‘Aashirwad’: The music man and his treasure bag
When I heard of the death of Sumita Sanyal earlier this month, my first memory was of an elegant young woman lip-synching to three songs in Hrishikesh Mukherjee films. The best known of those is Jiya Lage Na from Anand; the other two are from the 1968 Aashirwad, in which Sanyal plays Neena, the daughter of the film’s lovable protagonist Jogi Thakur (Ashok Kumar).
If I were to make a best-of list based on only fragments or passages of films, Aashirwad would occupy a very high spot on it. This movie has a dual personality. Much of it, especially the formulaic second half, follows the template of the 1960s social drama-tearjerker. The plot is busy and familiar: a good-hearted man is imprisoned because of the machinations of others; a village is destroyed by a fire started by unscrupulous land-owners; the hero doesn’t get to see his child grow up; years later, there is a tearful reunion.
Yet there is another, more dynamic, formally experimental Aashirwad below this safe surface. Watching parts of the film, it feels like a group of friends had decided to record their informal addas for posterity, to share their love for classical music with the world. The main members of this group would be Mukherjee (who was a proficient sitar player himself), music director Vasant Desai, the wonderfully impish Harindranath Chattopadhyay (who plays Jogi Thakur’s friend and music teacher Baiju), the young Gulzar (who wrote the lyrics that had not already been penned by Chattopadhyay)—and of course, Ashok Kumar, who rarely had such a grand old time in a film as he does here.
Kumar, one of Hindi cinema’s giants, had a long career that encompassed both the bashful leading man of the 1930s—one of our first male stars—and the jolly dadaji (grandfather) figure of the 1980s. In the decades between those poles, he spent much of his time as a sombre character actor watching while younger stars did the fun stuff. For instance, he could seem so staid compared to his madcap younger brother Kishore (an indelible image from Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi: the three brothers standing side by side, Kishore and Anoop wisecracking away, while “serious” Ashok stands stoically in the middle, just about tolerating their tomfoolery). Or watch him all stiff and embarrassed, a fish out of the Hooghly, while Madhubala sings Dekhke Teri Nazar in Howrah Bridge—he looks very far from someone who might wholeheartedly participate in a song sequence.
That’s misleading, though: he was trained in music, and Aashirwad—made more than 30 years after he chirped Main Bann Ki Chidiya in Achhut Kannya—is the rare film of its era that fully tapped this side of him. The results are often magical.
We use terms like “suspension of disbelief” for most Hindi-film song sequences where the characters (who are not musical performers within the narrative) sing to each other. But a different sort of tension can come into play when the characters are artists, and Aashirwad’s most inventive scenes involve Jogi Thakur as singer, storyteller and creator of worlds. The best-known song is probably the children’s rhyme Rail Gaadi, written by Chattopadhyay years earlier and sung by Kumar—for a group of children—in the rapid-fire style that saw it labelled India’s first rap number. But there are other terrific musical interludes. Consider Kanoon Ki Ek Nagri and Jhingaapur Takur Takur, in which two men (Jogi Thakur and Baiju) carry on an intense yet playful jugalbandi, exchanging banter as they create new “bol”, including nonsense rhymes, on the spot. Even when the camera only cuts between their faces (occasionally providing close-ups of Baiju’s hands playing his dholak), the effect is anything but static. In scenes like these, it feels like the film has done away with such perfunctory things as narrative, and entered a vibrant new realm.
Of course, it isn’t that simple. All these scenes do contribute to our understanding of Jogi Thakur, who believes that music and stories have an equalizing power. The 9-minute-long song Saaf Karo Insaaf Karo, in which Jogi Thakur and Baiju play a game of riddles with lavani dancers, provides the film’s finest demonstration of how differences between groups—men and women, upper class and lower class, performers and audience—can temporarily be erased by a shared love for art and performance.
Another of my favourite sequences is Naani Ki Naao, in which Jogi Thakur uses a bioscope, and a song, to tell children the story of a naao (boat) that contains apparently limitless treasures. The sound of water fills the soundtrack; we see crayon drawings and cut-outs of the many items and creatures—“tokri mein ek billi ka bacha” (a kitten in a basket)—in the boat. And then he describes a crocodile stealthily coming up, stealing everything and dragging it away.
This scene works as an entertaining interlude for children—the sort that we innocently loved when it played on Chitrahaar in the old days—but it is also a dark foreshadowing. With hindsight, the naao can be likened to the bagful of stories and songs that Jogi Thakur carries around with him, to spread joy. And soon, all this will be taken away by sharp-fanged predators. It is a fine example of a musical sequence that manages to be whimsical, apparently standalone, but is also essential to the film’s purpose, and to our sympathy for the main character.
Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. This is the third in a series on Hindi film song sequences.