“What Might Have Been?”
I went back to….the game of What-might-have-been
Hello everybody! And Welcome to the brand-new podcast series – “I went back to” brought to you by Motormouth Media. A podcast where we romance with things from our past and try to woo them back to our present. I am Kalyan, your host, and a fellow romantic.
So, how does this work?
The idea is that during each episode I shall talk about something that I went back to after a long time. Like an old hobby I had quit, or a game from the past I stopped playing, a film I hadn’t watched or an author I hadn’t read in a while, a story or a letter I had left unfinished, a friend I hadn’t called in ages. So something that I went back to willfully because I missed it or something that called out to me because I had forgotten or abandoned it.
And while I do this, the point is not merely to create nostalgia value or inspire happy memories, it is essentially to pass on something new, something informative and unfamiliar that inspires you to know more on the subject or compels you to go back to something from your own past which had fallen between the cracks of your mind.
Now we come to what I went back to this week. I went back to something called what-might-have been.
So, what exactly is what-might-have-been? It’s a hypothesizing game that I used to play long ago with myself and occasionally with close friends. A game, where we gave ourselves an imaginary scenario and then we fantasized a situation asking ourselves what if this scenario were to be true? It wasn’t anything frivolous but something more mature, more intelligent and cerebral. Something that stimulated the mind, that tested the width and depth of your knowledge, your understanding of things and eventually something that taught you to be grateful for what there was and to lament what there wasn’t.
Let me give you an example of such a scenario: “What if Karl Marx had never been born into this world?”. Now that is one hell of a mind trip one will take right?
What would have been the nature of historical and political discourse in modern times? Where and how would Russia and China be today? What would have been the fate of many Latin American nations today? What course would social movements have taken in the last 100 years or so related to women’s rights, child rights, workers’ rights, right to healthcare and so on and so forth.
So, while on the one hand the game went into things like alternate timelines or alternate history, it also explored far less serious but equally interesting things that were just, fun.
Back then, I spent many hours playing this game. But over the time this game was forgotten, and I had actually become a man of action.
So, all of a sudden, how did I get back to it?
It goes like this. I listen to a lot of music especially old Hindi stuff and I always find it easier to do household chores when there is music in the background. I have a playlist of Kishore Kumar songs which I have reserved for tough times like when the house-help is absent and I’ve got to do the dishes. This playlist plays alphabetically and can last for several days when heard in short instalments. The other day the letter “J” had just ended when I started with the dishes. We were now entering “K” and I could sense the excitement in me already. Just like M or P, K also had many unforgettable songs of Kishore Kumar. Suddenly, the prospect of washing that large pile of dishes was already seeming like a happy one.
It was this “K” list, actually, that triggered the return of the long-forgotten game. Now hear out a sample of some songs. First, Kaise Kahein Hum Pyar ne Humko kya kya khel dikhaye (sing) from the film Sharmilee composed by S D Burman then there was Kashti ka Khamosh Safar Hai Shaam bhi Hai Tanhai Bhi (sing) from the film Girlfriend composed by Hemant Kumar followed by Koi Hota jisko apna hum apna keh lete yaaron (sing) from Mere Apne composed by Salil Chowdhury and then Kuch to log kaheinge logon ka kaam hai kehna (sing) from Amar Prem composed by R D Burman and finally Kya Khabar Kya Pata (sing) from Saaheb composed by Bappi Lahiri. There were many other songs equally relevant to my point, but I shall not go into them all.
The singer was Kishore Kumar, a staunch and a true-blue Bengali even if he was born and raised outside of Bengal in a place called Khandwa in present-day Madhya Pradesh.
And so are each of the composers whose songs I hummed just now even if, strictly speaking, the Dev Burmans were from Tripura. A fact that doesn’t alter the intent of this podcast in any way.
So, that is when it struck me, and I gave myself the what-might-have-been scenario: “What would Hindi Film Music look like if we were to erase the entire contributions of Bengal and Bengalis from it?
For a mind that is suffering the pains caused by this lockdown – pains of my own and pains of others, this hypothesis came as a welcome relief. As a happy entry in the Lockdown Diaries if I ever wrote one.
Now, I agree that this notion perhaps romanticizes Bengal and Bengalis far too much but nowhere did the rules of the game state that romanticizing was not allowed.
So, here’s what we do, instead of painting a picture we actually unpaint it. That is, we try and erase elements from our imagery of Hindi Film Music and see what we are left with by the end of it.
As a first step, I shall simply take some names from the very top of my head. Starting from the very initial days of the talkies, I will go chronologically.
I’ll start with the names of composers: Pankaj Mullick, Raichand Boral, Anil Biswas, K C Dey, S D Burman, Salil Chowdhury, Hemant Kumar, Kanu Roy, R D Burman, Bappi Lahiri, and more recently, Shantanu Moitra, Pritam (Chakaborty), Jeet (Ganguli).
