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Essay

Can Songs be the Musical Conscience of a Film?

Prithvijeet Sinha uses Gaman (Departure), a Hindi movie around the pain of migrant workers, as a case study to highlight his contention that lyrics and songs convey much in Indian films.

 As my essay dives into the realm of the personal intermingling with the universal, I have found that the quintessential point of a space, definitive of our existences and livelihood, flows seamlessly in our lives. A collective omnibus houses our private churnings, moving from one point to another as life scripts new adventures of the mind and the spirit to discover valuable assets and find that sacred space — a home to give refuge to our true and innate selfhoods. The idea of the heart as home of our fiercely personal torrents of thoughts is something I adhere to. As such, the heart is a lonely island and much as personal journals and diaries have a secretly lush inner world to communicate, the subtle and implicit art of songwriting is the external synonym and outlet that universally connects our inner world with the outside.

 The functional meaning of a song is actually born out of the discerning of listeners. Khairun, the lonely young woman at the heart of the film, Gaman (1978), is one such example in a sea of millions around the world, one of countless women left to tend to the hearth while the responsibility of corralling finances snatches their men away from them prematurely. Such is the dilemma that a newly annointed marital union becomes essentially a platonic one, testing the sombre beginnings of this lifelong intertwining of two strangers. As if it’s a rite of passage for their individual selves after they have taken their vows in the public eye and been pronounced as man and wife. They burn for that warmth and familial touch of companionship with these songs sung by playback artistes (conveying from the prism of Khairun) becoming spiritual constants when the physical reality of them staying together is rendered impossible. Through her fortitude and its equal mirroring in her husband’s predicament in the city, we find the power of this union to sustain itself in two different places. Their mindscapes merge and Khairun is a conduit for this film’s portrayal of pain of separation and social anxiety. As if she has a telepathic connect with her beloved as when, through voice-overs, we find her letters informing Ghulam of her own angst and her brooding face and eyes loom over Bombay’s skyline.

 It’s the language of our soul or Aatma as we call it in Indian canon.  We are not alone then. There is no conflict in this union and the words, it seems, flow out of our own being.  The beauty, melancholy and dignified distance invested in them bring the pining heart and the hopeful soul together in perfect tandem.

In Gaman, both protagonists live in the shadows of crumbling aristocracy, in a village in North India where the present is bleak and like a ghost informs the poor population about its impending desolation. In a post-colonial nation, the humbler occupants of this social compartment still have survival to contemplate upon and their lands and farming have given them no respite from debts. As the central characters are Khairun (the iconic actress, Smita Patil) and Ghulam Hasan (another stalwart actor, Farooq Sheikh), the film shot in the erstwhile Muslim and predominantly secular princely state of Kotwara, could be reflective of the dilapidated shells of a centuries old lineage which may have had connections in the past and seen better days. But rampant unemployment, educational lacuna and a hand-to-mouth existence contextualize a move to the big city for the man. The name Khairun itself has a certain melancholic ring to it, I think and Ghulam as his name goes becomes a slave of his fated new beginnings.  Their taciturn marital bond is presented in brief moments together.

 In simple but rousing poetry, the real challenge of moving ahead in the big city while leaving behind the rustic stronghold and a real home is poignantly conveyed.  Identities are at stake and have to find a home, even if it is the most modest resort of reassurance. The womenfolk have no real say or stake in this scenario and Khairun’s silence is a witness to that. The song then that appears is ‘Aap ki yaad aati hai raat bhar’ (Your memories were all that remained all night long).

Composed by Jaidev, written by Makhdoom Mohiuddin and sung iconically by Chaya Ganguly, who won the prestigious National Award for playback singing, love and longing are two sides of the same coin. When I heard this song few years back, it came like a lilt from beyond, the central melody captivated me and made me croon its perfectly structured lines. There was a distinct local character to it and the realism of the situations converged with the romanticism of natural images. These images were stages in their marked separation and the passage of time was invoked. The opening lines translated are, “Your memories were all that remained all night long, moist eyes kept smiling all night long.”  The stoic quality of internalization is very succinct here. “Muskurati Rahi”( a smiling wayfarer) in feminine form reflects the mindset of Khairun, the young bride and woman. There is a brevity of conveying the lull within the heart’s storm. A pensive directness addressed to oneself in isolation and to the beloved is like a pithy interior monologue; a missive to the one who yearns for an established bond.

The song is unique as it’s one of the few ones to begin with the chorus or central refrain which clearly elucidates its personal nature of pathos. The first verse continues with the imagery of the still night and dark, private chambers of the heart where longing is given rest and an assured hand. It goes like, “the flames of pain were burning/alighted all night long /melancholy’s flicker was trembling throughout.”

