Cinema and Secularism
February 1, 2005
Cinema and Secularism
Febuary 2005

Reality of reel life

In collaboration with the Xavier’s Institute of Communications, Mumbai, we organised a two-day workshop for the students of the institute in the first week of February. The theme: how and to what extent has Hindi cinema reflected the values of pluralism and democracy over the decades? We are grateful to such illustrious names from filmdom as Javed Akhtar, Mahesh Bhatt, Pooja Bhatt and Khalid Mohamed, as also serious writers and commentators on films, Rauf Ahmed, Jerry Pinto, Madan Gopal Singh and Bhawana Somaaya for leading the discussions.

The feedback from several students at the end of the workshop clearly showed that they had found the exercise both educative and enjoyable. We thought so too. We believe our readers too would like to know how those closely associated with the film world in different ways see the relationship between real life and reel life. That’s how the idea of this month’s cover story was born. Since for reasons of space we are not able to carry all the presentations in this issue, some will be published in the coming issues of CC.

In the realm of the real meanwhile, the last few weeks have witnessed a development that no one would have anticipated even a few months ago: the splintering of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB). The splitters have announced the constitution of a separate Sunni board, and a Shia board. More significantly, some Muslim women have gone ahead to form a separate women’s board for personal law.

No one seems to quite know why but it is said that it was Indira Gandhi who conjured up the AIMPLB in the early ’70s. Though the legal status of this organisation is nothing more than an informal NGO, many within the Muslim community saw it as an influential body since, among others, the high priests from different sects of Indian Islam are part of it. The mass hysteria that the Board whipped up in the mid-’80s over the Shah Bano controversy reinforced this feeling. But most secularists and liberal Muslims who believe that all religion-based personal laws in India are unjust to women and therefore in urgent need of reform have long believed that nothing in the name of gender justice could be expected from this patriarchal outfit.

In recent months the Board had generated hope that at long last it was going to endorse a model nikahnama that would help curtail the obnoxious practice of triple talaq. But as a letter from the All India Democratic Women’s Association that we are publishing here shows, the nikahnama is far from model. If anything, it once again shows the male-centred mindset of the Board. Not surprising, therefore, to find Hasnath Mansur, a prominent woman activist from Bangalore, slamming the Board and dismissing it as an NGO irrelevant to Muslim women’s concerns in an interview also being published in this issue.

The Delhi-based Citizen’s Campaign for Preserving Democracy, an association of citizens committed to the defence of basic human rights and freedoms has just published a highly disturbing report on the predicament of Bangla speaking Muslims in Delhi. A lowly and oftentimes dubious police informer’s word that so and so is an illegal Bangladeshi immigrant is all the proof the police needs to round up poor and defenceless people, take them to the Indo-Bangla border and surreptitiously push them over to the other side. Ironically, such blatant infringement of fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution, gross violation of international human rights, and systematic derogation from due process of law and principles of natural justice is supposedly being monitored by the Delhi high court.

We join family members and innumerable friends and comrades from the community of social activists in mourning the sudden and untimely death of Sriprakash Sharma in Jaipur. A dear friend and colleague, he had for long been pushing us to start a Hindi edition of Communalism Combat, a project we intend to launch before this yearend and in which he was to play a major role. We will miss you, Sriprakash.

— Editors
Cinema & Secularism

Man is memory. We are nothing but the sum total of our past. We are never free of the past. Karl Marx was a Christ returning to a modern world. In other words, he was the resurrection of basically the same religious spirit and ideology, although under a different garb, a different language. It could not have been otherwise. For not only Marx but all thinkers cannot help but build their philosophy upon their past. To put it differently, as a very famous French thinker, Jacques Derrida would say, to be means to inherit.

All questions about being or what one is to be or not to be are questions of inheritance. We are inheritors, like it or not. If you read The Road Ahead by Bill Gates, you will see it is more history than prophecy. That is why imagined futures are always more about where we have been than where we are going.

In the year 1951, two years after I was born and much, much  before you all were even thought of, Jawaharlal Nehru compelled Purshottam Das Tandon to tender his resignation and took over as president of the Congress. Purshottam Das Tandon had defeated the secular factions of the Congress the year before, to become its president in 1950. In the newly "partitioned"  India, Purshottam  was a  symbol of the communalist and revivalist outlook.  Shattered by  the irreversible loss of Gandhiji, who had been killed by the bullet of a Hindu  fanatic fundamentalist,  Nehru had sworn to go for the jugular of  the fundamentalists.

At a public meeting in Delhi on Gandhi Jayanti Day in 1951, Nehru proclaimed his secular credo. He said, "If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life both as the head of the government and outside."  This statement sums up everything that needed  to be said about the spirit  India  and future  Indians must have towards  secularism. And this spirit was ignited in 1951, by Nehru, the most  extraordinary  jewel that India ever possessed.

Post-Independence  Hindi cinema fashioned its products on this passionately articulated  creed of Nehru. A glowing example of this is Dilip Kumar. He is an excellent symbol of secular India. The recent revival of Mughal-e-Azam and its global success proves that the pendulum of public taste has once again swung towards films that celebrate the pluralism and the secular creed of free India and has moved away from movies like Gadar, which in a very subtle manner demonise the
Muslims, and not just Pakistan.

The new colour version of Mughal-e-Azam was happily lapped up by children of the current  generation. My daughter and my young son were  both mesmerised by what our ancestors had achieved in those days, both in spirit and also on the screen. My heart just swells with pride when I watch Mughal-e-Azam. It reminds me of  what Bollywood once was.  Do you know that this magnum opus was made by an almost all-Muslim crew?  It was produced and directed by K. Asif, and it had Madhubala and Dilip Kumar  in the main lead. And  above all it had  Naushad,  the music director who’s soul resonated with  Hindu bhajans. How can India and Indians  ever forget ‘Mohe panghat pe Nandlal chhed gayo re’, a song  from Mughal-
in which  the birth of Krishna is being celebrated in the court of Emperor Akbar and in which Madhubala, an actress who is Muslim by birth, dances like Meera?

The phenomenal success of Mughal-e-Azam today has also demonstrated that despite all the efforts of the previous regime to strangulate the secular voice of India, India’s secular spirit is very much alive and kicking. Because if this was not so, Mughal-e-Azam wouldn’t have been a box office hit.

Recently  I was told by the ministry of Information and Broadcasting that Mughal-e-Azam was also screened in the Srinagar Valley, where Hindi movies have not been playing for years. The major bulk of the audience consisted of  young people of your age.  Now, ever since trouble began in Kashmir, the young  people of that region have been violently opposing anything "Indian", even Hindi movies. The cinema hall where the film was now being shown was earlier forced to close shop because no one came to the hall to  watch Hindi films. But Mughal-e-Azam  had shocked everybody. Not only was it running to packed houses, but all those young people who came to watch the film clapped and applauded all through it. This is the Bollywood that I was born in. This was the  Bollywood whose films every Indian right from Kashmir to Kanyakumari watched and  loved.

I remember my father, a filmmaker who made more than 100 films. Many of these  films were based on The Arabian Nights fantasies. Now my Dad was a Brahmin but despite that, surprisingly, he knew more about Islam and the Islamic culture. My mother was a Shia Muslim. I remember after finishing her namaaz she would tell us, my brother, my sister and me, tales from Hindu mythology. These stories still resonate in my heart. One of these stories was effectively put to use by me in my film Raaz. The climax of Raaz was sourced from a tale my mother told me about Savitri and her fight with the Lord of death, Yama, to bring her husband back to life from the jaws of death.

The Bollywood that I grew up on had  jewels  like Sahir saab (Ludhianvi). Sahir saab is the greatest lyricist Bollywood has ever known. He is a Muslim who decided to stay in a secular India after Partition. The most enduring bhajan of all times, ‘Allah tero naam, Ishwar tero naam’  was written by this extraordinary poet.  Even a great filmmaker like Guru Dutt worked with people like Kaifi Azmi and Abrar Alvi.  Chaudvin Ka Chand,  produced by him and directed by  M. Sadiq, is the best film made against the backdrop of Lucknow and the Muslim tehzeeb (culture). Most Hindu filmmakers of those times made these films dealing with the Muslim culture without any self-consciousness. They  made these films because that culture was a part of them. The filmmakers of those days had the best of both cultures in them – no wonder that age is called the golden age  of  Hindi cinema.

I remember the last scene of  Ganga Jamuna in which Dilip Kumar dies saying "He Ram". Most people who saw the film then felt that the reverence with which this Muslim actor had uttered He Ram  reminded them of Gandhi’s last moments. Cinema goers imagined this was how the Mahatma must have died. However, Ganga Jamuna faced severe problems when it was seen by members of the censor board.  Some board members  who had communal leanings wanted  to delete this very scene saying that they could not have a Muslim saying "He Ram".  In spite of being secular to the core, Dilip saab faced many problems from  both within the community and outside it. He was the prime target of all those people  who had designs  to revive the religion of the majority and destroy the pluralism of India. But Dilip saab did not bow down to these forces. He stuck to his guns and remained a symbol of  secularism  for  all of us.

The recent revival of Mughal-e-Azam and its global success proves that the pendulum of public taste has once again swung towards films that celebrate the pluralism and the secular creed of free India and has moved away from movies like Gadar, which in a very subtle manner demonise the Muslims, and not just Pakistan

Recently I ran into Subhash Ghai and our conversation, after having spoken about the current state of Bollywood and what we should to do to stay afloat, slowly turned to the topic of Dilip Kumar and the need to immortalise him and put him on film because the man should be given his rightful due in history. He has been a reluctant icon because of which a lot of bogus icons have been enshrined on the altar. Dilip saab is a symbol of secularism; all his life he in fact echoed what Nehru spoke of. It was very moving to see a man like Subhash Ghai, otherwise known only for masala films, dedicate himself to make a documentary that would outlive this legend.  I had begun my career as an assistant director with the great filmmaker, Mr. Raj Khosla, with a film called Do Raaste, a box office hit. The film contained a sympathetic portrayal of a Pathan played by Jayant.

