When discussing Hindi film music and song picturisation, Chetan Anand’s is usually not the first name to pop up. To be sure, it is Vijay Anand who is eternally lauded as a master of song direction. The maker of Guide firmly believed in the idea of music being the soul and backbone of a Bollywood film. And of course, there’s Dev Anand whose golden-age musical legacy is par excellence. The Anand Bros had an extraordinary ear for music and together, their contribution to Bollywood soundtrack is unprecedented and without parallels. Eldest of the three, the erudite Chetan had more of an off-kilter career than Vijay and Dev Anand, two peas in a pond who shared a common cause that took them down the ‘mainstream’ path. Chetan, on the other hand, opted for the road less travelled, to use a cliché. If anything, the handful of films he directed in nearly four decades are studies in contrast – an out-and-out rejection of the commercial Vijay and Dev Anand school. A former teacher, he embodied cinema that drew its dazzle and power from social realism.
One can’t be sure if Chetan took cues from his more popular younger brothers for the songs of 1964’s Haqeeqat, probably Bollywood’s first and most sincerely authentic wartime filmmaking. It can’t be, for he was too much of his own man. But certainly, Haqeeqat’s music remains the highlight of the film set against the tragic backdrop of the 1962 China war, proving that when it comes to songs, Chetan was no less than his brothers or any other Bollywood music maven for that matter. While Haqeeqat’s most famous song, “Ab tumhare hawale watan saathiyo” has become a patriotic heartbeat of the nation over the decades as it plays on loop every Independence and Republic Day, the lesser-known “Ho ke majboor” has its own cult following.
Kickstarting our ‘Song of the Month’ series, let’s explore this elegy to love and loss that is adored by proletarians and purists alike.
Kaifi Azmi-Madan Mohan at their best
Written philosophically with his typical touch of minimalism and irony, “Ho ke majboor” is one of poet Kaifi Azmi’s most heartbreaking love letters to romance, longing and memories. It’s composed with ambitious glee and remarkable command by Madan Mohan and shot by Chetan Anand in a series of close-ups that might remind a viewer of the burnt-out, battle-hardened faces in American Western classics. As if those credentials weren’t enough, just a once-over through the sheer list of singers Madan employs in the song’s service should give you goose-bumps and also tell you how critical and hard this must have been for the composer himself. There’s Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood and a young Bhupinder Singh thrown into this canon. Bhupinder also had the added responsibility of a guest appearance as a soldier, lip-synching as a moonlighting actor to Rafi’s mukhda at first and later shifting to his own voice that many listeners must be familiar with, thanks to his future partnership with Gulzar.
The song, much like the film, is set in Ladakh. As the imminent threat of war looms large in the valley and the enemy (China) closing in inch by inch, “Ho ke majboor” – though sombre and reflective in mood – is a sort of distraction or reprieve for the soldiers and turns their attention away from death and violence to their romantic pasts, love letters sent in by their moony-eyed wives as they wait for their return and simply, the idyll of domestic and conjugal bliss. As Kaifi’s lyrics build tension, giving voice to the soldiers’ interior emotions and expressions, Chetan’s camera emphasises on the grief and pain on their faces. What’s interesting is that Balraj Sahni and Dharmendra, the two main protagonists along with Jayant (Amjad Khan’s father), are notably absent from the song. Sahni’s Major Ranjit Singh appears to be a sneaky presence, or a bystander if you will, but does not participate. There’s a reason for Singh’s diffidence. He was once in love (in one scene, he finally throws the rejected ring and gets closure) and one more time dreams of settling down are rekindled when he briefly meets the beautiful Ladakhi girl played by Priya Rajvansh. But twice unlucky in love, all hopes are dashed when he realises that her lover, captain Bahadur Singh (Dharmendra), has escaped a skirmish on the border and is very much alive.
Once you have that knowledge and the backstory, you realise what a masterstroke it is to not include the film’s major stars in what is clearly the film’s most poetic and sublime anthem and let Bhupinder and Co take over, instead. “Ho ke majboor” is also a fine example of ensemble song and shows the human side to a war that is otherwise concerned with casualties, numbers, strategy, conflict and manpower.
