There was a contrast of two worlds in Anurag Kashyap’s 2018 film Manmarziyaan. And the songs in film became a representation of that chasm. The world of Vicky(Vicky Kaushal) and Rumi(Tapsee Pannu) is defined by their amorous passion and a sort of carefree abandon. They get to sing the songs in the film. When Rumi is upset with the dissolute, unstable Vicky, he follows her singing and grooving to ‘Dhyaanchand’- the song is a descendant of the tradition of songs where the earnest lover chases their upset partner, like Kareena chasing SRK in the song “O re Kaanchi” in Asoka(2001). Rumi herself sings and dances to the song ‘Kundali’ at a friend’s wedding, where Robbie(Abhishek Bachchan) watches her from a distance, lingering at the borders of her life.
Robbie(Abhishek Bachchan) is a bank manager, more prosaic than the passion-driven Rumi and Vicky, and he doesn’t get to verbally sing a song in the film. It is a testament to his nature that later in the film, as a song does emerge out of Robbie’s world, it is when Rumi is beginning to settle in a marriage with him, and the song ‘Choch Ladiyaan’ plays in the background. Rumi blushes, strolls to the kitchen and cooks pakodas for him, all in serene slow-motion- even the passion associated with Robbie is prosaic, it is in cooking pakodas in slow-mo.
The second song emerging from Robbie’s life is the stinging soliloquy “Halla”, which has a glorious existential appeal to it- Robbie’s mind is splitting apart when he happens to witness his wife in an extra-marital act, the song is like the hammer blows that is causing this annihilation of his character, and the music sounds like its stirring a venom in the otherwise calm waters of Robbie’s mind. It’s a first time experience for the composed Robbie; at a pub, he lays his head flat on the bar, and the dancing twin appear to him, one of the twins emerging from behind the another- the Robbie of strong convictions is breaking into two.
The Hindi film song itself holds many existential matters inherently. In his earlier interviews, Kashyap had admitted to disliking the phenomenon of characters singing onscreen. While this change in stance towards the Hindi film songs says something about the individualistic filmmaker, this contrast of character traits in his film also points towards a humane question about the very nature of these songs- who sings it in the film?
Music, songs obviously take an important position in a film- it sets the right tone and reveals latent, subconscious information. When it comes to Hindi films, which are often musicals with characters singing onscreen, the question is not just about “what kind of” and “where” about the songs, but to decide which characters sing them. What merit decides that? Why is it that in Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s 1971 film Anand, Rajesh Khanna’s Anand sings the songs while Amitabh’s Dr.Bhaskar is always around, observing him? Through years, different films and filmmakers have explored this theological question differently, revealing various faces of the Hindi film song.
Looking back in the past, there is Gulzar’s 1987 film Ijaazat, a film about three essentially good people placed at the chessboard of relationships. Mohinder(Naseeruddin Shah) settles into his marriage with the calm and devoted Sudha(Rekha). But, with Sudha’s knowledge, he remains attached to the poetic, the emotionally and quite literally vagrant Maaya(Anuradha Patel). Sudha accepts this facet of his life, agrees to play guardian to the lost Maya, but draws a line at a threshold and claims authority over Mohinder by refusing to see or talk to her. In the complex web of the film, Maaya even addresses Sudha as ‘Didi’(elder sister).
At one point, as Mohinder returns some of Maaya’s things back to her, the latter writes a poem to him- the legendary wistful song “Mera kuch saamaan”- she sings, saying that the baggage that he carries of hers might have to do with more than the physical objects that he has sent back.
And if there is one song that is drawn from the depths of a character in Hindi Cinema, it is the wonderful ‘Katra Katra’ that Sudha sings to Mohinder at their honeymoon. There is a serenity in the song, as opposed to the angst in Maya’s song and her singing. There’s a philosophy in its lyrics about taking life with patience and understanding- katra katra, i.e one drop at a time. Both these virtues are an extension of what Sudha is as a person herself.
