Muzaffar Ali’s best-known movie is Umrao Jaan (1981), featuring Rekha in peak alluring mode, but the modest pleasures of his debut Gaman (1978) far surpass the riches of the courtesan drama.

Gaman follows the troubled journey of taxi driver Ghulam (Farooque Shaikh) from his village in Uttar Pradesh to Mumbai. Ghulam graduates from cleaning taxis to driving one on Mumbai’s streets while his wife Khairun (Smita Patil), who has been left behind to care for his ailing mother, waits patiently and endlessly for him. Ali’s film about migration and separation is all the more moving for his understated approach to the subject as well as the way in which he places the songs in the background.

Jaidev’s brilliant soundtrack has one of the greatest laments about life in Mumbai. Seena Me Jalan is the mournful flipside of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil from CID (1956). Why is everybody so troubled in this city, Suresh Wadkar sings over visuals of Ghulam, clinging to the wheel, a slave to the grind and a prisoner of poverty.

The other great song is a version of Makhdoom Mohiuddin’s ghazal Aapki Yaad Aati Rahi. Chhaya Ganguli’s masterful rendition of a song that speaks of the pain of a prolonged separation wafts over some of the quietest visuals in the movie. Khairun watches over her sleeping mother-in-law, attends to the household chores and fingers a letter Ghulam has sent her. It’s nighttime, but Ghulam is still clutching the wheel and staring ahead onto Mumbai’s unforgiving streets. The simple depiction of highly passionate emotions (“the sweet soulful yearning of the flute tug at my memories all night long”) allows the listener to focus on Ganguli’s voice and the lyrics and register the mute pain writ large on the faces of Ghulam and Khairun.

Aapki Yaad Aati Rahi from Gaman.

The reclusive Ganguli sang a slower tempo version of the ghazal for a Doordarshan programme. Jaidev’s arrangement in Gaman speeds up the song’s beat, setting it in tune with the taxi’s forward movements and Khairun’s longing. The night seems to stretch on forever, and the memories just don’t stop.