‘“Kuchh bol do. Kuchh bann nahi raha hai [Give me some words... I am not able to compose anything],” said Hemant- da, sitting in his favourite reclining position inside the cosy little music room with his longs legs stretched out, one hand on the harmonium,’ Gulzar says.

‘Remember, he was a tall man. Dada had been sitting in this position for a long time, stylishly taking pinches of snuff and wiping his hand on the end of his dhoti with great flourish. But he was unable to produce any tune.

Since I had written the script, I knew what the character would be thinking. Thus came the line “Woh shaam kuchh ajeeb thi, yeh shaam bhi ajeeb hai. Woh kal bhi paas thi, woh aaj bhi kareeb hai”. He is with someone else now but he remembers the person he had loved and lost. Dada wrote the line down and started composing the tune.’ That is how one of the most iconic romantic numbers in Hindi cinema began.

Gulzar continues, ‘After composing the mukhra around my lyrics, Dada composed the tune for the antara because they were complementary notes. Then I wrote the antara’s lyrics on the basis of the tune. The order had been reversed. This happened often. The composer would give me a tune for the mukhra, saying he would compose the antara later. But some lines of the antara would come to my mind while writing the mukhra. Therefore, it would be a strange mix of the mukhra, which would start with the tune, but the other way around in case of the antara! But it would all fall in place eventually. The sequence was shot in Calcutta, on the Hooghly, without any backdrop. And there was a sizeable crowd witnessing the shoot.

Composer Hemant Kumar used Raga Yaman.

This raga, along with Pahadi and Bhairavi, is one of the most used ragas in Hindi films. Almost all composers, from Anil Biswas to A.R. Rahman, have used Yaman to structure their tunes. While most have used the Yaman backbone and added their own interpretations, like a Komal Ni, Hemant hardly digresses beyond the notes of the textbook. He may have done this to avoid creating a melancholic mood. The feel in the song is one of hope...

Hemant’s foresight lay in using Kishore for a song of immeasurable depth, something composers were not sure of during Kishore’s transition into a full-time playback singer. Kishore Kumar had cut down on his acting assignments and was focusing more on playback singing, but he was still perceived as a singer capable of rendering only fast, light numbers. ‘That [selecting Kishore] was the collective decision of the music director and the director,’ points out Gulzar. ‘I was not part of the decision-making process.’

Perhaps some of his industry friends helped Kishore make up his mind. Anandji Shah shares an anecdote. ‘Those days, Kishore-da was an actor. He was reluctant to lend his voice. But a few years later, when he was tired of acting, Kalyanji pulled his leg saying, “You are such a fine singer. Aap dhoop mein kyon marte hain? Why don’t you sit in an AC room and sing in comfort?” Kalyanji told him that a film may have limited shelf life but his voice would resonate whenever people heard him. The shift happened when Kishore sang for us in Suhaag Raat (1968).’

‘Woh shaam’ starts with the sound of waves lapping against the stern of a wooden boat on the Hooghly. The hum of the chorus that follows Kishore Kumar’s first two metre-less lines is almost choir-like in its pitch and cadence. Hemant uses Pa as the first note of the song, thereby creating the impression of a high-pitched number to merge with the backdrop the Hooghly provides. The mukhra radiates great warmth and gently leads to the interlude where Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia plays a poignant piece from the flute just before the two antaras.

Hemant’s Rabindra Sangeet style is reflected in the antara, where the first two lines sound deliberately bland as compared to the haunting mukhra. The string fillers also do not stray beyond the traditional mode. However, the monotony is broken in the third line, by the jhankar of notes that use a combination of Dha Ni Sa Pa.

The notes are articulated with such finesse by Kishore Kumar that they create a sense of longing.

The camera too moves back, creating more width, as if to make way for the melody to expand. The vocal harmony, sounding almost like a church choir, functions like a parallel melody and creates a strong impression as it fills the space.

Choral music had been used before to accentuate poignancy, as done by S.D. Burman for his compositions Chal ri sajni (Bambai Ka Babu, 1960) or O jaanewale ho sake to laut ke aana (Bandini, 1963), but it had hardly been used to this extent in accentuating the mood of despair, offering a vulnerable contrast.

The song also juxtaposes the reactions of the lead pair at two points in time through a flashback – typical of Gulzar, who wrote the script. Radha (Waheeda Rehman) reminisces about the time she and Dev (Dharmendra) were together one such evening. But it’s a different man today. Radha holds Arun (Rajesh Khanna) away as he tries to embrace her, grateful for being brought back from the brink of insanity.

‘Yeh shaam’, she thwarts his attempts of coming close till an unruly spray of water from the Hooghly wets her face. ‘Woh shaam’, her mind goes back to a time when an angry Dev had thrown his drink at her face. She holds him by the shoulder and lays him on the bed, holding him and kissing his anger away.

‘Yeh shaam’, she melts in Arun’s arms while she remembers Dev as the boat passes under the Howrah bridge. ‘Woh shaam’, ‘Dev,’ she utters at the end of the song. ‘Yeh shaam’, she opens her eyes and snaps back to the present. She finds herself in Arun’s arms. Realizing her involuntary response to her emotional memory she pulls away.

This cutting to-and-fro is masterfully rendered, even in the lyrics. Gulzar takes the listener from ‘Mera khayal hai abhi’ to ‘Main sochta tha’. ‘Main sochta tha mera naam’ in the first antara becomes ‘Mai jaanta hoon mera naam’ in the second as Radha vacillates between the past and the present.

Excerpted with permission from Gaata Rahe Mera Dil, Balaji Vittal and Anirudha Bhattacharjee, HarperCollins India.