Down Melody Lane: Reconnecting with Music for the Soul through Hrishikesh Mukherjee films

October 07, 2007
Kavita Chhibber

It is true that while film is a visual medium, Indian cinema is often defined by the music it presents within its realm. I don't know about others but each time I come out of a cinema hall, the first thing I hum is the music.

I have to admit though that in recent years I'm beginning to fast forward a lot of movie songs in films because of the poor quality of lyrics or melody.

Today the mediocrity of most music that is being churned out is camouflaged by heavy orchestration, a lot of hoopla and hype and many companies are spending mega bucks to promote their albums. And yet most singers worth their salt know what works what doesn't.

When I asked Asha Bhosle what she thought of today's music and singers, she had said, "Not much really. In those days apart from having great musicians we had amazing songwriters, that is why those melodies are evergreen. Today for how long are you going to listen to songs like "Kambaqht Ishq" and "Ishq Kamina?" In addition, television has given mediocre music an extended lease on life. A song is aired, you can see it is average, but when it is aired repeatedly, you start accepting it, but it never ceases to amaze me how people with such limited knowledge of music or little talent can go and release albums at the drop of the hat!"

Sonu Niigaam who has become quite choosy about what he wants to sing adds that, "The world has changed and marketing is playing a big role in music economics. These days there is lesser and lesser focus on integrity, talent and hard work. If you can market yourself well, you can be a star,"

When I asked the legendary Manna Dey who can still give a youngster a run for their money, at 87 why he was not singing in films, he answered "Can you single out one composer today who is the caliber of the musicians of my times or knows what he is doing? Whatever is happening in the field of music is very unhealthy. Thanks to music videos anyone and every one can become a singer, so one good thing has happened, even if they don't know how to, every one sings! When there are songs like Main to Seeti Baja Raha Tha, Bhelpuri Kha Raha tha, Tujhe Mirchi Lagi to Main Kya Karoon, ("I was eating bhelpuri and whistling and if you thought the chilies were too spicy what can I do?") what do you expect? Even regional music is cloning itself on Bollywood music."

That is why it has been such a pleasure to revisit Hrishikesh Mukherjee's life and work and do this segment on music from his films.

I have been speaking to various actors, singers, writers and people like you and me, and the thing that stands out so clearly is how while everyone talks of Hrishi da's editorial and directorial talent, in the same breath they also reverently mention the stellar music in his films.

He is perhaps one director, whose films had music flowing like a river of rich, enchanting, timeless melody into the ocean of visuals, coloring the canvas of his films in warm, uplifting hues. From the stellar unforgettable music of Anuradha by Pandit Ravi Shankar, to the heart melting lyrics and melodies of "Anupama," to the mesmerizing music of "Abhimaan" and "Anand," and who can forget the soulful "Jeevan se lambe hain bandhu, yeh jeevan ke rastey", or the heartbreaking "ik tha bachpan" from "Ashirwad" - Hrishi da's films had outstanding music. Who can forget the unforgettable number from "Namakharam" - "Main Shayar badnam" and the impish "Aayo kahan se ghanshyam" from "Buddha mil gaya"? Indeed every Hrishikesh Mukherjee film was sprinkled with gems that were embellished with good lyrics and soulful melodies.

Many people don't know that Hrishikesh Mukherjee and his brother Kashinath Mukherjee were very accomplished sitar players and the whole family comprises of academic super achievers.

His son Pratip had mentioned to me that "Baba won the gold medal at a competition for young sitarists. Vilayat Khan Sahib and Amir Khan taught his brother and Baba would meet Vilayat Khan Sahib all the time." Pratip would make cds of classical music and Hrishi da would listen to those cds while the dialysis was going on, in the last months of his life. Towards the end Pratip introduced him to Shujaat Khan's folk music. "His CD Lajo Lajo was played even at our daughter Priyanka's wedding. In fact when I took the CD to him, being a hard core classical music lover he was hesitant and said - are you sure I should listen to it? When he did he was hooked. He also listened to other CDs of Shujaat Khan's singing all the time and just fell in love with his singing."

When I shared that with Shujaat Khan he was deeply touched and told me that to have a man who is considered not only among the greatest film directors but also the greatest human beings say that about his music meant more to him that any amount of success, fame or money he could have made. Shujaat pointed out that what really stood out in his mind was the fact that the lyrics and melody of songs in Hrishi da's films were went hand in hand. Often you will see good melody but poor lyrics and at others good lyrics not supported by good music. Hrishi da was the rare film maker whose film songs had both, says Shujaat Khan. He singled out songs from Anand and Main shayar badnaam from Namakharam as his personal favorites.

