“It was like something Manna Dey would have sung, way back in the 1950s,” Ishqiya director Abhishek Chaubey says, recalling the first time he had heard “Dil toh baccha hai ji”. Composer Vishal Bhardwaj had pumped out the tune on his harmonium, set to dummy lyrics that went “Hum toh umro hi umro mein badhte rahe”. Starring Naseeruddin Shah, Vidya Balan and Arshad Warsi, Ishqiya marked Chaubey’s debut as a director. He had started his career assisting Vishal Bhardwaj, but here he was calling the shots, with Bhardwaj chipping in his outsized talents as music director. For Ishqiya — released exactly ten years ago today — the young filmmaker had an “Eastern European musical palette” in mind with their sharp emphasis on accordion. After Bhardwaj’s “unusual sound” for “Dil toh baccha hai ji” was ready and composed to his original vision, Chaubey was all set to meet his mentor’s mentor. “Vishal just said go see Gulzar saab, ‘Unko gaana samjha de.’ I was like, ‘Gulzar saab ko main kya samjha sakta hun?'” So, they went together to meet the legend, armed with an ideal lyrical precedent — the popular 1950s hit “Abhi toh main jawan hoon”.
“When Gulzar saab heard the reference, he immediately said, ‘Dil toh baccha hai ji.’ Both Vishal and I looked at each other because we knew we had got our line,” Chaubey recalls, adding, “It was an easy hook and we knew that everybody was going to remember it.” Initially, Chaubey had bet “Ibn Battuta” would be a more popular song because of its catchy tune and situation (it’s an ode to classic male bonding, two guys on a fun journey) and had thought “Dil toh baccha hai ji” would have a small following due to its slower tempo and the unconventional setting of an older man, loopy in love, expressing his newfound passion for a younger woman. Today, a decade later, Chaubey says, “Gulzar saab is the finest lyricist of this country, but even he can surprise you sometimes. ‘Dil toh baccha hai ji’ is gob-smackingly beautiful.” (The lyrics also helped inspire a Madhur Bhandarkar film in 2011).
A visibly nostalgic Chaubey goes on, “It’s one of Vishal-Gulzar’s most unique songs. Though Gulzar saab had a special relationship with RD Burman and later, his partnership with AR Rahman and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy has been commercially successful, I feel the Gulzar-Vishal Bhardwaj team is miles ahead. One of my favourite Gulzar-Vishal albums is Omkara. Then you have Maqbool, 7 Khoon Maaf, Kaminey and Haider. They have done some timeless work together, and I can only say that 2000s and 2010s has been one of the most fertile periods for these two creative giants and it gives me a lot of pride and happiness that Ishqiya might somewhere rank among their better works.” Most spectacularly, the song also stands out for being a Naseer-Gulzar reunion, a dream team that has previously given us such illustrious musical hits as Ijaazat, Libaas, Masoom, Mirza Ghalib etc. By contrast, “Dil toh baccha hai ji” and “Ibn Battuta” are inclined more towards a lite and perky playbook than, say, the intense “Sili hawa” or “Tujhse naaraz nahin”. But despite that, Gulzar’s inimitable lyrics with its expectedly idiosyncratic metaphors and Naseeruddin Shah’s gravitas make the Ishqiya soundtrack one of their best late-career creative collaborations.
Khalujaan on Cloud Nine
A crime caper, Ishqiya centres on Naseeruddin Shah and Arshad Warsi as an uncle-nephew duo who fall in love with the same heroine, played by the smoky Vidya Balan. Set in UP’s dusty terrains, the petty criminals Khalujaan (Shah) and Babban (Warsi) are on the run when they meet the widow Krishna (Balan). One of the most notable aspects of the film is Shah-Balan’s onscreen chemistry. The song “Dil toh baccha hai ji”, sung by the velvety-voiced Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, is his love letter to the Krishna character. Gulzar’s imagery for the old man — lines like “Daant se reshmi dor kat ti nahin” and “Hum toh hamesha samajhte the koi hum jaisa Haji hi hoga” — is suggestive but never downright vulgar and playful but always refined and even, poetic. Subtle subversions like Gulzar’s use of ‘sufed’ (white) instead of the standard ‘safaid’ to denote Khalujaan’s old age and wisdom (if he has any, that is) make the song belong indubitably to its bearer, in the sense that this is the dialect that you might imagine an elderly North Indian Urdu speaker (with Khariboli inflections) using in his everyday speech.
