In Lekin (1991), Gulzar’s lyrics and Hridaynath Mangeshkar’s music map the vast terrain of love, loss, loneliness and memory. The vocabulary is alternately sparse and lush, much like the desert and palaces of Rajasthan that dominate the landscape of the film, starring starring Dimple Kapadia and Vinod Khanna.
Past and current lives and destinies and journeys intertwine and often collide in a film about a soul stuck in a time warp and roaming the ruins and sand dunes, awaiting liberation. The music follows, with Rajasthani folk tunes enhanced and embellished by Gulzar’s poetry and the komalswars of Maand, Todi and the rarely performed Vihangini, all lending pathos and mystery, the essential elements of the film.
Yaara Seeli Seeli is probably the most popular song from the film, also winning National Awards for playback singing (Lata Mangeshkar) and lyrics. In a twisted tribute to the unusual lyrics, we have a film, no less, called Yaara Silly Silly (2015), with no connection to anything in the song. Enough to outrage a true-blue Gulzar fan and demand poster burnings and public apologies, in tune with the times. But luckily, all admirers have stayed put. And the inane film title is probably just proof of the fact that Yaara Seeli Seeli endures in the public imagination. The slow burning of a lonely night captured beautifully by “seeli seeli” is followed by the singer hitting the high notes for ‘Ye bhi koi jeena hai?’, pure anguish, ending with the despairing ‘Ye bhi koi marna…’
Haunting music is generally associated with closed, cavernous places, and Lekin has plenty of cobwebbed halls in which a restless spirit can wander. But there’s probably no other film in which the sound of loneliness echoes in a sprawling, empty desert. Main Ek Sadi Se has a Khayyam-like sweep – violins play manically as the protagonist races futilely across the dunes, escaping ghosts of her own. The regal notes of a sarangi and the dull rhythm of a ghatam accompany her back to the ruins that hold and imprison her,a bleakness that she surveys endlessly.
Online conversations by YouTube watchers refer to the song’s parallels with Dinanath Mangeshkar’s Bhali Chandra Ase Dharila, a Marathi natyasangeet numberfrom his theatrical production Maanapmaan, and there is certainly a hint of the inspiration that Hridaynath may have derived from his father’s composition, even though the genre is completely different.
Suniyo Ji is based on a Hindustani classical bandish by Pandit Mani Prasad in Vihangini, a raag close to Bhopali or Deshkar – depending on your approach to the distinction between the two – but with a nishaad (‘Ni’) added. The overall effect is upbeat. The song soars and falls dramatically, spanning the three octaves. The lyrics refer to the loneliness of a young bride, but here we have a young woman in a castle dungeon, pining for home, her “parched eyes” recalling the memory of rain and a time gone by.
Ja Ja Re is a guru-shishya moment in the film, performed by the Mangeshkar brother-sister duo, set to Gurjari Todi, one of the more sombre raags. The orchestration is sparse, with only a tanpura and tabla, as in a practice session. If anyone wanted to imagine how the practice sessions in the Mangeshkar household might have been like, the example is probably here.
Gulzar can also turn out a nifty thumri. Joothe Naina, set to Bilaskhani Todi, is performed with characteristic flamboyance and precise enunciation by Asha Bhosle. The lyricist, who swears by such precision, has explained elsewhere that the first word is in fact ‘joothe’ (used/‘tasted by someone else’), and not ‘jhoote’ (false/fake) as some listeners had thought. Classical vocalist Satyasheel Deshpande provides the alaap in the prelude and a superb taraana at the end.
If it’s Rajasthan, raag Maand can’t be far behind. And we get a double helping of Kesariya Balma – one is a fast-flowing version with surprising santoor riffs, the other, a more sedate contemplation of what it’s like to be a lost soul. “Na mil payi, nabichhdi main, kaiso ye sanjog re…”
Surmai Shaam is about the search for that lost soul. Isn’t it always at dusk that memories, longing and unexplained sorrows converge? In that eerie half-light, as the shadows disappear, there is a presence that “brushes past me like a fragrance”. No footsteps anywhere, but it feels like you’re here.
That sounds adequately ghostly. And also a lot like love.