Pandit Ravi Shankar recalls that when he met Hrishi da he took to him immediately because of his warmth and loving nature. " He called me Robu da,' recalls Ravi ji and added that the making of Anuradha was such a pleasure, also because of the presence of lyricist par excellence Shailendra, and the nightingale of India Lata Mangeshkar. I actually got the eternal romantic Ravi ji to admit first time on record that he had the biggest crush on Lata ji when he met her. "She looked so beautiful and her voice just killed me," said Ravi ji, admitting that he was really attracted to her. He says even today when he hears her voice on the phone he misses a heart beat, and that he knows no one who has enthralled millions of listeners for so many years. "Lata will be Lata. There is no one like her."

The recording for those four evergreen songs from "Anuradha" was done in two days, and he recalls Lata ji climbing four floors without a lift to come to see him and they all sat there together - Lata Ji, Raviji, Hrishi da and Shailendra to put together the lyrics and compositions for " Kaise din beetey, Kaise beeti ratiyan, sanware, saanware, jane kaise sapnon mein kho gayi ankhiyaan and hai re who din kyon na aaye. The composition for Anuradha has been consistently ranked among the finest in the last 100 years of film music.

I have to thank Pt Ravi Shankar's lovely wife Sukanya who not only made sure this interview happened in spite of a very short notice and their hectic travels across the globe, but she is the one who mischievously told me about Ravi ji's crush on Lata ji . Sukanya ji loves Lata ji just as much, and of course we both had a field day teasing the maestro!

Lata ji has the same kind of love and affection for Ravi ji and told me that Anuradha remained her personal favorite as well when it came to songs from Hrishi da 's film. Lata ji's association with Hrishi da began in the 50s when he was the editor and writer for the great Bimal Roy's film Do Beegha zamin. When Hrishi da directed his first film Musafir, Lata ji sang a duet with the legendary Dilip Kumar in it and after that she has sung for every one of Hrishi da's films.

While her association with Hrishi da was limited to meeting at work, Lata ji says she knows that he had deep love and admiration for her, and he would come to wish her even when she was recording for someone else and he happened to be visiting the studio. She loves every one of his films because she saw a social message and something positive, something good emerging out of each movie. Lata ji said Anuradha has special memories for her because the story revolved around music and the life of a singer who left a high profile career for love and marriage with an idealistic doctor. He chose to live in a village as she struggled with being a home maker and sacrificing her love for music. The story touched Lata ji's heart and the fact that two of her favorite people, Ravi ji and Hrishi da were an intrinsic part of it made it even more memorable.

While Ravi ji loves "Kaise din beetey" from the film Lata ji said "Jaane kaise sapnon mein kho gayi ankiyan" was a very tough song to sing and her favorite number from the film is "Hai re who din kyon na aye." She said she can recall very vividly even now how Ravi ji sat with her and listened as she rehearsed and told her how to sing each line and at the end of it he patted her back and told her it went off very well. Lata ji also talks about the deep understanding Hrishi da had of music. "Music was his life; He often talked about various ragas with me, asking if I had learnt a particular raga or what something in a raga meant and so on." Lata ji recalled how for "sanware sanware", Ravi ji had recorded the music and left for the US. It was Hrishi da and she who went to the studio and recorded the song without anyone else being there. That was due to his depth of understanding music.

The legendary Manna Dey mentioned how Bade Ghulam Ali and Amir Khan visited the Mukherjee home and that he was the proud possessor of some rare recordings given to him by Hrishi da's younger brother Dwarkanath or Chotu, as Manna Dey fondly called him, to cherish and enjoy. Manna Dey said he would meet Hrishi da during recordings and he was introduced to him by R.D. Burman. But as he got to know Hrishi da he realized what a terrific sense of humor he had. Manna Dey was also very impressed by his films and said he loved watching all of them.

At one point of time Manna Dey wanted to make a film and he used Hrishi da's movies to learn from them. Manna Dey talked about the song "Jeevan se lambe hain bandhu, yeh jeevan ke rastey," from Hrishida's film "Ashirwad". He said while it was music director Vasant Desai who gave him that song to sing, the amazing way Hrishi da filmed the sequence, moved Manna Dey to tears. The legendary singer regrets the fact that ill health slowed down Hrishi da and that he passed away so soon. There was a lot he had to offer the world. "He never made films like the other Bbollywood people. Hrishikesh had his own stamp. He used his music for his films. He didn't use his films for his music." It is a very telling statement, because today it seems to be the opposite.

Singing superstar Sonu Niigaam thoughtfully sent me an email reminding me that he started his career officially in the Bombay film industry with a song in Hrishi da's last venture, a TV serial called Talaash. In spite of a hectic schedule, and having been away from home for several months, Sonu who had just reached Bombay, came out of a recording studio just to do his segment on this web cast. Sonu told me the film Ashirwaad had been his personal favorite, 'I have seen this film at least 10 times and cried each time." Sonu said he considers it a lucky omen that he began his career with a song for Hrishi da and as he consolidated his position in the film industry he began to understand and value Hrishida in so many different ways. His biggest regret was the fact that by the time he arrived in the industry Hrishi da was not keeping good health and was not making films. "Otherwise I would have sat at his door and asked him to let me work in one of his films."

