Sunday, 31 August 2008

Kerala and Hindi Film Music: 1

When I wrote about Mohammed Rafi few weeks ago, a friend from Mumbai called me and wanted to know the connection between Kerala and Hindi film music. Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, he knew, shared a common border with Maharashtra and both states had sizable Hindi-speaking population. Tamil Nadu was rabidly anti-Hindi, especially during ‘60s and ‘70s when Hindi film music was at its peak and thus hardly could be expected to nurture a culture that bred aficionados of Hindi film music. But in Kerala, the southern state farthest from Mumbai, Hindi film music thrived and flourished to such an extent that you had fan clubs of Mohammed Rafi and Talat Mahmood in places like Kozhikode and Cochin. How did this come about?

It is an intriguing question and I certainly am no social scientist who has all the answers but the history of Indian cinema throws up some interesting facts.

The first Indian talkie was in Hindi. Alam Ara of Ardeshir Irani was released in Mumbai in 1931. From 1935 onwards, great singers like K. L. Saigal and Pankaj Mullick were singing playback for Hindi movies and very soon built up a pan-Indian fan following including in Kerala. Around the same time, the first Tamil talkies were seeing the light of day and Tamil singers such as M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar also became extremely popular in Kerala.

But Malayalam cinema itself was a late bloomer. True, the first Malayalam talkie came out in 1938, but the movies were being made in what was then Madras and in very small numbers. The numbers acquired a modicum of dignity only after 1947, when Udaya Studios opened its doors in Alappuzha and movies started getting made in Kerala. But the industry still moved in fits and starts and had to wait another four years for its major box-office hit, which was Jeevithanaouka, released in 1951.

So it could well be that Hindi cinema, and through it Hindi film music, insinuated itself into the Malayali psyche during that crucial period from 1935 to 1951 when there was tremendous interest in this new entertainment medium, but not many locally-produced movies to cater to this passion. Thus Bharat Bhushan and Ashok Kumar and, later on, the triumvirate of Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand became household names in Kerala, at least among the urban, educated youth.

A happy conspiracy of circumstances helped carry this momentum forward to the 1960s. One was, of course, the fact that Hindi film music was moving towards the pinnacle of its glory at this time thanks to the confluence of such great music directors like C. Ramchandra and S.D. Burman, wonderful lyricists of the calibre of Sahir Ludhianvi and Hasrat Jaipuri and singers of such immense talent and range such as the Mangeshkar sisters, Mohammed Rafi, Talat Mahmood, Mukesh, Hemant Kumar, Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey.

The other was a phenomenon called Vividh Bharati.

Tuesday, 26 August 2008

Carol and the Old Monk: Part 2

Carol gives me a wan smile.

The problem, she says with commendable detachment, is with her head. It weighs a ton. It also hurts very badly. But the real problem, she says staring straight ahead, is that she cannot move her head to the left or to the right. If she does, dazzling flashes of lightning seem to dance before her eyes and it is awful...

“You have a bad hangover,” says Russ, uncharitably stating the obvious.

I look at my watch which shows 9 am. The first customers would start arriving in the next 45 minutes or so.

Carol gulps down couple of tablets of paracetamol and empties half a bottle of mineral water. “You guys wait down in the lobby,” she says, “I will be down in fifteen minutes.”

True to her word, Carol joins us fifteen minutes later. I can see that she has brushed and combed her hair and put on some make-up. She looks definitely better than the ‘victim-of-train wreck’ I saw some time ago. She pats my hand and says everything is going to be all right.

“I shall sit and operate the console,” Carol says. “But I cannot turn around and look at the customers who will be sitting in a circle behind us. If I turn my head, it hurts real bad. So I cannot smile at them. Neither can I answer their questions. The three of you have to manage all that.”

“They will think you are a rude lady,” says Russ, not very helpfully.

“Never mind that,” I say. “Let us do as she says.”

That day Carol excels herself. She sits like a statue in front of the console from 10 am to 6 pm and operates the console flawlessly, neither looking to the right nor to the left, staring straight ahead. She continuously drinks water from a glass and declines lunch. Bob and I try to shield her from questions but when customers ask her a direct question, she answers them looking straight ahead. Fortunately, nobody notices anything amiss and the demos are a grand success.

After a hard day’s work, the entire team goes back to the Taj and my boss says: “C’mon guys! That was fantastic! Let us have a drink at the Harbour Bar!”

Carol shudders visibly, excuses herself and walks up to the lift, looking neither to the left nor to the right, but straight ahead.

