May Day

Singing for a better tomorrow: A Hindi film song helpline for May Day

On International Workers’ Day, a reminder of the times when lyricists helped us dream about a just and equal world.

“In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.”

Thus spoke Bertolt Brecht. The words give us hope as dark times engulf large parts of the globe. The extraordinary turbulence in today’s world is the backdrop for this year’s May Day. The day is a much-needed reminder of the long and intense history of workers’ struggles for a just economic and social order. India, like elsewhere, has a rich tradition of poems and songs that critique and protest inequality, and helps us dream about a better world.

Hindi film music, part of the bloodstream of most Indians, has been associated with romance and longing and considered too emotional or shallow to be radical. However, Hindi cinema has songs expressing every possible human impulse, including scathing critiques of the iniquitous socioeconomic order. This sentiment can be seen in fun, romantic and sad songs written by poets other than Sahir Ludhianvi, the most well-known lyricist to rail against injustice.

Several film songs in the 1950s reflected the immediate post-independence idealism, where the labour of workers was to contribute to the worthy cause of nation building. These songs were filled with optimism, hope and dreams of a better life marked by equality. Mehnat Kash Insan Jaag Utha, a Mohammad Rafi-Asha Bhosle duet with Shailendra’s lyrics and an SD Burman tune from Insaan Jaag Utha (1959) tell us:

“The working person has awakened, and this (awakening) will brighten the fortunes of the earth/how wonderful/the soil that we touch (with our labour) turns to gold/how wonderful/This is the creation of labour/So true and firm is the support of labour/Our slogan is labour.”  

Mehnat Kash Insan Jaag Utha from Insan Jaag Utha (1959).

The recurrent themes of dignity and the virtue of labour display a hopeful, optimistic naiveté characteristic of the time, when people genuinely believed that hard work was what separated the rich from the poor, and that everyone’s strivings would be justly rewarded, regardless of who they were. This sentiment can be seen in songs such as Thehar Zara O Jaanewale from Boot Polish (1954), which eulogises “mehnat” (hard work).

Thehar Zara O Jaanewale from Boot Polish (1954).

Naya Daur (1957) portrays the disruptive effects of industrialisation on traditional rural life in immediate post-independence India, and is built around the conflict between honest villagers and the evil businessman who threatens their livelihood. In addition to railing against injustice, exhortations to solidarity pepper songs such as Saathi Haath Badhana (another Rafi-Asha duet written by Ludhianvi, set to music by OP Nayyar), which says, “All mountains in our path will disappear if only we work hard.”

Saathi Haath Badhana from Naya Daur (1957).

Then there are extremely witty and sharp commentaries on the city as the site of capitalism and new kinds of inequalities. Qamar Jalalabadi’s lyrics for Yeh Calcutta Hai, set to music by Nayyar for Howrah Bridge (1958), playfully describes Calcutta in terms of the haves and have-nots:

“The beauty of Ballygunge lake attracts a swarm of people/The lake shores are full of thirsty, free-spirited folks/(But) some others have empty pockets, no clothes, no belongings/Listen y’all, this is Calcutta”.

Yeh Calcutta Hai from Howrah Bridge (1958).

The most well-known song of this type is arguably Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan, sung by Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt in CID (1956). Every line of Majrooh Sultanpuri’s lyrics, composed by Nayyar, is a scathing critique of Bombay under capitalism but is delivered lightly, shorn of anger or bitterness, almost as a matter-of-fact description. The English translation does not do justice to the witty lyrics:

“They mercilessly call the homeless vagabonds/But when they slit other’s throats/They say it’s just business/Each thing has many names here.”

The song is clever not only because of the three stanzas in the male voice that critique the alienation brought about by mechanisation and the struggle for survival in a ruthless city, but also because of the last stanza in the female voice, which questions the man’s assessment of capitalism as all evil. She reminds listeners that capitalism enables individual success for those who are willing to work hard (instead of bemoaning their fate), and that old forms of domination are no longer valid. She changes the refrain to:

“Life is easy here/Listen o mister, listen o brother/This is Bombay, my dear!”

Yeh Hai Bombay Meri Jaan from CID (1956).

Another gem in this genre is the brilliant satire Haal Chaal Theek Thaak Hai, written by Gulzar for Mere Apne (1971), set to tune by Salil Choudhury. Four young men dance on the streets and voice the predominant concern of their time: educated unemployment. The lyrics indicate that the post-independence euphoria of a just and better India for Indians has dissipated. The ruling classes are mired in corruption and more young people are educated but remain unemployed – a set of circumstances that could well be describing the year 2017.

The men sing:

“We are well, thank you, everything is just fine/The atmosphere in this country is clean and great, there is law and order and justice/Allah knows that (nobody cares) if anyone lives or dies/The criminals can get away with murder/What else can I say – small burglaries here and there, an occasional bribe/That’s how one survives/But by your grace, everything else is well.”

Haal Chaal Theek Thaak Hai from Mere Apne (1971).

Pessimism had started to creep in from the late ’50s itself, most notably in the lyrics by Sahir Ludhianvi, the author of the iconic, fiery, angst-ridden, to-hell-with-the-world-of-privilege-and-riches, burn-it-all call Yeh Mahalon Yeh Takhton, Yeh Tajon Ki Duniya from Pyaasa (1957).

Ludhianvi followed this up the next year with the searing satire Chin O Arab Hamara Hindustan Hamara from Phir Subah Hogi (1958). This is a parody of two of poet Iqbal’s patriotic compositions, Tarana-e-Milli and Tarana-e-Hind. Ludhianvi debunks the lofty ideal view of nationalism and patriotism and presents some bitter home truths about the lives of the poor and the homeless. While Iqbal proclaims, “Our Hindustan is better than all the rest of the world” (Sare jahan se achha, Hindustan hamara), Ludhianvi mocks him thus:

“China and Arab [land] is ours/Hindustan is ours/The whole world is ours/But we have no place to stay/We are homeless/Our pockets are empty/That is why this protector of ours (the police) is abusing us.”

Ludhianvi’s lyrics are often associated with angst and pessimism – indeed, he excels in biting lyrics that expose social and economic inequalities. What is often overlooked is how equally optimistic, full of hope and positive he could be, showing us the possibility of another world. Phir Subah Hogi also has an outstanding composition by Khayyam, Woh Subah Kabhi To Aayegi.

“The dark times will recede one day/When the clouds of sorrow will float away/When the ocean of happiness will overflow/The sky will dance in abandon/The earth will erupt in melody/That dawn is bound to come one day”.

As we battle our own dark times, Hindi film music gives us immortal lines reminding us to not slip into despair, echoing poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s famous couplet “Lambi hai gham ki shaam, magar shaam hi to hai” (The night of despair might be long, but it is just the night after all).”

The writer is Professor of Economics, Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi.

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