Now, this was a device commonly used in most Hindi films. Most of these roles were ineffective since they were insensitively projected on the screen. But some producer-directors who came from the North and who had lived with the Muslims there and enjoyed their hospitality and warmth portrayed these Muslim characters on film brilliantly. Do Raaste became a very big hit because of this noble Muslim character. A great scholar of Indian music said to me recently, "You know, the difference between Indian music and Indian film is that Indian filmmakers did not portray secularism and pluralism as brilliantly as the music directors and the lyric writers did." Somewhere, our Indian filmmaker was very simplistic, he did it as the politician does – Hindu-Muslim bhai-bhai, using the ‘hugging each other, making tremendous sacrifices for each other’ formula. But it was in fact the music directors and the lyric writers in whose hearts were crucibles from where the pluralism that we keep talking about poured in and they made those wonderful tunes and songs. Ultimately music seeks to evoke some emotion in you. The ghazals and the tradition of thumris, and khayaals, the complete mixture of tehzeebs is what India is all about and that was what they portrayed through our music. I remember when I was growing up, my father made a film called Mr. X with a rock and roll number called ‘Lal lal gaal’ – a number that was a huge hit. This shows how much the Christian influences contributed to the success of our Hindi films in those days. Helen,  a Christian  by birth, was the heartthrob of the nation. She cast her spell on the people of India for almost two decades.  

I began my career in the year 1973 but came into the limelight  with films like ArthSaaransh, Naam and Janam. Most of these films were sourced from one’s own life. They were autobiographical. But  it took a tragedy like the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the subsequent bloodshed of innocent Muslims on the streets of Mumbai to hurl me into my hidden  past and make my last directorial film, Zakhm.

I came from the home of a Hindu Brahmin father and a Muslim mother and had the good fortune of being educated by Christian missionaries. It is because of them that I can stand here before you and speak in the language that I speak. The demolition of the Babri Masjid made me realise the naked truth that what is personal is political. When Mumbai burnt, I recalled that I too was subjected to a lot of humiliation by those very forces that were now unleashing their wrath against the minorities. When I was a child my paternal grandmother, who was a Hindu fundamentalist, had spared no opportunity to brutalise my mother and me simply because my mother was a Muslim.  After having found dizzying success and after making senseless and meaningless movies, the time had now come to make the defining film of my career. 

I am glad that before I hung up my gloves as a director (I continue to produce films and write them), I dared to revisit the wounds of my childhood. I told a tale that moved out into the larger domain, the public domain – the post-Babri Masjid demolition period and the subsequent bloodshed. This was Zakhm. I dared to make this film with my own funds, without State help, in a very repressive atmosphere. This was in 1998. My daughter Pooja produced Zakhm at a time when it was considered suicidal to make films that dared to incur the wrath of the Hindu fundamentalists in Delhi. 

A scene from Zakhm movie
Scene from Zakhm

There is a particular scene in Zakhm where the character played by Ajay Devgan slaps his brother who, unaware of his mother’s religion, her faith, is about to go and kill a Muslim boy who had burnt his mother alive. Ajay Devgan strikes him and says, "Yeh tere baap ka mulk hai kya?" (Is this your father’s land?) And says, "Kisko nikalega? Inko nikalega, kyon? Kyon ke  ye Musalman hai?" The manner in which he strikes him reminded me of Nehru’s statement of 1951 when he said, I will fight till my last breath against all those forces who will raise their hands against anybody in the name of religion – It was then that I discovered that through the virtual world, through movies, the same spirit of Nehru was somewhere expressing itself. That’s what I meant – to be is to inherit. I had inherited the sanity of the founding fathers and it was being expressed unapologetically there on the screen. In fact, recently they showed a short documentary, a half-hour programme on me on the BBC where they had, without my telling them, shown this particular portion of the film – where one brother strikes the other and says he will fight till his last breath to see that India celebrates its pluralism.  So things had come full circle. This apathetic man, this little boy, who was born in a home like this, who had moved far away from it and had gone into making escapist films, the man who had forgotten Mughal-e-Azam, but was traumatised when Bombay bled, finally made the only defining film of his career. Zakhm had bought me a lot of dignity. It washed me clean, it purged me of the aftertaste of having made some senseless films.  If Zakhm is still a part of public discourse today, that is because it carries in its core the sanity that Gandhiji and our founding fathers spoke about, fought for and died for. 

According to me, the first rotten phase that Bollywood saw was when, under the name of demonising Pakistan, a lot of movies actually took perverse delight in mocking and ridiculing the Muslim community. It was a phase after which the public, having made one odd film into a big hit, themselves boycotted such films. And it is unlikely now that any such films will be made since they do not run at the box office anymore.

That remains the saddest, most shameful chapter in the history of Bollywood, which had otherwise been very secular and had always celebrated pluralism. This only means that just as Nehru’s creed was reflected in the movies for 40-50 years, it was Nehru’s ideology that sparkled in our movies. Because, being what they are, leaders inspire filmmakers to echo what they feel. When the right wing Hindu fundamentalists came to power, they could only pass on their perversion to filmmakers, encouraging them to make movies of a new kind of genre, movies that made some sort of noise temporarily, but a noise that the people of India rejected. This was the sanity of this nation. This was secular India.

As we have stepped into the 21st century and we have now thankfully de-linked ourselves from that painful phase, we must be very cautious that the same forces that destabilised India in 1992 and once again in Gujarat in the year 2002 are very much alive, active and dying to get back and reassert themselves. They were there in 1951 when Nehru had to fight them; within the Congress Nehru had to fight his own people to assert secularism. The secularists of the nation must lock horns very aggressively with so-called communalists. I don’t believe in the passive stance that people take. I have always maintained that society is not devastated by the misdeeds of the bad man but by the silence of the so-called good people. It is when you and me are silent that we devastate society. 

You are on the threshold of a great career. You’re going to go there, into the trenches of life. During a conversation with N. Ram, the editor-in-chief of The Hindu a while ago, he said that the danger of the times is that we in institutions give our people a lot of skills and those skills certainly help one to make it in life. But what you need is an educated mind. A mind which has a broader view, which understands that whatever we do or whatever we see, will have far-reaching consequences. What you need is integrity and commitment; you need commitment to those very sane values that have seen us through. Values that are not negotiable, irrespective of the troubles we go through. You cannot negotiate the core value of India’s commitment to the secular creed. How can you do so? It would be akin to suicide. Take me for instance; when I look within myself, half of me is a Hindu, the other half a Muslim. Which part of me can I break away from without killing or destroying myself?

You are about to begin a new journey as the filmmakers and journalists of tomorrow. So it is important to remember what is being articulated here. Maybe the subject is so huge that it’ll take us lifetimes to discuss it. But essentially what I hope to do is ring an alarm bell. Just as I woke up after the carnage in Mumbai, after 1993, and discovered that I must dedicate myself and support platforms and movements like these. Otherwise I am in danger of destroying all that India stood for. The fight that Nehru waged has to be continued by me in the virtual world and through platforms like this. And you, as filmmakers, journalists, need to continue this too. For, if India moves away from a secular creed it will disintegrate into chaos and destroy everything that it has with such difficulty built. 

Let anybody rule us, but they cannot divide this country under the name of religion. And this is what we must pledge to work for. As filmmakers, as writers, as simple people who make a day-to-day living, this is one pledge that we must make. And on behalf of Bollywood, I have said that Bollywood has made a significant contribution, but as for its aberrations, forgive them my Lord for they know not what they do. There was a dark phase where they became ignorant, when the bosses asked them to bend and my brothers began to crawl. So forgive them, there were a few who made mistakes like this, but I thank god that a new dawn is here and I thank god that with you people going out into the field you will never ever let that happen again. Amen.

(Mahesh Bhatt is a well known film producer and writer, and former director of several Hindi films).

The Muslim maa, bahen, biwi in Hindi cinema


Notes from a personal diary

Experience is a double-edged knife. Neither can you have too much of it, nor can you have too little of it.

Experience has different connotations for every individual. For me it is a sum total of knowledge, the accumulation of facts and an ongoing process of storing moments of pleasure and pain, consciously but most of the time subconsciously, in the memory.

Inevitably there are limitless aspects to one’s experience. Most of these aspects are personal. Some of these are selectively applied to one’s profession. Whether you’re an artisan, a manual worker, a writer, painter, performing artist or filmmaker, your views, values and innate abilities are dictated considerably by what you have gone through, felt, related to, disconnected from, endured and assimilated.

Fortuitously, almost like water finding its own level, after several attempts, I found myself the job of a journalist. At first reluctant to specialise in the area of film journalism – still considered a mug’s game or an inferior offshoot of mainstream newspapers – I aspired to apply my formal education in political science and philosophy to my daily beat. This proved to be futile. I may have had a theoretical grasp of realpolitik but scant exposure or comprehension of state governance and its machinations.

Feverish attempts to bury the experience of watching cinema regularly and evading its myriad grids, signs and meanings amounted to denying one’s instinctive and perhaps only legitimate calling.

The informal education in cinema viewing – at the alarming rate of a junkie throughout one’s growing years and more – hurtled me towards the ghetto slot of a film reviewer, reporter and commentator. If those tags sound grandiose, do excuse me, because the work and appreciation of film writing was anything but during the 1970s and ’80s when mainline newspapers gave cinema and the arts a grudging amount of space, on page 30 instead of the current page 3, or even the front page.

Willy-nilly, one’s experience, partaking of or the exposure to cinema intensified, simultaneously on personal and professional planes. It became vital to incorporate the element of objective distancing to subjective likes and dislikes. It became vital to discard the in-built residue of bias. Bias had to be replaced with an acceptance and estimation of the multiple dimensions of creativity, ranging from the good and the excellent to the bad and the ugly.

It became abundantly clear that every film for better or worse is in a way an articulation of the director, writer or even the producer’s ethos and principles, be they hyper-commercial or alternative or a blend of both. Every film had to be seen within its context, and above all, in terms of how far it came to honesty or truth telling, never mind the outer trappings. The inner core, or let’s say the emotional heart, was paramount, as it is in any work of literature, painting, poetry, dance and theatre.