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Carol and the Old Monk: Part 1

Carol sits in a sofa looking down, cupping her face with both hands. And when she raises her head to speak to me, I can see she is bleary-eyed and her face is white as a sheet. She is shivering a bit. Her voice is dry and cracked. She looks terrible.

And terrible is the quandary I find myself in.

Bob, Carol, and Russ are the threesome who has come from the US to help us with the new product launch. Russ is responsible for hardware maintenance. Bob is the Presenter and Carol, the Applications Specialist. For the past two days we have been rehearsing the demo and it has been coming along nicely. Bob and Carol do a finely-nuanced Punch & Judy show where, as Bob prattles on about each function and feature, Carol’s dextrous fingers bring up the necessary applet on the monitor.

They are a diverse lot: Russ, short and stocky, with a round, mournful face and careful to drink nothing but Coke. Bob, bespectacled, tall and thin like a reed, looks more like a nerdy college professor. And Carol, sincere and serious, working hard to ensure that the demos go off without a hitch.

Today is D-Day. The demos are to take place at the Grand Hotel in Ballard Estate. The hall has been booked. The hardware is installed and tested and ready. VIP customers have been invited at one-hour intervals, starting at 10 am. We are ready to roll!

When I reach the Taj Mahal Hotel at 8.30 am to pick up the contingent, a nervous Bob meets me at the foyer and says we have a problem. Carol is very sick and can I please come upstairs to her room?

I cannot understand it. Carol was perfectly fine when I dropped them off in the hotel the previous night at 9 pm. Could it be something she had for dinner that had caused her to fall sick? A bout of food-poisoning, perhaps?

Slowly, hesitantly Bob and Russ come out with the story. Apparently, after I dropped them off yesterday, they had gone for a short walk along Colaba when they “chanced” upon a liquor store. While standing in front of the store, they suddenly remembered this excellent dark rum their friend Rada had introduced them to the previous night and also his secret recipe for a cocktail that had equal amounts of cola and soda in it with a twist of lime. So without further ado, they had grabbed couple of bottles of this excellent spirit only to come back to the room and begin to consume it forthwith.

“S***!” I howl. “You guys polished off two bottles of rum between the three of you?”

All three nod in silent misery.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

A Man and His Music


July 30, 2008. 6 pm.

It has been raining quite heavily the whole day. Traffic is at standstill and we have reached only Dadar. I anxiously glance at my watch. My flight to Chennai takes off in one hour and I am not at all sure we are going to make it.

“Shall I put on some music?” asks Siraj.

I say yes, half-expecting to be bombarded with the high-decibel dance beat of the latest Bollywood hit. But suddenly the soft, mellifluous voice of Mohammed Rafi fills the inside of the car.

Yaad na jaaye beete dinon ki, Rafi Saab sings.

“They have been playing his songs whole day long,” says Siraj. “Tomorrow is Rafi Saab’s death anniversary.”

“I know,” I say simply. I do not add that it is a date no one needs to remind me about.

Traffic starts moving slowly. I look out of the window. It is grey and overcast. I feel depressed.

The RJ, a young girl, talking rapid-fire, English-accented Hindi from a prepared script, mouths inanities about the legendary singer and his honeyed voice. She puts on another song.

Tum jo mil gaye ho to ye lagtaa hai...

“Do you like old Hindi film songs?” Siraj asks.

Just to needle him, I say: “Yes, I can even tell you which film this song is from and who the music director is!”

But Siraj seems lost in thought and does not seem to be interested in taking up my childish challenge. He carefully negotiates the traffic at Sion circle and inches his Ford Ikon through the fringes of Dharavi.

“You know,” Siraj says, “I have given my shoulder to Rafi Saab’s coffin.” He uses the Hindi term, kandha milana.

“How did that come about?” I ask, interested.

“I was ten or eleven at that time. I had gone with my father to the Bandra mosque for the evening namaaz. When we came out, Rafi Saab’s funeral cortege was just entering the compound... well, in the pushing and shoving that followed, I put my shoulder to...”Siraj’s voice trails away.

We are both quiet for a long time. I think about a singer who died 28 years ago and how his voice and his songs unite a Malayali Hindu and a Bandra Muslim in the small confines of a car on a wet, miserable day in Mumbai, to share a common memory, sacred to both.

The car picks up speed once it enters the Western Express Highway. I feel reasonably confident about catching that flight now.

