Mrinal Pande remembers a time when the sound of the rain tempted people to the movies, to a place where they recognised themselves
Painting: Suresh Sandal
Sound, said the Sanskrit lexicographer Abhinavagupta, came first. Slowly words were shaped, first as common currency and then as links to deeper memories buried within. This feels true to me. My first memories of film music, especially its songs about rains, are almost entirely onomatopoeic: the “ghanan-ghanan” of clouds, the “jhinkar” of jhingur ( crickets), the “pee-pee” of papiha birds, and of course, “rim-jhim”, “tip-tip”, “jhir-jhir” and “chhapak-chhapak”—all sounds of rainfall of varying
intensity. This world was anything but ephemeral. According to family lore, my four-year-old self had to be sent home from the movie theatre in Almora for bawling at a tragic musical sequence from Raj Kapoor’s Awara. A mother (poor old Leela Chitnis) was kicked out of her home as clouds poured rain over her misery. My tears had convinced the Anglo-Indian proprietor’s paraplegic wife—who watched every customer from her special seat on the balcony with a tartan blanket over her shrivelled knees—that I had been admitted for free under false information about my age.
Thus ended my first brush with rain music: with tears and banishment from a cinema hall called Lakshmi Talkies.
It was a given that the Hindi films shown in our small hill town were all made in Bombay. Also, that they would all be musicals. Also, that songs celebrating rain (falling gently or pouring from the skies), would provide the backdrop to some of the most intense scenes of sensuous love, longing, birth and death playing out on the screen. We knew rain as a precursor of unforgettable scenes, just as we knew that there was no good rain music in England, where it either snowed or manifested as a thin, miserable grey dripping that made romantic love impossible. We were convinced that English language films, with all that kissing, driving of impossibly large cars and leggy blondes would never ever be popular among the “real people” of India, who preferred to watch sensuous carnal love suggestively, rather than through in-your-face lovemaking. Wet violin-holding men drenched to the core, holding their half-supine women in the crook of their other arms; discreetly held umbrellas and wet saris: that was enough for us, thank you.
As a precocious child forced to change towns, schools and friends frequently, I clung to music and languages to link my memories and make sense of what was, so far, a short life. Immediately after Partition and in the 1950s, India and its middle classes were yet to come to terms with the new cultural fault lines. Grown-ups around us were still somewhat unsure about the future. The colonial years and its legacies were not yet cast aside, but old cultural cupboards were beginning to be explored by many urbanised middle-class parents like mine. They became avid supporters of the “mother tongue” as the early medium of learning. They hugged vernacular literature and traditional Indian music forms, rooted in rural India and its dialects, close to their hearts. It was, in a way, their own discovery of India. In the north, of course, the urban educated had been using colloquial Urdu and Hindi within their homes for years. If you heard a Hindiwala and Urduwala speak or sing, it was clear that despite being seen as languages of different communities, all that really separated the two were their scripts. Hindi versions of magazines like Shama, popular collections of Urdu poetry in the Nagari script, programmes broadcast by All India Radio that mainstreamed north Indian classical and semi-classical music, all served to underscore this fact.
Following family cues, I began listening closely to music and reading whatever Hindi and Urdu literature was available in Nagari script. There was plenty of it. Classical music was a bit heavy for a child’s ears, but folk music was not. And then there was the great leveller: popular film music broadcast by Radio Ceylon. Shailendra and Majrooh and Sahir resounded in our minds as we lay in bed with the lights turned off. Our classicist parents frowned heavily on Hindi films and their music, calling them vulgar. But I hotly defended our right to listen to it. How could an ethnic music be bad? Mother capitulated, but not father. So film music entered our lives when he was away: a sliver of Sehgal, another of Talat Mahmood, a brush with Suraiya’s throaty voice, the edges and elbows of Noor Jehan’s sharp nasal notes. Our writer-mother also turned a co-conspirator. The fresh and winsome voice of a new singing star, Lata Mangeshkar, sang dreamily: “Aayega, aayega, aayega, aanewala aayega.”(The One who is to arrive shall come, shall come …)
In today’s raucously hybridised world of Anglo-Punjabi pop and rap, Bollywood actors with American and British accents work in cheap remakes of Hollywood films shot abroad. Vernacular dialogues jar on the ears with bad accents and intonations, and rain is no longer needed to evoke sensuousness. The coarse item numbers make subtlety unnecessary. There are also fewer writers now who command a knowledge of Hindi and Urdu along with the dialects of the Hindi belt.
