Kamal Amrohi wrote scripts and dialogue for Hindi films long before he became a director. He made his debut by writing the story for Jailor (1938), and continued in that vein through the 1940s. It was in 1949 that he turned director with Mahal, of Aayega Aanewala fame. Mahal featured two themes that found favour in many movies over the decades: horror and reincarnation.

In a career span of 45 years, Amrohi made just four movies. After Mahal came Daera (1953). The gap between Daera and his next movie, Pakeezah, was long by any yardstick: 19 years. His last movie, Razia Sultan, came 11 years after Pakeezah.

Many people in the film industry put these long gaps down to Amrohi’s pursuit of perfection. He was a dreamer who conjured up fantastic stories and scenarios. And having done that, he would give his all to ensure that they came alive on screen. Mahal, Pakeezah and Razia Sultan were outcomes of this quirk in his personality. Even his critics, who pointed out glaring flaws in his work, admitted that he was driven by a powerful cinematic vision.

Produced by AK Misra, Razia Sultan hit cinema screens in 1983. But work on the film had begun eight years earlier. Amrohi wanted Khayyam to work on this film. Apparently, he had been smitten by the composer’s work in Shagoon (1964), especially the song Parbaton Ke Pedon Par. But Khayyam was busy with Kabhi Kabhie those days, and had to decline Amrohi’s request.

The director then turned to Laxmikant-Pyarelal. The composer duo started work in right earnest and composed a few tunes. The story goes that Amrohi found one of these tunes too fast for a specific situation; he wanted a mellower one. Laxmikant-Pyarelal asked him to come to their office to discuss the matter and made him cool his heels for a long time. A furious Amrohi walked out and went straight back to Khayyam. This time, the veteran composer could not ward off the director’s insistence.

Razia Sultan (1983).

Over the next few years, work on the film progressed patchily. Amrohi left no stone unturned in his quest for the “right” sets, the “right” costumes and so on. Everything had to be just so. In fact, he went as far as Hollywood to get an expert to work on the special effects for this period drama. All this inevitably lead to delays and pushed up the production cost. The film inched along.

Meanwhile, Khayyam was fashioning a magnum opus of his own. Along with his assistants Jagjit Kaur and Raj Sharma, he dived into the depths of history. The fastidious composer recalled in an interview that they studied everything about the 13th century Turkish rulers who founded the Mamluk dynasty to which Razia Sultan belonged. “We studied even the route taken by those rulers when they first came to India,” he said in that interview.

Layering their fertile creativity upon this research, Khayyam and team came up with eight wonderful songs that reflect the ethos of that era. Drawing from Rajasthani, Persian and Hindustani classical music, they created a soundscape that straddles the deserts of Rajasthan and the courts of Delhi equally well. In fact, the richly textured music is the only reason we remember this film.

Jalta Ha Badan, Razia Sultan (1983).

The songs of Razia Sultan were to be written by Jan Nisar Akhtar, Kaifi Azmi, Kaif Bhopali and Maya Govind. Akhtar passed away mid-way, leaving two of his songs unwritten. Nida Fazli stepped in to complete the work.

Deciding to pick Lata Mangeshkar as the voice of Sultan (played by Hema Malini) was easy. Khayyam roped in several other talented singers, too. Mahendra Kapoor, Bhupinder, Jagjit Kaur, Parveen Sultana and Sulakshana Pandit were duly signed up. And Ustad Fayyaz Ahmed, his brother Ustad Niyaz Ahmed and his disciple Ustad Dilshad Khan — eminent vocalists from the Kirana gharana — were brought in to sing a Hindustani classical piece.

But the screenplay also included two songs sung by Sultan’s slave-lover Yaqut (Dharmendra). And it was here that Amrohi and Khayyam ran into a wall. They did not want to use one of the regular playback singers for a simple reason: they were not looking for a regular voice. They wanted a voice that was rough-cut and untrained, typifying the manner in which slaves of that time would have spoken and sung. In fact, a hint of the guttural would not be out of place, they thought.

But weeks of searching led them nowhere. Despite auditioning several singers, the slave’s voice remained elusive.

And then, one day, someone in the team suggested the name of a noha khawan: a person who sings elegies for Imam Hussain during Muharram. This person worked as a broadcaster at All India Radio, anchoring programmes such as Chaaya Geet and Sangeet Sarita. Since they were clutching at straws by now, Khayyam and Amrohi decided to give it a shot.

The man was promptly met with. After much cajoling, he agreed to sing a trial song for them. A couple of minutes into the song, it was astonishingly clear to the composer and the director that they had found their man. Amrohi, in particular, is said to have practically lost his head at this sudden, joyous discovery. And that is how the little-known Kabban Mirza became the voice of Yakut.

