The Forties: Partitioned but Free
1947: Afsana Likh Rahi Hoon
Afsana likh rahi hoon,
Afsana likh rahi hoon
Ankhon mein rang bhar ke
Tere intezar ka
Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Singer: Uma Devi (Tun-Tun)
Shaking off the Empire was tough stuff. A long and hard struggle for Independence waged from the 19th century shaped the birth of new India. Independence came at a heavy price — a bloody Partition that resulted in two countries, India and Pakistan. The three years in the Forties were about hope and cope, simultaneously. Refugees, resettlement, displacement and the murder of the Mahatma Gandhi, all shook India at its core and shaped it. The most memorable melody of 1947, with a familiar ring to it even today, is Afsana likh rahi hoon. Events headier than a Bombay blockbuster were unfolding in real time in the subcontinent.
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The afsana (story) of India itself would begin to unfold now. Uma Devi (later, better known as Tun Tun, perhaps the first comedienne of Hindi cinema) sang to the words of Shakeel Badayuni and the music of Naushad. Having lost her parents early, she had run away from home, landed at Naushad’s door and insisted he secure her a break as an actor. Sensing that she could carry a tune, he suggested playback.
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Badayuni, who became one of Bombay’s finest lyricists, had arrived in the city in 1946. Naushad was also new in the trade and was scoffed at initially. But Dard went on to become a huge hit. Much like India’s story which got off to a spectacular start.
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The Fifties: Of Hope and Start-ups
1958: Suhana Safar
Aur ye mausam haseen
Humein darr hai hum
kho na jaaein kahin
Music: Salil Chowdhury
The India of the 1950s was a suhana safar (a pleasant journey), mostly. Dilip Kumar’s abandon and joy in the song captured the decade’s confident start to building a nation. For a country that had just thrown off the colonial yoke, this was a time of consolidation and laying foundations. India drew up its Constitution, and laid the foundation for industry, planning and education. The IITs, IIMs and other important blueprints were drawn up. India made its presence felt on the world map through the Bandung conference, daring to be non-aligned.
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India gave the world the first elected Communist government in Kerala. The Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) was enacted (for Nagaland) then, but it is an Act that India finds hard to revoke even now. Distributors who financed Madhumati did not want Salil Chowdhury as the music director because he was considered unlucky; they were supported by the lead actor, Dilip Kumar, who wanted Naushad to compose the music. But Bimal Roy decided to give a chance to Chowdhury, who ended up signing 19 films after the release of Madhumati.
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The Sixties: Packed and Swinging
1964: Hoke Majboor Mujhe Usne Bhulaya Hoga
Hoke majboor mujhe usne bhulaya hoga
Zahar chupke se dawa jaanke khaaya hoga
Dil ne aise bhi kuch afsaane sunaaye honge
Ashq aankhon ne piye aur na bahaaye honge
Lyrics: Kaifi Azmi
Music: Madan Mohan
Singer: Mohd Rafi, Talat Mahmood,
Manna Dey, Bhupinder
A war film by Chetan Anand: about soldiers on the warfront but not just marching tunes. Hoke majboor mujhe…, sung with four male leads is unusual by any standards. Sung by a bunch of soldiers, reminiscing about home and the motherland, it best spoke of the haqeeqat (reality) of these tumultuous 10 years. The music by Madan Mohan and lyrics by Kaifi Azmi gave expression to the nation’s anxiety and the pathos of its reality.
From the relatively steady 1950s, this decade saw two wars in quick succession that rocked the boat. One — in 1962 — dealt a severe blow to India’s confidence; another, with Pakistan on the western front just three years later, did not help matters.
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With four prime ministers, the ’60s were truly swinging and not always India’s way. India saw deep economic distress, the rupee was devalued. Banks were nationalised. Other kinds of disenchantment took root, as hope raised in the ’50s was not always met. The Congress’s hegemony started to crack as the first non-Congress governments were sworn in across the country in 1967. The Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre was set up and the green revolution took root this time as India started its journey towards self-sufficiency in food. India won its last hockey gold medal in the Olympics in 1964.
