Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The music man and his treasure bag: songs in Aashirwad

[My song-sequences series for Mint Lounge, continued]

When I heard of the passing of Sumita Sanyal last week, my first memory was of an elegant young woman, restrained in expression and movement, lip-synching to three songs in Hrishikesh Mukherjee films. The best known of those is “Na Jeeya Laage Na” from Anand; the other two are from the 1968 Aashirwad, in which Sanyal plays Neena, the daughter of the film’s lovable protagonist Jogi Thakur (Ashok Kumar).

If I were to make a best-of list based on only fragments or passages of films, Aashirwad would occupy a very high spot on it. This movie has a dual personality. Much of it, especially the formulaic second half, follows the template of the 1960s social drama-tearjerker. The plot is busy and familiar: a good-hearted man is imprisoned because of the machinations of others; a village is destroyed by a fire started by unscrupulous land-owners; the hero doesn’t get to see his child grow up; years later, there is a tearful reunion.

Yet there is another, more dynamic, formally experimental Aashirwad below this safe surface. Watching parts of the film, it feels like a group of friends had decided to record their informal addas for posterity, to share their love for classical music with the world. The main members of this group would be Mukherjee (who was a proficient sitar-player himself), music director Vasant Desai, the wonderfully impish Harindranath Chattopadhyay (who plays Jogi Thakur’s friend and music-teacher Baiju), the young Gulzar (who wrote the lyrics that had not already been penned by Chattopadhyay) – and of course, Ashok Kumar, who rarely had such a grand old time in a film as he does here.

Kumar, one of Hindi cinema’s giants, had a long career that encompassed both the bashful leading man of the 1930s – one of our first male stars – and the jolly dadaji (grandfather) figure of the 1980s. In the decades between those poles, he spent much of his time as a sombre character actor watching while younger stars did the fun stuff. For instance, he could seem so staid compared to his madcap younger brother Kishore (an indelible image from Chalti ka Naam Gaadi: the three brothers standing side by side, Kishore and Anoop wisecracking away while “serious” Ashok stands stoically in the middle, just about tolerating their tomfoolery). Or watch him all stiff and embarrassed, a fish out of the Hooghly, while Madhubala sings “Dekh ke Teri Nazar” in Howrah Bridge – he looks very far from someone who might wholeheartedly participate in a song sequence.

That’s misleading, though: he was trained in music, and Aashirwad – made more than thirty years after he chirped “Main Bann ki Chidiya” in Achhut Kannya – is the rare film of its era that fully tapped this side of him. The results are often magical.

We use terms like “suspension of disbelief” for most Hindi-film song sequences where the characters (who are not musical performers within the narrative) sing to each other. But a different sort of tension can come into play when the characters are artistes, and Aashirwad’s most inventive scenes involve Jogi Thakur as singer, storyteller and creator of worlds. The best-known song is probably the children’s rhyme “Rail Gaadi”, written by Chattopadhyay years earlier and sung by Kumar – for a group of children – in the rapid-fire style that saw it labeled India’s first rap number. But there are other terrific musical interludes. Consider “Kaanon ki ek Nagri Dekhi” and “Jhingaapur Takur Takur”, in which two men (Jogi Thakur and Baiju) carry on an intense yet playful jugalbandhi, exchanging banter as they create new “bol”, including nonsense rhymes, on the spot. Even when the camera only cuts between their faces (occasionally providing close-ups of Baiju’s hands playing his dholak), the effect is anything but static. In scenes like these, it feels like the film has done away with such perfunctory things as narrative, and entered a vibrant new realm.

Of course, it isn’t that simple. All these scenes do contribute to our understanding of Jogi Thakur, who believes that music and stories have an equalizing power. The nine-minute-long song “Saaf Karo Insaaf Karo”, in which Jogi Thakur and Baiju play a game of riddles with Lavani dancers, provides the film’s finest demonstration of how differences between groups – men and women, upper class and lower class, performers and audience – can temporarily be erased by a shared love for art and performance.

Another of my favourite sequences is “Neena ki Nani ki Naav”, in which Jogi Thakur uses a bioscope, and a song, to tell children the story of a “naav” (boat) that contains apparently limitless treasures. The sound of water fills the soundtrack; we see crayon drawings and cut-outs of the many items and creatures – “tokri mein ek billi ka bacha” (a kitten in a basket) – in the boat. And then he describes a crocodile stealthily coming up, stealing everything and dragging it away.

This scene works as an entertaining interlude for kids – the sort that we innocently loved when it played on Chitrahaar in the old days – but it is also a dark foreshadowing. With hindsight, the naav can be likened to the bagful of stories and songs that Jogi Thakur carries around with him, to spread joy. And soon, all this will be taken away by sharp-fanged predators. It is a fine example of a musical sequence that manages to be whimsical, apparently standalone, but is also essential to the film’s purpose, and to our sympathy for the main character.

[Earlier Mint Lounge columns here. And here's an earlier piece about the Aashirwad song "Saaf Karo Insaaf Karo"]


  1. Ashok Kumar is a giant of Hindi cinema. Arguably its greatest actor.

    I have a personal affection for him as I am drawn by his conservative persona. He is a man of the world, who usually eschews idealism, abstractions and confronts the world warts and all. He doesn't merely condemn prejudices in a facile way. But as a true conservative acknowledges that prejudices stem from historical wisdom and weighs them carefully against "abstract reason" rather than siding with reason alone. One of those rare actors whose characters always weigh wisdom against abstract reason instead of championing reason all the time.

    I have watched a LOT of Ashok Kumar films. Upwards of 35. I particularly love his efforts in the 60s - a decade when he did some of his finest work in unheralded films. Movies that critics don't like because of their conservative bias.

    Some AK favorites -

    Oonche Log (one of the greatest films of Hindi cinema)
    Ek hi Rasta,
    Kangan (1959 not the 30s film),
    Chand aur Suraj,
    Phoolon ki Sej,
    Bahu Beti (a very liberal film that I nevertheless like)
    Mere Mehboob,
    Jhoola (remake of "Shop around the Corner")

    Not mentioning the usual "classics" like Chhoti si Baat, Bandini, etc. I feel those are overrated.

  2. Some AK favorites I didn't cover in my last comment. Just recalled -

    Aansoo ban gaye Phool
    Aabroo (one of the weirdest of all films)
    Nai Roshni
    Pooja ke Phool
    Nau Bahar
    Jewel Thief (famous, yet an underrated performance)
    Mili (one of his best)