Songs of the Soul

Posted on November 6, 2010


Long, meandering thoughts inspired by the long, meandering melody lines in Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s remarkably expressive score for ‘Guzaarish,’ his latest ode to the opera.

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NOV 7, 2010 – METRE IS TO MUSIC what iron bars are to a lioness in captivity – it calms us with the illusion that the untamable has been tamed. Without this rhythmic symmetry, we are no longer in charge. The music is in charge, the music controls us – much like how free verse mandates that we bend to its idiosyncratic will in ways that formally fashioned poetry doesn’t. When music is compacted into neat measures, we can afford to relegate it to the background as we cook and do the laundry and drive to work with the corner of an eye on the latest incoming text message. We can even hum along. Pop music – whose mission is to be contemporary and catchy – thrives on metrical precision, and because most Indian pop music is really film music, our songs are almost always constructed like pop songs, with short musical phrases, with intentional repeats at regular intervals, and with the metre exposed through pulsating percussion. One-two-three-FOUR, one-two-three-FOUR our internal metronome goes, and our feet pick up these subconscious signals and tap along in sweet submission.

The more adventurous composers may adopt the stylings of jazz or classical music or name-the-fad-of-the-moment music, but these venturesome variations will necessarily be confined within the iron bars of the (typical) four-four beat count, so that the music is easy to control, the song is easy to hum, the number is easy to choreograph for its appearance on screen. You cannot endure if you do not abide by these rules, and no one, I suspect, knows this better than the talented Ismail Darbar. Take, for instance, his score for Tera Jadoo Chal Gaya, a fatuous romantic comedy that needed little more than beat-heavy pop music. The numbers that made it to the album, instead, were fiendishly intricate compositions – the title track, Mujhe pyaar karo, Aye chand teri chandni ki kasam – whose time signatures alternated between slow and fast, sometimes within the same song, and whose melody lines were eel-like in their elusiveness. But if Darbar erred in his understanding of how best to serve the film, he did not err with the music. The film was swine, the songs pearls – each and every one a lustrous showcase for the singer.

That’s the reason Darbar found an instant soul mate in Sanjay Leela Bhansali, a filmmaker steeped in music and to whom the singer is the most important constituent of a song. Bhansali is often labeled “operatic” in the loosest, laziest sense of the word – because his mode of operation is melodrama tuned to a soul-shattering pitch. But Bhansali is operatic in a far truer sense – because he draws from the opera (or perhaps an indigenous cousin like the tamasha or the jatra), where the singer’s voice is the prime instrument for conveying emotion. Bhansali is perhaps the only one of our filmmakers to consistently favour the recitative over the aria, the melismatic over the syllabic – his albums are filled with the rhythms of the spoken over those of the sung, with single syllables cresting along multiple melodic notes and freed from excessive metrical constraints. The opening lines of Hamesha tumko chaaha (Devdas) could just as well be spoken: “I’ve always loved you, and I’ve loved nothing else, nothing else.” The rhythms aren’t those of poetry but of prose – but because it’s sung, it approaches the realm of the recitative.

This has been a Bhansali trademark right from the beginning. His films are certainly no stranger to thunderously choreographed movement – Dhol baaje (Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam) or Dola re (Devdas) – but listen to Baahon ki darmiyaan (Khamoshi) or Woh chand jaisi ladki (Devdas), and you’ll hear the silences of the soul. The long melodic phrases go a long way towards delineating mood, lingering without fear of the next iteration of the beat crashing down and setting the course for the next turn of phrase. As a contrast, take AR Rahman’s evocative Kehne ko jashn-e-bahara hai, from Jodhaa Akbar. Even if the song weren’t set to beats, there’s an inherent tick-tock rhythm in the equidistant syllables, which makes the song easy to grasp, easy to get into. It’s pleasant. It’s soothing. It’s a lioness in a cage. But Bhansali’s music – and I deliberately say “Bhansali’s music,” for whether the nominal composer is Darbar or Monty Sharma (who scored the superb soundtrack of Saawariya), the overriding vision appears to be that of the director; it isn’t surprising that the music of Guzaarish has been composed by Bhansali himself – is a bristling force of nature. You approach it with a sense of trepidation and supplication.

At this juncture, let us take a minute to marvel at how the operatic stylings of Bhansali’s music, which we find so difficult to ease into, used to be, like Shakespeare’s plays, enjoyed by all audiences – the classes, the masses, everyone. But today, if you confess to being entertained by Troilus and Cressida or Tristan und Isolde, the perception is likely that you’re a champagne-sipping snob. How and when did this (d)evolution take place? Is it symptomatic of our attention-deficit generation that we will not, in exchange for the rewards of music, proffer up a concentrated chunk of our time? Do we expect something in return for nothing? Or is it a misplaced sense of entitlement that dictates that music should lie at our feet, like an overfed cocker spaniel, obeying our every whim. Sit. Lie down. Play dead. Has this what music become, mere wallpaper to our waking hours?