Mohinder doesn’t get a song to sing himself. It is clear why, he is the more prosaic one here after all, more at an uncertain pedestal of life where he’s presented with two facets- the bold wandering of Maya, and the equally bold composure of Sudha- just like the songs that are sung to him, not by him. He is the one more busy, more caught between two worlds, and with the least bit of leisure to choose and express himself. At one final point, Maya disappears, and he rushes back home to find that Sudha has left with a misunderstanding as well; a stinging heart attack suddenly grabs hold of him- it is as if the two halves of the heart of the workaday character have snapped apart.
Then there are films like Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Khamoshi:the musical(1996), where characters play singers and singing a song is a symbol of a morally and emotionally healthy life. In what is a truly experimental Hindi film, Bhansali places the singing ambitions of Annie(Manisha Koirala) against the agony and reluctance of her deaf and mute parents Joseph(Nana Patekar) and Flavy(Seema Biswas), who Annie must look after.
Bhansali presents their disability and their shame as the human tendency to mute and suppress ourselves in suffering. Annie’s will to sing becomes the protest against this nature. Salman Khan plays Raj, and makes what might be one of the best hero entries that is a signature of his films. In a film given to strong archetypal characters, he is the ultimate outsider lover, and appears out of nowhere in Annie’s town, singing the song “Aankh mein kya” in a procession around an unaware, sullen Annie. Raj is perhaps that procession himself, meant to draw her out the emotional maze of her life.
The premise concludes in the beautiful sequence in a music studio, with the song “Yeh Dil sun Raha hai”(this heart can hear), that Raj gets Annie to record. Joseph and Flavy are seated their as well, bracing themselves to watch their adult daughter sing for the first time. As she begins the song, Raj initially thinks it is dedicated to his romantic relationship with her. But, midway, she moves on to assisting the lyrics with sign language directed towards her parents. The old couple are startled, and then moved, and soon pick up on the musical tempo themselves. At a distance, Raj picks the message up as a tear breaks in his eyes- perhaps her very singing is a tribute to her parents, to the sufferance in silence that she perceives and liberates(that her heart can hear?, as sung in the song). As he has often shown through the years, Bhansali’s direction of the song is superb- watch how minutely he directs not just the ethereal singing by Annie but the humane response of those around her. With that melody in that space, the song becomes a vehicle of liberation for everyone involved; a line in the song pictures this with the words- Geet mein hai, saaz me hai, tu hin tu, magma kahaan? (It is you in the songs, in the tunes, where’s the music?)
Coming into the 2000s then, the title song of Farah Khan’s film Main Hoon Na is really like a sample display of who gets to sing the sentiment heavy Hindi film song.
Perhaps this list had to give in to one SRK song, he is Hindi Cinema’s messenger of love after all, and for years, the carrier of those messages has been through singing songs. He is a similar messenger in this song as well, singing gracefully about the nature of compassion and empathy. Around him, the song is staged in the frivolous, youthful life of Lucky (Zayed Khan) and Sanjana(Amrita Rao) in a fancy Bollywood interpretation of a University campus. SRK is lapsed in a soothing trance in his singing, while the other playful facet of life around him goes on unaware- the film had placed him as a grown up, old-school man in a heady, youthful setting. But later into the song, it is the disheartened and isolated Sanjana that joins his sentimental trance and voices the lyrics herself- nobody else still actually recognises them singing in that space. In the last stanza, SRK directs his singing towards her, imploring her to open up to him; she recognizes this but conceals herself away. Lucky remains detached, neither singing, nor recognizing them doing so to him. Is it being suggested that only those are close to something deposited in their hearts can find the trance of the Hindi film song? Maybe! Towards the closure of the song, Lucky does sing it, picking Sanjana up in his arms, but he’s doing so only as a mockery of all this sentimental business. Perhaps that is just appropriate- the frivolous Lucky isn’t quite there yet.