Ratnottama Sengupta explores the poetry in lyrics of Bollywood songs and scans the title song of the Hindi film, Guide, to conclude that a film song can be more than a lyric, a screenplay…
“If you want to be famous, do not write screenplays,” Jean Claude Carriere once told film students in a workshop. The legendary screen writer could have just as well said, ‘Do not write for films!’ For, it is the same story for lyricists as well. The better a film and performance of the actors, the less people remember the writer. Similarly, the better the rendition of a song, listeners remember it by the voice that rendered it — the singer; the man who scored the music, the actors who embodied the persona; or the film for which it was written. Seldom do people remember or even know who had penned the ditty that has got woven into the warp and weft of not only the script but, over time, of our life!
So where’s the question of according them the literary status of a poet? Yet, speaking in Sahityotsav 2023 – the Festival of Letters hosted March 11-16 by Sahitya Akademi, India’s national council for literature, Tamil lyricist Vairamuthu refuted that there is no literary value in writing for cinema. “Yes, in a commercial art like cinema, everything cannot be literature, but surely literature is not utterly absent!” The seven times National Film Award winner admits that all movie songs are not poetry but he is ready to tussle with those who demean songs by saying they do not have the charm or aesthetic of poetry.
The role of songs in cinema is different, and therefore the aesthetics is different from that of poetry, the celebrated song-writer elaborates. “Lyrics are written to fit into a script; a character; and a social clime. So a lyricist has to bow to politics, humanities and sociology. And still a film song becomes a feast for the tastes of common people, because it contains in its folds the seeds of nuanced literature.” When a poet becomes a lyricist, he does not have the same freedom: his imagination is bound by the barriers of melody. He has the added responsibility of creating poetry by overcoming the constraints of the situation and the tune scored to heighten the emotion of the moment. When the lyrics of a song transcends these constraints it attains the heights of aesthetics, not necessarily of poetry but of its own particular identity. “Why must banana be described as poor man’s apple?” Vairamuthu poses.
I can recall countless songs that fit the bill of poetry. But, as I prepared to speak to Film Appreciation students of the Film and Television Institute of India on Literature in Cinema, it struck me that some songs track a different course and go on to presage the yet-to-unfold narrative, or even the final resolution of the film. And, in doing so, they sometimes equate the screenplay. Here I can readily mention two songs, both penned by Shailendra for two films released in 1966. One is the Mahua Ghatwarin song from Teesri Kasam (The Third Vow). In it Hiraman, a bullock-cart driver, recounts the story of Mahua who is sold off for money by her own family to Hirabai, the Nautanki dancer, who eventually defies that fate. The second is the title song of Guide, directed by Vijay Anand with Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman leading the cast, which I will scan today.
R K Narayanan’s masterpiece was a rather unusual story for a Hindi film made so many years ago. The fact is that it started as a Hollywood venture. Pearl S Buck, the first woman to win the Pulitzer award with The Good Earth, was the screen writer for the English version. Unfortunately, that reached neither here nor there. The Hindi version, on the other hand, turned out to be a cult film – particularly for its unmatched songs and dances that were shorn off for the Hollywood version. Just goes to show how integral song and dance are to Indian life.
Genius, they say, always evokes admiration and provokes curiosity. My attention to this song was drawn when a handful of cine lovers got together to understand why its unconventional profiling of adultery succeed in tradition-bound India when it failed miserably in the ‘advanced’ society that is Hollywood? Both the versions had the same plot, nearly the same cast and crew, and yet the difference was stunning. Their urge to analyse its extraordinariness led Blue Pencil to publish Guide The Film: Perspectives. And, while answering interviewer Antara Nanda Mandal, I realised how Wahan kaun hai tera is unique in the way it knits the past with the future of the character, grafting a seamless flow of flashbacks and offering a glimpse of the narrative as it will unravel on its way to the finale…
The story goes that Dev Anand and his brother Vijay Anand had approached Shailendra when the film was almost ready. Not being in a particularly obligatory mood, he demanded a fortune– Rs 1 lakh. Nearly 60 years ago, this was indeed a king’s ransom but without batting an eyelid, the producer-director duo of Navketan Films agreed – after all, they needed a mounting fit for the epic that was at once radical and traditional. And, set to music by Sachin Dev Burman, what a memorable number it turned out to be!