One grappled initially, not to be ruled by the age-old divisive lines, that commercial was reprehensible and the artistic was supportable. Every film has its own life and its own reason and has to be considered accordingly; the purest form of reaction being the objectively emotional, a tough task, but it has to be performed if one aims to be responsible, professional, analytical and informative.

That task is tougher since reviews have to be formatted within a prescribed word limit, averaging at 500-600 words a piece generally in the set column of a newspaper, surrounded by a plethora of advertisements.

The task was facilitated, I would like to think, because of experience, of having seen, heard and absorbed cinema of every hue and stripe, at the local cinema halls and at film festivals, most significantly, the festivals of short films and of French and Czech cinema organised by the once flourishing film society movement in Mumbai during the 1970s. There was much to see and much to reflect upon. Which brings me to the central point of the discussion.

The representation of the minority community, which has largely been cartoonish, patronising and often fantasticated. Christians and Parsis are the butt of ridicule and jokes while the Muslims are either benign Rahim Chachas and Rahima Chachis, or alarmingly in recent years, terrorists from across the border.

If there was caricaturing once, it was at least devoid of malice and politics. Indeed, during the 1950s there were sub-genres of Hindi-Urdu cinema like the Muslim mythological, the prime example of this being Hatim Tai, and the Muslim social, which found patronage specially with Muslim audiences of the urban mohallas. Not surprisingly, with changing fads, time, taste, and commercial compulsions, the Hatim Tai genre died and so did the Muslim social, the last successful one being Mere Garib Nawaaz and on a bigger-budget scale, Mere Mehboob, Mere Huzoor and Nikaah.

The male miyan protagonists were either indolent nawabs, often revealing a less-than-seven-year itch for another shariq-e-hayaat. Or they were college campus romantics a la Rajendra Kumar in Mere Mehboob and Rajesh Khanna in Mehboob Ki Mehndi. The supporting characters were more often than not equipped with quivering goatees, piety and tears, as they played good samaritans like the poor man played by the ever suffering Manmohan Krishna who raised an abandoned illegitimately born child in Dhool Ka Phool, on secular tenets. (‘Tu Hindu banega na Musalman banega’, the refrain still rings in the ears.)

Muslim women also represented patented types, which is perhaps inescapable because custom and movie tastes want them that way. For instance, the ammi jaan was expected to be snow-haired, unbending and a model of tolerance, a kind of a Mohammedali Road Ammi India. In effect, she was like every other mother in the movies, only her costumes and hair tints were different. She did namaaz the way the Hindu woman went to the temple, there was a certain grace and commonality in the representation of the mother figure.

The sister, the aapa was like the normal screen didi, peppy, innocent and frequently seduced and ravished by the villainous elements. Also, the biwi or the beloved was slotted into a groove from which there seemed to be no escape. The Muslim heroine found ancestral roots in Anarkali, the classic cinema courtesan. She was the dancing girl, the nautch girl, the tawaif, the raqassa… in countless films… till this reached some kind of apotheosis in Pakeezah. Enough?

Meena Kumari, the contradictory chaste and sullied woman, had portrayed it all. Or that’s what you thought till the shimmering, singing Umrao Jaan, aka Rekha, mesmerised viewers. Interestingly, a movie corporate baron recently asked me to write a courtesan script. The reason? His logic was, Aishwarya Rai would look very well as an updated Umrao Jaan of Lucknow. It is another story altogether that the mujra mahals of Lucknow have all but disappeared today.

Reality, a contextual base or credibility are not the issues here. Flexibly, cinema lends itself to fantasies, concoction and fictionalisation. Yet even while spinning a yarn about say extra-terrestrials or imaginary courtesans, there has to be a relation to our real anxieties, fears, wishes and dreams. Take Mughal-e-Azam, the black-and-white version that is, it is an apocryphal love story of a Mughal prince and a courtesan who did not exist according to the history records. Nevertheless, the film was made with such immense power and conviction that we tend to suspect that maybe, just maybe, Anarkali was real.

On the flip side, the maa, bahen, biwi of popular Hindi cinema were believable only intermittently. Otherwise they were theatrical, relentlessly melodramatic ammi jaans, aapas and bahu begums given to abject suffering without raising a whimper against the feudal order created by males. Whenever the women protested against subjugation, they either died or failed miserably at the cash counters, an example being the Bimal Roy produced Benazir.

Of course, melodrama, gross exaggeration and distortion are not exclusive to the representation of Muslim characters. To strike a connection with viewers from different strata, the tradition has been to avoid subtlety and restraint in order to underline matters to the nth degree.

The representation of the minority community, which has largely been cartoonish, patronising and often fantasticated. Christians and Parsis are the butt of ridicule and jokes while the Muslims are either benign Rahim Chachas and Rahima Chachis, or alarmingly in recent years, terrorists from across the border

Hindu characters have also been stereotyped without any let-up, a trait that has found further expression on TV soaps and serials. Only, they aren’t made marginal characters hanging around on the fringes of the script.

This much was obvious to me during the early years of film watching; in other words a child could tell that there was a facetious shorthand in the portrayal of Muslims. That many of the stalwart writers, lyricists, producers, artistes and directors belonged to the Muslim faith was strange, to say the least. Stranger still, I have not been able to quite understand why Yusuf Khan chose to give himself the screen name of Dilip Kumar. Was it to strike a chord with the larger segment of the audience?

Be that as it may, as one started reviewing films circa the late 1970s, one made it a religion not to lose one’s innocence and emotional bearings while watching films, even while synopsising, analysing or reconstructing them in the journalistic mode. In the ’70s there was a trend to glorify parallel or off-mainstream cinema while disparaging the commercial or the mainstream. In principle, one had to be supported and the other attacked. This I found to be an Achilles heel in some of my senior colleagues. In effect, they were setting up borders in cinema that were unnecessary and unfair. So if one raved about Manmohan Desai’s Amar Akbar Anthony or Naseeb or the films of Raj Kapoor, one was considered a bit addle-headed. Eclectic tastes in cinema were suspect. Today, mercifully, eclecticism has become the norm.

Desai’s ironical entertainer about three lost and found brothers weaned on different religions was a joyous laugh riot. Manmohan Desai continued to push the secular envelope further, not with the same impact though. Coolie, with its incredibly absurd finale – in which the hero survived about a thousand bullets – at the Haji Ali shrine is unforgettable for sure, but finally far too fantasticated and over-the-top. The same goes for Allarakha, which he produced and piloted. Manmohan Desai was a child-like adventurist and there’s little doubt that his unashamedly absurd adventures were the best of their kind.

While looking for valuable signs and meanings in the big-budget movies, it was also rewarding to discover sensitive and lastingly significant portrayals of the Muslims in alternative cinema, the most important one being MS Sathyu’s Garm Hawa. It dealt with a Muslim family faced with the prospect of losing their moorings in India because of the Partition. Several attempts have been made to tell Partition stories, but Garm Hawa remains the most emotionally moving since it touches on the central truth of a political tragedy.

An underrated film, Bazaar, was Sagar Sarhadi’s expose of the selling of young brides. For some of its truth-telling moments, the earlier black-and-white Dharamputra is important too, more as a socially conscious streak in Yash Chopra’s oeuvre before he flew off to discover the scenic vistas of Switzerland.

Of the other films that have been valuable for their treatment of minority issues, Aparna Sen’s Mr and Mrs Iyer comes instantly to mind. It took a stand, and indeed was a corrective on Mani Ratnam’s Bombay, which strove to perform such a balancing act that it was neither here nor there. Govind Nihalani’s Tamas and Dev have their hard-edged moments, while Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, and Naseem point to a filmmaker whose humanism was more palpable than the films’ political content, which tended to get dogmatic.

In recent times, the Muslim woman has come out of purdah but is still hidden behind a mask of tinsel and glamour, as in Veer-Zaara, which was so politically correct that it was sterile. In Gadar, too, the Muslim woman was in dire distress and served as a Barbie doll being saved by a superman. By contrast, the helpless mother of Khamosh Pani, in recent times, stood out as an authentic portrait of a woman who has no choice but to convert to another faith during Partition. Also more convincing, by the strength of her portrayal, was the character of Tabu in Maqbool, caught in the crossfire of the underworld and savage ambition.

Over the decades, critiquing the pitfall of popular cinema has been common. The question is: is this critiquing to any point? On asking this despairing question some years ago, it was filmmaker Kumar Shahani who answered, "The accumulation of criticism is the point," encouraging me to continue with my, dare I say it, love. I say love because I see it as a faith in itself rather than an occupational preoccupation or hazard.

Of this accumulation, of criticism and concurrent life experiences, came my effort, first at film script writing, an opportunity given to me by Shyam Benegal, and then film direction, a purely accidental visa to another realm altogether stamped for me by the selfless support of cinematographer Santosh Sivan, and actors Jaya Bachchan and Karisma Kapoor. They were of the opinion that if I had a story to tell, in a cinematic framework, I should go ahead and do it.

The scripts for the Shyam Benegal-directed triptych Mammo, Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa were extremely personal, drawn from the lives of my maternal family. Mammo was a grand aunt who was living in Pakistan but longed to return to India as she considered it her home. Sardari Begum was her younger sister, who rebelled against family orthodoxy to become a flamboyant thumri singer of the 1930s ultimately to end up lonely and meet with a tragic end. Zubeidaa was the story of my mother whose second marriage to a Rajasthani Maharaja precipitated scandal and her death, at the age of 19, in an air crash.

The scripts drew on anecdotes, investigation and real-life events. Without having the base of close-to-the-bone reality none of these three stories would have been possible. Ornamentation of the real stories is what I tried to avoid. In fact, downplaying the inherent melodrama in the stories is what I aimed for, whether successfully or unsuccessfully is not for me to say or even remotely guess at. All I can say is that the task of re-telling the real stories of three Muslim women, of some substance and nostalgia, was a therapy, a means of coming to terms with the women I’d known to a degree, always searching for the missing pieces in the puzzle of their stories.