Aayee Zanjeer Ki Jhankar, Razia Sultan (1983).

Over the next two months, Khayyam and Jagjit Kaur put Mirza through his paces. They enlisted the help of Fayyaz Ahmed to ensure that Mirza got the tune, diction and tone right. It took them several rehearsals to achieve the desired effect.

Most of the music sittings and rehearsals were held at Amrohi’s Kamalistan studio, while the songs were recorded at Bombay Labs. The venerable BN Sharma presided over the recording console. Mangeshkar, as was her wont, was quick on the uptake. Her approach, Khayyam’s assistant Raj Sharma told me recently, was to listen to Khayyam keenly and make notes as he sang a song and explained the nuances of the tune. She’d then rehearse it several times, accompanied by just the song violin. And then, she’d ask for a rehearsal with the full orchestra. One or two such rehearsals, and she’d be ready for the take.

In stark contrast, Mirza was virtually trembling with performance anxiety. On the day of his recording, he kept asking Raj Sharma and others to pray that his songs came out well. Sharma told him to imagine that he was singing in his studio at All India Radio, with nobody watching. This seemed to put Mirza at ease. When both his songs were finally approved, he was speechless with relief and joy.

Tera Hijr Mera Naseeb Hai, Razia Sultan (1983).

In Razia Sultan’s soundtrack, we hear a multitude of instruments played by stalwart musicians, many of whom were Khayyam regulars. The Irani santoor (played by Shiv Kumar Sharma), flute (Hariprasad Chaurasia), sarangi (Sultan Khan and Iqbal Khan), mandolin (Kishore Desai), bazuka (Desai again), sarod (Zarine Daruwala), sitar (Ashok Sharma), Indian harp aka swarmandal, violin, rabab, maadal, duggi tarang, pedal matka (Vijay Indulkar), tabla and dholak (both played by Raj Sharma) come together to create a tapestry of sounds. Anil Mohile was the music arranger.

The most famous improvisation in the soundtrack is the introduction of pregnant pauses in Aye Dil-E-Nadaan to evoke the silence of the desert. Khayyam uses the sharp, flat sound of the pedal matka to telling effect in this song.

Aye Dil-E-Nadaan, Razia Sultan (1983).

While Aye Dil-E-Naadan is what many people recall from this film, the other numbers are equally impressive. There is the delectable Jalta Hai Badan with its sensuous lilt, the soft and dreamy Khwaab Bankar Koi Ayega with its sexually charged lyrics, and Haryala Banna Aaya Re that seamlessly glides into the robust Ae Khuda Shukr Tera. The joyous classical notes of Shubh Ghadi Aayee Re mark the momentous occasion of Sultan’s accession to the throne.

And then, there are Aayee Zanjeer Ki Jhankar and Tera Hijr Mera Naseeb Hai – the two songs sung by Kabban Mirza. Close your eyes and listen to his voice come to you, as if from the depths of a canyon and across great swathes of time, bringing with it gusts of love, longing and desolation. And all the while, the music softly swirls around you. Amrohi and Khayyam had gone looking for the perfect voice for Yakut. And by Jove, they found it!

Razia Sultan was panned by the public and critics alike. But 37 years later, its songs haven’t lost their lustre one bit. This was Amrohi’s last film. For Khayyam, it was a high point in his career. But finding the trends in Hindi cinema unpalatable, he reduced his workload drastically after this film.

Kabban Mirza.

As for Kabban Mirza, he went back to the studios of All India Radio, from where his unclassifiable voice continued to boom through millions of homes across India. He forms an extraordinary chapter in the annals of Hindi film music; a freak voice that will forever cock a snook at Hindi cinema’s homogenised idea of the male playback voice. I can never think of Razia Sultan without thinking of Mirza.

While writing this story, I found that Kabban Mirza sang a number in the film Captain Azaad (1964). Aaj Unke Pay-E-Naaz Pe, written by Mohsin Nawab and composed by Peter Nawab, is a rousing qawwali in which Mirza feelingly serenades a woman. Sadly, the film and its music were consigned to obscurity long ago, though this particular song is available on YouTube.

Aaj Unke Pay-E-Naaz Pe, Captain Azaad (1964).

Kabban Mirza never sang for another film after Razia Sultan, though there are reports that BR Chopra offered him a chance in Nikaah. In a cruel twist of fate, he contracted throat cancer a few years ago and lost his voice. It is suspected that he has passed away. If true, I wonder if there was anyone to sing an elegy for this noha khawan.

A rare audio recording by Kabban Mirza.

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