Now moving on to the singers. We have, Kanan Devi, Geeta Dutt, Manna Dey, Kishore Kumar, Amit Kumar, Arati Mukherjee, Jolly Mukherjee, Kumar Sanu, Abhijeet, Babul Supriyo, Shaan, Shreya Ghoshal, Monali Thakur and surely some more that I am missing out on.
Add to it some more names who are not Bengali but have very strong Bengal connections either by birth, or work or musical tutelage like K L Saigal, Khemchand Prakash, Talat Mehmood, Suman Kalyanpur, Mohammed Aziz, Alka Yagnik, Kavita Krishnamurthy, and, the current heartthrob, Arijit Singh.
And while at it, I am choosing not to take names of music arrangers, instrumentalists and artists from Bengal who assisted and played for many composers in Bombay.
For example, the first non-Goan cellist in Hindi films was a Bengali by the name Basu Chakraborty who also assisted R D Burman for a long time.
So, have you taken a stock of these names? Do you think you will be able to just permanently forget about them? To what extent do these names influence your love and passion for Hindi film music? And when you are done thinking, do see if the cookie is intact or if it is beginning to crumble already.
Let’s get done with the quantity before we move on to quality. So, quantitatively speaking what do these names account for?
We are talking around 1500 films in all (give or take 100) between all the Bengali composers I listed and around 15000 songs in all (give or take 1000) between the I singers listed. For an industry which has grown over the years to produce over a 1000 films each year and which has been having music in its films for close to 90 years now, these are not staggering numbers really.
A quick example will put that into perspective. The composer duo of Laxmikant-Pyarelal alone has composed for more than 500 films which is basically one-third of the work of all the Bengali composers put together.
So, the truth is as far as the numbers are concerned Bengal’s contribution to Hindi Film Music seems rather, well, modest.
Let us now try and do a qualitative evaluation, the part of this game that I am dreading the most. But let’s try.
At the very beginning, we must go ahead and suspend the concept of playback singing in films because it was introduced by Pankaj Mullick and R C Boral of New Theatres for the film Dhoop Chhaon back in 1935. Dhoop Chhaon was a remake of a Bengali film Bhagya Chakra and produced by New Theatres. The song was Main Khush Hona Chahoon Khush Ho Na Sakoon written by P Sudarshan and sung by Suprava Sarkar, Parul Ghosh and the iconic blind singer of Bhakti Kirtans Krishna Chandra Dey. As a concept, playback was Nitin Bose’s idea who ran New Theatres. And it was the talent and genius of R C Boral and Pankaj Mullick which changed this idea into reality.
Films before Dhoop Chhaon also had songs in them. For instance, the very first talkie Alam Ara by Ardeshir Irani had 7 songs in it or the film Shireen Farhad made by Jamshedji Madan was supposed to have had as many as 42 song sequences in it. But before Dhoop Chhaon, songs in films entailed the actor singing the song live as the film was shot. Which meant that the actor had to be a singer as well.
Playback singing made it possible that the actor on screen did not have to be an accomplished singer as long as she could lip-sync properly. And it also meant that singers need not come with acting skills as long as they knew how to emote to mood of the song.
Not that there weren’t exceptions to this rule. There have been people who have both acted and sung in films – some stronger actors than singers and some the other way around, like, K L Saigal, K C Dey, Noor Jahan, Suraiya, Kishore Kumar, Sulakshana Pandit, Kamal Haasan and more recently Ayushman Khurana, Diljit Dosanjh and some more I may be missing out on. But as you see, the numbers are not very high. And I am purposely not including here actors who have dabbled in singing once or twice or singers who have tried to act occasionally.
So, playback singing: the very essence and basis of music in Hindi films was the brainchild of 2 Bengalis.
It is not to say that playback will not have been discovered by someone else later, but what if it wasn’t? Will there have been music in films as a rule? Or if it came eventually after some years will it have met with the same measure of success? In any case, cinema, as a rule, does not require songs in it. Films in the West don’t have songs unless the film itself is a musical.
However, as a concept, songs have always been unique to films in the subcontinent. And so essential and indispensable they are to the Indian film that in the good old days it was the music of a film that often financed large parts of the film itself.
So..film-makers would have an idea, a theme, a story and even the cast but often not the means to make a film. They would then only produce its music and release it even before the film went into production. And from the sales proceeds of the records, they would generate the money to make the actual film. So, the music very often was the parent of the film.
Even today the music “launch” of a film is a huge event and the songs of a film go viral on streaming platforms and the producers make pots of money out of it well before even the film releases. It is then safe to say that the music in a film generates a decent part of the total revenue of the film and hence is also important to the business of making films.
Anyway. Coming back to our topic.
