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On Mohammed Rafi’s 36th death anniversary, the question lingers: How did he sing so effortlessly?

We are still waiting for the definitive study of the timeless songs he sang.

In an interview some years before his death, the fine playback singer Manna Dey made a candid admission. He said that he never felt bad when music composers preferred Mohammed Rafi ahead of him for a song. Dey’s explanation was simple. “Rafi sa’a’b bahut hi versatile singer thay (Rafi was a very versatile singer),” he said. In a glowing one-line assessment of his illustrious peer, Dey remarked, “Rafi sa’ab jo kar saktey hain, woh hum nahin kar saktey (What Rafi could do, nobody else could).”

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‘Dekhi zamaane ki yaari’ from ‘Pyaasa’ (1957).

It’s been 36 years since Rafi passed away on July 31, 1980, several years too early for a man who was only 55. His impact on Hindi cinema and his contributions to the Hindi film song cannot be outlined in a few hundred or thousand words. The tragedy is that there has been no serious attempt to detail Rafi’s legacy or exhaustively explain the “jo kar saktey hain” part of Dey’s remark in reference to Rafi. The magic of his voice is celebrated, even venerated, but hasn’t yet been scrutinised microscopically.

Thus when the singer Shailendra Singh says, “That feeling, his effortless singing is almost impossible to match,” we are left with the complex, mystifying task of interpreting “that feeling” and the “effortless” nature of Rafi’s singing.

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‘Tootey huey khwaabon ne’ from ‘Madhumati’ (1958).

But try we must. Because Rafi was truly versatile, lending his voice to so many actors. He sang for Raj Kapoor and then for the actor’s son, Rishi Kapoor. Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra, Jeetendra and Amitabh Bachchan all had songs sung by Rafi. He sang for superstars, character actors, comedians and for the great Kishore Kumar, too. A decade ago, when Outlook magazine conducted a poll of the 20 Best Hindi Film Songs Ever, it was a Rafi song (the timeless Mann re tu kaahe na dheer dhare) that took pole position. In a list compiled by taking into account ten favourite songs of each jury member, with eminent names such as Gulzar, Javed Akhtar, Khayyam, Kavita Krishnamurthy and Sonu Nigam among the jury, Rafi’s name featured among three of the top four songs.

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‘Mann re tu kaahe na dheer dhare’ from ‘Chitralekha’ (1964).

It is not enough, however, to put Rafi’s genius down to the fact that he sang for so many people. He always conveyed the right mood, the right emotion, the right andaaz for each song. Here was a man who had an uncanny knack for embellishing each melody with the correct harqat, the perfect murki and the right intonation. He understood the little nuances of diction, the sukshma bhed of each tune and then executed them flawlessly. As the Guyanese character Chabilall says in praise of Rafi in Rahul Bhattacharya’s wonderful novel, The Sly Company of People Who Care, “Hear how he play with the syllable. He make ten from one. Now that is feeling.”

A big part of Rafi’s skill can also be put down to his lineage. Born in Kotla Sultan Singh in Punjab, Rafi spent his early years in Lahore before coming to Bombay. The exposure to the syncretic Punjabi-Lahori cultures from his early years must have played a big part in helping Rafi get his enunciation right while singing in an industry with its fair share of composers from the North-Western part of undivided-India (OP Nayyar, Husnlal-Bhagatram, Vinod, Khayyam) and almost all the great poet-lyricists also hailing from the northern part of the country.

Just as an example, consider the track from 1958’s Howrah Bridge, Dil mera loot liya and how Rafi pronounces ‘rang’ in the song’s opening line – Gora raang chunariya kaali motiyaan – in a distinct Punjabi way (sings it as ‘raang’) to keep pace with the similar nature of the song. But for the same Mehmood, he also sang the opening line of Humey kaaley hain (Gumnaam, 1965), with a clear Hyderabadi accent, to match the actor’s syntax before the song begins.

