Musical meditation

Posted on September 5, 2015


Thoughts on the philosophical song, so much a part of our films at one time, but not anymore.

As a movie, I did not care much for Manjhi: The Mountain Man, but there are some interesting things in it, like the song O Rahi. I’m talking about its lyrics, which go Chal apna rasta bana… Badlega khud ko to hi badlega yeh jahaan… Chingaari hogi to aag jagegiGo make your own path… Change yourself and see the world change… You have to light a spark to make a fire. These are the kind of words you used to find on motivational posters on office walls – which, these days, have been downsized to positive-thinking pictures on your Facebook wall. These particular lyrics aren’t the greatest, but I’m talking about the genre of the song: the philosophical (or spiritual, or motivational) song that rises above the specifics –  the specific character, the specific film – and resonates with a larger truth, something that could be about you or me. It was good to see a film make room for such a song again.

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The most moving story I’ve heard surrounding this genre of song has to do with the Tamil lyricist Vaali. Accounts of his life have it that he was contemplating suicide at one point, until he heard a song (Mayakkama kalakkama, from the film Sumaithaangi) written by the legendary Kannadasan. That’s the power a popular song can wield, and Kannadasan had a godly talent for imprisoning cosmic truths in five-minute bars of melody. It’s impossible to pick one, but take Aasaye alai poleyWishes are like waves, we are but boats that bob on them. It isn’t just the thought. It’s the astounding imagery. The restlessness, the tidal pulls of the water. The rockiness of the boats on them, mirroring the wavering mind. The words are like exfoliation for the soul. It’s why night was invented. The clamour of life over, you sit back and clear the mind with this uniquely Indian mode of musical meditation.

The romantic duet shows no sign of disappearing. The let’s-have-fun-with-friends number, too, is alive and kicking. Even the sad song keeps popping up. But the philosophical song is on life support. You hear a reassuring wheeze once in a while. Yun hi chala chal from Swades. Or the gorgeous Arziyaan from Delhi-6, with the plea Marammat muquaddar ki kar do Maula, as if fate were something that could be repaired, like a table with a wobbly leg. And this year, we’ve had the superb Unakkenna venum sollu, from Yennai Arindhaal, with a father jotting down life lessons for his daughter. Maybe this isn’t exactly a philosophical song – the Tamil term, thathuva paadal sounds so much better – in the sense that it’s a little too tethered to these two characters, but it’s a great example of how a song with philosophical undertones can be fitted into a modern-day movie (a mammoth star vehicle, no less), whose rhythms are expressly determined to indulge the texting-tweeting audience.

The young audience, in other words. Ask a filmmaker why he doesn’t commission philosophical songs, and he’ll probably say that you can’t just thrust a heavy-sounding number into a narrative meant for young audiences, for whom most movies are made today – they’d hoot, holler, or worse, tune out of the film and start updating their Twitter feeds about how bored they are. Maybe that’s why films, these days, don’t pause to reflect, to philosophise. Main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gayaI went along where life took me, blowing off worries like cigarette smoke. Songs don’t get much younger, happy-go-luckier than this number from Hum Dono, and yet it’s hard to see today’s young audiences sit through a stretch where the protagonist just… mused like this. What would Dev Anand’s songs – or Raj Kapoor’s, for that matter –have been like if today’s distractions had existed then? Maybe we’d have had no Jeena yahan marna yahan… Or Kisiki muskuraahaton pe ho nisaar… Or Kiska rasta dekhe

The placement of this kind of song is as important as its presence, and one of my favourite instances is from Gunga Jumna. The story is about two brothers from an underprivileged family who end up on opposite sides of the law, and right from the first scene we see these oppositions. The teenaged Gunga is already doing menial jobs. The younger Jumna, though, is destined for greater things. Hinting at the law-keeper he will become, we see him hunched over his schoolwork, reciting mantras (Lying is a sin… Stealing is a sin) that, in the hands of a lyricist, could well yield a philosophical song. A little later, Gunga and his mother drop Jumna off at school and go to work. It’s a typical upper-class household – a shrewish wife, an alcoholic husband. After yelling at the mother, the wife asks Gunga to rouse the still-sleeping husband, who ends up thrashing the boy for his efforts. The camera zooms in to register the boy’s face, his hurt, and we cut to the teacher at school leading the class in the marvellously idealistic Insaaf ki dagar pe, whose lines are like the mantras Jumna was reciting earlier. It’s a philosophical song, all right, but it comes as a counterpoint, as if to say that idealism is all well and good if you have the luxury of sitting in school and spouting those ideals. That’s its own kind of philosophy.

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