Sweetest Songs, Saddest Thoughts

If Mohammad Rafi indeed cried more than he sang, it was because he understood love. So did the other balladeers of sorrow in Hindi film music.

Written by Manjiri Indurkar | New Delhi | Published: November 13, 2016 12:00 am
Playback singer Mohammad Rafi playing harmonium. Express archive photo by Mohan Wagh Playback singer Mohammad Rafi playing harmonium. Express archive photo by Mohan Wagh

If Mohammad Rafi indeed cried more than he sang, it was because he understood love. So did the other balladeers of sorrow in Hindi film music.

“Tonight I can write the saddest lines I loved her, and sometimes she loved  me too.”
– Pablo Neruda, ‘Twenty Love Poems  and a Song of Despair’

To be able to celebrate sadness, longing, melancholia and despair, is to be able to celebrate love. In the longing for a love lost, or a love never quite found, and in the desire of getting past it, is a quiet surrender to life. After all, as Neruda says in the same poem, “Love is so short, forgetting is so long”. It is why most songs are either written about love, or the loss of it. Music and melancholia are the companions of those who suffer heartbreak.

ranbir-kapoor-ae-dil-hai-mushkil Cry me a river: Mohammad Rafi; Ranbir Kapoor in Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Dharmendra in Anupama.

In a scene in Karan Johar’s film Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Ranbir Kapoor’s Ayaan is told that his singing, while melodious, isn’t something that touches hearts. He hasn’t experienced loss yet. The loss that Anushka Sharma’s Alizeh talks about is also the absence of a tragedy, a life-altering experience, the realisation that life cannot be shielded from unkind experiences. In the same scene, Alizeh, when told by Ayaan that he sings like Mohammad Rafi, asks him, didn’t Rafi sing less and cry more?

That joke has, of course, led to a furore. Crying, it has been assumed, denigrates Rafi’s art in some way. If Rafi cried more than he sang, did it make him a bad singer? Or was he all the better for it? If you look at the ways and the reasons for which men have cried in Bollywood, it makes their history vibrant. In Amar Prem, Rajesh Khanna’s character often tells Sharmila Tagore’s Pushpa, “I hate tears,” but Khanna’s Amar cries more than the ill-fated Pushpa. Kishore Kumar’s Chingari koi bhadke is nothing if not the lament of a broken man.

Crying men have made their gurus walk. It’s what Bharat Bhushan’s Baiju Bawra did by singing Mann tadpat Hari darshan ko aaj; Rafi even made gods cry in this film. Didn’t the great KL Saigal ask us Jab dil hi toot gaya, hum jeeke kya karenge?

The cinematic landscape has seen a lot of changes. We have graduated from the Alpha-male to the sensitive one. But their lament has remained unchanged. From Kishore Kumar singing Badi suni suni hai, to Suresh Wadkar’s Aaina humein dekhke hairan sa kyu hai to the more recent Maula mere le le meri jaan (Krishna Beura, Salim Merchant), grief is a rich tradition in Hindi film music.

Men don’t cry, they brood. But what is Hemant Mukherjee’s Ya dil ki suno duniya walo, if not Dharmendra’s cry in Anupama. Surprisingly, the film explores the journey of a woman through the difficult relationships of her life, but its female lead sings about love that exists in silences: Kuch dil ne kaha? Kuch bhi nahi.

As I listen to all the beloved songs of sadness, I find men feature more on my list than women. Sure I love Geeta Dutt’s Ja ja ja bewafa, I can’t get enough of Lata Mangeshkar’s Naam gum jaega; and who can ever forget Asha Bhosle’s Mera kuch saaman? But most of these are songs about a love that has been lost to circumstances, or death. This love isn’t unrequited. This love isn’t about loneliness that the absence of love brings in life. This love certainly isn’t about the love for one’s craft. So it got me wondering, why are no women singing Musafir hoon yaaron? Or Main shayar badnaam? And why is it that it’s only men who get to sing Channa mereya at a lover’s wedding? Or Rang aur noor ki baraat, for that matter?

Basu Bhattacharya’s Avishkar— the second installment of the director’s trilogy which explored urban relationships — opens with Manna Dey singing Hasne ki chah ne kitna mujhe rulaya hai. What is this sorrow that belongs to two people who are incapable of loving each other, incapable of leaving each other? And why did it come to us in the voice of Manna Dey, and not Geeta Dutt? Are women crying in the voice of men? Think of Kai baar yuhi dekha hai from the film Rajnigandha. Isn’t Vidya Sinha speaking about her longing in the voice of Mukesh? So, has the film industry rendered women incapable of expressing love ? One reason, perhaps, could be that most stories are written from a man’s point of view.

Women, in their limited existence on the celluloid screen, have been asked to cry about their lovers. But they don’t dare cry in rebellion. They don’t throw a fit at their lover’s wedding, nor do they weep in front of the wedding guests. Women don’t sing songs about their inner angst. They don’t walk the paths of the world on their own. Lata did not sing Aaj purani raahon se koi mujhe aawaz na de, like Rafi did. Women live internal lives, in the real and reel worlds. In Kaise din beete, kaise beeti ratiyan, piya jaane na, as Leela Naidu cries in the voice of Lata Mangeshkar, we get to understand the marginality of their lives.
Poet Sumana Roy, in her poem about longing titled Biraha, writes: “These tears, these long solstices/ are love’s pension./ And you’ll still say that biraha/ is only the fourth dimension?” What Roy explains to us is that sorrow is not just the fourth dimension, it is what encompasses love. It exists in spaces between two people and not outside it. If Rafi was indeed crying more than singing, he understood love. So did the other singers. For the sake of this love that is biraha, melancholia, and sadness, can we all stop whining, and just cry?

Manjiri Indurkar writes from Delhi. She is one of the founder-editors of the web magazine Antiserious.

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