To come to Fiza. I directed Fiza simply because filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma, for whom the script was researched and written, suggested far too many alterations. The catalyst for Fiza were the restless and eternally watchful lives of several families in Mohammedali Road. Sons, brothers and husbands had vanished after the ’93 communal riots in Mumbai. Were they dead, or alive or… ? The immediate reaction of the film industry and a section of journalists was: how can he dare to make a film when he’s been critiquing them?

The reaction didn’t affect me to the extent of giving up what I’d ventured out to do, because I saw filmmaking as an extension of journalism. If I was straying into another medium of reportage, comment and storytelling, there were no written codes or laws to prevent me from taking the step. Perhaps the sudden popularity of Hrithik Roshan, who has been cast as the missing brother, before he became hugely popular with the release of his debut film Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, evoked inordinate curiosity. But it did help me considerably in getting the sub-text of the film across to a large audience. The sub-text was simply this – the ruination of human lives caused by political self-servers.

A sequence showing the Muslim girl, Fiza, dancing up a storm to the lyric ‘Main nachoo bin paayal’ elicited a horde of negative reactions. This was a compromise, an item number, how could a Muslim girl do this? That was exactly why the sequence had been in the original script, it wasn’t an afterthought tagged on because of commercial compulsions. A sequence in Sarhadi’s Bazaar had shown Muslim men and women dancing and drinking at a party. I wanted to echo that – a Muslim girl need not be a closeted, shrivelling lily. She could enter a disco and dance up a storm. In real life they do, but on cinema this was believed to be taboo.

Next, I directed Tehzeeb, a look at a troubled mother-daughter relationship, inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, a work of tremendous literary quality in the writing. The sub-text here was to depict a Muslim family like any other, unencumbered by shararas, burkhas or serving sheer-korma at Id festivities. The point was missed; the film was marketed haphazardly and received lukewarmly, to put it mildly. Too heavy some felt, too slow others said. The only silver lining is that women audiences seemed to relate to it.

If there are two questions that I feel wary about, they are, "Why do you always make films about women?", "And why are they all about Muslims?"

What can one say but to emphasise that one narrates stories one feels strongly about and concerned with? I have just completed filming a third film titled Silsilay which is about women again, and one of the three women portrayed is the character of a Muslim housewife.

I may be absolutely wrong, I may be partially right. But cinema, like other art forms, has firmer roots when it draws from the real and the experiential.

While searching for the identity of the Muslim woman, I hope to find my own identity, if not today, then some day soon.


Saajan se jo naina milein
Naina milein, naina milein, naina milein,
Saajan soh jo naina milein
Toh man ki pyaas bhuje…

(So I gaze into my love’s eyes,
So I gaze into my love’s eyes,
And quench the thirst in my soul…)

The sultry sounds of Bade Ghulam Ali Khan echo through the black and white landscape. By a fountain in the moonlit gardens of the palace, Prince Salim, resplendent in brocade and jewels, uses a large white feather to gently caress the beautiful face of the woman sitting before him. Hers is a face of incredible beauty framed by the chiffon and zari of her dupatta. Their gazes are locked. Anarkali’s smiles are bashful, yet laden with passion. His look conveys a myriad messages as her eyelashes flutter, her lips part. He strokes her gently, carrying the feather from her lips to his. Their eyes speak volumes, clouded by desire. As he leans forward to kiss her, the feather shields the embracing couple.

In the distance, Sultana watches.


A motley collection of passengers sit dead still in the interior of a bus as fires are seen raging outside. It is late evening; the scene is tinged in deep earth colours lit by flame. To the eerie tom-tom of drumbeats, two mobsters enter the bus menacingly, asking each passenger their name. The gang-leader is dressed in a loud printed shirt, a saffron tilak on his forehead, while his colleague sports a saffron headscarf. A traditionally dressed South-Indian Hindu woman clutches her baby to her breast as she and her neighbour exchange looks. Two Sikhs sit frozen in their seats.

The gang-leader grabs a young man by the collar and pulls him out of his seat.

Rioter 1: Tell me your name!… Didn’t you hear what I said? Tell me your name!

Youth: Sohail.

Rioter 1: Sohail what? Sohail what?! …What is your father’s name?…Tell me your father’s name, Sister-f****r!

Youth: Sohail Rai… son of Samir Rai.

Rioter: Drop your pants! Drop your pants!

Rioter 2: Abbe, drop your pants you a******e!

The passengers wait in trepidation. The young man takes down his trousers; the mobster gives him a cursory look and throws him back into his seat. The rioters move on. Neighbours clutch at neighbours. Every passenger is paralysed by fear.

A man says: "We are all Hindus here. All Hindus." Another adds: "All Hindus. All Hindus." From the rear of the bus a bespectacled man rises to interject (in English): "No, not all. Not them (pointing at an elderly couple). They are Muslims – the old man and his wife – Muslims." The rioters stop in front of the old man and his wife.

Rioter 1: Your good name?
Old man: Iqbal.
The gang-leader restrains the other rioter as he lunges forward. è
Rioter 1: This could also be a Hindu name… Iqbal What?
Old man: Iqbal Ahmed Khan.
Rioter 2: See! Trying to pass himself off as a Hindu, the a*******e! B*****d! We’ll finish off your whole family! Get up!
Rioter 1 (to his colleague): Enough! Don’t talk rubbish! Get back! Get back! (Turning to the old gentleman) Come Iqbal saab, please come outside with us. We have something we’d like to discuss with you.

Old man: But we have to go to Calcutta...
Rioter 1 (baring his teeth): Why are you so afraid? Not in front of everyone, we need to make some inquiries in private. Come on.

The old man and his wife exchange looks and he gets up to follow the men, turning to ask her: Najma, my teeth?

His wife nods and gives him his dentures from the bag on her lap: Here… You’ll need your spectacles too (Handing him his spectacle case). As the three men move off, she stops them, holding out a packet of pills: He hasn’t been keeping well lately, it is cold, these tablets…

The gang-leader sniggers: Don’t worry; he won’t need them where he’s going.

They make their way out of the bus. As they are about to leave, a young woman in the front row starts wailing, pleading with them in English. Realising that her husband is in dire trouble, Najma calls out to stop them and starts to follow them. They drag her out of the bus as well. The young woman in front screams out to stop them. The gang-leader hits her and flings her on to the floor of the bus. As a co-passenger tries to intervene he is warned off.

At the rear, the young man, bristling with anger, jumps up in protest. Thrusting her baby roughly into his arms, his neighbour admonishes, "Just hold him!" Dumbstruck, swept up in the fear and the emotion of the moment, he is left holding a howling infant in his arms.


In a ceremonial ground by a flag post bearing the Pakistani flag, a young couple – an Indian Sikh, Tara Singh, his wife Sakina, a Pakistani Muslim, and their little son – are being grilled by sundry Pakistanis as a large crowd looks on.

Qazi (priest): You are fortunate, Tara Singh, as Allah has beckoned you to his fold, that he has given you the opportunity to become a Muslim. What do you think? Do you accept Islam?

Tara Singh: A man’s biggest duty is to protect his wife and child.

Qazi: Do you accept Islam?

Tara Singh: Kashi and Kaaba are one and the same.

Qazi (shouting angrily): Do you accept Islam or not?! (His voice reverberates menacingly in the surroundings, as the crowd waits with bated breath for Tara Singh to reply.)

Tara Singh: I accept.

Qazi: Maashallah, Subhanallah, then come to the mosque and proclaim this honestly and in all good faith… (He is interrupted by Sakina’s father, Ashraf Ali.)

Ashraf Ali: One minute, Qazi saab! Before he takes a single step into the mosque let us find out whether he is worthy of being a Muslim! (To Tara Singh) Fine, if you accept Islam, say Islam Zindabad! (The crowd shouts Islam Zindabad! Sakina looks at her husband and her father anxiously.)

Tara Singh: Islam Zindabad.

Ashraf Ali: Hmmm. Say Pakistan Zindabad! (The crowd shouts Pakistan Zindabad!) è

Tara Singh (glaring): Pakistan Zindabad. (The crowd cheers.)

Ashraf Ali: Now say Hindustan Murdabad! (Sakina looks at her husband and her father anxiously.)

Tara Singh (shouting angrily, his voice ringing through the ground): Ashraf Ali! We have no objection to your Pakistan living long but Hindustan has lived long, is living, and will always live long! (He advances, waving his fist in the air) Hindustan Zindabad! Hindustan Zindabad! (His young son echoes the words.) Hindustan Zindabad!

Ashraf Ali: Don’t talk rubbish! As long as you don’t say Hindustan Murdabad how will the people of this country believe that you are a true Muslim?!

Tara Singh: There are more Muslims in Hindustan than in this country. Their lips, their hearts all cry Hindustan Zindabad. Does that mean they are not true Muslims?!

Ashraf Ali: Stop your speechifying! If you don’t say Hindustan Murdabad you can’t take Sakina with you!

Tara Singh: Stop! That’s enough! If I can bow my head for my wife and child I can cut off everyone’s heads too!

There is an outcry as the Pakistanis surge angrily towards him. He then pulls a hand pump out of the ground and swings it around wildly, felling attackers with his blows.


A young boy in shorts and T-shirt and a burkha clad woman, Mammo, are walking along a city road.

Boy: What sort of things?
Mammo: Like seeing hell on earth.
Boy: You’ve seen Hell?
They stop in their tracks.

Mammo: Yes, beta. May God never show us those times again. Your Nana, God rest his soul, and I left everything we had in the dead of night, stuffing whatever we could in our hands, our pockets; we were leaving for Pakistan. We were taken to the border along with other refugees. From there, by foot … What a time it was! Doomsday, it was doomsday! Fire, bloodshed, plunder and pillage, bodies, screams. Our hair stood on end. (Scenes of fire and strife in the dark of night play on the screen. Gut-wrenching cries are heard.) We were about 400-500 of us going from this side to that side. There were an equal number coming from there. The people leaving here were Muslims and those coming from there were Hindus and Sikhs. But we were all in the same boat. Our country, our land, had turned into Karbala (the site of a great war in Islam), God! There was a young woman walking along with me. She had two little children clutched to her breast, the unfortunate. One boy died in her arms. Who had time for a shroud or burial? We came to a river and people said that the dead child should be thrown into the water. That poor hapless woman was not in her senses. She threw the live child into the water and clutched the dead child to her bosom. I can still remember her glazed eyes staring wildly. And that scream of hers…Ya Allah!

