In most Hindi films, there is plenty of action going on behind bars. Hefty men placed in custody, such as Sunny Deol, have rattled the bars in anger; conspiracies and escape plans are hatched, as in Sholay; politicians and gang leaders have held court within the premises.
There are various kinds of confinement, of course. Sanjeev Kumar in Khilona struggles with mental illness as well as physical confinement in Khilona Jan Kar.
Young lovers have been restrained in their rooms and prevented from leaving on pain of serious injury, usually to the legs. Sometimes, whips and sticks are employed. In some cases, the victims get through the ordeal with remarkable aplomb, as Madhuri Dixit did, swinging to Ek Do Teen in Tezaab, not missing a single step.
And in Tridev, three nubile young women, held in the villains’ den, perform, with impeccably synchronised movements, the song that became an anthem in the late 1980s.
Non-state actors have also detained heroes for political reasons, but such captivity has rarely resulted in musical protest. One exception is Roja, in which Arvind Swamy plays a just-married scientist visiting Kashmir, where he is kidnapped by an armed group. There, confined to a hut, looking out at snow-capped terrain, he sets aside his nationalist feeling and his befuddlement about the complexity of the Kashmir situation and launches into a ballad to his new wife. The lyrics, translated from the original Tamil, are clumsy, but the score, springing from raag Desh and sung to perfection by SP Balasubrahmanyam, placed composer AR Rahman firmly in the spotlight in Hindi filmdom.
Incarceration by the state, however, is a different story, and it appears that only three kinds of people have been hauled into prisons and have gone on to sing eloquently about it.
The first kind are the ones in love and made to suffer for it, not just by society but by the mighty power of the state. In poor, naive Anarkali’s case, it was the entire Mughal apparatus that did her in. In these two classics from Mughal-E-Azam classic, written by Shakeel Badayuni and scored by Naushad, a shackled, exhausted woman describes her fate. Mohabbat Ki Jhoothi Kahani, in raag Darbari Kaanada, unusually, begins with any instrumental or vocal prelude – it is a lament rendered with childlike incredulity.
I didn’t watch out, didn’t stop to think, she cries. Your love proved to be my undoing.
Beqas Pe Karam Kijiye, set to raag Kedar, on the other hand is a more formal complaint, a fariyaad, evoked in the prelude. It is also a naat, a prayer to Prophet Mohammed, as Raju Bharatan explains, quoting the composer himself, in Naushadnama: The Life and Music of Naushad. Come to my aid now, the forlorn Anarkali pleads, save this sinking ship. Singer Lata Mangeshar excels in both songs, “setting the mood”, as the composer termed it. One, a brisk protest, another, a more delicate supplication.
The second category includes songs of patriotism, usually in the context of the freedom movement. Among those, Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna is distinctive – written as a rallying cry by Bismil Azimabadi and popularised by freedom fighter Ramprasad Bismil, it was first used in Shaheed (1965), scored by Prem Dhawan and performed by Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey and Rajendra Mehta.
In The Legend of Bhagat Singh, a flute and santoor accompany the opening stanzas as Bhagat Singh, played by Ajay Devgn, attempts to revive the spirits of his cellmates. As the men are re-energised, the tempo picks up with a tabla joining the orchestra. Sonu Nigam and Hariharan come together for this fine number scored by AR Rahman.
Finally, there are those resigned to their fate or striving for redemption. One of the best-known examples of rehabilitation is Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum from Do Aankhe Baarah Haath, a film about six hardened convicts and a prison warden who attempts to reform them through hard manual labour at a farm.
The most poignant prison song is possibly from Bandini, sung by Asha Bhosle, scored by SD Burman and written by Shailendra. A woman convict in a prison yard works at a grindstone and sings the traditional song of young bride who is now far away from her parents’ home.
The imagery of home is evocative – the woman sings of “mango trees, with swings under them, the gentle rain” and nostalgia for a childhood, toys, dolls and all, that is now lost forever.
Refreshingly, we now also have a fourth category reflecting the egregious conditions of prisons in the country, and the shocking, recurring cases of miscarriage of justice, that don’t always stir the national conscience.
In Qaidi Band, seven young undertrials form a music band in an attempt to score some points with the authorities, possibly get justice and an acquittal. Their music videos go viral – of these I Am India makes stock references to the taste, sights and sounds of India, presumably appealing to young Indians’ patriotic spirit. The more nuanced and believable number is Hulchul, an edgy, hard-strumming score by Amit Trivedi, about dreams that boil and churn, and about waiting to escape. That sounds more like the India we know.