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Poetry? What's that?

One day, singer Nitin Mukesh whose father was the legendary singer Mukesh, woke up to hear one of his old songs So gaya yeh jahan so gaya aasman from the 1980s’ blockbuster Tezaab playing with a different beat. Nitin has given up singing for films and was therefore surprised to hear his song in a spruced-up avatar.

Dabangg 2
Struck in a rut: Kareena Kapoor calls herself a ‘tandoori murgi’ (tandoori chicken) in the song Fevicol se in Dabangg 2

“Beta?” he inquired of his son, actor Neil Nitin Mukesh. “That’s my song and my voice. But the beat sounds different.” It was then that he learnt that So gaya yeh jahan has been used as part of a new film Nautanki Saala. “I do not mind because they have kept my voice. Nowadays they change everything including the voice and lyrics,” recounts Nitin Mukesh.

Himmatwala
Female football? Tamannaah gets kicked around in Bum pe laat in Himmatwala, while being called ‘garam kabab’ (hot kabab)

Offended
Three years ago, the Nautanki Saala director Rohan Sippy had desecrated the Asha Bhosle-R D Burman classic Dum maaro dum by changing the voice, beats and even the lyrics which contained gems like, “Aaj mere liye chair kheech raha hai kal meri skirt kheechenga...Unche se uncha banda potty pe baitha nanga.” So affronted was the usually mild-mannered and forever-forgiving late Dev Anand that he lost his habitual cool and threatened to sue for this su-su-potty version of his classic number.

No one had bothered to ask Asha Bhosle, who sang the original Dum maaro dum or Dev Anand from whose film, Hare Rama Hare Krishna the song was taken, what they felt about the new-rage version of their anthem song from the 1970s. Anand Bakshi who wrote the original Dum maaro dum and R D Burman who composed the tune must have been happy to be no more. Which musical legend would wish to be alive in this day and age when lyrics like Bhaag D K Bose and Bum pe laat are being flaunted in our films?

Shootout At Wadala
Censored: Sunny Leone, John Abraham and Tusshar Kapoor shake a leg to Laila tujhe loot legi in Shootout At Wadala

Misfit
Legend Lata Mangeshkar sorrowfully admits she is now a misfit in the singing world. “Kissko dosh doon main? (Whom do I blame?) There’s too much western influence in the popular culture of our country. I suppose when kids get tired of aping the West, they will return to their cultural roots. Nowadays, they sing and dance to the bhangra wearing anything from skirts to shorts. What is being made these days isn’t really music. Theek hai, chal rahaa hai. Kuch gaane aate hain, chale jaate hain. Actually, we do not even have that many music directors. Earlier there used to be a queue of them.

Dum Maaro Dum
Dirty dancing: Deepika Padukone does a jig to the title track in Rohan Sippy’s film Dum Maaro Dum

There were so many distinguished music directors in the past who thought deeply over their output. They had the time and the inclination. I can’t see myself approving of this trend. Never mind if people think I belong to the ancient times (laughs). Some of my Marathi compositions sung by my sister Asha were very badly re-mixed. My other sister Usha’s lavani songs from V Shantaramji’s films - unka bhi halwa banaya (laughs). What can one do about it?

Aaj kal koi kissi ko kuch nahin keh sakta. To each his own. It’s better to remain quiet. The trend has to end somewhere. Better to sit quietly and watch the show.” Adds singing icon Asha Bhosle, “The world has moved on. Earlier, the female singer sang at a high pitch and the male singer at a low pitch. Now, that has been reversed.

There’s no time for slow, soft, sentimental songs. No point in clinging to the past and pining for nostalgia. If you remember, happy occasions whether it is a mehndi ceremony or a wedding, have always been celebrated with songs. Every individual wants to dance and sing. Rhythm ka zamana hai. No one listens to words. You can’t stop the world from moving on. If you try, you will be left behind.” 