Stunned, the young boy asks: You saw all this with your own eyes?
Mammo: I saw this and much more…
Boy: Mammo Nani, I am going to write about all this one day.
Mammo: But who will read it? It isn’t good to cry about one’s sorrows...

Archived from Communalism Combat, February  2005, Year 11    No.105, Cover Story 2.

Talking songs


An intrinsic part of the society they inhabit, music-makers, music will always echo the voice of their times

I have been writing screen plays for the last 35 years, I have never in my life read a book on screenplay writing. I’ve been writing lyrics, I have never read an article on lyric writing. I’ve been writing poetry, I have yet to read anything about poetry writing. I’ve read poetry but not about poetry writing. So I have total ignorance as far as the theory is concerned – It is flawless, unadulterated. Whatever I know, I have learnt on the job. And as far as film lyrics are concerned, my job had started much before I joined the film industry because I was interested in films and film songs.

Songs in films are like a part of the drama, a part of the narrative, and this was not invented by Indian cinema. It is thousands of years old. This is the way we narrate stories; this is the way we tell our tales. Whether Sanskrit plays like Mrichakatika, Ramleela or Krishnaleela, rural theatre, called nautanki or in Bengal, jatra, and so on. Before the emergence of the Talkies you had Urdu-Parsi theatre, which was urban theatre. All forms of drama invariably had songs. This is the way India has been telling and hearing its stories and tales, with songs.

I, having read no books myself, have recently written a book about film songs. Here I tried to guess the sources from which we have taken our vocabulary, our structure, our style. Before Alam Ara, a film made in the ’30s, there was, as I mentioned, Urdu-Parsi theatre. Urdu-Parsi theatre had songs and employed famous writers like Agha Hashar Kashmiri and Munshi Badil and even their scenes were often written in poetry and rhyme. "Kahiye shahbaz-e-zamana, Aapne is nacheez ko pehchana?" The king asks a rebel who is standing in front of him in court, chained. The prisoner replies, "Pehchana, pehchana, Shaitan ko kaun nahi janta hai? Balki har ek pehchanta hai! Shakl-surat dekh li, Kibr-o-raunat (pride and arrogance) dekh li, Naam pehle se suna tha, Aaj surat dekh li." The king says, "Badzubaan, Tu zanjeeron mein jakda hai, Aur phir bhi akda hai? Sar se guroor-e-masnad-e-o-makhmal (pride of power and glory) nahi gaya, Rassi tamaam jal gayi par bal nahi gaya!" That was how it went, and then, off and on, one would start singing. Now, I have read these plays. Many of them are set in an Egyptian background, or the hero is a Roman soldier, the heroine a Jewish princess, and so on and so forth. But be it Marcus or Helen, even they sang "more balma nahi aaye" or they sang a ghazal as the play progressed. It was quite evident, when I read those plays and heard that music, that Urdu-Parsi theatre, which in a way was a forerunner of Hindi cinema and Hindi cinema music, had two sources – folk and the traditional Urdu ghazal. It took from both sources and in many places it synthesised.

As in the early songs of Pankaj Mullick where we see both languages working together, for instance in the famous ‘Pran chahe naina na chahe’. In the song’s antara are the lines: "Jhadte hai phool phagun ke, phagun ke mahine mein, Main tumse juda hota hoon, ek dard liye seene mein". The first line has the language of the North Indian folk song: "Jhadte hai phool phagun ke, phagun ke mahine mein", but the second line is pure ghazal: "Main tumse juda hota hoon, ek dard liye seene mein". This synthesis of Hindi and Urdu, rural and urban, was evolved right in the beginning of Hindi music. Hindi films and Hindi film music are extremely liberal, large hearted, open-minded; they are not conservative at all. In fact I am surprised when people talk of fusion now, that they believe fusion is a discovery of the last 20 years. That’s just not true. If you listen to songs by Pankaj Mullick, or later, Naushad, or Madan Mohan, you see that what they were doing, without being aware of it, was fusion. When people didn’t know there was a gas called oxygen it wasn’t as if they were breathing something else. They were still breathing oxygen.

Similarly, perhaps the word fusion did not exist – but if you hear the music of, say, Pankaj Mullick or RC Boral, their tunes are totally Shastriya Sangeet-based but their orchestration is western, symphonic. They used the trumpet, they used the cello, they used violins. Take songs like ‘Tu jaha jaha chalega mera saaya saath hoga’ by Madan Mohan from the film Mera Saaya. Now, this song is pure Nand raga – unchanged, unaltered, but the entire orchestration is western, symphonic. The rest of the world is discovering these experiments now, just as the USA is discovering neem now when our grandmothers knew about neem hundreds of years ago, and it is the same for fusion. In fact, Hindi film music started and evolved with fusion – fusion of musical instruments, fusion of language, fusion of traditions. Now, with time it changed. Because it is dynamic, it is not static. It has never been shy of changes. And that’s why it is living. That’s why it is spreading.

As far as lyrics are concerned, in the ‘40s and ‘50s, some words were used because the rural influence existed and was very evident in film songs. Words like balma (lover) or many others with a rural base were gradually pruned and marginalised over time, and went out of the vocabulary. While every second song in the ’30s and ’40s had the word balma in it, you probably won’t find the word used in any popular song of the past decade. Why did this word become obsolete? And I am looking at just one case when in fact there are many such words. There is a definite socio-economic reason behind this shift.

Music also moves with life and society. With time we are developing speed but I’m afraid we are developing speed at the cost of depth

To begin with, we don’t have many theatres in this country. Even today, in a country of 100 crore people, we have barely 14,000 theatres, whereas in the USA, where there are 28 crore people, there are almost 1 lakh theatres. So theatre and cinema going, movie watching, is strictly an urban phenomenon. There are hardly any theatres in the villages. So why was there rural vocabulary and why and how did it become obsolete?

Let’s try and understand this shift.

In the ’30s and ’40s, industrialisation was not so widespread, you had some mills in Bombay, Kanpur or Calcutta, but ultimately India was not really an industrialised country. So, by and large, the middle class was an extension of the landed gentry. They were teachers, professors, bureaucrats, doctors, engineers, but they were the extended family of the agrarian class, of the landed gentry. They had their ties, their roots, in the village. Their source of affluence was the village with which they shared strong cultural connections. And that is why they were comfortable with a song that was rural in its temperament. Industrialisation developed a new middle class that had nothing to do with the village. They had no nostalgia, no romantic notions about rural life. So the hero or the heroine, the protagonist ceased to be somebody from that milieu. The hero ceased to be a farmer or someone who lives in the village. Even the romantic notion of an innocent villager coming to the big city has lost its appeal. The only exception over the past several years has been Lagaan where the hero is a villager. And here, too, the hero is actually not a villager but an Indian fighting the British.

This paradigm shift has changed the language of the Hindi film song. Songs started becoming more and more urban. There were two things happening simultaneously over the last 50 years. One – a disconnection from rural roots; and two – the shrinking sphere of Urdu in northern India. You make Hindi films particularly for northern India because that is supposedly the Hindi belt although Hindi films are screened everywhere. But obviously, North India is the main market, of Hindi speaking people, Hindustani speaking people. Sahir Ludhianvi, Shakeel Badayuni, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, Rajendra Krishan, these people had very strong roots in the Urdu language and they wrote songs that were poem-like or close to ghazals. Many music directors had also come from the background of Urdu, like Madan Mohan, Naushad, Khaiyyam, Husn Lal Bhagat Ram, so they had a certain facility for composing ghazals. Even when they composed a tune, their tunes were in the ghazal format (in
India the ghazal has 12-14 meters). As the Urdu language lost ground, such music and such music directors became more and more scarce.

In the ’40s and ’50s, stories had a certain idealism because society had a certain idealism. There was a collective aspiration. There was a collective dream. So the hero was the common man, unlike the ’90s and today, when the hero is essentially from a rich family and does nothing but sing songs. He used to be a working person – a farmer, a mill worker, a truck driver, a taxi driver, an unemployed youth sometimes, a clerk, a teacher, a lawyer, a doctor, but a working person. And, more often than not, the story dealt with a socio-economic problem. Rich people were bad people. Poor people were good people. And we were waiting for the time when everybody would become affluent. Affluence was around the corner and good days were on the next page of the calendar. At that time, when we had such idealistic stories around this collective dream, the song situations were provided by the story to celebrate these dreams. You could write songs like ‘Woh subah kabhi toh aayegi’ – it was possible. So the meter, the story, the situation, the temperament of the music and the sensibility of the filmmakers and the audience, who were aware of literature, poetry, all of this provided an atmosphere conducive for good songs. And you got good songs.

That was a time when life had an easy pace, everyone had the space to breathe, society was less industrialised, and there was some time for leisure. People had time to ponder. And what happened then? The tempo increased, the tempo of life, and so did the tempo of music. If society moves at a frantic speed, music cannot be medium-paced. It too will become very fast.

Music also moves with life and society. With time we are developing speed but I’m afraid we are developing speed at the cost of depth. We lost idealism, so did the lyric. We, as a society, accepted and imbibed a certain crudity, a certain vulgarity, a certain insensitivity, and that reflected in the music as well as the lyric.

I don’t think it is a matter of chance that your best songs were during the time of Jawaharlal Nehru and your worst music and worst lyrics have come at a time when Mr. LK Advani was ruling the roost. I think songs like ‘Sarkailo khatiya jaada lage’ and the speeches of Mr. LK Advani belong to the same package. On the other hand, as the crude reactionary fascist attitudes in society gradually begin to recede, you can once again see that there is an urge for better music, better lyrics, better words. So let’s hope that India, Indian politics, Indian films and Indian film lyrics will see better days in the future.