 The fickle spirit is putting up a brave front and is vulnerable, spending its time in contemplation. From the opening plucking of strings, which I think is the instrument santoor and burgeoning flutes, the intimate incandescence of the couple is set into motion in a composition set in the pure classical mold. Khairun’s dialogue travels all the way to us. There is a shine to their passion for each other which refuses to interfere with their earnest pursuits. 

The second verse is more tilted towards romanticism. Its mesmerising notes are referenced with the flute to symbolise love and its dimensions. In Indian lore, Krishna played the flute for self-definition and courtship. Here, its transcendental spell is cast on a lonely soul as attested in the lyrics, “the tuneful, charming notes of the flute/come as reminders of memories all night long.” The speaker is in third person and omnipresent thus the personal becomes the universal and the use of night imagery can make it the last moorings of an individual before sleep gets the better of her/him and every recollection is committed to memory’s animated storehouse. The invocation of the flute is a sweet token for the promise of every stable relationship. The foundation has to be lovely and full of warmth even though it is an ephemeral ideal.

The talent of the lyricist here is that these escape from falling into a basket of random cliches as its essence is in Urdu poetic tradition.  Look at those plangent eyes of Khairun, deep vessels of wait and ceaseless langour, akin to an Amrita Shergill paintings.  

The mystery of the night has direct approximation in the next verse, “the night moon entered depths of the heart/ its glow illuminated the night.”  The moon is a personal symbol as it’s cast in the image of Ghulam for Khairun and vice versa. The unattainable height of its location is related to the profound number of miles separating husband and wife. Its dim light is the only source of illumination thus hope is enshrined in these lines for the little kernel of happiness that may bless them sooner or later.  The desire for union is prevalent here. In the video of the song, notice how the lyrics pertaining to moonlight are juxtaposed with streetlights and neon lights of Bombay where Ghulam drives a taxi for a living and Khairun tends to the household lighted by a dim bulb. Light plays a crucial role in their overlapping narratives. Winter has set in the village and Bombay is the metropolis on whose streets Ghulam has to ply his cab. 

Finally the gypsy heart that celebrates isolation and is detached from unnecessary expectations finds its way in the final verse, “a lover wanders around lanes/ a voice echoes all night long”

 This is not the blabbering of a madman but the deep call of the soul’s recesses. Should both Khairun and Ghulam adopt detachment till they are united or celebrate their individual and in a larger sense collective isolation? Their private musings do their bidding for the heart. The head and heart dilemma is hence paramount.  The lover’s wandering minstrel like ways approximate the private reserves of love and longing. Dual interplay of inner and outer personas match wits and still lucidity is sought and achieved in the quietude of this composition via slender, elegant employment of guitar, drums and flutes.

 Chaya Ganguly’s voice dominates the sway of restrained pathos and hope here while Smita Patil’s eyes and Farooq Sheikh’s stoicism endure as he posts letters and Khairun holds them. ‘Seene Mein Jalan, Aankhon Mein Toofaan’ (A burn in the chest/ a storm in the breath) captures the rush and milling crowds of big cities where individuality hankers for identity while ‘Ras ke bhare tore Nain’ (your eyes are full to the brim) addresses the aesthetics of longing from the same soundtrack. The playbacks by Suresh Wadkar and Hira Devi Mishra respectively are pitch perfect.  The panorama of humanism under duress finds its true form and content in the direction of Muzaffar Ali (auteur of iconic Umrao Jaan), cinematography of Nadeem Khan, lyrics by Shahryar, writer Hriday Lani and crisp editing by Jethu Mundul.

The music of Gaman won Jaidev a National Award too for best music and deservedly so. The film also won a special mention accolade.

Gaman in Urdu signifies transit, passage, migration, departure or movement but I was surprised by how according to Zen Buddhist currency in Japanese, it is an equivalent of stoic endurance and patience. These markers ultimately are a natural corollary of movement of any kind. The music of Gaman is a perfect amalgamation of the personal and universal and devolves meaning to the idea of distance. Timeless musical exemplifications like these simply don’t exist anymore. It is the soul of Khairun that ultimately guides us to that point of personal transit.

Prithvijeet Sinha has been prolifically publishing works of various hues in journals and magazines like   Cafe Dissensus, Confluence, The Medley, Borderless, Wilda Morris’ Poetry Blog, Screen Queens, Rhetorica Quarterly, Lothlorien, Chamber Magazine, Livewire  among others. He believes writing to be the true music of the soul.

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