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The Writings of Khurram Ali Shafique

The Valley of Wonderment, 1987-2006

My writings during this period were mostly written from an individualistic point of view. Some of them may need to be taken with a pinch of salt. See details.

DAWN Tuesday Review, Nov 7-13, 1995

Sold for a Song

This article is part of Cinema and Society, Up to 2006, exploring cinema from the perspective of media sciences.

There can be three ways of looking at the enormous mass of music produced by the Pakistani and Indian filmmakers. Firstly, we may categorize them according to the feelings they seek to evoke. Alternatively, we can choose to look at them accordingly to their film settings, for example party songs, love songs, street songs, drawing-room songs and so on and so forth. 

Last, but the best way of classifying could be according to the dramatic purpose they serve in the plot. For instance, two distinct categories would be the songs which introduce a character and the songs which bring about the relief after a tense scene. In this article I will try to establish all three ways of classification because I think that these classifications do not just allow us to appreciate the film music in its proper plot context, but they also help us to look at the social and cultural context of the cinema.

As far as the evocation of feelings is concerned, we may notice that the Indo-Pakistani musician has always been more ambitious in this regard, having been brought up on stories of musicians setting up fires or bringing rains with the power of their music. Consequently, the Indo-Pakistani classical music traditionally covers a vast range of emotional contexts including love, spiritual devotion, fear, anxiety, anger and a lot more. The most definite contribution of the film in this regard has been to provide opportunities for the music director to use music for representing specifically complex emotional contexts. One fine example comes from Naag Muni (1972) where the singer (a female character) fears for the life of her lover, who is severely wounded and under the threat of another attack while the singer is stopped from seeing him by the same people who have wounded her lover. This complex emotional hypothesis is dexterously realized in the song Sajna ray. It is hard to imagine that a song like that could have been produced if the institution of cinema wasn’t there.

We may classify our film songs into romantic, happy, sad, patriotic, spiritual/devotional, rustic and so on. The list also shows how our films are different from the American musical films: till late the American musical was restricted only to light themes. Representing complex, catastrophic emotional contexts in a musical is an option that Hollywood has only discovered with such films as Cabaret (1971) and even then the possibilities have not been substantially explored. Let us now turn to some familiar “song settings” of Indo-Pakistani cinema. It is remarkable how these have remained unchanged through the decades. The romantic couple (or one of them) dancing in the fields, the village folk dancing, the night club disco scene, the drawing-room scene/birthday party, children’s birthday party, the wedding, the vendor on the street (e.g., Mera joota hai Japani) and last but not the least, the nauch girl. List all the songs you remember, and you will find that each of them, save a few, fall into one of these catergories. And if you can remember some from the ‘30s and ‘40s you may find that most of these lists come right up to our times uninterrupted. Yes, the sets might have changed with the times, but not the settings.

This gives room for theorizing that the Indo-Pakistani audiences have always looked forward to “being taken out” to some typical settings (most noticeably the nauch girl’s). Hence the purpose of an Indo-Pakistani filmmaker is not only presenting drama, it is, in addition, giving the audience experience of situations they would like to be in but are not likely to be. In a way that is true of all art forms and most so of the film, as the film has been compared with fantasy since its very inception. The experience of the audience has been given such names by the critics, such as “alternate reality”, “doing it by proxy” and so on. Where the Indo-Pakistani cinema is different from most others is the point that the audience expect at least a substantial part of this “alternate reality experience” to come through music. And they expect a lot of this in each film.

Perhaps there is some audience to support this theory: how else would you explain the record-breaking success of Hum apkay hain kaun? To say the least, it is a film which has almost no storyline and hardly deserves to be called a film in that sense. Yet we are told that the film has done better business than Sholay (1976). I think that the secret of its box-office success lies in the fact that these days people have developed a hobby (call it ‘taste’ if you like)of celebrating weddings in a somewhat show biz style and spending hors watching the home-video of these events afterwards. The makers of Hum apkay hain kaun have apparently exploited this phenomenon.

However the positive side of the alternate reality experience in the subcontinent is that more serious-minded directors get a chance of using songs for greater dramatic purposes in ways which are not always possible in Hollywood. This gives us reason to categorize songs according to their function in the plot. The plot of a drama (or film) is traditionally divided into the following components: exposition, problematisation, crisis, relief, resolution and climax. Songs of exposition are common – most of us have enjoyed those happy pieces which introduce the debonair hero in words like Mera joota hai Japani, etc. To name two more: Ko ko korina, and Aik rasta hai zindagi. Then there are songs which occur during that phase of the story when the first signs of a problem are making their appearance. The problem could be a rich hero falling in love with a poor girl or vice versa. Or a tough guy (the hero) developing a conflict with the bad guy (the villain). Most love songs naturally fall into this category. As we watch the heroic couple sing and dance and have fun, we begin t nurture this question in our minds: “Will they be able to unite and keep on being just as happy as they are now?” Alternatively, it became customary in the ‘80s for the hero (usually Amitabh Bachchan) to challenge his antagonist in a night club or some other song-and-dance situation. (Remember films like Waris and Kaalia?

A unique characteristic of the Indo-Pakistani cinema is to present even the most catastrophic crisis through music. In the Pakistani film Lakhon mein eik (1966), the heroine is informed that the hero has met with an accident. She has already known that they will never be united in wedlock due to some earlier complications, but still she has loved him. Now, as she reaches the hospital she is told that “the man has lost his memory.” This one-liner is followed immediately by the song Chalo achcha hua tum bhool gaye.

Perhaps the best classic example comes from Mughal-e-Azam (1962). The emperor has told  Anarkali to denounce Prince Salim in the court but instead, she sings a song which is a bold proclamation of her love for the Prince and a denialof the emperor’s power to control people’s love affairs. Do you need to be reminded that the song in question is Jab pyaar kiya toh darna kiya? The song holds the entire court in terror, causes the emperor to lose his temper and throw Anarkali into the prison. This last action instantly brings about a civil war led by Prince Salim.

A typical example of the songs of resolution is connected with the recurring device of “the lost siblings” in our movies. When a grown-up son/daughter or brother/sister fail to recognize the long lost father/mother, brother/sister (crisis) one of the concerned relations usually sings a song they had sung in the past and the “discovery” is brought about by this means.

Perhaps a classic example of the climax song is Akailay na jana for Arman (1966). Waheed Murad has assumed that Zeba is dead. Out of desperation, he is about to throw himself off the cliff. As Zeba reaches the hillside to save him, she rather “shouts” the song at him and he comes back. The film ends with the fading notes of the song.

Hence we see that the function of songs in the Indo-Pakistani cinema is essentially different from the other cinemas of the world. They represent a wider range of feelings, cover an odd variety of situations and serve as dramatic devices in a number of ways which could be considered unorthodox by a viewer imbibed in the western tradition but which are completely comprehensible to the masses of the subcontinent and do not always hinder the effectiveness of the film.

This is the third of a five-article series on the subcontinent's cinematic culture. The fourth article on the study of some directors follows next.

Original highlight printed in the magazine

Cinema & Society, Up to 2006

Part I: Analyses

Cult Heroes
Importance of Being Eve
Sold for a Song
Director's Cut
Hunt for Success
The Chocolate Hero
Women and Cinema in Pakistan
Shirin and Farhad
Romeo and Juliet
Oliver Stone's Alexander

Part II: Profiles and Interviews

Pervez Malik
Sohail Rana
Nisar Bazmi
Syed Afzal Hussain
Noor Jahan

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