The year of my birth was also the year the songwriter of my favourite Hindi film soundtrack died. But thanks to radio, Shakeel Badayuni will always be a voice in my head.
His more than two decade long collaboration with composer Naushad resulted in many gems, including the to-die-for Baiju Bawra (1952). Yet, in the melodious world of black and white films, Badayuni was only one genius.
Bollywood Melodies: A History of the Hindi Film Song:Penguin, 261 pages, Rs295.
Singer Noorjehan was ours before she crossed over during the Partition. Lata Mangeshkar and Geeta Dutt slugged it out, until Dutt succumbed to a broken heart and alcohol—back then, everyone seemed to be on a liquid diet.
There was superstar Naushad, who could “ruthlessly put the cause of music over personal loyalties”. So, move over Shamshad Begum and Mukesh, Lata and Mohammed Rafi were Naushad’s new favourites. Lata was everyone’s golden girl really. Salil Choudhury reserved all his best tunes for her. The Lata-Anil Biswas partnership produced more than 100 solos (and as many duets) in the 1950s. She was as critical to C. Ramachandra’s music as Asha Bhonsle was to O.P. Nayyar. And Ramachandra? Another voice in the head. A legendary speed king who composed the tune for that cult lullaby Dheere se aaja ri akhiyan mein in his car on the way to the recording studio. Bing Cosby was his inspiration and he believed in having fun with his music (remember Sunday ke Sunday and Piya Gaye Rangoon?).
There were other great partnerships—Shanker-Jaikishan were the highest paid composers in the 1960s, thanks to magic words such as yahoo and junglee. Perhaps their estrangement later in life was because they thundered off the starting blocks of success. How do you better a first film like Barsaat (1949)? And don’t forget Kalyanji-Anandji, the first music directors in Hindi cinema to receive the National Award for their 1968 score of Saraswatichandra.
If you grew up with all these voices in your head, you won’t be able to stop humming as you read Ganesh Anantharaman’s history of the Hindi film song. His book Bollywood Melodies attempts to transport you back to a time when real men composed real music. A time when composers, lyricists and singers—the three sections into which the book is divided—inspired each other to create chartbuster after chartbuster.
Anantharaman begins with the composers because, as he puts it, their role goes beyond the songs they created: “Pankaj Mullick brought Rabindra Sangeet into films, Naushad, Hindustani classical, Madan Mohan, ghazals and R.D. Burman, pop and jazz. Also they were the godfathers who often gave breaks to struggling singers and lyricists.”
A classic example of a composer’s preferred status was the relationship between Navketan films and S.D. Burman. When S.D. fell ill after he had worked on just one song for Guide (1965), Dev Anand said he would wait and, if the composer never recovered, he would release the film with one song.
Anantharaman probably got this anecdote from Anand—interviews in the book include Anand, Pyarelal, Manna Dey and Lata—but the author doesn’t really indicate where he sources a lot of his information. While a chunk of the book is the author’s personal opinion, and he says as much in a note, it would have been helpful to understand exactly how he researched his subject. He fawns over Lata and repeatedly quotes from the special silver jubilee record she released in 1967. And yes, he believes that till the end, R.D. Burman remained a man who couldn’t quite succeed with what he truly wanted to compose.
As you read and hum and read and hum, you can’t shake off the feeling that Anantharaman collected all the music that’s ever been released, spent years listening to all the recorded versions of Raag Darbari, organized his thoughts, and started writing. Sounds like a dream assignment actually.
More than providing fresh insights about the lives of the talent that created this unbelievable musical heritage, this book is finally the story of the Hindi film song. If you are not familiar with the songs, you are likely to tire of the innumerable references to specific songs in each chapter. If you know them, then you will want to buy the book for its Index of Songs alone—a comprehensive list of each song with its film, year of release, composer, lyricist, singer and the pages on which it appears.
As for me, I haven’t stopped humming.