Thursday, September 4, 2014

Brass over gold: Gulzar and the item song

Wrote this for Motherland's 'Item' issue

I remember the first time I saw Omkara. It was a July afternoon in 2006. Despite an unusually rowdy crowd at PVR Priya, and the fact that we were in the front row, craning our necks to make sense of the giant figures looming over us, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. Later that evening, raving about it to a friend, I mentioned something about the unusually direct nature of Beedi's lyrics. My friend agreed, but said she hoped I knew that “Namak” was the real deal. “Namak ishq ka,” she said. “The salt of love. On her tongue.” I shook my head, puzzled. She looked at me pityingly. “Nigal gai main. She swallowed. Get it?”


It wasn’t just the forthrightness of the words that surprised me. It was that their author was a seventy-something man, known for his screenplays for Hrishikesh Mukherjee, his own sensitive, complex films and his versatile, literate songwriting. Over the last decade or so, it’s become standard practice to mention all of Gulzar’s ‘respectable’ achievements, then add something along the lines of “...and he also writes item numbers”. But anyone who’s taken the trouble of actually listening to the words will tell you that Gulzar doesn’t just write item songs. He writes the best item songs, ones that are smarter and sexier that those penned by lyricists 40 years younger.

The song that changed everything – for Gulzar, at least – was the big hit from Shaad Ali’s Bunty Aur Babli (2005). Even today, “Kajra Re” is a dance-floor favourite, performed as enthusiastically by men in drag as it is by women. The bar dance in the film had Aishwarya Rai making a guest appearance (a Bollywood item song trope that goes back to Cuckoo and Helen), dancing with Bachchan Sr and Jr. The singer was Alisha Chinoy, whose music videos as a pop artist a decade ago had been quasi-items in themselves.

Gulzar’s opening couplet sets the tone – poetic and lightly suggestive: “Aisi nazar se dekha uss zaalim ne chowk par/ Humne kaleja rakh diya chaaku ki nok par” [He looked at me in such a way/ I placed my heart over the knife’s tip]. The cry of “raita phail gaya” that follows is as apt for the Uttar Pradesh setting of the film as it is surprising coming from Gulzar. “Kajra Re” is, in essence, a come-on from a woman who’s fallen for a no-good charmer and who’s now getting impatient; “Meri angdai na toote tu aaja” [I’m stretched out and waiting, come to me], she coos repeatedly. The lyrics combine high and low Hindi and even a little English (a college friend of mine, unwilling to believe that Gulzar could pen something like “Aankhen bhi kamaal karti hain/ Personal se sawal karti hain” [Eyes are also wonderful things/ They ask personal questions], insisted that the phrase was ‘prashn se sawal’). The song also name-checks Dariba Kalan and Ballimaran, those most poetically named Old Delhi streets, the latter of which was home to Gulzar’s great hero, Mirza Ghalib.

Though “Kajra Re” is often identified as his first swing at the genre, Gulzar actually crossed over to the dark side with Dil Se.. (1998). This Mani Ratnam film was his maiden collaboration with AR Rahman and, though few noted it at the time, the first time he’d write something in the ballpark of an item song. “Jiya Jale” met several of the genre’s criteria: it had skin (more Shah Rukh Khan than Preity Zinta), scenery (the backwaters of Kerala) and some very racy lyrics (“honth sil jaate unke narm hothon se” [my lips get sewn to his tender lips]). Dil Se.. also yielded the spectacular, train-top “Chaiyya Chaiyya”. The lyrics, adapted from a poem by Baba Bulle Shah, are largely in Urdu – but this isn’t the Urdu of Mughal-e-Azam and Pakeezah; instead, the words are robust, muscular; closer in spirit to Punjabi. Keeping Rahman’s pounding rhythm as a base, Gulzar wrote lines that were percussive and fluent, full of internal rhymes (“shaam raat/ meri kainath”; “ishq ki chaaon/ paon”) and his trademark unusual phrasing (“yaar misaal-e-oes chale” [my love walks like the dew]).

“Chaiyya Chaiyya” is a good old-fashioned showstopper; it was used by Spike Lee for the opening of his 2006 film Inside Man and by Rahman himself for his Broadway musical Bombay Dreams. Ten years later Ratnam’s film released, Rahman and Gulzar collaborated on another song that saw even greater international success. “Jai Ho” was written for, and used in the closing moments of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. Again, Gulzar’s grasp of metre gives the song an irresistible forward momentum; it’s some kind of bliss to hear lines as flowing as “Ratti-ratti sachchi maine jaan gawaayi hai/ Nach-nach koylon pe raat bitayi hai” [Bit by bit, I’ve given up my life/ I’ve spent entire nights dancing on coals]. The song, which unites characters dead and alive in one final choreographed hurrah, is the most Bollywood moment in Boyle’s film – separate from the story, yet also an inextricable part of it. In other words, an item number, albeit an Oscar and a Grammy-winning one.