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The Seventies: Fall and Rise of Democracy
1979: Aane Wala Pal, Jaane Wala Hai
Aane wala pal, jaane wala hai
Ho sake to isme zindagi bita do
Pal jo yeh jaanewala hai
Film: Gol Maal
Music: RD Burman
Singer: Kishore Kumar
The fall and rise of democracy. India saw a glorious peak under Indira Gandhi as she swept the 1971 elections and then midwifed a new country called Bangladesh, getting a public military surrender from Pakistan. The only way then was down, and the rock-bottom for India’s democracy came with the imposition of Emergency in June 1975. The year saw Sholay, Deewar and Jai Santoshi Maa, but this was still an era of melody and music. From Rajesh Khanna’s tail end to Kabhi Kabhie to small filmmakers like Gulzar, Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee to Hollywood imports like Shalimar, the diversity in music was like the diversity in India.
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RD Burman still ruled, but Kalyanji-Anandji and Laxmikant-Pyarelal churned out hits while the film industry’s top 10 positions were occupied by the one and only Amitabh Bachchan. Lyrics mattered as poets like Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi, Yogesh and Gulzar used their wordsmithery to great effect, reminding the audience that cinema was as much art as it was commerce.
As Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency and called for elections, democracy struck back: Janata Party came to power but it made a mess, ensuring Indira Gandhi’s return to power. It was as filmi as it gets and Gulzar’s words in the 1979 film memorably captured the ephemeral nature of political victory and defeat, as “aane wala pal” (moment in the offing) soon became “jaane wala pal” (the moment that has passed).
The Eighties: Deep Churn
1982: Tum Itna Jo Muskura Rahe Ho
Tum itna jo muskura rahe ho
Kya gham hai jisko chhupa rahe ho
Ankhon mein nami, hansi labon par
Kya haal hai kya dikha rahe ho
Lyrics: Kaifi Azmi
Singer: Jagjit Singh
This was the disco decade, where the old-world music was giving way to a new, loud sound, lyrics were now devoid of all nuance and meaning, crass but popular. These were the years that still cast a shadow on India as the country perhaps faced its mid-life crisis: Kashmir and Punjab burnt, anti-Sikh riots scarred India, an Asiad turned Delhi around, Kapil’s devils won the cricket World Cup, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated, the country got its youngest prime minister who made a date with modernity and technology, eventually losing his sheen under allegations of corruption, which led to Mandir and Mandal.
There were more pleasant memories, too, as television soaps such as Hum Log, Buniyaad and Bharat Ek Khoj made their way to middle-class Indian homes. And there were cheers when the first Indian to go to space, Rakesh Sharma, memorably responded on our television screens to Indira Gandhi’s question about how India looks from outer space with, “Saare jahaan se achha”. The poetry in real life was reflected in poetry in films as well, with Javed Akhtar becoming a lyricist while Kaifi and Gulzar still kept the flag high. That the music of Sadma, Ghulami, Utsav, Ijaazat or Saath Saath seems contemporary to teenagers today is a testimony to their timelessness.
The decade also saw Bappi Lahiri at his peak, churning out copies of hit Western pop numbers with lyrics which were banned in many homes. Newer disco sounds came from Biddu in Qurbani, which launched a teenage Pakistani sensation called Nazia Hassan. As Rajiv Gandhi gave way to VP Singh, the melody seemed to return to Hindi films with Qayamat se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyar Kiya. It was a decade which had many highs, as if to cover up for all the disasters that were unleashed then a case of “Kya gham hai jisko chupa rahe ho/tum itna jo muskura rahe ho (What pain do you hide/by smiling so much?)”.
The Nineties: Open Sesame
1995: Tujhe Dekha Toh Ye
Tujhe dekha toh ye jaana sanam
Pyaar hota hai deewana sanam
Ab yahaan se kahaan jayein hum
Teri baahon mein mar jaayein hum
Film: Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge
Lyrics: Anand Bakshi
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar and Kumar Sanu
Economic liberalisation, caste and religious polarisation, panchayati raj, nuclear test, Kargil war. It was a challenging decade, mirroring the cataclysmic changes in the post-Cold War world. More by compulsion than by choice, India opened itself to the world, economically, unleashing forces that were to shape polity and society for the future. In a period of such great turmoil, Hindi film music was a soothing anchor, bringing comfort through familiar sounds and words while embracing incremental change in melody and tunes. The one radical thing was the entry of AR Rahman, who blew up the world of Hindi film music with never-heard-before sounds, but the Yash Chopra-Karan Johar school of film music, identified with Shah Rukh Khan and Kajol, was as lasting as the Rahman one.