The mavericks of New Theatre did not stop at inventing playback singing. The very first arrangement of western orchestra with pianos and accordions was also done by them. And they were also the ones who introduced the concepts of preludes and interludes which required that experts wrote notations and professionals arranged the orchestra.
Mullick and Boral were also the first to bring the trio or triad with 3 playback singers where the technique of one voice fading out and another fading in was used.
It was Boral who introduced the classical Thumri in the film Street Singer in the year 1938. Many swear that Babul Mora Naihar Chuto Hi Jaye by K L Saigal is the perhaps best thumri ever sung in a Hindi film.
Juust checking, how is your picture looking now?
And we haven’t yet come to Anil Biswas who is widely considered the Grandfather of Indian Film Music. Anil Biswas not only continued the legacy of Mullick and Boral, he took it ahead by hugely improving on the use of classical, semi-classical raag-based compositions, bhakti kirtans and above all the unique flavours of Bengali folk music. Anil Biswas is also credited for bringing the waltz into Hindi films. And, perhaps most importantly, the very first use of the Ghazal in Hindi films was also by Anil Biswas in the film Roti from 1942 that had 6 splendid ghazals by Begum Akhtar.
And if Mullick, Boral and Biswas were the founding engineers, we had Sachin Dev Burman, Hemant Kumar (known as Hemanta Mukhopadhyay in Bengal) and Salil Chowdhury bringing in their rich legacy, immense genius and fascinating sounds which set this machine into motion.
And what did these men bring with them? Folk music: baul, bhatiyali, palkir gaan, bhaav gayeki, the classical tappa, Rabindra Sangeet, and other techniques like minimalist orchestration, use of whistles, echoes, fusion of western classical and Indian classical (who could forget Itna na mujhse tu pyar badha from Chhaya based on Mozart’s 40th symphony), superlative use of the chorus especially to stir patriotic emotions in films like Ananda Math.
The contributions these 3 men made to Hindi film music as composers is immeasurable. And one of them also contributed by fathering a son who would go on to revolutionise film music in India in ways the future generations of music lovers will find impossible to forget.
But before that it is very important to take some other names as well. There were some outstanding non-Bengali composers also in action during what we know as the golden years. Husnlal Bhagatram, Ghulam Haider, Sajjad Hussain, Naushad, S N Tripathi, Vasant Desai, Hansraj Behl, Shankar Jaikishen, Madan Mohan, Khayyam, O P Nayyar, Kalyanji-Anandji, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Ravi, Roshan (the father of Rajesh and Rakesh Roshan and the grandfather of Hrithik Roshan), Sardar Malik (the father of Anu Malik), Chitragupta (the father of Anand-Milind), C Ramchandra and several others.
And if I begin to take names of non-Bengali singers, I’d perhaps never be able to end this episode. So I won’t even attempt that.
The body and quality of work of these composers and singers is unforgettable. They are the enduring elements of our picture which we set out to unpaint at the start of our game.
These people were essentially taking the legacy forward by bringing in their own talents, training and sounds. Taking the machine analogy further, these people helped the machine gain more speed and efficiency.
But the man who came as the trailblazing rocket fuel who single-handedly propelled Hindi film music to dizzying heights appeared unassumingly and almost meekly for the first time in the year 1961 for a rather forgettable film called Chhote Nawab. His name was Rahul Dev Burman or as the world came to know him, Pancham. He went on make music for 291 more Hindi films until his death in 1994.
No word, expression or statement I can use to admire this man can be original. Everything, and I mean everything, that can be conceivably stated in praise of him has already been done and far more capably than I ever could. The man who became the soul of Hindi film music in his afterlife providing inspiration, livelihood and indescribable pleasures to future generations of composers, singers and listeners. The man who made you feel that there needn’t have been another Bengali in the scene and yet this podcast would have been just as relevant in its theme. R D Burman. Another product of Bengal.
Many die-hard Hindi film music fans will insist that I have reached the point where I can conclusively rest my case and feel reassured that the point of this podcast has been made.
But there are still people I haven’t given the airtime they deserve or scenarios I haven’t explored. Let us do it by asking some questions most of which are rhetorical but they are questions nonetheless. The idea is to merely create an effect.
If playback singing never came or even if it came years later what would the Mangeshkar sisters have done? Perhaps become accomplished classical musicians? Or even if they had become playback singers will they have explored their true depths? It is actually a bizarre thought. Isn’t it?
If actors had to be good singers and singers had to be good actors, how would it have been to hear Dharmendra sing or watch Sonu Nigam act?
If intricate music arrangement, vast orchestration, grand preludes or interludes weren’t there what would A R Rahman have spent his creative abilities on?
If music never came and songs didn’t have to be written, how would the larger world have known what Sahir Ludhianvi or Shailendra or Gulzar were capable of?
