A landmark moment occurred in Subcontinental cinema when, 90 years ago, sound made its debut with the release of the film Alam Ara in 1931. While cine-goers didn’t carry with them the dialogue after watching the first Indian ‘talkie’, they left the hall humming at least one of the seven songs that were part of it. The ditties became such an intrinsic part of films that their numbers increased.
Radio, for its part, gave a big boost to the popularity of film songs, as also to those who wrote the lyrics, composed the tunes and lent their voices to the numbers. There have been radio programmes interviewing the ‘creators’, not merely in the Subcontinent, but also from the Urdu service of Deutsche Welle (DW), the state-owned international broadcaster in Germany.
Amjad Ali, a Pakistani journalist and artist settled in Cologne, pioneered a programme for DW’s Urdu service that featured literary and cultural figures from both sides of the Wagah border. It was christened Kehkashan [Galaxy]. The weekly broadcasts — particularly those that had, as guests, personalities involved in the creation of film songs — enjoyed wide listenership.
Inspired by the success of his show, presenter Ali transcribed the interviews, some of which had been conducted via long-distance telephone calls. A selection of these has recently been published from Lahore in the form of a book titled Milay Jo Kehkashan Mein [Those We Met in Kehkashan]. The book also includes pen-and-ink drawings of the personalities interviewed, expertly drawn by Ali himself.
The first stalwart appearing in the publication is Noor Jehan, whose rich career as a vocalist spanned from the 1930s to the 1990s. The programme on the melody queen aired on Dec 24, 2000 — one day after her demise. It was based on an interview that the singer-actor had given to Radio Pakistan, which had an exchange agreement with DW.
Transcriptions of interviews conducted with the Subcontinent’s greatest musicians provide fascinating insights and anecdotes
The lucid introduction was written by Ali and was punctuated with film songs Noor Jehan had recorded in Bombay [Mumbai] before Partition, and in Lahore after she moved to Pakistan. In the interview, she paid tribute to quite a few people associated with film music, most notably Bollywood singer Lata Mangeshkar and composer Master Ghulam Haider, who gave both vocal luminaries their big breaks.
Speaking to Ali in the programme, Lata enthused about the affection and admiration she had for the senior singer, who had been a source of inspiration and encouragement for the Indian chanteuse in her formative years. She recalled the few meetings they had had in Bombay and London, not to speak of an unusual place — the Wagah border — where Noor Jehan had come in 1952 to meet Lata and her sisters, armed with a sumptuous lunch which they all enjoyed.
Another Indian, and no less a celebrity, who held Noor Jehan in high esteem was music director Naushad. Ali spoke to him more than once on the telephone. The maestro gave his views on Mohammad Rafi as well, calling Rafi both a versatile singer and a kind and considerate human being. Similar sentiments were expressed by composer Laxmikant, who revealed that the late singer was not in the least money-minded; all that mattered to him was recording a song well, to his and the music director’s satisfaction.
However, in his introductory note on the vocalist, the author commits a howler in calling the Padma Shri — which was conferred on Rafi in 1967 — India’s “highest official award” when it is, in fact, the fourth highest. Of course, it goes without saying that, had he lived longer, Rafi would have most certainly been awarded the Padma Bhushan or Padma Vibhushan or Bharat Ratna, if not the Dadasaheb Phalke — India’s highest honour in the cinematic arts.
One point which ought to have been raised in the introduction to the chapter on Rafi is that, starting with the semi-classical song ‘Mann Mora Bawara’ [My Crazy Heart] from the 1958 film Ragini, he lent his voice to actor-singer Kishore Kumar in at least four more films.
Paying tribute to Rafi on his death, Kishore said it was an honour to give “lip movements to Rafi sahib’s voice.” That Rafi was the most successful male playback singer is also proved by the fact that no other vocalist had so many clones, as he had for decades even after he passed away.
Another singer who gets adequate coverage in Kehkashan the show, and later in the book under discussion, is Kundan Lal “K.L.” Saigal. On Saigal’s 50th death anniversary on Jan 18, 1997, Amjad Ali got Naushad on the phone again. The composer spoke highly of the vocalist as a singer and as a person.
Although Saigal was an alcoholic and suffered from cirrhosis of the liver, Naushad was lucky to get him to sing the catchy numbers of the 1946 film Shahjehan. The score was a hit and the singer advised his wife to play the soul-stirring number ‘Jab Dil Hi Toot Gaya (Hum Jee Ke Kya Karein Gey)’ [When the Heart Itself Has Broken (What is the Point of Living)] at his funeral.
This immortal song from Shahjehan was penned by debutant lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri, who went on to rule the Bollywood roost for almost six decades. Thanks to writer-broadcaster Ali, many admirers of the poet came to know that Majrooh had first tried his hand at practising Unani [Greek] medicine, but the applause he won in a mushaira motivated him to write poetry full time. It was also at a mushaira in Bombay that Majrooh caught the attention of filmmaker Abdur Rashid “A.R.” Kardar.
The chapter on Majrooh is exhaustive and so is the one on Qateel Shifai, who had the privilege of writing song lyrics for Pakistan’s first film: 1948’s Teri Yaad. In his twilight years, Qateel Shifai was invited by leading filmmakers in Bollywood to write lyrics for their films, which he did much to their liking.
The only lyricist in South Asia to bag an Oscar as well as a Grammy is none other than the multifaceted genius Gulzar, who won for the song ‘Jai Ho’, from the 2008 film Slumdog Millionaire. Amjad Ali interviewed Gulzar shortly after the release of his directorial venture Maachis [Match], a controversial film on the riots that took place in Punjab after the attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The interview was woven around Maachis and Gulzar successfully fielded all questions in his characteristic persuasive style.
The interviews of music directors Khayyam and Nisar Bazmi — and the most prolific, if not as creative, as the two seniors, M. Ashraf — provide a lot of meat for avid readers, though certain questions, such as how did Khayyam run into his spouse, the singer Jagjit Kaur (who passed away recently at the age of 93) and why did M. Ashraf part ways with his musical partner Manzoor, should have been raised.
One of the finest interviews that Ali conducts is with the colossal qawwal, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, when he was performing in Cologne. The hundreds of listeners, though unacquainted with the language of the qawwalis, were swept off their feet by the Ustad’s rendition. They surrounded Khan, trying to converse with him and Ali’s presence was quite a relief. He translated the Germans’ queries into Punjabi and rendered Khan’s answers in their national language. What a pity that the qawwal, who had won laurels in 40 countries, passed away when he was only 47.
Two other celebrities who appear in the book are sarod wizard Ustad Amjad Ali Khan and poet Ali Sardar Jafri, whose first book, as Ali reveals, was a collection of short stories titled Manzil [Destination].
The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities
Milay Jo Kehkashan Mein
By Amjad Ali
Ahmad Publications, Lahore
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 22nd, 2021