Kismet (1943) is considered one of the foundational films of Hindi cinema, and rightly so. It establishes many of the tropes that we have come to associate with classic Bollywood, notably the lost-and-found theme (replete with lockets and tattoos), and the climactic song where everyone congregates, bad disguises and all.
Gyan Mukherjee’s film features Ashok Kumar as a petty criminal named Shekhar who undergoes a transformation when he encounters Rani (Mumtaz Shanti), a stage performer with a heart of goldbut (hairi kismet!) a bad leg.
Kismet was a humungous blockbuster (the biggest till Sholay came along a full three decades later) and did wonders for the careers of all those who were associated with it. Including, of course, the composer Anil Biswas, whose melodious songs contributed in a major way to the film’s success.
The year is 1943. The effects of the Quit India Movement can still be felt. A brutal war rages on across various fronts. Indian soldiers are dying by the hundreds in alien lands, fighting for a cause not their own. Closer home, the Japanese have taken control of Burma and are intent on advancing further west.
It is against this backdrop that we have the opening track, the rabble-rousing Door Hato Ae Duniyawalon, Hindustan Hamara Hai, sung onstage by a theatre group led by Rani.
“Shuru hua hai jung tumhara
Jaag utho Hindustani
Tum na kisike aage jhukna
German ho ya Japani.”
The “German ho ya Japani”, ostensibly directed at the Axis Powers, managed to hoodwink the censors. (The presence of Rai Bahadur Chunilal, one of the film’s producers, on the Bombay Censor Board, is said to have helped make the passage of the film easier). But the public got the intended message. The song became a national rage. There are stories of people asking the projectionist to rewind the reel and play the song all over again. (In the film itself, the song is used twice.)
The song established the lyricist Pradeep, who had to go into hiding as rumours of his impending arrest began to do rounds, as the go-to man for patriotic songs – an image reinforced over the years with songs like De Di Humein Azadi (Jagriti, 1954) and, most famously, Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon.
The other song from the film that is said to have reeled in the crowds is about as different as it could get from the fiery Door Hato.
Dheere Dheere Aa Re Baadal is a lullaby, with all the sweetness of a clay pot of freshly made rasgullas that Anil Biswas might have craved for in his adopted city. Even Dev Anand, then a young man trying to break into the industry, confessed to having been “haunted” by the song. So much so that he watched the film four times at Bombay’s Roxy theatre.
Dheere Dheere occurs twice in Kismet. The first version is an Amirbai Karnataki solo; the second and longer version is a duet between Amirbai and Ashok Kumar in the film, with Arun Kumar replacing the star on the record.
Arun Kumar, incidentally, is acknowledged in the opening credits as an associate music director, while the saxophonist Ram Singh is listed as an assistant. The singers, however, are not even mentioned in the film credits. Which is a terrible shame, because Kismet marked a high point in the career of Amirbai Karnataki, who sang all but two songs in the film.
Next up is a troika of songs that can be considered as part of the same conversation. The catchy Ab Tere Siwa Kaun Mera is a plea addressed to the Almighty.
“Ab tere siwa kaun mera Krishna Kanhaiyya
Bhagwan kinare se lage de meri naiyya.”
The entreaty is answered, in an oblique manner, via what can be considered the film’s title song, Ek Din Hasaye Ek Din Rulaye.
“Duniya mein pehle pehle jab vo aayi
Kismet jo aayi
Toh phoolon ke sang-sang
Kaatein bhi laayi.”
But all this talk of acceptance is difficult to stomach, especially when the scriptwriters keep heaping misfortune upon you. So we have another song, this time with a subtle change in the messaging.
“Tere dukh ke din phirenge
Le dua meri liye ja
Tu zara himmat se jag mein
Zindagi bande jiye jaa.”
My favourite – and dare I say the best – song, however, does not feature leading lady Mumtaz Shanti, but Chandraprabha who plays her sister. That probably explains why it is sung not by Karnataki but Parul Ghosh, who is the composer’s sister.
Papiha Re is a song of birah, of separation and longing. The melody, characteristic of the entire soundtrack, is simple but indelible; you will be hard-pressed to get it out of your head. Pradeep seems to have been unable to get it out of his; years later, he managed to prevail over composer Avinash Vyas to rework the tune for the song Pinjre Ke Panchhi Re (Naag Mani, 1957).
In the early 1990s, HMV released an album titled Shraddhanjali, in which Lata Mangeshkar paid tribute to some of her favourite playback singers. Unsurprisingly, Amirbai Karnataki and Parul Ghosh were both on her list. The two representative songs Mangeshkar chose to commemorate the departed singers were both from Kismet: Dheere Dheere Aa Re Baadal and Papiha Re respectively.
Karnataki is back for the final song on the soundtrack, which gives her an opportunity to display her range. Ghar Ghar Mein Diwali comes at the climax and is as such a situational song, but the lyricist has other ideas. Writing almost a decade-and-a-half before Sahir Ludhianvi got the male protagonist of Pyaasa to denounce the world, Pradeep gives Rani, her mobility now restored, some truly incendiary lines.
“Charon taraf laga hua meena bazaar hai
Dhan ki jahaan pe jeet, gareebon ki haar hai
Insaniyat ki bhes mein phirta hai lootera
Ji chahta hai sansar mein main aag laga doon
So ye huye insaan ki kismet ko jaga doon
Thokar se udaa doon main daya-o-dharm ka deraa.”
“Never has a woman in Hindi cinema so boldly called for an overhaul of the existing social order,” writes Ganesh Anantharaman in his National Award winning book Bollywood Melodies: A History of the Hindi Film Song. This is a moment of high drama in the film, and gets an affecting treatment from both the composer and the director.
A contemporary listener might argue that Anil Biswas’s melodious compositions notwithstanding, the orchestral palette in Kismet is still limited. This is a fair argument. As musicologist Jayson Beaster-Jones notes, “Both the film and the music of ‘Kismet’ exemplify a point just before a critical moment of transition for Indian filmmaking.” Within a few years –following the collapse of the studio system, and the simultaneous influx of a bunch of talented singers, composers and musicians from various corners of the country - the Hindi film song will be transformed.
That said, it would be instructive to remind ourselves, as Beaster-Jones suggests, that Kismet is one of the earliest films in which we get the sense that the essential elements and conventions of the film song have already been codified, including its structural bedrock – the mukhda-antara form. With Kismet, the Hindi film song, as we know it, is slowly, but surely, coming into its own.