Archived from Communalism Combat, February  2005 Year 11    No.105, Cover Story 3
Women of substance

The changing face of the heroine in Hindi cinema: from armament to ornament

The Hindi film heroine has had a fairly interesting reign on the silver screen. Alternating from the progressive to the regressive role model, she has, like the chameleon, changed her image and attitude to adjust to the times and trends.

Her arduous journey began in the early ’30s. If Chandulal Shah’s Miss 1933 explored her freedom of choice, Homi Master’s Samaj Ki Bhool did a widow’s right to remarry. There were some films that lent her voice but only through borrowed identity. In Saher Ka Jadu, made in 1934, she arrives in the big city disguised as a man to look for her father who has fallen prey to urban vices. And in Hunterwali, dedicated to punishing the evildoer, she hides behind a mask while doing her good deeds. The strongest message among the films released at that time was in V. Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane, applauding a young girl’s defiance to consummate marriage with an old widower. Came Independence, and the heroine slowly learnt to express herself. The bride in Aag, ’48 turns away from her disfigured groom on their wedding night. In 1949 she is a spirited woman loved by two men in Andaz.

Gradually the heroine developed a demeanour, a self-assurance that was unmistakable. The heroine symbolised the human conscience. The ethereal dream sequence in Raj Kapoor’s Awara, where she is sent to heaven and the hero to hell, and his final return to ‘Ghar aaya mera pardesi’ is an immortal memory for cinema goers.

Interestingly, the two extreme images of the woman, the fiery and the submissive, came in the same year, 1953. In Sohrab Modi’s Jhansi Ki Rani she was on the battlefield, fighting for freedom. In Bimal Roy’s Parineeta she surrenders her freedom for tradition! There were times she needed taming, as in Aaan in ’57 and times when she was mature beyond her years. Paro and Chandramukhi in Sarat Chandra’s Devdas are two extraordinary women while the hero is a weak man running away from responsibilities. The same is true of Ashok Kumar, undeserving of the beautiful Kalyani in Bandhini.

In years to come the heroine continued to play a range of roles. As Gulab the streetwalker in Pyaasa she is supportive of the hero when everyone lets him down. Kathputli in ’57 explored the perils of a professional woman, in this case a dancer. Madhumati in ’58 emphasised that the woman did not need a man to seek her revenge – she accomplished it as a ghost after death. In 1959, Guru Dutt’s Kagaz Ke Phool, about an actress involved with a married filmmaker, elaborated on how the relationship destroyed him while the actress went on to become a big star. The film marked a subtle beginning in the emergence of a woman who opted for career over love.

In a strange way, the Indian heroine was always a cross between our very own Sita and Draupadi from mythology. At times the suffering martyr who goes through a trial by fire to prove her chastity and at other times the daredevil who initiated the (battle of) Kurukshetra.

There were phases when she was bogged down by domesticity and failed to respond to her beloved’s fantasies, as Sandhya in Navrang or the self-respecting untouchable Nutan in Sujata, ’59. These were characters that evoked social consciousness. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anuradha she was the neglected wife of a busy doctor. In K. Asif’s Mughal-e-Azam she challenged the emperor with ‘Jab pyaar kiya to darna kya which will remain an inspiration to suffering lovers for years to come.

At times the tragedienne and at times the seductress, at times defiant and at times diffident, but her dignity always remained untarnished. If at all her role was overstated, it was under extreme provocation. In Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, the chhoti bahu, in a desperate bid to hold back her husband from going to his evening’s entertainment, takes to alcohol.

As the court dancer in Amrapali, ’66 she turns down an emperor because her love for her country is greater than her love for the king. And as the ailing widow deserted by her in-laws in Phool Aur Patthar she stands witness for a criminal, uncaring of the moral and social implications. They were women with a mind of their own even if their lives didn’t always end happily-ever-after. The wife in Bahurani and the courtesan of Mujhe Jeene Do, ’67 were women who survived compelling circumstances.

In a strange way, the Indian heroine was always a cross between our very own Sita and Draupadi from mythology. At times the suffering martyr who goes through a trial by fire to prove her chastity and at other times the daredevil who initiated the (battle of) Kurukshetra

At the same time, for some strange reason, the heroine could never get out of the pati-parmeshwar (husband-is-Lord) mould. She removed her husband’s shoes and treated him like a deity. Her submission seemed to comply with the mood of society at the time. Her undisputed honour, of course, came in the role of a mother. Mehboob Khan’s Mother India was her acid test of endurance, sacrifice and of justice. And she passed it with flying colours.

A tangible contrast to the all-virtuous heroine was the vamp. Quite often a cabaret dancer, her presence was essentially to add glamour. Popularised by Cuckoo, perfected by Helen and followed by Bindu and Kalpana Iyer, once in a while the vamp traded places with the heroine. Mala Sinha in BR Chopra’s Gumraah was the wayward wife while the vamp, Shashikala was the husband’s confidante. These were rare examples.

Around this time, colour was creeping into cinema in more ways than the obvious. Shammi Kapoor, after Tumsa Nahin Dekha and Junglee, was being pitted against the trio, Raj-Dilip-Dev, as the rebel star. Kapoor refused to take cinema seriously. He wanted to have some fun and turned the ’60s into an acrobatic decade. The majority of films released during this phase (Ziddi, Love In Tokyo) concentrated on the hero wooing the heroine relentlessly. The era marked a strident beginning towards sexual harassment, no matter how harmless. Clones of songs like, ‘Lal chadi maidan khadi’ from Jaanwar, ’62 continued right up to ‘Khambe jaisi khadi hai’ from Dil, ‘90. To put it succinctly, the focus was shifting to the physical attributes of the leading lady and our songs bear testimony to how she was being gradually transformed into an object of sexual desire. And yet, not all the films made during this era were frivolous. Delving into the old format, some serious trends continued. Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama and Suchitra Sen’s double-role starrer Mamta were serious statements on family relationships.

With the arrival of the king of romance, superstar Rajesh Khanna, the heroine had to re-emerge and prove an effective foil, a vivacious, saucy queen for the king. For quite a while she held her own despite the Khanna hysteria. But as Khanna’s popularity increased, the queen found herself slowly dwarfed in his awesome presence. Uncomfortable about being pushed into the background, she surprised viewers with the odd unconventional portrayal. Waheeda Rehman as Rosie, desperate to break marital chains to live openly with her lover in Guide, Nanda as the devious schemer in Ittefaq, ’69 and Hema Malini as the possessive mistress in Lal Patthar are some examples.

In the coming years, the heroine evolved an even more intriguing persona. She was the haunting ghost of Woh Kaun Thi, ’64, the wanton call-girl of Chetna, ’70, the widow who dared to love in Andaz, and the courtesan who dared to dream in Pakeezah, ’71.

After a while, the complexities became overbearing. The cinema goer craved for simple, uncomplicated real-life stories. Guddi, ’71, and Jaya Bhaduri’s girl next-door appeal came like morning dew. She epitomised middle-class sensibility: Uphaar, Piya Ka Ghar, Parichay, Koshish and Kora Kagaz explored common man concerns. In Anamika, however, even Jaya defied her image, deceiving the hero by faking amnesia on the grounds that all is fair in love.

The cycle of the Indian heroine, from armament to ornament, coincided with the advent of the Amitabh Bachchan phenomenon, in Zanjeer, ’73. As Bachchan steadily usurped Khanna’s crown, the queen found that she had no definite place beside the box-office shahenshah. She sang and danced, but only to provide relief from the relentless quest for revenge – And that too, only when the hero had the time. The heroine’s feelings became secondary. The Bachchan era saw the emergence of the ultimate glamour puss: Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi and in later years, Kimi Katkar. They were sex symbols with hourglass figures who did all that the vamp did and perhaps more.

One didn’t realise when the rot set in but tediously the costumes and the roles lost character. So strong was the impact of the action hero that the heroine began fading into oblivion. The humiliation of total subjugation hurt. She made tentative forays to regain her lost identity. The mainstream had closed its doors to her, at least temporarily. So she sought a backdoor entry.

It was Shyam Benegal who was responsible for her reincarnation. First a seedling, Ankur, ’73 that blossomed in Nishant, ’75, then Manthan and finally Bhumika, ’76, were all stories about women who hit below the belt. Shabana Azmi, supported by her colleagues, Smita Patil and Deepti Naval, opened the doors to the woman of substance!

Mainstream cinema continued to project her as a mannequin draped in rainbow colours. If in Bobby she was the ultimate dream, in Satyam Shivam Sundaram by the same filmmaker, she was the ultimate fantasy. In keeping with her character traits, when she wasn’t the siren she was the submissive wife basking in her husband’s glory.

Again, it was middle-of-the-road cinema that freed her from subjugation. Gulzar’s Aandhi dispelled the myth that husband came before self. The heroine chose a career in politics over family. In Ek Baar Phir, ’80, she walked out of a loveless marriage and in Arth, ’82, her husband walked out on her to live with an actress. Arth was the first film depicting the heroine willing to live on her own, without the crutch of a husband, lover or religion.

Clearly, she was going through an identity crisis but it took her some time to admit this. It was BR Chopra who gave her the courage to expose her rapist in Insaaf Ka Tarazu, ’80 and it was Chopra again who said she could not be treated as a commodity in Nikaah, ’82. Lekh Tandon liberated her to an extent that she was ready to sell her womb in Doosri Dulhan, ’82 and Rakesh Roshan applauded as she avenged her killer in Khoon Bhari Maang, ’88. Her need to express and simultaneously to retreat continued and she did so in a familiar pattern. Jamini in Khandhar, ’84 is self-sufficient and dignified in pain; the protagonist Sonbai in Mirch Masala and Pratighaat, ’87 strike out violently at their oppressors.

