There are books on Hindi cinema and music, and then there are books on Hindi cinema and music of the kind Nalin Shah writes. The septuagenarian is somebody whose work is awaited with more enthusiasm than trepidation. By virtue of his age, he remains one of the very few who has not only hobnobbed with the greats, but has also been party to their ascent, decline, and, most important, their lives.
Melodies, Movies and Memories is a set of 50 articles, probably written by Shah during various points in time, and assembled, with minor touch-ups, in the form of a book. The chapters vary in content, from the transience of success in film world to the verbal diarrhoea of a particular composer, and do not meld into each other. Given these are separate chapters, the asynchronous nature does not become a show stopper. Four aspects of the writer emerge sharp and clear: Shah as chronicler, Shah as historian, Shah as diehard fan, and Shah as critic.
Most of the stories from the chronicler seem to be written in the 1980s and the 1990s. There are accounts of manipulation mechanisms in popular film awards, the politics of remixes and their worthlessness, the great Guinness myth, the compilation of the Geet Kosh by Harmandir Singh “Hamraaz” (incidentally the book is dedicated to him, though one wonders why Shah fails to even mention Biswanath Chatterjee, author of the fifth volume of the Geet Kosh and assistant in the first four), the birth and heydays of Radio Ceylon, Gulshan Kumar and the “not playing by rules” nature of audio piracy, the advent of “vulgarity” in cinema.
For the uninitiated, these are milestones on the road of Hindi cinema and music, and definitely interesting. For the aficionado, many of the chapters create a sense of déjà vu, as Shah writes on matters already covered by other authors, especially Raju Bharatan. However, anecdotal references, mostly of a personal nature, add value to the stories.
As a historian, Shah goes back in time, recounting stories based on his interaction with important music personalities of yesteryear. The personalities discussed include RC Boral, Anil Biswas, KL Saigal, Kanan Devi, Khemchand Prakash, Shyam Sunder, Bulo C Rani, Ghulam Mohammad, Hemant Kumar, C Ramachandra, OP Nayyar and Naushad. There are many stories, both interesting and significant from a historical point of view. These help in understanding the personalities through their actions. The stories are not disguised as sentimental personality sketches which seem to be the resort of most bloggers writing on music today.
While this is surely the strongest point in the book, this unfortunately becomes its Achilles’ heel too. The fan in Shah, at quite regular intervals, overshadows the archivist in him. More often than not, his proximity to certain composers and love for specific periods of music comes out so strong that one misses the rationalist approach essential to a book of this nature.
The absence of certain key characters makes it more surprising. There are minimal discussions on composers like Roshan, Madan Mohan, or even S D Burman. Salil Chowdhury, whom most composers consider the “composer for composers”, gets exactly a single mention in the book, and that too in the chapter on inspiration and plagiarism.
Two composers in particular, Khemchand Prakash and Naushad, are applauded frequently, often at the expense of others. For example, Shah mentions that the music of Mehboob’s Andaz (1949, composed by Naushad) is more profound than the music of Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat (1949, composed by Shankar Jaikishan), without actually mentioning. The dividing line between a critic and a fan gets progressively blurred, as it is often the fan ruling heavily over the critic.
It is the critic in Shah which does not do justice to someone of his stature. Sweeping statements are best avoided in absence of relevant data, but emotion overrules his sense of logic. He quite nonchalantly dismisses all the music that came after the late 1960s. The 1970s and the 1980s have been described as barren – with a few exceptions like Pakeezah (1971) and Umrao Jaan (1981).
One is at liberty to have one’s own set of favourites, but Shah, later in the book, mentions RD Burman’s excellence while discussing Kishore Kumar in films like Kati Patang (1970), Amar Prem (1971), Aandhi (1975) and Aap ki kasam (1974), thereby contradicting himself. Labelling Mere Naina Saawan Bhadon (Mehbooba, 1976) as the last memorable song by Kishore is also a statement highly debatable, perhaps to be taken lightly, assuming Shah has inherent limitations when the music does not belong to his comfort zone – the 1930s through to the 1950s. Variegated rhythm, which has been a mainstay of Hindi film music, is also limited to a discussion on traditional Indian instruments like the dholak and the tabla.
There are bloopers too, and these mandated a good editor. Bhairav becomes Bhairavi in the context of Mohe bhool gaye saawariya (Baiju Bawra, 1952); Barsaat has been spelt as Barsat repeatedly. Khemchand Prakash’s last monthly remuneration at Bombay Talkies is mentioned as Rs 1,500 in one chapter, and Rs 2,500 in another. The origin of Allah megh de pani de is incorrectly traced back to a Tagore song. The absence of editing efforts also shows in repetitions – for example, Khemchand Prakash is mentioned as a composer trained in Dhrupad and Kathak dancing in multiple stories. When compiled into a book, such repetitions are completely unnecessary.
But this is a book that your shelves definitely deserve. As a film-and-music enthusiast who thrives on trivia, I loved it.
Melodies, Movies and Memories, Nalin Shah, Saarthak Prakashan.