Book review

How long must we wait for the definitive Mohammed Rafi biography?

Two new books are too uncritical to add any value to our understanding of the great singer.

Mohammed Rafi is, with the possible exception of the Mangeshi sisters, the best known name from the world of film music across the subcontinent and yet, the definitive biography on the gentleman artist whom everybody loved to love is waiting to be written.

Mohammed Rafi My Abba by Yasmin Khalid Rafi, the singer’s daughter-in-law, was released around four years ago. The memoir was mostly about Rafi the person rather than the celebrity. It described in some detail his early days, his marriage, his relationship with his children, his penchant for changing places of residence until Rafi Villa in Mumbai’s Bandra suburb became his abode, his weakness for trendy cars even though he barely drove, and his humility and benevolence as a person. The book did not quite sketch his life as a performing artist.

Over the past few months, two more biographies have emerged. Sujata Dev’s Rafi book Mohammed Rafi, Golden Voice of the Silver Screen was released in late 2015, and Mohammed Rafi, God’s Own Voice, by Raju Korti and Dhirendra Jain, was up for sale in January.

Dev’s book is a sincere and painstaking effort to gather views from an array of sources such as co-singers, composers, lyricists, actors, musicians and even comperes. Most of the interviews are original, from what one gathers. Rafi’s childhood, his family background, his early career and his last day on earth have been captured in detail and packaged with the aroma of nostalgia. There is a generous collection of photographs, some of which are rare. Dev has also thoughtfully included an introduction by the actor Dilip Kumar, for whom Rafi recorded some of his most immortal numbers. Most importantly, she has the endorsement of Rafi’s youngest and only surviving son Shahid, which gives the book the weight of an authorised biography.

But a book, whether fiction or non-fiction, needs a story. And a story needs a script with characters, sub-plots and conflicts. With so much information on Rafi already widely available, a new book demands something special to make the readers sit up. Mohammed Rafi – The Golden Voice of the Silver Screen puts Rafi on a pedestal of glory right from the beginning, doling out sugary praise page after page. The opportunity for an incisive and impartial analysis has been missed out. The grey shades of the dynamics of the composer-singer equations, the singer-hero camps and the director-singer preferences have not been covered.

For example, a personality like filmmaker Raj Khosla finds no mention, and Chetan Anand, fleetingly so. The critical turning points that lend themselves to deeper scrutiny have been glossed over. Dev’s sub-chapters read like they have been influenced by Choudhary Zia Imam’s short but well-written Hindi book Payambar-e-Mausiki: Mohammed Rafi (2011).

Dev also misses quite a few interesting stories that are not widely known, such as how “Aaj Kal Tere Mere Pyar Ke Charche” (Brahmachari, 1968) was rejected by Dev Anand, a real-life qawwali witnessed by Sonik-Omi became “Raaz Ki Baat Keh Doon” (Dharma, 1973), C Ramachandra drafted Rafi to put an end to the playback career of Ashok Kumar, and many more. Notwithstanding the odd nugget, such as Rafi and Manna Dey rendering each other‘s songs at a stage show, one also misses the behind-the-scene anecdotes during composing sessions and recording.

Also, for a music book, there is almost zero technical detailing. Dev focuses too much on statistics, quoting the number of the songs Rafi sang for a particular composer or actor. The numbers do not add up to create the story the reader is pining for. Overall, the effort turns out to be more like an introduction to Rafi, one in which parts of his life have been covered very nicely, but the music plays a secondary role.

Did he really say that?

Mohammed Rafi, God’s Own Voice takes off in a manner that gives the reader the feeling that the much-awaited deep dive is finally going to take place. Co-author Dhirendra Jain had previously authored a book in Hindi on the singer titled Woh Jab Yaad Aaye, which seems to serve as the reference for parts of the new work. The authors have made immense efforts to chart the musical career of Rafi, listing out and discussing a major chunk of his songs. However, as is the case with Dev’s book, the fine-grained analysis is missing. There is far too much reliance on hearsay and myths. Also, the book seems to be written, or rather completed, in a hurried manner. Parts of the book read quite well, while some portions make you feel that the editor had gone on a sabbatical.

A major disadvantage of both books is that the authors are obsessed with proving that Rafi was the greatest in anything he ever did. Dev does not stray beyond what is publicly available. At least excerpts of the interviews she conducted are part of a DVD that has been included with her book. However, Korti and Jain do not provide references to the quotes, some of which are of a debatable nature.

For example, the authors casually pass a remark about Rafi ruling Hindi playback for 25 years, from 1944 to 1969, thereby not only rewriting their own version of history, but also being discourteous to Talat Mahmood, who was the singer to look up to during the first half of the ’50s, and Mukesh, who was equally in demand with Rafi, if not more, in the late ’50s. Rafi’s career, which was on the rise in the ’50s, actually skyrocketed in the ’60s, courtesy composers Shankar Jaikishan and O P Nayyar, and rebel star Shammi Kapoor.

There are also quite a few “he-told-only-us” kind of quotes. According to Korti and Jain, C Ramachandra, who was not exactly a Rafi votary, supposedly earmarked him as “the best singer”. Rafi was never Ramachandra’s favourite by any available account, and all throughout, he had been vocal in his negative opinion of the singer.

Similarly, SD Burman telling Manna Dey that the real “baadshah of classical” (a reference to Rafi) was in Bandra does Manna Dey injustice as well as questions Burman’s erudition. Burman, who was well-versed in classical music, knew the strengths and weaknesses of the singers extremely well. He would have been the last person to put Rafi on a pedestal higher than Manna Dey over the question of classical and semi-classical music. Once again, the authors do not corroborate their statement.

One of the most interesting quotes is by Jaikishan, in which he says that the score for Guide (1965) deserved the Filmfare award over Suraj. While there is hardly any issue about the content of the quote, one wonders what compelled Jaikishan, who died in 1971, to reach out specifically to Korti/Jain, both of whom were at best in school at the time.

The musical journey of Rafi awaits comprehensive documentation. Even in a ruthlessly competitive place like the Bombay film industry, Rafi had no foes. Neither did he lust for money or fame. In fact, he refused to accept royalties and did not know how to sign autographs until later in his career. If there is one public figure India can project as a symbol of secularity, humility, love and talent, Rafi would be the most likely choice. The efforts of Dev, Korti, and Jain will certainly fuel further research into his life and times, but future writers will need to shrug off their fandom to create an all-inclusive story.

Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal are the authors of Gaata Rahe Mera Dil and R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.