Explains Chaubey, who got inspiration for his protagonists from a real-life unruly nephew-uncle duo on a train journey in Uttar Pradesh once, “Man has two sides, one is cultured and the other is coarse. Khalujaan and Babban are more like pals and while Babban thinks from his crotch, Khalujaan is all heart. Hats off to Gulzar saab for writing ‘Dil toh baccha hai ji’ in such a way where Khalujaan’s emotions make this smooth criminal a little more human.” What makes the budding romance even more touching is that Khalujaan always carries a photograph of a young woman, implying that she could be an old flame. “He’s a kind of person who perceives Krishna as an idol. ‘Dil toh baccha hai ji’ shows that after all these years this man is falling in love once again. A certain feeling has come back. He’s almost become a teenager, like a rake or a new kid on the block and he doesn’t quite know how to make sense of it,” Chaubey says. “I am 43,” the director laughs, “and I know the feeling of falling in love when you are in your 20s. But I don’t know if I am going to feel like that ever again. The child is still alive, it’s there somewhere inside and it’s a gift to have him. In a similar way, something innocent has touched Khalujaan and he can’t help but be on cloud nine.”
As for the picturisation itself and its mellow mood, Chaubey simply says, “This is a story of two criminals for whom things are going wrong from day one. They are being hunted and their money is lost. This love track finally gives them some hope. My idea was that somehow this is a beautiful day for Khalujaan and nothing can go wrong.” Obviously, if you have seen the film, you will know that’s not quite true. “Something terrible is going to be happen at the end of it,” Chaubey reveals, adding, “So you can see this song as a calm before the storm.” In Nasreen Munni Kabir’s ‘In the Company of a Poet’, none other than Gulzar himself said approvingly that ‘Dil toh baccha hai ji’ matches the “scene and characters perfectly.”
Moments before the song, Khalujaan and Krishna have an exchange where he says he feels old being called Khalujaan and suggests that she drop the Khalu (uncle). The wily Krishna is sharp enough to sense where things are headed but fixes a disingenuous look instead, keeping Khalujaan and the audiences guessing throughout. Krishna’s character symbolises India’s fetish for the sari-clad sexy bhabhi — desirable, yet unattainable. With her sultry sex appeal, Vidya Balan’s Krishna strikes exactly the right note, the smouldering come-hither moments on one hand and cloak-and-dagger manipulation on another. In fact, Ishqiya’s genesis was her character and not the puckish Khalujaan or the uncouth Babban. “I had a simple notion of a regular small-town woman, the sort of women in my family or neighbourhood who came from orthodox backgrounds. Judging by their sari and ghunghat, you might get an impression that they don’t have a voice but then what I grew up to realise was that they wielded immense power from behind that ghunghat. They run the household, and some smarter ones were actually the puppet masters who controlled their entire family. I was impressed with this power and the quiet ways in which rural women had figured out a way to fight patriarchy.” In the film, Krishna is a widow of a criminal pitted against two macho men, but eventually it all boils down to how she hoodwinks them. “She comes out as more powerful,” Chaubey notes.
Chaubey’s musical influences
Be it Ishqiya, its sequel Dedh Ishqiya or Udta Punjab, Abhishek Chaubey takes care to create his soundtracks. However, the filmmaker says he never thinks of the album when making the film. “As filmmakers, we are guilty of trying too hard to make hit songs. We want seasonal hits, so what happens is that the song becomes a chartbuster at that point of time, but just a few months later nobody even remembers it. The music of Ishqiya is an exception that way,” he observes. “To date,” he admits, “I have never been able to tell my composers that I want a hit song. I am always thinking about the situation and the film at large.” Yet, he also believes that “having songs in movies make the job of a director far more difficult because songs in our culture are obligatory and never the first choice of a director.” It’s something you need to have. “Then how to write them into the narrative becomes critical for me. I hate movies, even some great ones, where a song lands in from nowhere. I can’t take it and have a mental block against it. So, I work very hard to design music that flows into the narrative. Even in Dedh Ishqiya, the Madhuri Dixit character is a dancer, so all the kathak and ghazals look organic.”
Chaubey’s approach to music is shaped by his own childhood. He grew up all over the North Indian heartlands where Bollywood music was a staple. “When I was a child in the 1980s, there was a brief period when Hindi film music fell out of favour because it was tacky. Ghazals had come in a big way. So, in childhood, I remember listening to a lot of Begum Akhtar, Mehdi Hassan and Ghulam Ali.” Ghazals like “Woh jo hum mein tum mein” and “Hamari atariya pe” (a Rekha Bhardwaj version was used in Dedh Ishqiya) were personal favourites. “There’s also a folk influence because I come from a family of amateur singers,” he adds. The filmmaker is an SD Burman fan and even today finds immense inspiration and solace in all the Dev Anand evergreen hits as well as the Beatles. “This generation seems to be crazy about RD Burman. RD is great, no doubt but his father is… uska baap hai woh,” he says, laughing.
Ishqiya is a personal milestone for Chaubey — once compared to the mariachi-loving Robert Rodriguez by a critic. Along with the film, he, too, celebrates a decade of filmmaking. How does he look back? “I wish I had made more films.” Basking in the critical glory of last year’s Sonchiriya, he concedes, “But then, filmmaking has given me so much. I have always wanted to be a filmmaker. I have made four films and produced a few. All are very different, but they are uniquely my own.” In a lighter vein, he concludes by saying, “I tend to get bored easily, but I guess filmmaking has kept me interested so far. That’s good.”