The flamenco-inflected Udi (belted out by Sunidhi Chauhan with her customary flamboyance) is the closest Guzaarish gets to a conventional song, the kind with a fixed metre that you can hum along with as you go about your chores. The phrases are short and snappy. The beat is overpowering. There’s a chorus that returns frequently, like a marker on a map reassuring us that there is no danger of getting lost. This is the only number that lends itself to frenzied choreography showcasing the physicality of the body – the rest are minuets of the mind. The first few listens may leave the dispiriting impression that the entire soundtrack is awash in the same colour, that the album is the unofficial soundtrack to Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World – but slowly and surely, we realise that the music isn’t so much sad as sentimental, the acoustic equivalent of shades of grey, neither depressingly black nor cheerfully white, and rendered by Bhansali’s usual mix of stars (Sunidhi Chauhan, Shankar Mahadevan, KK, Kunal Ganjawala) and should-have-been-stars (Shail Hada, Vibhavari Joshi, Harshdeep Kaur).

The singers own this soundtrack. This is really crooning of the finest kind, with ample attention paid to feel and phrasing. In the title track, Bas itni si is rendered as Bas itniiiiii si. The words tell us that the singer has the tiniest of requests, to die in his beloved’s arms, which, upon reflection, is not really a tiny request at all – and the elongation of itni hints at the eventual magnification of this request. In Tera zikr, which exudes an incense-shrouded air of spirituality, the singer lingers a few extra seconds on ki in the phrase paagal ki tarah, and you catch a glimpse of his pained madness. In Saiba, the female voice slips in like a sigh at the end of a robust male chorus, and the parsing of paala saalon se leaves you in little doubt about the fervency of her heartache. In Jaane kiske khwab, whose opening lines come closest to pure recitative, note the smallest of pauses between jaagti and aankhon mein bhi, or in Keh na sakun, consider the indulgent wallowing in seh na sakoon main. We form a unique relationship with music when we listen to it, like how we form pictures in our heads when we read. Will these associations we make be amplified by the images on screen, or will Bhansali shape these words, these musical phrasings, into entirely different meanings?

The musical arrangements are imaginative – comprising whistling, piano and solo violin runs, fluttery flamenco-style clapping, harmonica bursts, humming, Spanish guitar passages, a Goanese refrain that appears to be an intertextual link in Saiba and Udi, the trombone oozing from the pores of Chand ki katori – but they remain at a distance, never intruding on the singer, whose voice is always the prime instrument. Despite the operatic techniques, the sound is a lighter sound, in the tradition of lounge and nightclub singing – we get the feeling of the songs being sung directly to us, a feeling that will doubtlessly be amplified in the movie hall. This technique draws attention to the words, which sometimes come off a little too cleverly constructed, a little too fairy-dusted in their whimsy. (You may wince at the tripartite rhymes along the lines of guzaarish/baarish/farmaaish or fikr/fakr/zikr or katori/chatori/batori, but perhaps this is also a function of the uniqueness of the words in the Hindi lyrical universe. After all, we do not bat an eyelid, any longer, when sapna is brought in to rhyme with apna, or when pyaar is followed by iqraar.)

And as you keep listening, and listening, the songs reveal themselves in surprising fashions – the na-na-na humming that becomes an integral extension of the word gungunana (which means humming) in the title track, swept along by the relentless single-note pounding of the piano; or the high-pitched vocal counterpart in Tera zikr that at first comes off like a counterpoint and then like a participant in a duet. (The echoing emphasis on certain words is again a longstanding Bhansali trademark. Tera… tera… tera… zikr hai is just a step removed from Hamesha tumko chaaha… chaaha… chaaha.) Only one tune, Sau gram, gives off a whiff of the familiar – the opening lines a little too close to Anu Malik’s Yaadein title song. But the two stanzas are different (not only from the earlier song, but also from one another), and the number ends with an intriguing twist in the tail, with an imperceptible segue into pop-rock mode.

One of Bhansali’s signatures as a composer, at least from this first album, appears to be the slight nudge into a higher note that suggests a subsequent move to the higher portions of the octave, after which the tune falls back to its earlier terrain – the stray high note, instead of becoming a mere linking device between lower and higher notes, is therefore transformed into a startling splash of colour. He does this in Chand ki katori (possibly my favourite song, along with Keh na sakun; both bring to mind a love-scarred loser singing his heart out to an uncaring audience in a low-rent nightclub reeking of stale cigarette smoke and cheap liquor), in the gentle ascent that begins at saare taare ek taraf, and again in Daayein baayein, at the part that picks up with sar se, phir se. And Bhansali does the reverse in Dhundhli dhundhli, when the singer climbs to ke jaise saaz ke sab taar toot jaate hain, and you think he’s going to fall back to a lower note as usual, but the song keeps climbing – soaring, actually, like the pigeons it alludes to in the lyrics.

That last number is sung magnificently by Shankar Mahadevan, who often comes in for a lot of criticism in the songs he composes as part of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. The charge is that he sings most of their songs – and this leads me to my parting thoughts about singers (and it’s only fitting that these thoughts belong in an appreciation of an album that is, above all, a love letter to the human voice). Singing is more than just keeping in tune. It involves technical skills, comfort in low and high registers, breath control, throw, expressiveness, timbre and tone, warmth and colour. Singing is about investing your personality into the song so that it’s yours and no one else’s. And Shankar Mahadevan does that over and over. Show me another singer, today, who can pull off Baawre or Sapnon se bhare naina from Luck By Chance. Why, then, do we keep harping on the pervasiveness of his voice, like how carpers in an earlier era used to wail endlessly about the Mangeshkar monopoly? The repeated use of an accomplished singer is just the composer’s way of ensuring that his gem is displayed to best possible effect, encased in gold and not in a setting of stainless steel. If the voice fails, how can a song succeed?

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