This was a decade of tragedies, too, as Babri mosque was demolished by Hindutva goons, and Rajiv Gandhi was killed by LTTE suicide bombers. Extremist violence and the state response to suppress militancy continued to cause misery in Punjab and Kashmir, as BJP led two coalition governments, once for 13 days and another time for 13 months, till it was re-elected in 1999. Films were about joint families and an idealised version of life in the past but set in foreign locales. Every hit song of the decade, including those from David Dhawan’s Govinda-starrers, was shot in Switzerland. Theirs was a brand of comedy which mirrored the decline in decorum and decency in public life.
There could be the occasional Gulzar or Javed Akhtar lyrics which could appeal to finer sensibilities but it was otherwise a barren desert of mediocrity and crassness in words. The melody suffered from a sense of sameness, barring a Rahman number. It was a decade which left us unsatisfied and lamenting what-could-have-been. A promise belied with songs like “Ab yahaan se kahaan jayein hum (where shall I go from here now?”)
The 2000s: Sonic Boom
2003: Kal Ho Naa Ho
Har pal yahan, jee bhar jiyo
Jo hai samaan, kal ho naa ho
Film: Kal Ho Naa Ho
Lyrics: Javed Akhtar
Music: Sonu Nigam
The decade began with attacks. First, on the Parliament that brought India to the brink of war with Pakistan and then, on the idea of inclusiveness when Gujarat saw its walls painted red, with blood. The shocks continued for a little while after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s “India Shining” was beaten at the hustings by a Sonia Gandhi-led alliance in 2004, against the run of play. As Indian economy expanded under the Manmohan Singh government, so did its welfare programmes that pulled millions out of abject poverty.
While AR Rahman had disrupted Hindi film music in the ’90s, the 2000s saw his dominance take hold, even more strongly. The old gave way to the new and younger music directors like Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy and Pritam followed his lead in giving a new and modern sound to the film song. Poets like Javed Akhtar and Gulzar were joined by new lyricists like Swanand Kirkire and Irshad Kamil, who brought new metaphors and a more common language. This was a golden decade for Hindi cinema and Hindi film music alike.
In 2008, India’s financial capital was attacked by Pakistani terrorists who killed 164 in three days. The Manmohan Singh government faced a no-confidence motion in the Parliament after a civil nuclear deal with the US, while the Indian economy battled global recession. The decade started with sadness but towards the end, one could hear faint echoes of a song in the background: All Izz Well.
The 2010s: Age of Shrill
Jab se gaon se main shehar hua
Itna kadwa ho gaya ke zehar hua
Safar ka hi tha main safar ka raha
Film: Jab Harry Met Sejal
Lyrics: Irshad Kamil
Singer: Arijit Singh
As the Commonwealth Games party ended in New Delhi in 2010, the Indian government found itself under attack over corruption allegations. The challenge for the Manmohan Singh government snowballed and poor communication led to its demise in 2014 as if living out Irshad Kamil’s words “Jo bhi main kehna chahoon, barbaad karein alfaaz mere (whatever I wish to say, is ruined by my words)” in Rockstar (2011). The mobile phone and internet revolution swept through the land, bringing unprecedented change to communication, and, to society and politics. The Manmohan government got WhatsApped out of power and Narendra Modi ascended.
The Hindi film music album became more a thing of the past with focus on special or item songs released as singles. Songs became more of a promotional tool rather than an integral part of the film’s storyline. There were better lyrics with modern idiom and expressions by new, talented lyricists and good, melodious and, often, adventurous compositions by the likes of Amit Trivedi. Rock and American hip-hop influenced the Hindi film song and its sound evolved. The quality and volume of good music deteriorated as the decade progressed.
As the Hindutva juggernaut rolled across India and the Congress party lost its influence, the Indian polity became more unipolar in favour of the BJP. With the nation becoming more polarised, social discourse more hateful and society more communal, the words “itna kadwa ho gaya ke zehar hua (became so bitter that it turned into poison)” sounded more descriptive than philosophical.