The song changes again. It is one of my favourites. Another priceless composition from the composer, Madan Mohan.

Tu mere samne hai, teri zulfein hai khuli...

We have reached the airport. Heaving my laptop and overnight case out of the boot, I say good-bye to Siraj.

Khuda Hafiz,” says Siraj, and drives away.

Friday, 8 August 2008

Soren's Poor Jokes

This post by a fellow-blogger suddenly made me recollect an incident that happened several years ago.

Pankaj had recently joined the company. He was a very sincere, hard-working young man with a ready smile and a cheerful demeanour. Being new, Pankaj was in that phase of constantly trying to ingratiate himself with all his colleagues and charm them with his social graces.

Soren was an expatriate who worked for our company at that time. A tall, heavily-built man with deep-set blue eyes and a blond, scraggly beard, Soren always reminded me of the Giant from Jack and the Beanstalk. He smiled often, but the smile, rarely if ever, seemed to reach his eyes. Soren could be blunt, irascible, and was prone to such severe mood-swings that his colleagues normally tried to avoid him as much as possible.

Not Pankaj. Every day morning, Pankaj would go across to Soren’s seat and the following conversation would ensue with minor variations:

Pankaj: How are you Soren?

Soren: I’m fine thanks. How’re you Pankaj?

Pankaj: I am also fine, Soren. How’s the family?

Soren: Fine, thanks.

Pankaj: Have a good day, Soren.

Soren: Thanks, you too, Pankaj.

The whole office would listen to this exchange with good-natured tolerance, suppress a smile or two, and go on with their work.

One day Soren is late. Pankaj faithfully wishes everyone else a cheery Good Morning and starts preparing to go out on a sales visit. He is busy cramming his briefcase with price lists and brochures when Soren walks in. Instead of going to his seat, Soren makes a beeline for where Pankaj is sitting and plonks himself on Pankaj’s table. A startled Pankaj looks up from what he is doing and offers a helpful smile.

“How are you, Pankaj?” Soren asks loudly, making sure everyone is listening.

“I am fine, Soren,” says Pankaj, ‘how are you?”

Soren, delighted that Pankaj has fallen neatly into the trap set for him, replies in clear, ringing tones: “I am fine, Pankaj. In fact, I couldn’t be better. You see, I woke up at 5 O’clock, went for a jog, had a shower, f*- ed the wife who had just got up, had breakfast and here I am! I tell you man, I’m feeling good!”

Soren looks around expectantly. The whole office is frozen in silence. Nobody laughs. No one even looks at him.

From that day onwards, Pankaj stopped wishing Soren in the mornings.

Sunday, 3 August 2008

Snow in the Mountains

That winter in Switzerland throws up a lot of memories, most of them amusing.

On the first day, there is a welcome dinner to which I go in casual wear. To my horror I find I am the odd man out with everyone else attired in formal suits.

Heinz Lehman takes me out for lunch to a posh restaurant in Zurich. As a starter, I order a “Crisp Californian Salad” from the menu and get a small, lovely cabbage cut in half with an elegant dollop of white sauce on the side.

In Frauenfeld, I walk into a bar after purchasing a Rubik’s Cube, which was a rage those days. Sipping a beer, I take out the undisturbed cube, turning it around in my hand, admiring the smooth finish and reluctant to start rotating the panel. Suddenly I find myself surrounded by excited people who look at me admiringly and ask me to demonstrate the solution to the puzzle.

Then travelling by train to Engelberg and taking several ski-lifts to arrive on top of Mount Titlis to be greeted by the Sri Lankan in the souvenir shop with: “Vanakkam saar, neengal Tamizha?” (Welcome sir, Are you a Tamilian?).

Schmick giving me a short lecture on how to drink beer: The first beer should never be sipped, but gulped down in one shot or maximum two. That is the only way the beer can hit your sweet spot, he says with utmost seriousness.

Lucerne. The picturesque lake nestling under the majestic gaze of snow-capped Mount Pilatus. The famous wooden bridge across the river Reuss before it was partially destroyed by fire in 1993.

Snow. Miles and miles of it. Enchanting to behold. Exhilarating to touch, to feel, to hold in your hands.

I was seeing snow for the first time in my life.

On the last day, there is a farewell dinner to which I wear a tie and a jacket only to find I have got it wrong this time also.

Everyone else is in casuals!

Photo Courtesy: Abhishek's Public Gallery, Picasa Wb Albums
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Stepping Sideways... by K. Radhakrishnan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.5 India License.