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Documentary on ghazal superstar Jagjit Singh lines up the tributes and the tears

Brahmanand S Siingh’s new film combines biography and celebration.

At a recent trial screening of Kaagaz ki Kashti (Paper Boat), a not-quite-finished documentary by Brahmanand S Siingh on the late ghazal legend Jagjit Singh, the auditorium acquired the buzz of a concert venue. As Singh’s sonorous voice wafted out of the screen, sighs, finger clicks and muted huzzahs could be heard from the audience, which mainly comprised friends and family members of both the singer and the filmmaker. When the screening concluded, the enthusiastic response appeared to be not only towards the director and his crew, but also towards the ability of the film’s subject to mesmerise audiences from beyond the grave.

Kaagaz Ki Kashti is a biographical documentary in the mould of Siingh’s Pancham Unmixed (2009), about Hindi film composer RD Burman. It is heavy on music, interviews and anecdotes, uncritical in tone, and only mildly curious about Jagjit Singh’s private life beyond details that are already in the public domain. The narrative traces Singh’s childhood in Rajasthan, his early exposure to religious music (he was raised Sikh), his journey to Mumbai in 1965, his partnership in the studio and in life with Chitra Dutta, the ripples he created in the music industry with his talent, his pioneering contributions to the popularisation of the ghazal, and his rock-star status on the concert circuit.

“There could be eight films on Jagjit Singh and it would still be” too little, the 50-year-old filmmaker said. He had been meaning to make this film for a while and had even met Jagjit Singh on a few occasions. But he started shooting the interviews only two-and-a-half years ago, after Singh died from a brain haemorrhage on October 10, 2011, at the age of 70.

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“There could be eight films on Jagjit Singh and it would still be” too little, the 50-year-old filmmaker said. He had been meaning to make this film for a while and had even met Jagjit Singh on a few occasions. But he started shooting the interviews only two-and-a-half years ago, after Singh died from a brain haemorrhage on October 10, 2011, at the age of 70.

Kaagaz Ke Kashti is aiming for a theatrical release in April to mark the legend’s 75th birth anniversary (he was born on February 8). The 135-minute duration will be forbidding for viewers who aren’t complete devotees, and some might eventually feel that the film has made its point within 90 minutes, but Siingh argues that the length is necessary, given the scope of the documentary and its ambition to be a definitive account of Singh’s life.

“There has been a debate about the length, and we have come down from three hours and 40 minutes,” Siingh said. Pancham Unmixed clocked 153 minutes. “I can cut down the film a few more minutes, and I will have an international version that will be shorter, but if I have to cut half an hour, it will take away from the soul of the film.”

The independently produced documentary eschews a voiceover and informational titles and instead uses a series of interviews to map Singh’s ascent. Numerous talking heads bob their way through Kaagaz Ki Kashti, just the way they did in Pancham Unmixed. These include Chitra Singh, whose marquee looks and reedy voice complemented Singh’s own attractive appearance and timbre. In a clip from the television show Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai that has been used in Kaagaz Ke Kashti, the singer recalls that when she first met her future second husband, she was married and with a daughter. She saw him in the balcony of her neighbour’s apartment, wearing tightly fitting white clothes. She met him again a few years later when he showed up half asleep at her apartment, which also functioned as a recording studio.

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Kaagaz Ke Kashti is packed with such reminiscences and tributes. “These interviews have been used to propel the narrative – someone might come twice, somebody six times,” Siingh said. “The main thing was that each one should work as a character.”

The advantage he had over the Burman film was greater access to footage from private videos, concerts and television appearances. The documentary opens with a home video of Jagjit Singh goofing about at a house party. The grainy footage instantly marks the singer as a bon vivant and creates an image that is starkly different image from the melancholic and soulful persona that emerged through his numerous best-selling albums and film songs.

Singh’s dynamism, charisma and singularity emerge through the conversations with his kin, collaborators, members of his core team, peers, competitors, and long-time friends. From tabla player Zakir Husain, who has performed with Singh, comes the evocative observation that Singh’s voice “had the sunken sensuous quality that enveloped you in the warmth of love”. Mahesh Bhatt, whose 1982 movie Arth has a hugely popular soundtrack by Jagjit Singh, mentions the “perfume of sorrow” that seemed to emanate from Singh’s voice (a characterisation Bhatt has used for Kaifi Azmi and Fatima Bhutto in the past).

The documentary is spilling over with such encomiums about the ghazal guru, and there are many more that are destined for the extras feature on the DVD whenever it get issued. “So many interesting things people said had to go out since they did not fit into the flow and structure,” Siingh said. “Sometimes, you have to sacrifice chunks – I lost some insights into his music, details about his upbringing. But in a film like this one, you need him to be in Bombay at the end of 30 minutes rather than after an hour and 10.” Siingh and his editor, Jabeen Merchant, experimented with different kinds of structures, including opening with one of the concerts in the year of his death, before settling for the current, linear one.

The title refers to one of Jagjit Singh’s many chart-busting ghazals, and is meant to evoke both the romance of floating paper boats in the rain as well as the filmmaker’s feelings towards his subject. “The phrase ‘Kaagaz ke kashti’ represents a fragile, charming, romantic thing for me, and that is also what Jagjit Singh’s life was like,” Siingh said. “He had everything he could ask for and yet, his life was full of these fragile moments.”

Towards the end of the film, Chitra Singh talks about facing unrelenting bereavement: the couple lost their only son, Vivek, in an road accident in 1990; Chitra’s daughter from her first marriage, Monica Dutta, committed suicide in 2009; Jagjit Singh died in 2011. The couple would talk about meeting their son in the afterlife some day, but given the spate of deaths, Chitra Singh wondered what fate had in store for her. When her time came, she tells Brahmanand Siingh, would she even recognise her loved ones?

Brahmanand S Siingh and Chitra Singh after the trial screening. Still courtesy Mobius Biopics; photograph by Payal Kumar
Brahmanand S Siingh and Chitra Singh after the trial screening. Still courtesy Mobius Biopics; photograph by Payal Kumar
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