Inspired by her courage, the mainstream heroine also dared to break out of the inhibitions imposed on her. She now enticed the hero with her unabashed body language, ‘Kaate nahin kat ti’ in Mr India, ’87 and became even more erotic as she heaved her bosom to ‘Dhak dhak’ in Beta, ’93. Moving with the times, the ’90s heroine was assertive, at times even over-stepping the lakshmanrekha (line in the sand, defining moral space) in her mutinous bargain for liberation. She was upfront and, for a change, having a little fun with ‘Choli ke peeche kya hai’ (Khalnayak) and ‘Sexy sexy mujhe log bole’ (Khuddar, ‘94). Her self image was determined by the changing social fabric. The exploited sister holding up a mirror to her family of parasites in Jeevan Dhara, ’82, the defiant daughter who barrages her alcoholic father in Daddy, ’91, the angry wife condemning her husband for wanting to play her deity in Mrityudand, ’97, were images of shifting equations.

The cinema goer needed to touch base with reality. He was filled with admiration for the Bandit Queen, ’94, intrigued by her overt sexuality in Aastha, ’97 and guilty about letting her down in Tamanna, ’97. He joined her in a crusade for power in Godmother, ’99 and saluted her search for identity in Astitva, 2000. Encouraged, she sought her lost self-esteem in Rajkumar Santoshi’s Lajja, only to end up defeated again in Chandni Bar, 2001.

The paradox somehow never seemed to end. The only time the heroine was able to break free of the shackles was when she revered tradition. Sooraj Barjatya’s Maine Pyar Kiya, ’90 and Hum Aapke Hain Koun, ’94, depicted the heroine as willing to sacrifice love for family honour and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, ’96, included the elders in her dream.

Perhaps, therein lies the answer.

Archived from Communalism Combat, February  2005 Year 11    No.105, Cover Story 4


Remembering Anthony Gonsalves

Midway through Manmohan Desai’s classic 1977 film about three brothers separated at birth, a man in a top hat and a Saturday Night Fever suit leaps out of a giant Easter egg to inform the assemblage, "My name is Anthony Gonsalves."

Anthony Gonsalves from Amar Akbar Anthony

The significance of the announcement was lost under the impact of Amitabh Bachchan’s sartorial exuberance. But decades later, the memory of that moment still sends shivers down the spines of scores of ageing men scattered across Bombay and Goa. By invoking the name of his violin teacher in that tune in Amar Akbar Anthony, the composer Pyarelal had finally validated the lives of scores of Goan Catholic musicians whose working years had been illuminated by the flicker of images dancing across white screens in airless sound studios, even as acknowledgement of their talent whizzed by in the flash of small-type credit titles.

The arc of their stories – determined by the intersection of passion and pragmatism, of empire and exigency – originated in church-run schools in Portuguese Goa and darted through royal courts in Rajasthan, jazz clubs in Calcutta and army cantonments in Murree. Those lines eventually converged on Bombay’s film studios, where the Goan Catholic arrangers worked with Hindu music composers and Muslim lyricists in an era of intense creativity that would soon come to be recognised as the golden age of Hindi film song.

The Nehruvian dream could not have found a more appropriate harmonic expression.

A few months back, a friend called to tell me about a new character he’d discovered in a story published by Delhi-based Raj Comics: Anthony Gonsalves. On the page (and accessible only if you read Hindi), Anthony Gonsalves is part of the great Undead, the tribe doomed to live between the worlds. It wasn’t always like this. In his prime, Anthony Gonsalves was a mild-mannered guitar player who had devised a magical new sound known as ‘crownmusic’. But his jealous rivals tortured him to death so that they could steal his work. Now the magnificently muscled superhero emerges from the grave each night to prevent the desperate from committing suicide and to rid the world of evil, informed of imminent misfortune by his pet crow.

Repeated calls to Raj Comics failed to disgorge the phone number of Tarunkumar Wahi, the creator of the series, so I was unable to establish how the comic-book character had come to get his name. But I couldn’t help thinking how the predicament of the leotard-clad figure was not unlike that of the real Anthony Gonsalves, whose home in the sleepy Goan village of Majorda I had visited only weeks earlier: both had attempted to connect disparate worlds and both had been left with the gnawing dissatisfaction of a mission unfinished.

Thirty years after he quit the film industry in 1965 to avail of a travelling grant from Syracuse University in upstate New York, Anthony Gonsalves continues to arouse the curiosity of his contemporaries. He departed at the height of his popularity and, even after he returned from America a decade later, never swung his baton again. In fact, he scarcely bothered to let his former colleagues know that he was back. As I met with musicians in Bombay and Goa in an attempt to piece together a portrait of their lives and work in the studios, many of them insisted that he was still in America – if indeed he was still alive.

The 77-year-old maestro offered no explanations for his seclusion. His speech was slow and his thoughts sometimes incoherent, as if confirming rumours that he’d suffered a nervous breakdown in America when he realised that he wouldn’t be able to make a living as a composer in a country whose music colleges turn out thousands of aspiring composers every year. But in moments of clarity (which formed most of the three hours we chatted), Gonsalves pulled out photographs and yellowing newspaper clippings to take me back to the time in the mid-1960s when he’d attempted to merge the symphonies of his Goan heritage with the Hindustani melodies and rhythms he had come to discover in the film studios.

In this, Gonsalves’ ambition outstripped that of his contemporaries. Goan musicians had been sought after by film composers since the ’40s, when AB Albuquerque and Peter Dorado teamed up with a Sikh saxophone player named Ram Singh to form the ARP Party – an acronym that in those uneasy years also stood for Air Raid Police. The source of their appeal lay across a yawning musical chasm: while Indian classical music has a melodic basis, western classical music – in which Goans had been rigorously trained in parish schools established by the Portuguese who had ruled their home state since 1510 – has a harmonic foundation. To wit, all the performers at an Indian classical music concert reiterate the same melodic line, but western classical ensembles play different notes of related pitches.

When Hindi film music entered a period of rapid evolution during the Second World War, composers realised that the small groups they’d previously used could not effectively convey the drama unfolding on screen. So they formed large orchestras that ranged dholaks and sitars along with banks of violins, swathes of trumpets and a Hawaiian guitar or two. Since not many musicians from other communities knew how to play saxophones or clarinets, Goans came to form the bulk of the orchestras. But they also had another, rather more influential role. Until then, composers would rehearse their groups (which usually had fewer than 10 musicians) until they’d memorised their parts before leading them into recording sessions. But if the members of an orchestra were to play in unison and the tone colour of their instruments was to be employed most effectively, they needed to read the notes off scores, with each musician’s role clearly laid out. Few Hindi film composers, most of whom were trained in the Hindustani classical tradition, knew how to score music for the new ensembles. That task was performed by a Goan ‘arranger’.

Goan Catholic arrangers worked with Hindu music composers and Muslim lyricists in an era of intense creativity that would soon come to be recognised as the golden age of Hindi film song.
The Nehruvian dream could not have found a more appropriate harmonic expression

Typically, the work proceeded thus. The producer would organise a ‘sitting’ (as the Goans came to call the baithaks) at which the composer (most often a Hindu), the lyricist (usually an Urdu-speaking Muslim) and the arranger would flop down on comfortable cushions to listen to the director narrate the plot. When the director indicated the point at which a song was necessary, the composer would hum out a melody or pick it out on his harmonium. It was the arranger’s task to note down these fragments, which the composer would later piece together into an entire song.

But even then, the composer would craft only the verse and the chorus. The arranger was responsible for fashioning the melodic bridges, for shaping the parts for individual instruments and often even wrote the background music. The arranger wasn’t merely a secretary. As I discovered while researching a previous essay, the Goans drew on their bicultural heritage to give Bollywood music its promiscuous charm, slipping in slivers of Dixieland stomp, Portuguese fados, Ellingtonesque doodles, cha cha cha, Mozart and Bach themes. Long before fusion music became fashionable, it was being performed every day in Bombay’s film studios.

But Anthony Gonsalves wanted to push the envelope even further. He wanted to compose raga-based symphonies that could be performed in the world’s leading concert halls. He travelled to Bombay in 1943, already a seasoned musician at 16. He had been recognised as a child prodigy and appointed choir master at a local church at age 12. He found his first job in the city as a violinist in the group of the composer Naushad in 1943. His talent was overwhelmingly apparent and he soon graduated to doing arrangements for composers around the city. He was also a highly prized teacher.

Every Sunday, his apartment at Sushila Sadan on Bandra’s Linking Road was thrown open to eager students, two of whom – RD Burman and Pyarelal – would become significant composers themselves. Unlike many of his Goan peers, whose western-trained ears couldn’t quite wrap themselves around the sinuous lines of Hindustani tunes (though they could play them well enough from a score), Gonsalves developed a deep passion for raga-based music. "It struck me very hard in my heart and my mind," he explained. "Melodically and rhythmically it is so rich."

When other musicians went off for a smoke between takes, he’d engage in jugalbandi call-and-answer jam sessions with the flautist Pannalal Ghosh. He sought out Pandit Ram Narayan, Pandit Shyam Sunder and Ustad Inam Ali Khan to deepen his knowledge of the tradition. Soon he was trying to find ways to meld the two systems. After a hard day in the studios, he would spend his nights committing to paper the fantasies in his head. It wasn’t easy. "A raga isn’t like a ladder, on which you take one step at time," he told me. "It’s like a path up the mountain. It winds more and there are unusual intervals between stages."

He gave his creations names like Sonatina Indiana, Concerto in Raag Sarang and Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in Todi Taal. In April 1958, his dream took voice for the first time. Gonsalves founded (and funded) the Indian Symphony Orchestra, a group of 110 musicians assembled specifically to perform his compositions. "I paid my own money to put up this concert because I wanted to show the richness of our country’s music," Gonsalves explained. Featuring playback singers Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey as soloists, the works were performed in the quadrangle of St. Xavier’s College to an eager audience. "It wasn’t fusion," Gonsalves insisted. "I just took ragas and scored them for an orchestra and choir."

Other concerts followed. But by many accounts, the experiments were hailed with less enthusiasm than Gonsalves had anticipated. The composer Vanraj Bhatia, who was in the audience, remembers the performance as being ambitious but ‘a little filmi’. Nonetheless, the events boosted Gonsalves’ reputation sufficiently to earn him a fellowship to New York a few years later. He was vague about what he did in the US, but a proud certificate on the wall of his Goa house attests that he is a member of the American Society of Composers, Publishers and Authors. He claims he returned to India because his family needed him, but his chronology of events seemed confused. He shrugged off questions about why he didn’t return to the film industry and about how he kept himself occupied since.

