Trivial Pursuit Movies

The DNA of a song

Inspirations are plenty in Bollywood music. A still from the song ‘Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua’ in ‘Shree 420’.

Inspirations are plenty in Bollywood music. A still from the song ‘Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua’ in ‘Shree 420’.  

For all those times when a Hindi film song sounds like you’ve heard it before

Ever heard the Lata Mangeshkar-Manna Dey song ‘Masti Bhara Hai Sama’ from Parvarish (1958) and felt something about it similar to another of the duo’s iconic songs ‘Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua’ from Shree 420 (1955)?

Or ever happened to hear the Asha Bhosle song ‘Do Pal Ki Hai Yeh Zindagani’ from the lesser known film Chala Murari Hero Banne (1977) and been reminded of her famous ‘Yeh Hai Reshmi Zulfon Ka Andhera’ from Mere Sanam (1965)?

Have you ever wondered just what it is about a song that reminds you of another—the style, the “feel”, or a certain “something” that you can’t put your finger on?

Shared legacy

If you have, then you must meet the men behind the Mumbai-based music club Rewind, whose aim is to share and demystify the vast legacy of Hindi film music through a series of engaging interactive sessions and workshops.

At a recent event in a quaint, tiny art space, Pitaara–the Art Box, in Mumbai’s western suburb of Goregaon, they opened one such pitaara of influences in Hindi film music, particularly focussing on the works of composers Shankar-Jaikishen, O.P. Nayyar and R.D. Burman.

By looking closely at their work—the compositional style, structure and pattern—you can clearly map out their influence on other composers.

The session then answered not only the questions I asked above but also the more important ones that are pertinent to every music composer: What does one talk about when one talks about the sound of a composer? Or, what makes a composer—not the composition—original?

Every generation has a music composer who defines it. “Shankar-Jaikishan was a dominant sound in the 50s and 60s,” says K.V. Ramesh of Rewind.

They liked long preludes in their compositions; raag bhairavi was their favourite—they had songs of various genres and moods based on just this one raag; most of their songs had a prominent accordion and a particular dholak-based rhythm, played by their assistant Dattaram, which went on to be known in the music industry as Dattu theka.

Dattaram, too, went on to become a music director, and it is this theka (rhythm) which takes you back to the Shankar-Jaikishan Shree 420 song when you listen to the Parvarish song which was composed by Dattaram himself. Similarly, the Nayyar sound was made of a prominent use of double bass and clarinet, strong Punjabi folk influence, and a 2/4 beat pattern, which, as Ramesh says, has been “uncharitably” regarded as the sound of ghoda-gadi (horse cart).

Nayyar established his Punjabi-influenced sound early in his career, which is why even a Roshan song from Vallah Kya Baat Hai (1962)—‘Khanke Toh Khanke Kyun Khanke’—which came two years before ‘Haaye Re Haaye, Ye Mere Haath Mein Tera Haath’ (Kashmir Ki Kali), of which it is strongly reminiscent, is regarded as Nayyar-ish.

The Rewind team won’t just tell you that a song is great—they will tell you why it is great. They want the listeners to enjoy music in a more informed way. Between them, they know almost every song ever composed in the Hindi film industry and, perhaps, beyond—and they know it beat by beat.

Musical helix

They are a team of five: Ramesh, Shankar Iyer, R. Balaji, Archie and Subbu Iyer, working across industries, from banking to telecommunications. It is through this academic reasoning of songs that they claim to “understand the DNA” of a song and call influences on the song “cloning” rather than copying or inspiration or whatever. The disclaimer is clear: they don’t mean to disrespect any composers or their work.

At a recent gathering, musician Anand Srivastava of the Anand-Milind duo and the sons of yesteryear composer Chitragupt shared some insights when asked about the reason for such “cloning”. Srivastava reiterated what we had well assumed: that it’s mostly upon the insistence of the director or producer that “cloning” happens. “But it’s us, the music directors, who have to bear the brunt of it,” he continued, “When we got our debut in Ab Aayega Mazaa (1984), we were asked to make music like Laxmikant-Pyarelal.” I asked him about the distinct influence of A.R. Rahman in one of their songs from Suhaag (1994), ‘Tere Liye Jaanam’, to which he could only say: “That was horrible. I stopped working with that director.”

Continuing the musical discussion, we heard a song called ‘Aag Me Jale Jawani’ (Umar Qaid, 1975) which had brass elements, saxophone, bossa nova beats, electronic sound: a remarkable example of Kersi Lord’s magnificent film music arrangement. Also, an example of almost everything that defined the music of R.D. Burman. Except the song wasn’t R.D.’s—it was by the duo Sonik-Omi. You have to hear it to (dis)believe it.

The author is an urban cogwheel who finds solace in writing about films and music.

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Printable version | May 21, 2020 5:50:56 AM |

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