally, after “Mera joota hai Japaani”,  “Chhaiyyan chhaiyyan”, called the train song, is now the most recognised Indian film song the world over.  Sir Andrew Llyod  heard the song and wanted to work with Rehman, which then led to the musical Bombay Dreams.  

In the free-flowing conversations about translation of around 40 of his most memorable songs, Kabir has been able to draw out a vast repertoire of stories and not just about these songs. Gulzar also discusses the work and working methods of other lyricists, music directors, composers, singers and film-makers he has worked with. 

And not just their skills and specialities, he also talks about their idiosyncrasies — composer Madan Mohan's penchant for tight T-shirts and love for cooking. In fact, apart from music the other thing most of the earlier music directors had in common was their passion for cooking — RD Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Roop Kumar Rathod all loved to cook. 

The man, who has worked with many generations of composers and lyricists, also talks fondly of AR Rehman, Vishal Bhardwaj, RD Burman, Shantanu Moitra, Shankar, Ehsaan, Loy, Sahilendra, Rafi, Irshaad Kamil, Prasoon Joshi, Swanand Kirkire and many more, all in the same breath.  

For someone who has stayed relevant for over five decades by constantly reinventing himself, someone who is open to the change demanded by the changing times, Gulzar is totally averse to remixes and colourisation of black and white classics. He firmly believes that film songs of a certain period should not be remixed because they represent their time. “One must respect the past, respect the work and creators of that work.” 

Another thing he finds hurtful is the fake poems attributed to him in this era of WhatsApp and Facebook. While he is quite tech-savvy, he doesn't like this intellectual dishonesty in this new world of communication. 

In Jiya Jale, Kabir has endeavoured to provide a novel understanding and backdrop to the Indian film song. The book, quite like the man himself, is great repository of anecdotes about Hindi films and music. A must for lovers of cinema and Gulzar fans.   

RELATED A massacre that lives on