A listener's voice

A listener's voice

 Raju Bharatan, veteran chronicler and critic of Hindustani — ‘Bollywood’ seems too vulgar a word to use with his name and maybe inappropriate too — film music, and biographer of Lata Mangeshkar, speaks to us with passion and sentiment in A Journey Down Melody Lane. Speaks not as much as writes because the book is virtually an eye-witness, ringside account of the passage of time and people through the music studios and sets of Hindi cinema, all told in the fashion of a critic-raconteur. The writing is nowhere near first rate but shortcomings on that front are washed away in the flood of dates and events, songs, songsters and singers, movies, trivia, trends, and lots of blunt opinion, some of it inevitably prejudiced.

“In films, a tune is hewn, not created, let no one therefore dare tell you that any tune got done in two shakes of a duck’s tail,” says Bharatan.

By writing this book, he means to set the ‘gramophone record straight’ on this score. In its 22 chapters covering the years 1947 to 2007, we are given an insight into the way in which chart topping numbers were written, tuned, sung and weaved into the storyline by men and women of manifest talent and vision, but more importantly, of old fashioned hard work.

Bharatan begins by recounting how Bombay, with its cosmopolitan milieu, reshaped the markedly regional overtones of Hindi film music of the 1930s. Songs from studios in Punjab, Bengal or Pune carried with them the distinct stamp of the composers hailing from those parts. In this context, Bharatan gives us an interesting vignette, one of many more to come. He says that the first step in giving Hindi film music an identity all its own was taken when Himanshu Rai of Bombay Talkies hired the services of a young lady composer — a first for Indian music.

Though born a Parsi, Khorshed Minocher-Homji was rechristened Saraswati Devi and her job was to make the music of Bombay Talkies distinguishable from the patently Bengali flavour of Hindi songs from Calcutta. She went on to direct the singer-actors of those days, like Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani.

Bharatan then takes us on a speed ride through the legendary actors-movie makers Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand, their approaches to music and the music directors they worked with.

The story of Raj Kapoor’s treatment of two music-men, song-writer Hasrat Jaipuri and composer Shankar (he of the Shankar-Jaikishan duo), as told by Bharatan, reveals the fickleness of relationships and fame in the melting pot of Bombay’s film world. Raj Kapoor pays Jaipuri a handsome amount for a generous 14 years after his last active association with the RK banner. On the other hand, Shankar, who played a pivotal role in the making of the RK Films banner, is shunted out never to be engaged again.

Till his death Shankar is naively certain that Raj Saab will call him back for a probable sequel to Mera Naam Joker.

In the preface Bharatan says, “Lata Mangeshkar remains...the greatest singer ever to be heard in Hindustani cinema. But for Lata’s inspirational vocalising, I would never have started writing on music.” However, the chapter on Lata is less flattering to her. Writing about how Lata felt briefly rattled by a newcomer, Vani Jairam, walking away with a key award, he says, “...it was only a momentary loss of poise. Vani Jairam was but the latest of quite a few thrush-threats, Lata had warded off. In no time at all, Vani was shunted to Madras....Come to think of it, how surprisingly clever has Lata been in handling fame, fickle fame.”

Besides Lata Mangeshkar, Bharatan gives separate chapters to legendary singers and music composers like Naushad, Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi, Talat Mahmood, Manna Dey, and R D Burman. While writing about them, Bharatan does not sycophantically eulogise nor vindictively condemn, sticking to his dictum at the beginning of the book of ‘setting the record straight’.

The harshest words, in the context of Bharatan’s perceived decay of Hindi film music, are however reserved for the Big B, who he blames for prioritising violence and violent dialogue over music. In a chapter titled The Great Fall!, he punches hard, “If you, therefore, asked me to underpin the one solid reason for the decadent decline of Hindustani cinesangeet, I would say it is Amitabh Bachchan. ....the Big B...betrayed a sad lack of social conscience in the thoughtless idolising of violence ...”

One feels that but for a contemporary phenomenon he simply could not ignore, Raju Bharatan would have stopped with his chapter on Yash Chopra, and concluded with a rant about the state of Hindi music today. The rant, though tinged with circumspection, remains; but before that we have a few pages on The Phenom That Is Rahman. Bharatan has many good things to say about him, though his biggest regret is the absence of Urdu in Rahman’s musical lingo. For anybody interested in the history of Hindi film music, this is certainly a must read. An index would have served it very well.

A journey down melody lane: Making of a
hindi film song
Raju Bharatan
Hay House
2010, pp 300
Rs 399