How would have Guru Dutt made Pyaasa or Kaaghaz ke Phool or how would the music have been in most of Dev Anand’s films? How would Guide or Jewel Thief have attained the status they did?
How would Bimal Roy have made Do Bigha Zameen or Devdas or Bandini or Sujata or Madhumati?
If not for the lilt in that magical voice of S D Burman how would O re Majhi from Bandini or Wahan Kaun hai tera musafir from Guide have sounded?
If not for K C Dey, the first male playback singer of India, his nephew and disciple Manna Dey would perhaps have never become a singer and studied to be a barrister as his father wanted or even a boxer as he was very fond of boxing.
Would Gabbar Singh have seemed half as menacing if the soul shuddering background music did not mark his entry into the film?
How would Gulzar’s magical words have found melodies in films like Parichay or Aandhi or Khushboo or Kinara or Ghar or Ijaazat? Who would have set Mera Kuch Saaman tumhare paas pada hai to tune? Are those easy phrases to set to tune?
How will we have known that a twin track effect was possible in Hindi films as early as in the year 1967 if Kya Janoon Sajan Hoti Hai Kya Gham ki Shaam from the film Baharon ke Sapne hadn’t been composed?
Will the remix industry have had any reason to emerge at all if R D Burman wasn’t there? How would bohemian parties or college festivals have felt complete without R D Burman’s songs? Will the iPhone X ad have seemed as cool as it was without that background music from R D Burman’s film The Burning Train?
This rhetoric on Pancham could be endless.
Who would have brought the sounds of Disco to Hindi films if Bappi Lahiri didn’t? On whose beats would Mithun Chakravarty, another Bengali by the way, have danced his way to ultimate glory?
How would have Rajesh Khanna fared if there wasn’t a Kishore Kumar? Will he have become the first superstar of Hindi Films? Will we have known what super stardom was?
In the 80s when the older generation was too old to sing or dead or the new generation hadn’t yet emerged, there was Mohammed Aziz who lent his voice to ordinary songs in obscure films trying his best to elevate them from their mediocrity.
What would 90s music have been like without Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik? Perhaps Udit Narayan or Sonu Nigam would have sung all of Sanu’s songs and made several more pots of money. But will they have had the same effect?
Kishore Kumar. I mean even a hypothetical absence of that man is inconceivable. How else would have sundry days been spent by millions of his listeners drinking chai or smoking cigarettes and listening to him? In happiness and in sorrow for laughter and for tears. His deep voice has been eternalised in all our consciousness. And his deep-seated influence. The need to ape him, the wish to sound like him has inspired several generations of future singers in Hindi films. (Sigh!)
O Kishore, you beauty!, You shall sing and we shall live. And we shall hear and you shall live!
The fact is we could keep going on and on. And all this hypothesizing can be fun for a while. But, the truth is, for any art to prosper and evolve it does not require practitioners of a certain kind, culture, region or class. It just needs people who are quietly obsessed with it, who are driven to create and ambitious not for themselves but for their art to flourish and refine itself and above all people who know that they are just a great means to a greater end.
So Bengal or no Bengal, Bengalis or no Bengalis, if music in films was always destined to evolve as an independent and prominent art form it would have done so anyway even without them. Its dazzle may have been different, but it will surely have dazzled.
But for foolish romantics like me who think that everything and everyone from Bengal is infallible and indisputably great, it conveniently turned out all very well.
So all you folks from Bengal out there, the next time someone accuses you of having an undeserving superiority complex, just pass them the link to this podcast and drop the mic.
Thanks for listening in and hope you enjoyed the show. I will fail in my duty if I do not mention some of my key references and sources for the content for this show.
- The Britannica Encyclopaedia of Hindi Cinema edited by Gulzar, Saibal Chatterjee and Govind Nihlani.
- The Book “Romancing the Song” by Manek Premchand
- A wonderful article in the online Sillouhette magazine by Antara Nanda Mondal and Peeyush Sharma on Bengal’s music and its influence in Hindi cinema
- The Hindi Geet Mala website which I have referred to for many years now for accurate information
- And many a stories and anecdotes from researchers and aficionados learnt and retained over the years.
I shall be back with another thing I went back to in the next podcast of the series. Until then, this is Kalyan signing off. May all of us always love and be loved! Sayonara!
Freestylah by Alexander Nakarada (www.serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License
Mystery Unsolved by Shane Ivers – https://www.silvermansound.com
Reborn by Alexander Nakarada (www.serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License
Retro Dreamscape by Twin Musicom (twinmusicom.org)
Diaphonus by Shane Ivers – https://www.silvermansound.com
Atmospheric Piano Backing by https://www.purple-planet.com
Disco Beat Retro 106 bpm – http://www.orangefreesounds.com/
Tremolo Electric Guitar Loop 110 bpm – http://www.orangefreesounds.com/
Sunride Expedition – by josephmcdade.com