With the rise of caste and community-based politics, Hindi and Urdu have got more firmly segregated and turned into badges of political identity and ideology. The rural dehati dialects that once acted as powerful catalytic agents and aided a healthy mingling of cultures are all but unknown in our cities now. Forced to spread its net for words from the dead sea of Sanskrit, Hindi is fast being reduced to an officialese incapable of carrying our composite culture. Across the borders, its twin, Urdu, is similarly under pressure to acknowledge Persian and Arabic as its “legitimate” parents, turning into a language of fundamentalist preachers and political rogues. Supporters of neither language are capable of addressing boredom and drift that disunite families and create fundamentalists.
It wasn’t always thus.
The weather in the hills I grew up in was mostly wet through the year, but particularly in the monsoon. The makers of film music almost always came from small towns in the north, which were mixing bowls of rural dialects and agricultural terms that created an extensive vocabulary for the miraculous phenomena the Indian monsoon brought with it. There was the awesome teetar pankhi badal (heavy rain-laden clouds the colour of partridge wings) and badli (thin wayward clouds) that heralded their arrival with ghumadan (thunderclaps) and ghutan (humid stillness). Listening to folk songs enabled us to grade rain: first felt as fuhar (fine and pleasant) that just dampened the dark tresses and dupattas of lovers. Then, the kinak (soaker), which became laharua (wavy with the breezes), which turned to sturdy bauchhar (shower) and then moosaladhar (incessant downpour), culminating, sometimes, with the dreaded durdin (cloudburst in the month of Bhadon). The last-named was wily Krishna’s excuse to escort Radha home through the dark tamal forests.
Setting off on a musical journey to emotions and situations imagined by other people did not feel oppressive. Who remembers a film called Chhote Nawab? But I can’t forget Shailendra’s lyrics set to RD Burman’s music in “Ghar Aaja Ghir Aaye Badra Saanwariya”. Consider Sharmeelee. Is it memorable for anything but SD Burman’s brilliant musical score set to Neeraj’s lyrics, “Megha Chhaye Aadhi Raat”?
Our family moved to Lucknow. Our home was small and stood next to the bleak ruins of the Residency, where one could neither see the clouds in all their glorious avatars, nor dance in the rain while pretending to be trees and plants listening to the patter of drops. But there were compensations to being in a city. Getting parental permission to see Hindi films remained tough, and wrangling and whining took up much time. As a result, we often arrived late at the cinema. We still got dirty looks, but it didn’t matter.
We laughed and cried together with a hall full of folks like us. It also added to our linguistic repertoire: hill bumpkins like us came to understand the intricate street sounds outside. Lucknow vendors musically sold their unfamiliar wares with Nazeer Akbarabadi’s verses, comparing kakadis to Laila’s fingers and Majnu’s ribs. Mangoes had names like dil bahar, badshah pasand and tota pari. The puncture-repairwala’s coarse rendering of the latest hit, “Hariyala Saavan Dhol Bajaata Aaya” from Do Bigha Zamin, was as enjoyable as the milkman’s “Arrey Rama Saavan Maas Suhavan”.
As we became a bit more urbane, semi-classical music from AIR further brightened up the considerably less dramatic monsoon in the plains. Begum Akhtar, Siddheshwari Devi, Rasoolan Bai, Girija Devi were all in their prime, regaling the young nation with the vast heritage of its folk music. The words were always in dialect, and the tunes and folk music forms became the mother lodes for many, many film songs. The seasonal forms: the Barahmasa, Chaiti, Kajri, Jhoola, Hindola and Birha; the songs in Brajbhasha, Awadhi, Bundelkhandi; the traditional taals like Addha Teental, Chanchari, Dhamar, Dadra. Soon Hindi films assimilated into this vast library the songs of medieval saints, poets and Sufis: Amir Khusro, Jayasi, Kabir, Nanak, Meera Bai, Surdas and Tulsidas. They too had sung of the physicality of divine love as only humans can, and they too had loved the rains.
This is the musical legacy that makes the Hindi film industry timeless and unique. Rain was the great leveller, arriving as it does amid thunderclaps and lightning to fill the screens with life-giving water. “Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua” from Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 still resonates all over India. I was only nine when we saw the movie. My elder sister and I tried twirling our umbrellas imitatively in the rain. We were scolded for it when younger siblings reported it downstairs. “No more Hindi films,” said our tight-lipped father. But who listened to fathers?