Bankruptcy
A tolerant attitude though cannot take away from the fact that lyrics are getting increasingly inane, smutty and forgettable in these times. Alisha Chinai, who not too long ago, revolutionised playback singing with her smouldering vocals for Sridevi in Kaatein nahin kat-te yeh din yeh raat (Mr India) and for Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Kajra re (Bunty Aur Babli) minces no words in condemning contemporary sounds. “Bollywood music is today in the doghouse! It is a tasteless cacophony of sounds hurtling towards musical bankruptcy. Even the musical notes are exhausted and the poetry is all worn-out.

The occasional redeeming song is most often stolen or cleverly plagiarised. The lyrics border on the offensive. But sometimes they are cute. I did not mind the Fevicol se item number in Dabangg 2.” Alisha feels too much emphasis is placed on gadgetry and gimmickry. “Music has hit an all-time low. Songs are heavy on production values and poor in content.

Thanks to the lack of properly implemented copyright laws, good artistes are reduced to session singers. And then we have music composers vying and dying to sing their own songs to corner the attention, live shows and moolah, and ruining them in the process. It’s not the best time to be a playback singer in Bollywood.”

Disconnect
Popular ghazal singer Talat Aziz has ceased to listen to film songs. “I just don’t connect with them. They are catering to the lowest common denominator. I wish there was space for some melody and poetry in today’s film songs. But there isn’t,” sighs Talat who sang such lovely songs as Phir chidi raat baat phoolon ki in the film Bazaar and Zindagi jab bhi teri bazm mein in Umrao Jaan.

Nitin Mukesh is more tolerant of present day film music, though no more a part of it. “I stopped singing for films long ago. I am extremely happy and content and busy singing my beloved Papa’s songs for his legion of fans across the world. Honestly speaking, I am not totally averse to today’s music. But sometimes the way the songs are shot is objectionable. That upsets me. Thankfully, I was never subjected to vulgar lyrics.”
Cheap
Singer-composer Shankar Mahadevan manages the impossible feat of retaining a core of classical purity in his music for films while eschewing vulgarity. Opines Mahadevan, “I think cheap lyrics and double meaning words are quick ways to success. Poetry and melody are the two essential elements for music.

Or else it’s like a car without wheels.” Shankar has no problems with fun songs as long as they aren’t cheap. “I don’t mind if the words are not deep and poetic as long as they aren’t vulgar. I think there’s a sharp difference between being sexy and being cheap.” Composer Lalit Pandit (of Jatin-Lalit) makes an interesting point when he says vulgar lyrics are purposely used to generate publicity for a film. “Vulgar and mischievous lyrics are used to attract listeners. The songs are deliberately steered into controversies. I recently ran into a fellow-composer who proudly told me that the song Laila le legi got into a controversy.” 

Lalit does not blame the composers though. “I blame the directors and producers for asking music composers to create vulgar numbers. Song situations celebrating vulgarity are created. Composers are left with no choice but to whip up a tune that a director has already made up his mind about. However, item songs don’t need to be vulgar. If composers and lyricists are sincere, they can find a way to make songs catchy and sexy without being cheesy.”

Sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan’s two musician sons Ayaan and Aman sense an acute bankruptcy of commitment and creativity in today’s film music. “The lyrics must show some sort of a commitment to society. Do we want young kids to grow up listening to some of the songs today? I request filmmakers and music composers not to change the social dialect just for a hit song.

Poets like Gulzar saab and Javed Akhtar saab are legends in our cinema because they’re committed to bettering our society through their art... But then whatever works on the charts is acceptable. Whatever is accepted is a sign of what and who we are as a nation and an audience. Heavyweight poetry is like national monuments. But then the populist lyrics are like shopping malls,” they say.

Past
Singer Alka Yagnik mourns the passing of poetry in our film music. “Poetic lyrics are a thing of the past. We are sadly much poorer today in terms of lyrics and melody. I am not comfortable singing vulgar songs and no one would approach me to sing them. Romantic songs are my forte. Sadly, not too many of them are being created these days.

