Since Alam Ara unleashed the first film song on the South Asian public in 1931, our love affair with film music in general and Hindi film songs in particular has remained both passionate and constant -- not a common combination in love!
One of the pioneering artists of this form, Shamshad Begum, died last week, aged 94. She was part of a remarkable real life narrative of migration, transgression, coincidence, romantic recklessness, gender bending, creative adventure, passionate talent, canny business moves, rags and riches that created the Indian film industry.
All of those experiences and emotions, which also emerged from the turbulence and promise of modern a urban life and a new nationhood, seemed to find voice in Hindi film music with its unorthodox combination of folk forms with classical music, Latin and Arabian tunes and western orchestration.
The varied voices that sang for Hindi films were proof of the heterogeneity on offer. Among the most successful of these, Shamshad Begum is credited with having sung the first western sounding film song, Aana Meri Jaan Sunday Ke Sunday, inspired by a Carmen Miranda hit Chico Chico, from Porto Rico. But it was really through her songs in the film Khazanchi, in which Ghulam Haider experimented with combining classical ragas with Punjabi folk, that her songs became a sensation.
Despite the supposed interest in all things Bollywood today, there is also amusement from outsiders and embarrassment from Indians around the idea of playback singing. It is as if our ability to accept Lata Mangeshkar’s voice from someone else’s mouth is a sign of primitive silliness.
In fact, the playback song with its absolute disregard for literalism has rather alluring artistic effect. When a demure looking woman sings in a surprisingly throaty, sexy voice, it subverts what we see, makes it tantalisingly ambiguous, mixes things up in a way that’s might be more true to life. The song’s emotional and sensual ambiguity and our trance like journey through it, allow us to experience a richly textured range of emotions, allows, in a felt way, the possibility that we are simultaneously many different selves. Until the 1950s the variety of voices that sang Hindi film songs, underlined this heterogeneity of experience.
Shamshad Begum’s voice has often been described as robust and bold. Perhaps we might also call it assertive. It has the persona of a woman with a frank gaze, one who is not only looked at, but who does some looking herself; a woman who is both nigahen and nishana so to say and who can quite believably say Duniya ke Maze Le Lo Duniya Tumhari Hai and when sad, can be so quite unapologetically. That she sang for peasant girls, street singers, vamps and heroines testifies to the acknowledgement of a more nuanced femininity, to the acceptance that a strand of this assertiveness might exist in many types of women.
As the rise of Mangeshkar sisters eclipsed the sound of other types of voices, this femininity was flattened into the duality of heroine type and vamp type, with very little overlap, a constriction we’re still struggling with. It is a filmi irony indeed that Lata Mangeshkar was ‘discovered’ when she won a song contest named after Shamshad Begum’s big musical hit -- the Khazanchi Contest.
With her passing, when we mourn that we forgot her in life, perhaps we also mourn those lost selves our popular culture allowed us to experience -- and love.
Shamshad Begum has passed away in a time which echoes her own -- when that diversity of voices has slowly begun to return to our popular music. To acknowledge this connection is more fitting tribute than nostalgia.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.