By the 1960s, after years of reciting “God Save the King/Queen” tonelessly and watching the brown sahibs eat poori and paratha with a knife and fork, native India was at last beginning to get its own back. Films like Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi had wickedly in-your-face rain songs like Kishore Kumar’s immortal “Ek Ladki Bheegi Bhaagi Si”. A casually dressed “auto mechanic” (Kumar) stands next to his jalopy while courting a breathlessly sexy Madhubala, revealing a brand new cheek (yes, attitude) surfacing among the unemployed urban youth, as the Nehru years wound down. One wonders if the Yo-Yos of today remember their debt to the Kishores and Panchams of that era.
After Lucknow it seemed to us that the simplicities of life in the hills belonged to another time. We now found all films shot in faraway Bombay and Los Angeles both mildly sinful and hugely exciting. Wim Wenders famously had one of his characters say (Kings of the Road, 1976) that the Yanks colonised Europe’s subconscious. Hindi films in the 1970s began to do that with the Indian subcontinent. Despite the steady evaporation of Urdu as the language of administrative discourse and also of north Indian society, writing scripts and songs in Urdu came naturally to writers. By the mid-1970s, India was a profitable market for Hindi films made mostly by displaced Punjabis in Bombay, the scripts and lyrics penned by writers who still—as was the case earlier with Shailendra, among others—worked largely in Urdu, like Hasrat Jaipuri, Rajinder Singh Bedi, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Sahir Ludhianvi.
The segregation of scripts hadn’t been set in stone yet; the middle classes of the Rajiv Gandhi years still hadn’t opted for English en masse. A pan-north Indian sensibility of all our dialects was still possible. MS Sathyu could pick at the lock of the Hindu-Muslim rift, even though in his vision the ultimate migration of Indian Muslims to Pakistan came to seem inevitable. Vishal Bhardwaj today has the same concerns, though his films are about Muslims who refuse not to belong and fight to stay as equal citizens, even if it rips their minds apart.
The shared memories of rain remained firmly embedded in film, and the most vivid rain songs continued to be created by people who had emerged out of small-town India and migrated to Mumbai with a composite legacy of music and semantics: SD Burman, his son RD, Majrooh, Sahir, Kaifi Azmi, Anand Bakshi, Gulzar, Prasoon Joshi, Javed Akhtar, etc.
Savouring the films made in the 1970s and 1980s, I realise how much I loved them for their sounds and vocabularies rooted in our colourful seasons and festivals. The emotional paralysis of characters in films like Humshakals, Ra. One and Chennai Express is rooted in a brashness and loneliness even the divine music of AR Rahman can’t dispel. There is no genuine love between a man and a woman, no shared dialect whose recognition creates far-reaching ripples. These films don’t understand the seasons. The singers and actors disappoint with cheap slang and abominable accents. For semantic and musical reasons, these films, despite their brilliant cinematography and editing and the acoustics of the multiplexes, fail to make their journey through India’s urban and rural landscape with any degree of credibility.
Perhaps it is time to seek out the overused word “dialectic”, to subject our musical texts to a deeper, broader examination. So that they again begin to mine the sensuousness and appreciation of the natural world, as our Indian languages and dialects always have. To use an Indian dialect or folk form only for an “item” number degrades all of us who grew up nurtured by them.
On the plus side, we still have a few great composers like Rahman and Vishal Bhardwaj, and lyricists writing in an Urdu that, when articulated, is still fully understood by non-Urdu speakers. But to recreate the old magic, they are not enough. We need visionary filmmakers who understand not just the visual and dramatic language of film, but also the power of words and sound design. Hindi cinema will be the loser no matter which music genre or language we let die. The basic rule has not changed: audiences must walk away from a good film heavier than when they entered the cinema hall.
Mrinal Pande taught at the universities of Allahabad, Delhi and Bhopal before switching to journalism in the mid-1980s. She edited Vama and Saptahik Hindustan and was the editor-anchor for Hindi news on Star News and Doordarshan. She has been chief editor of Hindustan and was until recently chairman of Prasar Bharati. She writes in Hindi and in English. She was awarded the Padmashree in 2006.