Musical Notes

Sahir Ludhianvi’s ‘Woh Subah Kabhi Toh Aayegi’ finds new meaning in ‘Begum Jaan’

A song written after 1947 aptly describes the condition of a newly independent India.

Old film tunes are often lifted, remixed and used without context in new releases. In the first quarter of this year, the movies OK Jaanu, Rangoon, Kaabil and Badrinath Ki Dulhania have deployed old film tracks with varying degrees of success. In the April 21 release Noor, the zippy track Gulabi Aankhein Jo Teri from The Train (1970) reappears as Gulabi 2.0. Techno beats have been added to the track to attract younger viewers, continuing the fad of milking nostalgia.

An exception is the otherwise messy Begum Jaan, which makes thoughtful use of a classic tune.

Set in 1947, Begum Jaan is about the titular brothel owner (Vidya Balan) who tries to save her bordello on the Indo-Pak border from being razed. The song Woh Subah Kabhi Toh Aayegi from Phir Subah Hogi (1958) appears in the climax of Begum Jaan, with the lyrics and context made relevant to the plot.

In Phir Subah Hogi, Sohni (Mala Sinha) is assaulted by a man in a park. The molester tries to force himself on Sohni after she refuses his advances. She fights back but is no match for his strength. Her friend Ram (Raj Kapoor) comes to her rescue. The assaulter makes a dash for his life. A distraught Sohni collapses in Ram’s arms and sobs uncontrollably. He sings Woh Subah Kabhi Toh Aayegi to pacify her. Composer Khayyam’s tune is an emphatic promise, rendered in a solemn tone by playback singer Mukesh.

The sentimental melody contains an undertow of criticism of the sociopolitical flux in the country a decade after independence. In lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi’s stinging words, “Insaano ki izzat jab jhoothey sikko mein na toli jaayegi, woh subah kabhi toh aayegi” (When our prestige will not be weighed in coins, that morning, we are hopeful, will come), he is commenting on corrupt politicians who have caused disillusionment with fake pledges for a better future after decades of colonial rule.

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Woh Subah Kabhi Toh Aayegi from Phir Subah Hogi (1958).

While Ludhianvi’s political leanings were influenced both by rebellious communists and passive socialists, his poetry is coloured with peacenik ideas. Phir Subah Hogi was adapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novel Crime and Punishment. The placement of the song in the film highlights one of the book’s moral themes of the oppressed fighting those who wield power through money.

The fictionalised world of Begum Jaan takes place 11 years before Ludhianvi wrote those optimistic lines. Threatened with an eviction notice, the sex workers arm themselves instead of leaving quietly. The sweeping track that soars in the background of the climax is Woh Subah Kabhi Toh Aayegi with a slight tweak. “Kabhi” is replaced with “humi” (us).

Technically, the song’s insertion is an anomaly since it had not been written in 1947, but its presence is apt in Begum Jaan, which questions the false freedoms of 1947. If women are not given their rightful place in society, can there be any talk of a new dawn? Composer Anu Malik and singers Shreya Ghoshal and Arijit Singh achieve a rare homage that is also an assertive answer to Ludhianvi’s wishful thinking.

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Woh Subah Hami Se Aayegi from Begum Jaan (2017).
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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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For more information on special offers on flights to London and other destinations in the UK, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.