Bollywood - Lost & Found Movies

Bollywood’s charm of street singing

Street smart ‘Awara hoon...’, the original road song of Indian cinema

Street smart ‘Awara hoon...’, the original road song of Indian cinema  

Taking a walk down memory lane about the road songs of Raj Kapoor, whose 30th death anniversary was on June 2

Street singing in India was, and remains, a necessity more than an art. On most occasions, it has been linked to mendicants in search of their daily roti. However, itinerant performers have been known to showcase their art on the streets across the country, again, expecting remuneration in return. This art has survived for centuries, carried on from generation to generation. Labelling it as a unique art form is perhaps pre-emptive, as the genre has had major variations based on locale. Even within the boundaries of the same state, the dialect has changed, and so has the form. Devoid of any philosophical pretensions, their expressions are straight from the heart. As they are from the need for survival, the performers do not strive for aesthetics.

They want to be heard. In some instances, these itinerant performances have morphed into folk drama. Filmmakers in India have, on more occasions than one, felt the need to lionise the profession. The first song used in Alam Ara (1931), the first feature film in the country, had W M Khan begging for alms, singing in his robust voice the lines De de khuda ke naam o bande. Ace composer S D Burman, in his only film role in Madhu Boses’s Sadhana (1935), had to play a mendicant singing a song. One of the most famous films of the 1930s was named, rather directly, Street Singer. Featuring K L Saigal in the titular role singing the eternal classic, Babul mora naihar chuto jaye. Its iconic status is intact even after 80 years.

Suffice it to say, street singing is one of the few original contributions of filmmakers in Hindi cinema. Till the late 1940s, the connotation of street singing in Hindi films was unidimensional. Society prided itself on mourning, and the conservative shell was held on to firmly. Street songs talked of pain and sorrow. Happiness was something to be enjoyed internally. External ramifications to the same were a strict no no. Stranded in between poverty and grief, street songs were cinema’s way of expressing angst. A lovable thief changed the norm.

Raj Kapoor, as the ‘awara’, hopping on the barren streets of Bombay, putting to use his skills as a pickpocket, puts across his point of view in very clear terms. He sermonises the very fact that he is an ‘awara’ — a vagabond whose life depends on survival techniques, which are not very honest. Dismissing any lingering reluctance which may arise from the very fact that his happiness is mostly at the cost of other people’s happiness. Awara hoon was the original happy road song of Indian cinema. Interestingly, the lyrics by Shailendra were not about joy. They were more on the lines of self-pity. Nobody in today’s cinema would like to portray himself in the manner Raj Kapoor did. It was to the credit of Raj that he carried it off with a cavalier smile. He did not drown himself in self-pity. At the same time, he pointed out, rather deliberately, that it was the failing of society that created an Awara. This became the central theme of the film, and probably to drive it home, the subtly of lyrics gave way to rather loud, theatrical demonstrations of defeatism in the climatic courtroom scene.


While Awara hoon, with the famous harmonium obligato – played by V Balsara in the manner of a piano accordion – remains the song which introduced the happy tramp, it was Shree 420 (1955) which gave road songs its place in the winter sun. Any discussion of Shree 420 always starts with Mera joota hai Japani. In spite of the fact that Raj’s shoes were brazenly Indian – there was nothing Japanese about the pair – the subtext was more about a romantic illusion. The travel to Bombay was 420 miles, and it did not matter whether the leather underneath was from Japan or India. It was the pain which the tramp would swallow with a smile. The song was made in India. Its impact global.

Not known to many was a fact that Manna Dey, who later, rather unkindly in a radio show, termed Mera joota ha Japani as a ‘Chorakata gaan’ (nursery rhyme), had wanted to sing the song. Raj, after the remarkable success with Mukesh in Awara hoon, was reluctant to break the lucky partnership. Consequently, he did not deprive Manna either. Dil ka haal sune dil wala was arguably the best road song in Hindi cinema for a long time, if not the best ever. The acceptance of a tramp by the inmates of a chawl in the underbelly of Bombay, leading to the sad memories melting into joyous moments frozen in time, was portrayed by a song as gleeful, as it was symbolic of an extended family. Almost like a commune, albeit, a much happier one.


And definitely one where the members were free to express themselves in no uncertain times, unlike Soviet Russia, where the song was lapped up wholesomely by the loyalist or the detractors. The same commune spun a song, Ramaiya vasta vaiya,became the backdrop of Raj Kapoor’s homecoming. In one of the most poignant moments of romanticism was the sequence where the girl, Nargis, waits for the boy who she believes she has lost to the razzmatazz of opulence.

Dip in the image

The romanticism with poverty and accepting it as part of our own gradually became grossly unrealistic. Raj’s simple ways, and simpler road songs became preachy in Jis desh mein Ganga rehati hai (1960). The dip was not in musical excellence; the problem was in the image getting the better of the actor. The tramp, from being a tragic-comic entity, had become forcibly and unbelievably stupid. In as much, the only character who came out strongly in the film, despite the negative colouring, was Pran.

During a celebration of the film in Calcutta, veteran actor Pahari Sanyal had walked up to the thespian, commending him on his spectacular performance as Raka. Even as he was led to the world outside his comfort zone by Raj and Padmini lipping the real number – Aa aab laut chale. This film marked the end of Raj’s own tryst with tramp and impromptu road songs. A question intrigues us from time to time. How did road songs become Raj’s second nature in films which he directed /produced ? One might speculate that his friend Jaikishan might have been an influence. Jai, the music composer closest to his heart, was also part of a group which used to perform in villages. In Gujarat. Much before the time he was ‘the Jaikishan’ of Shankar Jaikishan.

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Printable version | Mar 30, 2020 4:34:02 PM |

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