As such, Rafi also helped the film song transition from the musical culture of the 1950s to the ’60s. Hindi film song enthusiasts and critics tend to look back at this 20-year period as a single epoch. But the nature of the Hindi film song in the ’50s is operatic. Contrastingly, in the ’60s, the Hindi film song becomes much more spectacular, vibrant and performative. And it is Rafi who serves as a bridge between these two distinct periods, singing the rather melancholic, Huey hum jinke liye barbaad from Deedaar (1951) to the very rock-n-roll Jaan pehchaan ho from Gumnaam.

Rafi and his wife Bilquis. Photo courtesy Sujata Dev’s ‘Mohammed Rafi’.
Rafi and his wife Bilquis. Photo courtesy Sujata Dev’s ‘Mohammed Rafi’.

Herein lies another remarkable facet to Rafi’s playback skills. His songs spanned a vast range of musical genres, from qawwaalis to bhajans, nazms to folk songs, tunes heavy on classical ragas to tracks that had that dash of madness in them. He sang heart-wrenching Urdu ghazals without any accompanying instrumentation, but he could also leave you in buoyant spirits with his rendition of a quintessential OP Nayyar up-tempo song. He sang lullabies (Main gaaoon tum so jao), songs to get the festival spirit going (Govinda aala re), numbers that ushered in a rush of patriotism (Hum laaye hain toofan se) and ballads that left one misty-eyed (Tootey huey khwaabon ne). Through all this, he sang for composers across four decades – from the likes of Shyam Sundar (the composer who gave Rafi his first Hindi film song in Gaon Ki Gori, 1945) to Ravindra Jain; for SD and RD Burman; from Naushad to Laxmikant-Pyarelal to Bappi Lahiri. He sang alongside Shamshad Begum, but he also sang with Anuradha Paudwal.

More than anything else, it was Rafi’s singing for Shammi Kapoor that best highlighted his superlative talent. Compared to Kapoor’s extravagant, outgoing personality, Rafi was the old-fashioned, god-fearing man. Where Kapoor came to be known as the Rebel Star, Rafi was the Sufi, the monk who came to the world of Hindi playback singing. He was the anti-Shammi. But there he was singing hit after song for Shammi as the actor went club-hopping, graced the skies from a helicopter and got all Elvis Presley on us. As Rauf Ahmed notes in his book Shammi Kapoor: The Game Changer, “The flamboyance that Mohammed Rafi acquired while singing for Shammi Kapoor belied the pious, conservative man that he had been in his private life.” In other words, the man naturally suited to sing, Mann tarpat hari darshan ko aaj, was also singing the hysterical Chaahey koi mujhe junglee kahey for the actor. Rafi’s brilliance lay in navigating the inherent contradiction between playback artiste and star persona. His mellifluous voice exuded an extra manic energy for the dancing hero. He was the sheep who donned on the wolf’s hide for Kapoor.

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‘Baar baar dekho’ from ‘China Town’ (1962).

And yet there is no proper analysis of Rafi’s oeuvre, a careful technical study of the songs he sang or an examination of how a certain secular, cosmopolitan culture was perpetuated by his success. It’s not that Rafi doesn’t have his legion of admirers. Javed Akhtar said he was what “Michelangelo is to sculpture”. He inspired many playback singers, including the likes of Mahendra Kapoor and Sonu Nigam But the simplicity of the man perhaps gets in the way of describing his greatness. The Rafi story lacks glamour. In an industry where controversy comes courting, Rafi played truant, all through he personified humility. As the writer Salim Khan once told me, any compliment directed towards Rafi would be deflected by the singer with his hands pointing to the heavens, acknowledging the Almighty’s grace on him.

Rafi left all too soon. He was perhaps prescient of the music that came out of the industry in the ’80s. His soothing voice alone may have lent a whole lot of nazaaqat to the garish numbers composed in that period. Because nobody held a note better and wafted through it. Because he sang rock-n-roll with such zing. Because despite being a teetotaler, he has, arguably, the finest liquor songs in Hindi cinema. Because as Chabilall says, “When Rafi sing a dance song, you dance. When he sing a sad song, you cry. When he sing a love song, woman get fever. Rafi get inside of you, he become you an you become him.”

Akshay Manwani is the author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet (HarperCollins Publishers India 2013). His next book on the cinema of writer-director-producer, Nasir Husain, will be published by HarperCollins India in October 2016. He tweets at @AkshayManwani.

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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.