A brief synopsis of the film based on a 1958 novel: Freelance guide Raju meets Rosie, the daughter of a nautch girl married to Marko, a wealthy archaeologist who is a philanderer. But dancing in public was not only infra dig back then, it was an absolute no-no. Dancers were regarded as social outcasts, little better than prostitutes. One day, after a showdown with her womanising husband, Rosie seeks relief in a burst of Kalbelia, the dance of Rajasthan’s snake charmers, in the marketplace. As Raju watches her hypnotic passion, he is convinced that dance is Rosie’s calling, and he convinces her to leave Marko and move in with him. The repercussions? His mother leaves home, he is ostracised in the small town, he starts losing customers. But acting as her manager, Raju establishes Rosie as a star on the dance stage. However, without the bonding of marriage to hold them together they start to drift apart. Raju feels insecure because of her fame and fortune, and is jealous when Marko sends a cheque for her. To keep him away, he forges Rosie’s signature and is forced to go to jail.
Thus far is a ‘flashback’ – the film opens on the day of his release. Both Rosie and his mother arrive only to learn that he was released six months before his term. Narayanan’s multi-layered narrative now follows Raju who, disillusioned by Rosie’s reluctance to protect him, had set off by himself on an uncharted course towards a bleak future. Along the way he joins an itinerant group of sadhus and travels till he reaches a small village that spent many monsoons facing drought. There he finds shelter in a derelict temple, and the unshaven wanderer is mistaken for an ascetic. The simple villagers flock around him to unburden their woes as he offers them the wisdom rising out of his churnings. That becomes their solace, and soon they believe he’s a Sadhu sent for their deliverance. This takes the form of an announcement: the Saint will starve himself until the skies relent and relieve the villagers from the scourge of drought!
Will Raju, an outcast with a criminal past, now act like a mere mortal and devour the offerings for the gods? Or will he live up to their faith and find redemption by making possible the impossible? Let’s study how the title song prepares the viewers for this mature narrative to unspool.
The song opens with one single string of sitar that goes on playing almost discordant notes. So you are not lured in by a melodious tune or tarana until the signature voice of Sachin Dev Burman breaks in, forcing you to follow the words. They don’t necessarily match the action on the screen which has a man coming out of a jail, pausing at a crossroad that points to the city, then walking in the opposite direction that gradually leads him into an unknown terrain of wilderness and desolation.
As the protagonist keeps walking and the titles appear, the song goes into its successive paras, and you realise that it is a song that could not have belonged to any other film. Nor was it an add-on number that you could take out if you so wished, without impacting the film negatively. For, the song is a planned part of the script and serves as an index to the narrative that will unfold in the next couple of hours.
It strings together glimpses of the past, the present and perhaps the future, in a way that resembles joining a musafir, a traveller, on the highway, to keep pace with him, strike up a conversation, and before long, you have plunged into his life. Your curiosity is aroused and you want to know why he was jailed and what will befall now when a criminal is mistaken to be a Swami, a sage, who must prove himself to be a saint, no less, so as not to destroy the faith of the trusting villagers. In doing so, the song becomes an index for the actions that will make the characters.
What is a more, it prepares the viewer for an unconventional structuring of the narrative which opens with the Epilogue, where the convicted becomes Conscience keeper; resorts to the flashback technique and reverts to the prologue, where a frustrated Rosie repeatedly attempts suicide; and then arrives at the main drama between the Guide and the Dancer. He, who helped her come out of her failed marriage and ride the crest of success in her dream career; She, who fails to plumb the depth of emotion in the man who loved her so much that he commits a crime rather than risk losing her to her legal husband.
