How Asha Bhosle arrived on the ghazal scene with ‘Umrao Jaan’

The 1982 movie tanked, but Khayyam’s tunes, Shahrayar’s lyrics and Bhosle’s voice have endured, thanks in no small part due to a cable TV-aided revival.

Neither as a gamechanger for Asha nor as a ‘damechanger’ for Rekha did Muzaffar Ali’s Umrao Jaan materialize in the summer of 1982. As the Begum Lucknowi did the ravishing Rekha unveil as Umrao Jaan. Yet the film itself sank like a precious stone for all the accolades showered upon Asha articulating Rekha as ‘poetry in motion’. Muzaffar Ali had turned the theme into a near-picture postcard; yet Umrao Jaan remains a film that has passed into TV folklore. This given the Rekha–Asha glamour clamour accompanying its TV resurgence, as a cult film, some 30 years after it first came to public view by mid-May 1982.

On your ghazalips, to this day, are those four Asha mindsweepers: Dil cheez kyaa hai aap meri jaan lijiye; In aankhon ki masti ke mastaane hazaaron hai; Justju jis ki thhi usko toh na paaya hum ne; plus Yeh kyaa jageh hai doston yeh kaunsa dayaar hai.

Maybe your sensibilities readily awaken only to those four oft-aired Umrao Jaan ghazals. It means that you just do not know what you are Asha-missing in Jab bhi milti hai mujhe ajnabi lagti kyun hai. How gut wrenchingly does this one merge with Yeh kyaa jageh hai doston in the soul-searing climax of the film.

‘Yeh Kya Jagaeh Hai Doston’ from ‘Umrao Jaan’ (1982).

As Umrao Jaan unwound before being National awarded by end-April 1982, you awakened belatedly to something. To the fact that, for close to 35 years – following the Partition of India in August 1947 – had the ghazal continued to remain prominent on the Hindustani screen. Predominant it became as the Lata–Madan Mohan team made the ghazal its signature tune. Madan Mohan had revealed his ‘GhazaLata’ lineage with Ada (end-November 1951) and Madhosh (mid-December 1951). Reinforcing it with Adalat (mid-November 1958); Anpadh (late July 1962) and Ghazal (early December 1964). There were other auteur composers crafting matching ghazals long before the Partition of India. Still the Lata–Madan Mohan ghazal pedigree, irresistibly, found a very special niche in our hearts.

Through 34 years (since her Hindustani cinema debut by 1947), Asha Bhosle had been nowhere on the ghazal scene. Nowhere until Rekha happened as Umrao Jaan. But even this Asha ghazal glory proved short lived as Umrao Jaan just came and went. In fact, those four select Umrao Jaan ghazals looked to be all but lost to the public ear. The Commercial Services of Radio Sri Lanka had shed their programming zeal by the relevant hour in 1982. When that happened, Doordarshan was still to switch to colour! Here is where Asha had the luck of the ‘devil-may-care’. The satellite television revolution in India, touching cinemusic programming by 2011, helped resurrect Umrao Jaan. So much so that Umrao Jaan became a ‘perennial’ for viewing on the little screen. Cable TV it thus was that brought Asha ‘ghazalive’ into our viewing room via Rekha. To a newer generation having voted in a general election for the first time towards April-May 2009, the ghazal sounded so much younger and fresher in Asha’s vigorous charge.

Thus – purely TV serendipitously – composer Khayyam (via Umrao Jaan) Asha-demonstrated something significant. This was the phenom of the screen ghazal travelling beyond Lata Mangeshkar and Madan Mohan. On Rekha as Umrao Jaan, in the vocal custody of Asha Bhosle, the screen ghazal, on TV, acquired a different form and norm altogether. The feat that poet Shahrayar (born as Akhlaq Mohammad Khan) and composer Khayyam thus accomplished, in Umrao Jaan, struck viewers as notable. It gave Asha a totally different ghazal persona on Rekha as Umrao Jaan ‘Ada’.

There simply were no takers for Rekha as Umrao Jaan then. Nor for an Asha so vividly vocalizing Rekha as Umrao Jaan. Not even for a Khayyam resisting the temptation to ‘Madan Mohanize’ the theme. Nor for a Shahrayar in his Lucknowi poetic element. Least of all for the film’s maker-director, Muzaffar Ali, given his nawabi tenor of storytelling. To put it succinctly, Umrao Jaan lived up to the good old Hollywood adage: ‘The show was a success but the audience flopped!’

Blame is the name of the game in the tawdry ‘Max-Factory’ that is the Bombay film industry. Yes, it did transpire that Asha Bhosle felt momentarily unhappy with Khayyam. Unhappy with him for his having ‘persuaded’ her to lower her voice by one-and-a-half notes. This – Asha surmised – is what had led to the Umrao Jaan ghazal debacle. The trade roasted Khayyam for never ever having been in tune with public taste. Much like it had pilloried Madan Mohan – during mid-September 1964 – for the ‘Talatized’ ghazalizing of Jahanara leading to the show falling to pieces. Believe it or not, Shahrayar’s poetry in Umrao Jaan was reviled as fit only for the mushaira. Muzaffar Ali’s line of treatment was slammed for the film – as a spectacle – having assumed a near glacial look. Worst of all, Rekha was dismissed as good enough to attract attention only if viewed in prurient harness with Amitabh Bachchan.

Come 1982, what did Khayyam do in Umrao Jaan – when Asha was already 35 years into singing? Did he not merely work on her ‘very strong and smooth low register’, her ‘very long breath’, her bass voice – as pinpointed by OP [Nayyar]? What therefore is this Khayyam taradiddle about his having been the first to lower Asha by one-and-half notes? What is it if not an unstated tribute to OP’s original projection of Asha in the low register? Full Umrao Jaan marks to Khayyam for instantly recognizing where Asha’s vocal vitality even now lay. His lower-octave determination made sure that Asha would sound – to the amateur ear at least – Lata’s ghazal equal in Umrao Jaan.

Muzaffar Ali had first entrusted the film’s musical score to Jaidev. Shahrayar’s lyrics for the film stood already tuned into ghazals of a rare grade by that composer’s composer. Muzaffar Ali was very happy with Jaidev for the way those ghazals had worked out. Jaidev was only waiting for Lata to turn up for the song rehearsals to begin. A petty monetary dispute intervened for Lata to end up saying ‘sorry!’ to Jaidev. Whereupon Jaidev, too, finished up with a firm no to Muzaffar Ali. That is how Khayyam came into the picture alongside Asha. The rest is ‘ghazalese’.

Excerpted with permission from Asha Bhosle A Musical Biography by Raju Bharatan, Hay House.

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