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Why the Words Still Sing

Avijit Ghosh
April 8, 2013

Last month when the song, “Bolo Na” from the 2012 film, Chittagong, received the national award for best lyrics, many music lovers not having heard it before immediately logged onto the Internet to hear the number. Written by Prasoon Joshi, the song talks about hesitant love; it has the flavor of early spring, of flowers yet to bloom. The words go: Bolo naa, bolo naa // Rituon ko ghar sey nikalne toh do // Boye the mausam khilne toh do // Hothon ki munder pe ruki // Motiyon si baat bol do // Pheeki pheeki si hai zindagi // Cheeni cheeni khwab ghol do (Say something // let the seasons step out of home // let the season we had sowed blossom // the words at the edge of your lips // let those pearls emerge // our life is drab // sugar them with your dreams).

This quality verse had gone largely unnoticed until it earned the national award, but thanks to the recognition, “Bolo Na” will be at least a footnote in the history of Hindi film music. Not every song is so lucky. Many other soft, melodious tracks with first-rate lyrics don’t get a second shot at glory. Like desert flowers that die unseen, these songs perish almost unheard, often underfeted.

There is a lament over the quality of Hindi film lyrics these days. The popular view is that the golden days of lyrics are dead and gone, and will never return. In times when “Chikni Chameli” (Agneepath), “Anarkali Disco Chali” (Houseful 2) and “Halkat Jawani” (Heroine) are the rage in parties, it is hard to argue against that. And who’s forgotten that in 2010, much of popular debate on music centered over which song is better: “Munni badnaam hui” (Dabangg) or “Sheila ki jawani” (Tees Maar Khan).

But pop charts are only an indicator of popular taste, of the tyranny of numbers. Every year, a fecund crop of well-written songs vanish into the wilderness, barely heard. Lyricists lament that the fate of a song is decided not by the quality of its words, but whether it is part of the film’s promotion package on television or not. Among the five or six songs that an average film has, only one or two are chosen for promotion. Normally, rhythm-driven tracks or item numbers are preferred; songs that are danced to in nightclubs and performed by film stars in marriage ceremonies and television shows. There’s a cultural economy working in favor of such songs. Softer numbers with more melody, and often with more meaning, have the odds stacked against them, especially if they belong to a small film.

Yet there is plenty to feel positive and be excited about in the current Hindi music scene. Undeniably, the songs of the 1950s and 60s had good, even great poetry. But they also had a flaw. Most songs were written in the language of the poet, not of the character. In fact, the introductory essay Global Bollywood by Sangita Gopal and Sujata Moorti quotes musicologist Ashraf Aziz saying that Shailendra was “an ideal film lyricist” because he “created a precise but limited range of words and metaphors that he recycled in his songs thus orienting his craft to the film song and its specific modes of circulation.”

Well-known Urdu poet and songwriter Nida Fazli further explains the point. “There was sameness in the way the lyrics were constructed,” he says. In other words, an actor could be playing a motor mechanic, a clerk, a police officer, or a rickshaw puller, but he always sang in a poet’s language. “In that sense, today’s lyrics are closer to the user’s language,” says Fazli.

Take the word “Ainvaye,” used in a song in the film, Band, Baja Baraat. Ainvaye is a colloquial word which roughly translates to “just like that” or “without any reason.” The usage is in tune with the social background of the character who isn’t exactly the epitome of sophistication. He sings in the language of his speech.

Lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya, who wrote that song, says that certain songs are designed for the character keeping the lingo in mind. “I personally insist on the dialogue draft of the film. So that I know what language the character is speaking and keep as much of that is in the songs. It helps keep a song relatable to the character,” he says.

Apart from staying close to the character’s speech, many lyrics nowadays also stay close to their train of inner thoughts. The increasing use of songs in the background has certainly helped that cause. Take the number, Pankhon ko hawa zara si lagne do (lyrics: Jaideep Sahni) from the film, Rocket Singh. The song outlines what life has in store for a guy who has barely graduated with 39 percent marks. It goes: Uljhe nahi to kaise suljhoge // bikhre nahi to kaise nikhroge (If you don’t get confused // how will you be resolved, and if you don’t fall apart first // how will you gather yourself together).

There are many other examples of precise songwriting. Prasoon Joshi writes, in the film Delhi 6, Darare darare hain mathe pe maula // marrammat muqaddar ki kar de maula (there are fissures in my life // can you repair my kismet o lord). It sounds prosaic in translation but “marrammat” (repair) is a marvelous choice of word, as is using the word, darar (fissure), to explain the creases in the forehead.

Then again, Gulzar comes up with the evocative lines in the track, “Jab bhi cigarette” (No Smoking): Dam mein dhaage dhuen ke, saans silne lagi hai, pyaas udhadhti hui hai, honth chhilne lage hain (In the puff, there is a string of smoke // it’s stitching up my breath // Thirst is unpeeling me // And my lips are getting bruised). There is a poetic elegance with which he is talking about the after-effects of smoking.

“Pehli baar mohabbat ki hai” (Kaminey) offers another Gulzar special. At one place, he writes, Ek hi lat suljhane mein saari raat bitayi hai (I have spent an entire night sorting out one knot in your hair). There is astonishing delicateness in that imagination, but few pay attention to the beauty of such lyrics, often because they are overridden by strong music.

Additionally, who can deny that Gangs of Wasseypur’s opening track written by Piyush Mishra – Ik bagal mein chand hoga, ik bagal mein rotiyaan, ik bagal mein neend hogi, ik bagal mein loriyaan, (There will be moon on one side and bread on the other, there will be sleep on one side and lullabies on the other) – isn’t a first-rate verse.

In conclusion, despite the limitation of working in a professional system that doesn’t care much for good poetry, Bollywood songwriting has found a fresh, distinctive voice with a lot of creative energy on display. The lyricists are engaging with the colloquial, looking at love and every other emotion in a modern, lived-in way. It is comfortable in its own skin. Simply put, it has evolved just like Bombay cinema and India itself. And that’s why rumors of the death of good poetry in Hindi films are premature. 

The coming years are likely to see both a surfeit of item numbers as well as a bunch of meaningful poetry-driven songs in Mumbai cinema. The odds are that we may not be paying as much attention to the latter as to the former. Ironically, though, while the quality of words has soared, the value of the songwriter is on a downward spiral. That’s the paradox of the times.

Avijit Ghosh is a Senior Editor at
The Times of India. He is a CASI Spring 2013 Visiting Scholar. He can be reached at avijitghosh65@gmail.com


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania and partially funded by the Nand and Jeet Khemka Foundation. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI and the Khemka Foundation.

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