Anyone waiting for you out there?! Oh wanderer Which way are you headed? Come, rest a while here, This bower's a shelter of greens You will find nowhere... Days untold have passed. Those fleeting moments, those Boundless nights of love, They're but a dream They've forgotten... Why not you?? Those encounters, trysts of love! Pitch dark, as far as your eyes go... Where are you headed, wayfarer? Not a soul's watching out for you. No eye's on the winding road Waiting for a sight of you. No one squirmed when You were in pain, Not an eye shed tears... So who is your dear, Drifter? Where to...?? You guided them on their way. Now you, Guide, Have lost your way?! You eased the knots in their lives, Now you are twined in threads! Why, oh why?? Why swings the charmer, Not the serpent, To the music of the Been? Words of wisdom from the ancients: This world's but a writing On the face of a stream! Watch 'em all, know it all but No, don't belong to One... Bonding is not for you, nor for me Ambler... Where are you off to? (Transliteration by Ratnottama Sengupta of the original lyrics by Shailendra that can be found below) Wahan kaun hai tera, Musafir, jayega kahaan? Dum le le, dum le le ghari bhar, Yeh chhaiyya payega kahan... Beet gaye din pyar ke palchhin, Sapna bani woh ratein... Bhool gaye woh, tu bhi bhoola de, Pyar ki woh mulaqatein! Sab door andhera, Musafir, jayega kahaan? Koi bhi teri raah na dekhe, Nain bichhaye na koi, Dard se tere koi na tarpa, Aankh kisi ki na roi... Kahe kisko tu mera, Musafir, jaayega kahaan? Tuney toh sabko raah bataayi, Tu apni manzil kyoon bhoola? Suljha ke raja, auron ki uljhan, Kyoon kachhe dhaagon mein bhoola? Kyoon naache sapera, Musafir, jaayega kahaan! Kehte hain gyaani, duniya hai paani, Paani pe likhi likhaai, Hai sab ki dekhi, hai sab ki jaani, Haath kisi ke na aayi... Kuchh tera na mera, Musafir jaayega kahaan?
Here, I must stress that Guide would not be the evergreen film it is sans the songs and dances. In particular, this opening number places the story in its context. Everytime it plays.
Sapna bani woh raatein… the dizzy heights of love, fame, riches that did not last, alas! Night is what Rosie will celebrate when she sings, Raat ko jab chaand chamke, jal uthe tan mera… And Raju will lament, Din dhal jaaye haay, raat na jaaye…
Koi bhi teri raah na dekhe, bhool gaye woh tu bhi bhoola de… endless roads, journeys on bus, on tonga, on foot, over hills, dales, and forests… matching his state of mind.
Dard se tera koi na tarpa, aankh kisi ki na roi… One word of denial from Rosie and he would not have been convicted of forgery, but she simply watches him being taken into custody! Later, this would be echoed in the divergent perspectives of the twin numbers – Kya se kya ho gaya bewafa tere pyaar mein, Oh what have I not undergone by falling in love with a loveless woman, he sings while she dances to Mosey chhal kiye jaay, haay re haay! Saiyaan beimaan, Oh how he fakes love, my faithless lover!
Tuney toh sabko raah dikhaayi, tu apni manzil kyoon bhoola … Raju guide, how could you – who took others to their destination – forget your own and get waylaid?! For plain love?
And then the remarkable twist: Kyoon naache sapera! The snake swings to the tune of the snake-charmer; how come your tale is reversed? It could be the voice of destiny commenting on what has transpired in the life of the guide. This imagery in particular is so unique that celebrated lyricist Javed Akhtar is reported to have said, “The day I pen a line like this, I will become a poet!”
Then, look at the layers within these three words. Both naach and sapera will be seen to be crucial motifs in the film. Rosie, born to a dancer, sought respectability through marriage but is stifled because it takes dance out of her life. The guide realises her passion when she dances the snake dance in the market; Raju establishes Rosie as a star performing artiste and not a mere homemaker, his ghar ki rani...
For me, the ultimate irony lies in the words, Kehte hain gyaani, duniya hai paani, paani mein likhi likhaayi.. The temporal world is ephemeral, much like words written on water. So, belong not, to anyone! And yet, it is the want of this very element — water — that will put his will to test, and ultimately claim his life. For, Swami must expiate for Raju Guide’s lapses, and when his followers are praying Allah megh de, paani de/ Send us the clouds, the rains, the droplets of water O Lord, he must fight the temptation to devour even a morsel, and be rewarded for it by a downpour in the parched land.
How remarkably does philosophy dovetail into poetry!
Ratnottama Sengupta, formerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award.
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