It was time to leave.

Compared to the journey of other Goan musicians, Anthony Gonsalves’ story is unusual, not just for his singular devotion to Hindustani music but also for the brevity of his route to the studios. Even before they found their niche in the Hindi film industry, music had always proved a dependable avenue for Goans to make a living. Though some people have retrospectively developed what the writer Fredrick Noronha describes as ‘Lustalgia’, an inflated sense of yearning for the (often imaginary) benefits of the Lusitanian empire, the Portuguese did little to educate or employ Goans.

This necessitated a continuous stream of migration out of the emerald territory. Bombay – ruled by another European sovereign – was often a stepping stone to other territories held by the British. Goans marched into police and military bands across the subcontinent and in East Africa. Others made their way into symphony orchestras at royal courts. In an engaging article about Bombay’s early Goan musicians, the historian Teresa Albuquerque writes about Josique Menzies, a Goan musician born in the Seychelles who was employed by the Maharaja of Bikaner.

By the ’30s, Goan dance bands had been established in most major cities and hill-stations across the subcontinent. Though schooled in the western classical tradition, many of them demonstrated a strong affinity for a musical trend that was the rage across the globe: hot jazz.

To be sure, India was no stranger to African-American music. The first performance of ‘minstrelsy’ music in the subcontinent was held in 1849, when a legendary musician named William Bernard stopped in India on his way back from Australia. African-American performers followed each decade after that and by the time ragtime had metamorphosed into jazz, India’s appetite for hot music was being fed by a steady stream of records from America. Still, the Indian jazz scene didn’t really take off until the mid-’30s, when the Taj Mahal hotel in Bombay hired its first resident jazz outfit, a nine-piece band led by a violinist from Minnesota named Leon Abbey.

But it was the bands that succeeded him, led by a cornet player named Crickett Smith and a pianist named Teddy Weatherford, that left the deepest impression on the subcontinent: they hired local Anglo-Indian and Goan musicians – Josique Mezies, Karachi-born Mickey Correa and trumpet player Frank Fernand, among them – and helped them discover the song of their souls. "Jazz gave us freedom of expression," Frank Fernand, now in his late eighties and stricken with Parkinson’s, told me. "You played jazz the way you feel – morning you play differently, evening you play differently."

When the Hindi film industry came looking for musicians who played brass and string instruments to brighten its hues, Bombay’s jazz musicians were their first targets. Soon after, as the demand for dance bands in the far-flung provinces declined with the departure of the British, more swing musicians were available to fill the rosters. The most famous of the post-Independence Goan entrants to the film industry was Sebastian D’Souza, who had led the house band at Stiffle’s hotel in Lahore and managed outfits in Murree and other towns in what later became Pakistan. After an initial struggle in Bombay, D’Souza found himself doing arrangements for the duo of Shankar and Jaikishan, striking up a collaboration that lasted more than two decades. "He expanded the palette of colours for the film orchestras," the composer Vanraj Bhatia said. "Shankar-Jaikishan wouldn’t have their signature style if it hadn’t been for Sebastian’s genius."

But the figure from that period who really intrigued the jazz obsessive in me was a kinky-haired hornman who went by the stage name Chic Chocolate. Chic – who was born Antonio Xavier Vaz in Aldona in 1916 – died in 1967, two years before I was born. But his legacy lives on through the dynasty that he founded: his three daughters – Yvonne, Ursula and Kittu – each married a jazz musician, and my interest in the genre burst into life at their concerts. My curiosity about the man who was known as the Louis Armstrong of India reached fever pitch a year ago, when I came to realise that he’d actually cut several 78 RPM records in the ’40s and ’50s.

I made a frenzied flurry of phone calls to his family to try to obtain copies of the songs, which are probably the first original jazz tunes ever recorded in India. As it turned out, they had only one. Still, they graciously let me leaf through their photo albums and their memories of the man his contemporaries credited not only with looking like a ‘Negro’, but also playing like one. (I later found a stash of Chic Chocolate records through fellow obsessives at the Society of Indian Record Collectors. His prowess, I was delighted to discover, had not been overstated.)

Like all his Goan contemporaries, Chic learned music at his local parochial school, and first earned acclaim as a child singing at ‘kheols’, street-side musical plays that are often mounted around Christmas. No one’s quite sure how he got his nickname. His wife, Martha told me it was a contraction of his mother’s term of endearment for him – Chico, little one. His son Erwell, a drummer, told me that it was the residue of archaic ’40s slang. "When he was playing a really hot passage, the other musicians would say, ‘That’s really chick, man’," Erwell said. Either way, it’s clear that by the mid-’40s – after stints in Rangoon and Mussourie – Chic had established himself as Bombay’s hottest jazz musician. He was ‘in a class by himself’, stated a review in the now-defunct Evening News of India during that period. Another newspaper article from the time describes Chic Chocolate’s outfit as ‘Bombay’s topflight band’.

By the time he was leading an 11-piece band at the Taj, Chic and his family were living in an apartment in Colaba. The flat had one bedroom, but two pianos – Chic couldn’t resist the urge to buy a second after he found that Mehboob Studio was selling one for just Rs. 200. The home was always filled with music: if the five children weren’t practising their scales, the Garrad record changer was dropping down a stack of records by Basie, Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and by Chic’s idol, Louis Armstrong.

Over the last decade, the march of technology and changing tastes have displaced Goan musicians from the studio. Besides changing the texture of Hindi film sounds, these devices allow the music director to be his own arranger – and play all the instruments too, if he should choose to. As in film music, so in the body politic. The privileging of individual needs over the collective good has made Nehru’s theme sound hopelessly off

Chic took his Armstrong impersonations seriously. "He’d watched movies like High Society, Hello Dolly and Five Pennies and tried to copy Louis Armstrong’s playing and singing as closely as possible," his daughter Ursula recalled. "He followed his every move." Before gigs, he’d instruct Martha to pack his case with at least half-a-dozen white handkerchiefs so that he could mop his brow in true Armstrong style.

One morning in 1964, Chic woke up his children at dawn, packed them into his black Hillman car and drove them to the Taj. They were lined up outside the lift. After a few minutes, Louis Armstrong, their father’s hero, emerged in a cloud of suitcases and sidemen. He greeted the children affectionately and departed for the airport. A few evenings before, the older children had been taken to meet with Armstrong’s singer, Jewel Brown, and she’d given them an autographed photograph of herself. They later went to see Armstrong perform at Shanmukhananda Hall. But all these years later, none of them is sure whether India’s Louis Armstrong actually had a conversation with the man he’d admired so long.

Like many Goan musicians of the time, Chic Chocolate indulged his passion for jazz in the night, but his mornings were spent in the film studios, enlivening the movies with his swinging arrangements. He first grabbed the nation’s ears with his brassy work with the composer C. Ramchandra: tunes like ‘Gore gore’ (from Samadhi, 1950) and ‘Shola jo bhadke’ (Albela, 1951) presaged by a decade the Indo-Jazz fusion encounters of the ’60s.

He also collaborated with Madan Mohan, who gave the trumpet player a photograph of himself signed, ‘To my most faithful comrade, Chick – with all my best wishes’. The family looked forward to Madan Mohan’s visits with some amusement: his huge car would always run into problems when he tried to park in the narrow Colaba lane on which they lived. But Chic had no trouble getting Madan Mohan’s melodies to swing. The eclecticism of the influences he brought to bear never fails to surprise me. Only a few weeks ago I realised why an instrumental passage in Chic Chocolate’s arrangement of Madan Mohan’s ‘Ae dil mujhe bata de’ sounded so familiar: it was a phrase from the Portuguese fado, Coimbra, that I knew from my Amalia Rodrigues albums.

Chic’s lives as jazz man and as film musician sometimes merged. Albela actually featured Chic and his band on screen in a song sequence, dressing them in frilly Latinesque costumes. Chic capitalised on the film’s success by dressing his band in those costumes for their dance gigs too.

Chic’s career was tragically short. He died in May 1967, aged 51, his end speeded by his Goan fondness for liquor. His casket was borne to the grave by Bombay’s foremost musicians, including the accordion player Goody Seervai and the drummer Francis Vaz, and his Selmer trumpet was placed across his chest. Shortly after, Chetan Anand’s Aakhri Khat hit the screen. The bluesy song ‘Rut jawan jawan’ featured several close-ups of the Louis Armstrong of India playing his trumpet solos from the bandstand. Whenever they missed his presence, Chic’s children would go off to Garrison theatre in the Colaba military area to commune with their father.

The Majorda sky was blue-black when my interview with Anthony Gonsalves petered to a close. I knew I had bothered the maestro too much already and that it was time for supper. As I said my goodbyes, he urged me to eat another piece of the delicious jackfruit just plucked from his garden and offered me a tantalising thought. He had a bundle of all his original scores carefully tucked away in a trunk in the next room, he said, and would like for nothing more than for them to be performed again. But thus far, no one had been willing to put up the money for a concert.

Over the last decade, the march of technology and changing tastes have displaced Goan musicians from the studio. The synthesiser, the drum machine and the digital sequencer are now in vogue. Besides changing the texture of Hindi film sounds, these devices allow the music director to be his own arranger – and play all the instruments too, if he should choose to. As in film music, so in the body politic. The privileging of individual needs over the collective good has made Nehru’s theme sound hopelessly off key. As I sped through the dusk on the back of a motorcycle taxi, my head buzzed with schemes to persuade Goan businessmen to fund an Anthony Gonsalves concert. It wouldn’t take much, I’m convinced, to introduce his crownmusic to the inheritors of the new millennium.

(The research for this article was supported by a fellowship from the Sarai programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. This article was first published in Seminar magazine, November 2004).

Archived from Communalism Combat, February  2005 Year 11    No.105, Cover Story 5