Movie Soundtracks

Soundtrack review: ‘Rangoon’ is an eclectic and often dazzling mix of old and new musical styles

Composer Vishal Bhardwaj and lyricist Gulzar experiment with sound as well as language for the February 24 release.

Vishal Bhardwaj’s dual role as music composer and director can sometimes be his undoing. In the February 24 release Rangoon, Bhardwaj’s tunes carry the familiar signature of his style, but with ample help from Gulzar’s quirky lyrics, the filmmaker is able to reinvent even jaded harmony as a refreshing melody.

Rangoon is a period romance in which Kangana Ranaut plays a glamourous 1940s movie star named Julia. Set during World War II, Rangoon is a love triangle featuring Saif Ali Khan in the role of her studio boss and Shahid Kapoor as a guard accompanying her on an Indo-Burma border trip.

The soundtrack kickstarts to the jaunty rhythm of Bloody Hell, which contains the bewildering idea “Ishq kiya angrezi mein” (We loved in English). How does one love in the English language and sing about it in Hindi?

Be that as it may: lyricist Gulzar’s masterly word play in Bloody Hell is a fun-filled romp belted out with panache by Sunidhi Chauhan. Bhardwaj keeps the composition frothy. Between the sounds of the whip lash and the horns, it’s the chorus “bloody hell” that gives the number its je ne sais quoi quality.

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Bloody Hell.

The word “ishq” is the mainstay in the soulful track Yeh Ishq Hai. It is sung by Arijit Singh, who enunciates each word like a canticle reaching for the heavens. The melody is reminiscent of AR Rahman’s slow-burn love ballad Dil Se Re (Dil Se, 1998), also written by Gulzar. Singh’s soaring voice is backed by a gorgeous interplay of guitars and flute. Singer Rekha Bhardwaj renders another version of the track in a qawwali style interspersed with harmonium, tabla, flute, dholak and chorus refrains but it doesn’t quite add up.

In the other Arijit Singh solo, Alvida, a haunting saxophone interlude trails his vocals like a shadow. The track spirals into grunge and turns towards a melodic finish. Alvida is a hallmark of Bhardwaj’s intense musical tropes, such as Jhelum in Haider (2014), Bekaraan in 7 Khoon Maaf (2011) and the title track of Kaminey (2009). These tunes begin as placid elegies that gradually rise into a cathartic crescendo, expressing a lead character’s psychological state of mind.

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Mere Miyan Gaye England.

The droll humour of Mere Miyan Gaye England takes its cue from Mere Piya Gaye Rangoon (Patanga, 1949) and includes the names of Adolf Hitler and Winston Churchill. Rekha Bhardwaj sings a hilarious tribute to her soldier husband who has been catapulted like a loose cannon from the Eiffel Tower in Paris to a bus stand in an Indian village. The opening bars of the track have been sped up from the prelude of Rahoo Rahoo, a pop song Rekha Bhardwaj sang in the non-film album Ishqa Ishqa in 2004. Rahoo Rahoo was written by Gulzar and composed by Vishal Bhardwaj.

In Ek Dooni Do, Rekha Bhardwaj is surrounded with the chorus strains of Spanish phrases such as “baila baila” (dance dance) and “arriba arriba” (above). Chori Chori is a flirty number with coquettish lines such as “Moongphali ke daane aise phenka na karo” (Don’t chuck peanuts at me), evoking a period in Hindi film music when a paper cone filled with peanuts could trigger a romantic tug of war. Chori Chori has the vibe of an OP Nayyar melody and it gives Bhardwaj a chance to modulate her voice like the playback singers of the 1940s.

Tippa is a narrative song, borrowing elements of rhythm and lyrics from a ditty Bhardwaj and Gulzar created in the mid-nineties for the Hindi dubbed version of the Japanese animated television series Alice in Wonderland. Incorporating ambient sounds of water drops and chugging train wheels, singers Sunidhi Chauhan, Rekha Bhardwaj, Sukhwinder Singh and O S Arun turn the melody into a storytelling session, interjected by dramatic orchestration.

Julia is a balladeer’s tribute to its super-heroine, and in this case, it takes more than one: Sukhwinder Singh, KK, Kunal Ganjawala and composer Bhardwaj croon in sync. The composition jumps through styles, from vaudeville and dirge to even a dated trashy tune from the 90s where heroics were compared to a “zalzala” (earthquake) and “bijli” (lightning).

The two English tracks Be Still, sung by Dominique Cerejo, and Shimmy Shake, sung by Vivienne Pocha, are written by actress Lekha Washington. Be Still is a languid jazz number, in contrast to Shimmy Shake’s boisterous rhythm. The sharp sound of a viola is followed by a full-blown orchestra in the instrumental track Rangoon Theme, giving the score the epic scale of a Chinese opera that it deserves.

The 12 songs of Rangoon bear Bhardwaj’s indelible stamp, but are they authentic to the film’s period setting? Bhardwaj experiments with several musical styles that are often showy and eclipse the genres they encompass. Lyricist Gulzar gets a free hand with his verse. He conjures up an array of images through his words that are equally dazzling and overwhelming at times. The soundtrack requires repeat listening to catch up with the composer-lyricist duo who stridently march to their own beats.

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Rangoon jukebox.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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