I can understand how shocked and amused Lata didi is by the quality of music and lyrics these days.” Anand Raj Anand, the composer whose track Laila tujhe loot legi (renamed from Laila teri le legi due to objections raised by the Censor Board) starring Sunny Leone in Shootout At Wadala is riding the charts, assures that he would only go by what the characters demand, no more no less. Composer Aadesh Shrivatava feels today’s generation needs to be educated about the value of poetry in music. “Poetry has gone missing in the songs of today. That is why old songs are so popular.”

Adarsh Gupta, business head of Saregama, India’s oldest music company, feels there’s a growing clamour to purchase copyrights for old songs, not just in films but also advertisements. “In terms of old songs being used in films and in advertising, we are witnessing an all-time high. Retro is a mega-trend. Thirty to 35 percent of all the music being used today is retro across all media. The craving for nostalgic music has never been so prominent. To my mind, the urge for nostalgia music has acquired a wave dimension. And it’s getting bigger. It’s not just one or two songs. The demand for old songs is across the board.”

Missing
Composer Shantanu Moitra who has attempted to infuse Hindustani classical sounds and Rabindra Sangeet in his music for Parineeta and 3 Idiots is deeply disturbed by the lack of poetry in today’s songs. “Indian songs have traditionally conveyed great poetic thoughts. The lack of poetry in today’s songs is hurtful. Everyone is trying to be cool, contemporary and different even if it means murdering poetry. Rabindra Sangeet is still contemporary. One may change its arrangements but its spirit and words remain inviolable.” 

Composer Shamir Tandon who created one of Lataji’s more recent gems (Kitne ajeeb rishte hain yahan par in the film Page 3) misses poetry in today’s music. “My favourite was Sahir Ludhianvi’s, Chalo ek baar phir se ajnabee ban jaayen hum donon. I don’t mind lyrics like Chikni chameli and Bum pe laat as long as they have a context in the plot. But please, let’s not forsake poetry. Or, we may soon have a generation that doesn’t know Majrooh Sultanpuri and Anand Bakshi. Good poetry shapes and shakes the mind and soul. Film composers need to be given the poetry to write the tune into, and not vice versa.”

Defence
Adnan Sami jumps to the defence of present day music. “Come on, every era had its share of eyebrow raising songs. Are you trying to tell me, Mera naam chin chin choo... hello mister how do you do was poetry? Have we forgotten, Choli ke peeche kya hai? Such songs are entertaining. They don’t threaten the existence of meaningful poetic songs. In the soundtrack of the 1974 film Premnagar the great composer Sachin Dev Burman created a hot Pyase do badan for Asha Bhosle and a sublime Yeh kaisa sur mandir hai for Lata Mangeshkar side by side.

” Writer, poet lyricist Prasoon Joshi has no quibble with fun songs as long as they do not cross the limit. “Fun or nonsensical songs have always been there in our films. In the past, there was Eena meena dika and Mera naam chin chin choo. But recently we’ve seen and heard aggressive use of offensive language. I don’t think that is necessarily fun. To me they sound desperate. Frankly, I don’t see much craft in it. It isn’t as if nonsensical writing gives you the liberty from all craft. Abol tabol in Bengal is a great example of well-crafted nonsensical writing.”

All said and written, Lataji is hopeful about the future. “I consider music to be the language of God. Even if it has degenerated, it is bound to rise again. Right now, we’re too much into copying western musical styles. I wouldn’t say it didn’t happen in the past. But back then, even when Western elements were adapted there was an Indianness to the sound, Indian elements were beautifully incorporated into it.

Today we’re blindly aping the West. Look at the clothes, dances and gestures on television. These people may feel they’re doing wonderful things. But they’re wrong. They’re paving the way for our cultural downfall. Imagine what effect such visuals and songs have on a 10 year-old child!

“Artistes have a social responsibility to uphold as children can easily go astray. I feel the example being set by our films and songs is nothing to be happy about. What sort of a world have we prepared for our children? There’s a new enthusiasm amongst the children of today particularly in Maharashtra, towards classical music. See, listeners hear whatever they’re given. But after a while they tire of temporal tunes. I feel the classical era will come back.” 

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