Sai Paranjpye’s Saaz (1998) is about two sisters who are playback singers in the Hindi film industry. They wear plaits well into adulthood. The older sister is intensely focused on her career, so much so that she grabs assignments meant for her sibling. The younger one is trapped in an abusive marriage and struggles to emerge from under her sister’s shadow.
If the plot cleaves to gossip about Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, it’s probably a coincidence. Lata Mangeshkar, who died on February 6, was easily the most prolific playback singer in India. She was known to drive a hard bargain with music composers and filmmakers. The grapevine has it that Mangeshkar’s monopoly over the microphone affected the career prospects of her peers, which included her younger sister.
However, Bhosle, who escaped a bad marriage and rose to the second rung after Mangeshkar, was no pushover. The sisters have spoken openly about their different temperaments, but by several accounts seem to have a far more amicable relationship than the gossip-mongers would have us believe.
Paranjpye herself denied that Saaz had anything to do with the Mangeshkar siblings, even though some details in the plot do overlap with their background.
In the movie, Mansi and Bansi are the daughters of a folk performer (as was the Mangeshkar patriarch Deenanath). His early demise forces Mansi into a playback singing career. Mansi (Aruna Irani) dotes on Bansi (Shabana Azmi) but is careful to keep her in her place.
Mansi arranges Bansi’s wedding with a man who has “I am going to be horrible to my wife” tattooed on his forehead. Later, Mansi begins her own journey in the Hindi film world, only to run into a formidable rival and obstacle in the form of Bansi.
There is enough place in the world of music for two people, Bansi says. But only one can reach the peak, Mansi reminds her.
Alongside the Mansi-Bansi discord, Saaz explores Bansi’s personal journey. It includes an affair with the dishy musician Hemang, who is younger than her.
The musician, played by Zakir Hussain, appears to be a nod to Bhosle’s second husband, RD Burman. Hussain also composed the soundtrack of Saaz, of which the best-known song is Kya Tumne Hai Keh Diya.
The bits in the creaky non-biopic that have survived the harsh passage of time include Aruna Irani’s compelling performance. Usually relegated to dance numbers in her youth and maternal roles in her later years, Irani revels at the opportunity to be in a prominent role and overshadows her more esteemed colleague.
The casting of Zakir Hussain pays off, with the kinky-haired tabla maven visibly enjoying himself in the role of a maverick composer and Bansi’s biggest devotee.
However, Saaz barely works as an insider look into the workings of the Hindi film industry. There is also little insight into how songs are composed. By showing Bansi as being romantically involved with the music composer for whom she frequently sings, the movie undermines the progress made by women in a profession ruled and ordered by men.
The Lata-Asha connection remains the movie’s only hook. The stories about the sisters, real or otherwise, also inspired the television series Meri Awaaz Hi Pehchaan Hai in 2016.
Once again, its makers issued a flurry of statements denying any connection between the facts and fiction. And once again, the only reason to watch the TV show was to see whether it would tell us something new or insightful about two of the most famous voices in Hindi cinema.