Sometime in the 1960s a friend introduced me to an American member of the Peace Corps. He was based in Kenya, and on a brief visit to Karachi, and he asked me to take him to a Pakistani film, which I did.
The Yankee enjoyed the movie but requested me to show him what he called ‘a non-musical’. Having seen My Fair Lady (1964) and The Sound of Music (1965), I knew what he meant. But he was amazed to learn that, until then, only three Urdu/Hindi ‘songless movies’ — Khwaja Ahmed Abbas’ Munna and B.R. Chopra’s Kanoon and Ittefaq — had ever been produced.
How did songs creep into and come to dominate our films? A point to remember is that our cinema had its foundations laid in the Parsi theatre of Bombay, which featured songs and dances that were performed live by the actors. This tradition simply carried on.
It was not until 1931 that sound first came to our flicks — four years after The Jazz Singer hit American cinema houses and ended the silent era of movies in Hollywood, Alam Ara hit our screens with seven songs. The number increased stupendously henceforth and Indrasabha, produced only a year later, comprised as many as 65 ditties. By the 1950s the number of songs had stabilised at between to eight to 10. In Pakistan, which of course carried the same traditions, the movie with the highest number of songs was Ishq-i-Laila (1959). It had as many as 14, most of them lilting numbers composed by Safdar.
Today it’s easy to listen to songs by hitting a few keys on your computer or smartphone, but in the mid-20th century one had to buy expensive gramophone records or wait to listen to them in farmaishi radio programmes
Initially when songs were recorded along with the main movie, stars such as Noor Jehan, K.L. Saigal and Suraiya — whose forte was singing — were in great demand as actors. But things changed and changed for the better when songs began to be pre-recorded in studios. There then emerged artists who specialised in vocal renditions, to the accompaniment of musical instruments. They were, and still are, called playback singers. Those with some training and the ability to render all kinds of numbers — ‘sad’ or ‘delightful’ in common parlance — were stars in their own ways and were, therefore, in greater demand.
Thus songs became a major factor in the success of movies. There was the classic case of Rattan (1944), which was seen more than once by hordes of music lovers to enjoy its quick-on-the-lips numbers tuned by Naushad. The sales of discs featuring the songs also created an all-time record.
A large number of movies produced in our part of the subcontinent also had songs which attracted cine-goers. Examples are largely from the 1950s and ’60s. In 1959, there were two Noor Jehan releases — Koel and Neend — both studded with immortal numbers, one with a scintillating score by Khwaja Khursheed Anwar and the other with no less an exciting score by Rasheed Attre. This writer knew quite a few music lovers who saw both the films more than once.
It is surprising that scholars who have delved deep into classical and folk music have not bothered to do research on the most popular branch of music. A highly composite form, film songs are drawn from classical, folk and even devotional muse.
A very convenient example is that of Naushad’s score in Mughal-i-Azam (1960). There are two renditions by Ustad Barray Ghulam Ali Khan, which are played in the background as Anarkali (Madhubala) and Prince Saleem (Dilip Kumar) are shown enjoying their moments of solitude. Then there are a couple of qawwalis and two naats ‘Bekas pe karam keejye Sarkar-i-Madina’ (based on Raga Kedara) and ‘Dil ki kashti bhanwar mein ayi hai’ (adapted from Raga Gorakh Kalyan).
Then there is the all-time favourite ‘Pyar kya tou darna kiya’, which became an idiom in spoken Urdu and Hindi. There is also a stimulating chorus ‘Aei muhabbat zindabad’. Among the other memorable songs are the highly poignant number ‘Humein kash tum se muhabbat na hoti, kahani hamari haqeeqat na hoti’ and the lovely thumri ‘Mohe panghat pe nand lal chairr gayo re’.
Film music — vocal, not background music, mind you — has numbers which are meant for specific occasions, such as weddings and monsoon rain, for instance. Then there are songs for children, which include lullabies. Ghazals and qawwalis, not to mention Hindi geets, are other genres that have made inroads into film music. There is so much to say about all these that each genre could only be fully covered in separate articles.
Today it’s easy to listen to the songs, of past or present, by hitting a few keys on your computer or even through smartphones, but in the mid-20th century one had to buy expensive gramophone records or wait to listen to them in farmaishi (request) radio programmes.
The snooty AIR (All India Radio) didn’t broadcast film songs in the 1940s and 1950s, only to realise that it was losing its listenership to Radio Pakistan and Radio Ceylon (which was later rechristened Commercial Service of Sri Lanka). In the mid-1960s an entertainment channel of AIR called Vivid Bharati made its debut and film ditties were included in their broadcasts.
Radio and cinema had common interests. If the songs attracted listeners and brought revenue (when commercial service was introduced), they also increased the sales of gramophone records (and later audio cassettes), and of course sales of cinema tickets.
Today, the movies produced on both sides of the Wagah border have fewer songs, largely because, more often than not, they interrupt the movement of plot. But what annoys serious cine-goers is the profusion of songs meant to be ‘item numbers’, songs forced into a film merely to add commercial appeal and titillate and which can often best be described as cacophony. They are to the present day cinema what mujras were to the films of the 1950s.
In conclusion, one must answer a persistent query: why did lip-synced songs not disappear from our films as they did in Western films? There are two reasons in my opinion. Firstly, music has been a part of our psyche. Every occasion, be it a wedding, children’s birthdays, long-awaited rains or parting from a beloved have songs and poetry associated with them. Secondly, as the celebrated Pakistani director Pervez Malik once explained, “A film song can heighten the impact of a particular situation.” And our film language is nothing if not heightened emotions.
Originally published in Dawn, ICON, May 27th, 2018