Dedicated to Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Haqeeqat makes for a fascinating watch in the Modi-era zeitgeist. History tells us that India lost the border war with China, the blame falling squarely on Nehru for a lack of war preparedness and grave tactical errors. Despite the loss, Haqeeqat makes its admiration for Nehru clear. It invokes the Congress leader more than a few times. Reportedly, it was on Nehru’s insistence that distributors had agreed to sell Chetan Anand’s debut Neecha Nagar (1946). Unmistakably, with Haqeeqat, it was payback time for Chetan. There are moments in the film when we are reminded that this is a peace-loving nation of Buddha and Gandhi and our civilisation has never launched an attack, or set about conquering another country. “Don’t fire the first bullet,” is a refrain heard repeatedly, as is Nehru’s slogan ‘Hindi-Chini-Bhai-Bhai’, a world apart from Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019) whose war cry “How’s the josh? and “Yeh ghar mein ghusega bhi, aur maarega bhi” is an ode to the “Naya Hindustan” that is defined more by new-found acts of aggression and retaliation. The rusty nonviolence of Gautam Buddha, Lord Ram and Gandhi has no place in Uri.
Just as Vicky Kaushal’s recent blockbuster had the belligerence of Modi writ all over it, Haqeeqat is soaked in Nehru-ism. In the time of Uri, the Chetan Anand film stands out as a refreshing breather. It offers newer and deeper meanings of patriotism. There’s ample killing but no chest-thumping. “Ab tumhare hawale watan saathiyo” plays achingly in the end as Dharmendra and Priya Rajvansh are ambushed and ultimately fall prey to the enemy’s bullet as do hundreds of Indian fighters. The film may be a dedication to Pandit Nehru but the Indian Army is its ultimate hero.
Golden-era’s most underrated talent
Back to “Ho ke majboor”. In most likelihood, it can be seen as a prototype for the hit song “Sandese aate hain” (JP Dutta’s Border, 1997) written by Kaifi’s son-in-law Javed Akhtar. With Kaifi Azmi at his poetic best, “Ho ke majboor” is a reminder of the Urdu poet’s small but first-rate body of work in Hindi cinema. As writer Javed Akhtar attests in Nasreen Munni Kabir’s Talking Songs, “By temperament, Kaifi was more of a poet than a lyricist. He had the dignity and the power of a poet in his lyrics. He wasn’t a regular professional lyricist like the others who churned out songs by the dozen.” Before Kaifi, Sahir Ludhianvi – who, unlike Kaifi, was a poet very much interested in becoming a successful songwriter – was a Navketan regular. Maestro Sahir’s association with Anand brothers’ Navketan ushered in the golden-era of Hindi songs. Their collaboration produced hits like Baazi, Taxi Driver and Hum Dono etc. After Haqeeqat, Chetan and Kaifi sealed their relationship further in the 1970s with Hindustan Ki Kasam, the former’s return to war subject and the full-in-verse Heer-Raanjha.
Chetan shared a great personal and professional rapport with Balraj Sahni. Sahni’s understated style and subtleties of language and craft cutting out all the noise of prevalent over-the-top melodrama suited directors like Chetan who championed neorealism. All these stalwarts were active in the Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA), a linchpin of the 1950s Hindi cinema. The BBC London-returned Sahni had earlier written Guru Dutt’s Baazi for Navketan in 1951. Close friends from their Lahore days, Sahni was apparently a regular at the sought-after salons Chetan hosted at his Pali Hill, Bandra home attended by writers, musicians and intellectuals. In his memoir, Sahni recalls how soon after his return to Bombay he ran into Chetan at a bank where he was withdrawing cash. “A shared weakness for writing poems in English coupled with a passion for dramatics had made us close friends when we were students of the Government College, Lahore,” writes Sahni. Interestingly, both had pursued a career in teaching before cinema beckoned.
Poetry and literature was Chetan’s métier as a filmmaker. For his 1946 debut Neecha Nagar, he turned to the Russian master Maxim Gorky and later adapted Gogol’s farcical Inspector General for Afsar, a 1950 comedy of errors starring Dev Anand. “He was the first director to introduce the western touch to Indian cinema,” nephew Shekhar Kapur once observed in an interview, adding, “Chetansaab was superb in moments of silence, extracting performances from his actors and in conveying a lyrical mood through his films.”
Certainly, no Chetan Anand song reflects the “lyrical mood” better than “Ho ke majboor”, easily one of the high points of his brave and avant-garde, if grossly underrated, body of work. It’s about time the eldest Anand denizen, who died in 1997 at 76, is lifted from undeserved obscurity to where he truly belongs. Kudos to the likes of Shekhar Kapur, Sriram Raghavan, Sudhir Mishra and others who show up from time to time to remind us of their favourite role model.
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