Hindustani films` first superstar and the Lucknow school of Urdu poetry

Literature has a close relationship with films, specially Hindustani films, and it would not be wrong to say that the two are intricately intertwined. For what are films but a story leaping from the printed page (or in these days, a device screen) to be acted out on the big screen with the same norms of narrative, plot, characters and character development, dialogue and, yes, lyrics of course.

Indian films, not only the Bollywood variety but those spanning all over the country, feature a lot of lyrics in the form of songs liberally interspersed in the narrative for which they have been fortunate enough to draw on the rich literary heritage of the country, especially Urdu poetry.

The forerunner of this was a legendary singer or rather the first singing superstar of Bollywood films - an exclusive group of which there have been only three so far. This was K.L. Saigal, who with his mellifluous and sonorous but intensely moving voice, laid the foundations of the still-extant relationship of the Urdu ghazal and Hindi films. In this, he was aided immensely by the flagbearers of the Lucknow school of Urdu poetry.

Saigal`s rendition of Ghalib`s ‘Nukta cheen hai’ was the first performance of this splendid poetic form in the popular sphere and his example was the genesis for a veritable spawn of emulators but it is some of his most marvellous music that bears the imprint of the Lakhnavi school, a byword for the most exquisite expression of culture.

Take the most famous example - one of the songs which is inalienably associated with his name.

Saigal turned conventional wisdom on its head by insisting that he would sing ‘Baabul mora, Naihar chhuto hi jaaye....’ from the film ‘Street Singer’ "live" to express perfectly the persona of the character rather than in the recording studio. The studio heads had no choice but to agree and Saigal, sporting a harmonium, walked like a wandering ministrel - though on a studio set only - as he sang, while the sound crew followed on a truck behind, being carefully kept out of the camera frame.

The song is usually credited to Syed Anwar Hussain alias Manjhu Sahab ‘Arzu Lakhnavi’ but is actually the work of Nawab Wajid Ali Shah ‘Akhtar’, the last nawab of Awadh and a most accomplished poet to boot - which would have been fitting for the ruler of a populace where a majority of the people were connoissieurs of poetry, if not poets themselves.

However, Arzu Lakhnavi also contributed a lot of lyrics Saigal made famous in his inimitable voice. These include the famous ‘Karun kya aas niraas bhayi’ from ‘Dushman’ (1939), a heart-breaking expression of pathos but resolve too.

"...Deni hogi har qurbaani/Himmat hai to itna samajh le, aas bandhegi nai/Karun kya aas niraas..."

Arzu made another contribution to ‘Street Singer’ (1938), a lyric totally apt for the character, and displays the virtuosity of the Lakhnavi writer in crafting whatever is needed for the moment with the right idioms and analogies to fit the occasion or the mood ... in this case, a minstrel who can be expected to use musical terms only even when speaking about himself or his moods...

"Jeevan been madhur na baaje jhoothe padh gaye taar/Bigde kaath se kaam bane kya megh baje na malhaar/Pancham chhedo madhyam bole kharaj bane gandhaar/Been ke jhoothe padh gaye taar/Jeevan been madhur na baaje...."

Note the use of simple Hindustani and even Hindi words and phrases in the composition, but Arzu - one of the most highly regarded Urdu poets during the first few decades of the 20th century - was certain to return to his roots as in this lovely ghazal for ‘Street Singer’, which begins ‘Sukoon dil ko mayassar gul-o-samar mein nahi/Jo aashiyaan mein hai apne vah bagh bhar men nahi’.

Arzu, who was then employed with Kolkata`s New Theatre as a lyricist, was not the only one of the Lucknow school to be associated with Saigal.

When the superstar moved to Bombay in the early 1940s for greener pastures, there was a duo that crafted some of his memorable and iconic songs - music director (and a good poet himself) Naushad Ali, and the lyricist, Asrar ul Hassan Khan "Majrooh Sultanpuri" - whose careers lasted till at least the end of the century.

The duo were behind the the haunting melody ‘Gham diye mustaqil, kitna naazuk hai dil, ye na jaana/Haay haay ye zaalim zamaana’ from ‘Shahjehan’ (1946), not to mention ‘Jab dil hi toot gaya/Ham ji ke kya karenge’, another song whose mere mention is enough to evoke Saigal.

But Naushad and Majrooh were not the only ones in this film. ‘Ae dil-e-beqarar jhoom, Ae dil-e-beqarar jhoom/Abr-e-bahar aa gaya, door-e-khiza chala gaya...’ was the contribution of Khumar Barabankvi from the same school. Then there is a more happier song, which goes... ‘Mere sapnon ki raani...ruhi ruhi ruhi...Mere sapnon ki raani.....’, which is also significant in that two lines were sung by a young singer, who was soon to make his own mark on Hindi films... Mohammad Rafi.

This was an exception. It was Majrooh who provided the other lyrics which aptly picture the state of mind of a monarch who is bowed down by grief: ‘Chaah barbaad karegi hamen maaloom na tha/Rote rote hi kategi hamen maaloom na tha/Maut bhi ham pe hansegi hamen maaloom na tha/Zindagi rog banegi hamen maaloom na tha...’

But it is ‘Jab dil hi toot gaya...’ that is identified with Saigal.

By the time Saigal recorded this song, he had become addicted to producing his best effort when strongly inebriated. Naushad pleaded with him to sing this when sober, and Saigal said he would sing it both ways and then decide which version was better. So it was done. When both the versions were played to him, Saigal picked one and was amazed to be told that it was the "sober" one. ‘Kaash tum meri zindagi mein pehle aaye hote’, Naushad recalled the ailing singer had told him.

Saigal was so taken with the song that he specifically wanted it to be played during his funeral procession, which alas took place in January of the following year. According to his family, his last words were also, ‘Ham ji ke kya karenge, Jab dil hi toot gaya’.

What more could have tied Saigal to the Lakhnavi Urdu tradition?


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