Why’s film-music looked down upon?

IN PERSPECTIVE

In 1978, the legendary singer Muhammad Rafi got a hand-written letter in Urdu from the vice-chancellor of a reputed Indian university. The Urdu-speaking refined VC politely stated in his letter that the varsity was removing Kamaal Amrohi’s immortal nazm (yes, it’s a nazm, not a ghazal) ‘Kahin ek maasoom, nazuk-si ladki, bahut khoobsoorat...’ from the MA (Previous) Urdu-syllabus. The reason being, the nazm featured in the 1977 film Shankar-Hussain!

The perfect gentleman that he was, Rafi did not question the varsity’s arbitrary decision. Mind you, the same nazm had been taught for eight years at the same varsity, but suddenly became a pariah when it appeared in a movie! The same deplorable fate befell many songs including Sahir Ludhianvi’s ‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega...’ from Dhool ka phool. It was in the syllabus of a university in North India.

These instances underline the fact that there’s a subtle collective disrespect, if not outright aversion, towards film songs, regardless of their unquestionable literary merit. Well, I am not talking of today’s songs, which are not even apologies for songs and are devoid of any literary value.

The question is, what made, and still makes, beautiful film songs a notch below the literary hallmark. It’s our collective attitude towards film or popular music. The latter is prevalent in the West. And even in Western society, popular music doesn’t get the respect and literary recognition that it ought to. 

Ask Paul Anka who wrote Put your head on my shoulder. A few years ago, the Nobel Prize for Literature to Bob Dylan for his popular songs lent a certain degree of respectability to popular numbers.

In India, the acceptance of film songs as literary masterpieces is phlegmatic. The Indian psyche suffers from Mrinal Sen’s ‘Cinematic Taboo’. That is, though, movies are popular with the masses, a class of people still frowns upon cinema as a quasi-genre of fine arts. That cinema is now an established form of visual art is still grudgingly accepted. Obviously, anything related to cinema is pooh-poohed and treated with scorn by this class.

Until recently, the Indian psyche viewed cinema as “a cheap source of entertainment” and film-songs as “mere fillers.” The Rule of Associated (De)evaluation in Philosophy also contributed to this mentality, still prevalent among many Indians. According to this rule, anything conceived as sub-standard has to have sub-standard facets. Since movie as a whole is looked down upon, its associated songs also become lowly and devoid of any literary significance.

Lyricists are also to be blamed for this phenomenon. Though Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni, Kaifi Azmi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra among others penned exquisite lyrics for films, their hearts were never in writing film songs. Somewhere, they themselves underrated the potential of cinema as a powerful medium and wrote songs half-heartedly or under cinematic conditions and restrictions.

The famous film critic Iqbal Masood put it succinctly: Even in the past, film songs were just a source of survival for the lyricists, singers and all those associated with them. Majrooh Sultanpuri quite dismissively wrote about writing songs for films, “Doyam darje ka hai ye kaam/Khaatir-e-shikam karta hoon subho-shaam” (This is something infra-dig/But I’ve to do it for the sake of the tummy; Shikam: tummy, or figuratively, survival in Persian).

Shakeel Badayuni, an Urdu poet of very high order, once called his calling of writing for films as “kaar-e-tukbandi” (a mere task of rhyming). Sahir often changed the words of his original poems and condescendingly simplified them for the “Urdu-illiterate masses” (woh awaam jise Urdu ka alif-be nahin maloom, he once said in an interview on Doordarshan)

Though film-maker B R Chopra requested Sahir Ludhianvi to retain the original word ‘takmeel’ (completion) in the magnificent lines: Woh afsana jise anjaam tak laana na ho mumkin, use ik khoobsoorat mod dekar chhodna acchha (Chalo ik baar phir se, Film: Gumraah, 1963), Sahir changed it to ‘anjaam’ arguing that the masses wouldn’t understand the word ‘takmeel’ in hi-falutin Arabic-influenced Urdu.

Even singers like Manna Dey, K L Saigal and Muhammad Rafi were never totally engrossed and involved in film music. This may sound surprising to most readers, but it is true. Rafi and Manna Dey were trained in a classical mould and they wanted to sing only raga-based songs. Rafi once ruefully said, “Mujhe mere ek bhi film naghme ke liye log yaad nahin karenge” (People will not remember me for even a single film song that I have sung!) despite the great man singing, “Mujh ko mere baad zamana dhoondhega” (Ek Naari Do Roop, 1973).

This overall condescension evinced by the greats associated with film-music, coupled with the attitude of the gentry, often thwarted film-music from becoming a thing of class and durability. There’s no gainsaying that cinema in India is still more sinned against than sinning. That patronising label hasn’t yet been unpeeled.

(The writer is a scholar of Sanskrit and Semitic languages, civilizations and literature.)

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