Sonu says he firmly believes whatever Amitabh Bachchan is today as an actor is because of the roles that Hrishi da gave him. He was so lucky to have such a strong foundation, says Sonu, to have such a superb teacher so early on his career. "Today if Amitabh Bachchan is taken as a serious actor, and the depth that you see in his performance are all due to Hrish da. Had he just worked with Prakash Mehra and Manmohan Desai, he would never have been taken that seriously." Sonu said personally if he could he would have loved to do Ashok Kumar's role in Ashirwad.

Lata ji made my day when she told me that the song I liked the most in "Abhimaan" - "Nadiya kinare" was also a personal favorite of hers. I asked Ravi ji jokingly did he regret not doing more films with Hrishi da and with his usual humility he laughed and said "Not really because Hrishi da ended up doing such stellar work with S.D. and R.D Burman."

Hrishi da's son Pratip says he feels the songs of Anuradha remained Hrishi da's personal favorites till the end, though Swati his daughter in law mentioned that she often heard him sing,' Sun sun sun didi tere liye ik rishta aya hai," from Khubsoorat.

Hrishi da was a very economical director, and as Amitabh Bachchan mentioned in the first segment, he edited everything in his mind. Nitin Mukesh mentioned how for Anand he just told Rajesh Khanna to keep walking on the beach. A flummoxed Rajesh Khanna did as he was told. When he saw the actual song Zindagi kaisi hai paheli, he was astounded. Hrishi da had added so much more to that walk-the perfect sunset, balloons, and the hustle bustle of the beach that it was a far cry from what anyone could have imagined.

While "Anuradha", "Anand", "Anupama", "Abhimaan" and "Namakharam" were films that were repeatedly mentioned by everyone when they were asked to pick their favorite songs, there are so many gems that shimmer through. Lata ji revived some lovely memories when she talked about two songs she loved from "Alaap", a movie Amitabh Bachchan too is very fond of but it wasn't a commercial hit. "Mata Saraswati Sharada" is such an amazing rendition - just the alaap by Lata ji gave me chills. The second song she loves is "Kahe Manva gaye hamra"... it has such a soft, romantic lilt to it. "Chand Akela" and "Koi gaata main so jaata" are again outstanding numbers. "Anari" is another film which has lovely numbers and Mukesh outdid himself and the music of Shankar Jaikishan was amazing. Look at Asli Nkali - Tujhe jeevan kid or se bandh liya hai, tera mera pyar amar, or Chupke Chupke - every song had the sweetest melody and Sonu chose the fun filled "Saregama" as his personal favorite. The list is never ending.

This segment has been a pleasure to present, because not only did I get to talk to legendary and immensely gifted musicians, I also got a front seat view of the man who made stellar music an intrinsic part of his film making. I'd like to thank Pt Ravi Shankar for talking to me and Sukanya Shankar his lovely wife for making this interview happen at a very short notice in between their hectic traveling, Lata Mangeshkar for being so warm and accessible, and contrary to her serious image, a lot of fun to talk to. Many thanks to Manna Dey who was in the middle of shifting houses and still took the time to do the interview, and Shujaat Khan who was also traveling when I called him. Sonu Niigaam who has such a full plate that I get exhausted just looking at his itinerary. He has been away from home and will be back in the US to perform at Harvard during the ceremonies to swear in Drew Faust Harvard's first woman President. Sonu is the first Indian artist to be invited, ever, at Harvard, and he was not just sweet enough to run out of a recording to do this interview but also sang two songs for me on his cell phone, not really bothering about the logistics. Its shows his warmth and self confidence as a singer, but more than that the love Hrishi da still evokes in the heart of all these artists who are either already legends or on their way to becoming future legends. I'm reminded of Amit ji's last dialogue in Anand "Anand Mara nahin. Anand martey nahin." And Hrishi da lives on in all our hearts, through his stories and the melodies that evoke a song in our hearts and a smile on our lips.

I'll be back next week with more interviews, more memories.

Please click here for "Down Melody Lane": Part II of KavitaChhibber.com's Special Webcast Tribute to Hrishikesh Mukherjee - Listen to Kavita's conversations with the interviewees featured in this article.

Part I: "Hrishikesh Mukherjee: Timeless Stories that Warm the Heart" written by Kavita.

KAVITA CHHIBBER is an accomplished freelance writer and media personality. She is well-known for her in-depth interviews of celebrities, authors and public officials. She also writes hard-hitting news articles and cover stories for publications. You can get a full range of her work and her interests (including astrology!) at KavitaChhibber.com.
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