Fruitful as his partnership with Rahman has been – their other credits include Saathiya (2002), Guru (2007), Raavan (2010) and Jab Tak Hai Jaan (2012) – Gulzar’s closest collaborator in recent years has been composer-director Vishal Bhardwaj. Long before Bhardwaj began directing, they worked together on the title song for the animated Jungle Book series, a mainstay of pre-cable television viewing in India. That little bit of nonsense rhyme is significant – there’s a leap that can be made from “chaddhi pehen ke phool khila hai” [there’s a flower wearing knickers in bloom] to “jigar maa badi aag hai” [there’s a great fire in my body] from “Beedi”. The underlying emotions are, of course, chalk and cheese, but there’s a certain unabashedness and sense of mischief that links these two sentiments.

“Beedi” is the acid test for people with fixed ideas about what a septuagenarian poet (and Dadasaheb Phalke awardee) should or shouldn’t be writing. Gulzar said as much in an interview to Little India, asking why people couldn’t “abandon their ghisa-pita and archaic ideas about how poetry should be written and how poets should look and live”. The song grew out of a Bhardwaj request to Gulzar to write a hit for his 2006 film Omakra along the lines of “Paan Khaye Saiyan Hamaaro” [from 1966’s Teesri Kasam] and “Jhumka Gira Re, Bareli Ke Bazaar Mein” [from 1966’s Mera Saaya]. Gulzar called him the next day and recited the opening stanza, which uses the borrowing of burning coal as a metaphor for sneaking around: “Na gilaaf na lihaaf, thandi hawa ke khilaaf, sasuri/ Itni sardi kisi ka lihaaf lei le/ Ja padosi ke chulhe se aag lei le” [No cover, no shelter, against the damn wind/ It’s so cold I could take someone else’s covering/ Or use the heat from my neighbour’s stove].

Even before the famous chorus arrives, it’s obvious we’ve moved beyond the veiled suggestions of “Kajra Re”. This is partly a function of the film’s setting – unlike the movie-set UP of Bunty Aur Babli, the action in Omkara takes place in an authentically gritty recreation of the state’s hinterland. Gulzar, to his credit, stays faithful to the rough, violent aesthetic of the film. “For too long, we’ve had characters singing poetry that doesn’t suit them. It’s time for lyrics to reflect the way the characters speak in the rest of the film,” Gulzar said in an interview a couple of months after the film released. He added, “As a lyricist it’s my job to sublimate my poetry into the requirement of the characters and the plot.”

This sublimation has happened time and again. “Jab Bhi Ciggaret”, written for Anurag Kashyap’s No Smoking (2007), crystallises, through a series of smoking metaphors, the self-defeating allure of one last drag. It’s one of the stranger item numbers you’ll see: a jazzy torch song with playback by Adnan Sami but lip-synched onscreen, Cabaret-style, by Jesse Randhawa. “Phir kisine jalali ek diyasalai/ Aasman jal utha hai/ Saamne jhaag udai” [Who lit a match again?/ The sky is on fire/ Smoke’s in front of me] captures the disorientation experienced by the John Abraham character, undergoing painful, Kafkaesque withdrawal. A few years earlier, “Yeh Raat” used every sinuous, sinister nocturnal adjective available to match the perverse mood of Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Aks (2001). These and so many others – “Dhan Te Nan” from Kaminey (2009), “Darling” from 7 Khoon Maaf (2011), “Hamari Atariya Pe” from Dedh Ishqiya (2014) – are item numbers, but they’re also specific, thought-through pieces of songwriting, woven into the fabric of the films they’re in.

That there has been a resurgence of the item number in recent times is undeniable; that many of these songs are puerile and misogynistic is barely worth mentioning. Yet, examining the situation with an unjaundiced eye, I’d hazard that today’s item songs are a shade smarter and funnier than late ‘80s and early ‘90s standards like “Ek Do Teen” and “Tip Tip Barsa Paani”. For every ridiculous item song on TV today (“Sheila Ki Jawani”), there are others that are amusing (“Tu Mere Agal Bagal Hai”), self-parodying (“I Hate You (Like I Love You)”) and inventive (“Womaniya”). There’s really only Gulzar to thank for this. His fingerprints are all over the modern item number. Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’s “Ghagra” owes everything to “Kajra Re”. And the brass-gold comparison in Ragini MMS 2’s “Baby Doll” is prefigured, if not inspired, by the “Tere bina sona peetal” line from Guru. Gulzar turns 80 this year. It’s about time everyone started treating his item numbers with the same seriousness he accords them. 

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