Movie Soundtracks

Audio master: An unapologetic courtesan and Vanraj Bhatia’s terrific music in ‘Sardari Begum’

Shyam Benegal’s 1996 movie starring Kirron Kher and Smriti Mishra features a soundtrack that nearly upstages the plot.

Courtesans in Hindi cinema are usually depicted as women with golden hearts. The one-line description is apt for the titular character Sardari Begum (1996), Shyam Benegal’s tribute to the courtesan.

Benegal’s heroine Begum sings a number of sad songs about the men by whom she is exploited throughout her life, she is generous with her money and métier, and she meets with a tragic end. Fate is against her, and yet, she soldiers on.

Sardari Begum is based on a story by Khalid Mohamed and Shama Zaidi. Benegal made a film on a similar theme, Bhumika (1977), based on the memoirs of the Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar. Smita Patil turned in an effective performance as an actress who has a lot in common with Begum.

Benegal also approached the subject of courtesans in the bawdy comedy Mandi (1983), featuring Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil. In Sardari Begum, he combines the two themes and gives it a dramatic whodunit treatment on the surface, gradually parsing a story out of familiar tropes, with one adjustment: the courtesan is no damsel-in-distress.

Composer Vanraj Bhatia’s excellent musical score and Javed Akhtar’s lyrics empower Begum to sing like no one’s listening.

In the opening scene, Begum (Kirron Kher), a popular thumri exponent well past her prime, is shown pottering in the kitchen, preparing a meal and humming the tune Chali Pi Ke Nagar (Going to the house of my beloved). She sits down with her tanpura for her daily practice when she hears a commotion in the street below her house. She walks over to the verandah and is struck by a stone hurled in the communal riot that has erupted in the vicinity. Begum succumbs to her injury.

Play
Chali Pi Ke Nagar.

After giving viewers a taste of Begum’s musical prowess, Benegal immediately removes her from the narrative, deepening the aura surrounding her. A reporter, Tehzeeb (Rajina Raj Basaria), is assigned to cover the funeral, where she discovers that she is related to Begum.

What follows in a Rashomon-style narrative in which Tehzeeb gathers contradictory information about Begum’s life. In the to-and-fro that follows between Tehzeeb’s inquiries and flashback sequences, the truth is complex. “History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation,” Julian Barnes wrote in his novella The Sense of an Ending. It’s the same kind of problem with which Tehzeeb struggles while trying to draw a fair profile of her deceased aunt.

Smriti Mishra plays the young Begum, a woman despairing to sing and whose ambitions are curtailed by her domineering father. She runs away from her home in Agra to train with the courtesan Iddan Bai (the name is a riff on Jaddan Bai, the 20th-century singer and mother of actress Nargis). Surekha Sikri plays Iddan Bai. She is shown singing one of the first thumris, Sanwariya Dekh Zara Iss Or.

Play
Sanwariya Dekh Zara Iss Or.

Indian classical singer Arati Ankalikar-Tikekar’s voice is accompanied by the tabla, harmonium, tanpura and the sarangi. Iddan Bai croons a sensuous number that sends the seated patron Hemraj (Amrish Puri) into raptures. As Bai sings Javed Akhtar’s lyrics “Toote na yeh dor” (The string that binds us should not break), she is interrupted by the arrival of Begum, the young girl who will become her pupil. The scene symbolically establishes the passing over of the courtesan’s trade from the old to the young.

Begum must first prove her vocal talents in the gathering. She recites the marsiya (a poem written to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain) Hussain Jab Ke Chale Baad Dopahar, written by the 19th-century Urdu poet Mir Anees Mir. A version of the marsiya was also recorded by Lata Mangeshkar in Shankar Husain (1977), featuring Khayyam’s music.

In Tikekar’s playback voice, Begum displays an accomplished talent. The use of Tikekar’s vocals for both female characters makes it clear why Iddan Bai will take an instant liking to the woman who barged in. Begum echoes Bai’s guttural virtuosity. Hemraj (Amrish Puri) is equally besotted by Begum.

Play
Raah Mein Bichi Hai.

In the Begum-Bai duet performance that follows, Raah Mein Bichi Hai, sung by Tikekar and Shubha Joshi, the scene marks Begum’s prowess as a performer, matching scale and pitch with her teacher. Hemraj ushers her into his house, much to the annoyance of his wife. Begum performs for his musical gatherings, where she sings the poignant tune Ghar Nahi Hamre Shyam, which catches the eye of Sadiq (Rajit Kapur).

Begum also performs on the dance track Chahe Maar Daalo Raja in Sadiq’s presence, when he decides to exploit her vocal calibre. This number is rendered in Asha Bhosle’s upbeat voice, implying Begum’s vocal range when singing a lighter melody. Sadiq romances her and whisks her away to Delhi, away from Hemraj’s baleful eyes, and promises her a career as a recording artist. Bhosle sings More Kanhaa Jo Aaye in a recording studio, signifying that when she is with Sadiq, her voice is put to commercial use and has a light timbre.

Play
Chahe Maar Daalo Raja.

As the sarangi player recollects memories of the singer for Tehzeeb’s research, the flashback device is employed to stage yet another superlative performance, Ghir Ghir Aayi, sung by Tikekar. Here, the roles are reversed, with Begum teaching her daughter Sakina (Rajeshwari Sachdev) the ropes. Begum has split with Sadiq and her funds are drying up. Sakina, a pupil she is grooming in the tradition, is her only hope for financial security.

Begum wants to push her daughter into stage performances, but the crowd boos Sakina during a performance of Ghir Ghir Aayi. An irritated Begum storms out, but not before the brassy chanteuse lashes out at the unruly crowd for not encouraging a newcomer.

Play
Ghir Ghir Aayi.

The final track that Begum sings, Huzoor Itna Karam Hum Par, is a message of rejection for recording studio manager Salim (Manik Sen), who offers to marry Begum. She is done with all the men who have tried to possess her. She wants to devote her life to her daughter. But Sakina is not done with Begum.

Play
Huzoor Itna Agar Hum Par.


In her version of her mother, Sakina paints a grim picture of a woman who had hardened because of her suffering. Sakina mirrors the feelings of Tehzeeb, whose relationship with her father Jabbar (Shrivallabh Vyas), has soured because of her independent nature. The two women bond in grief.

In her dying moments, Sakina reveals, Begum requested her to sing, confessing that it was the only heritage a woman of her status could leave for her daughter. Sakina sings Chali Pi Ke Nagar so that the dying heritage may continue.

Play
Chali Pi Ke Nagar.
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Not just for experts: How videography is poised for a disruption

Digital solutions are making sure it’s easier than ever to express your creativity in moving images.

Where was the last time you saw art? Chances are on a screen, either on your phone or your computer. Stunning photography and intricate doodles are a frequent occurrence in the social feeds of many. That’s the defining feature of art in the 21st century - it fits in your pocket, pretty much everyone’s pocket. It is no more dictated by just a few elite players - renowned artists, museum curators, art critics, art fair promoters and powerful gallery owners. The digital age is spawning creators who choose to be defined by their creativity more than their skills. The negligible incubation time of digital art has enabled experimentation at staggering levels. Just a few minutes of browsing on the online art community, DeviantArt, is enough to gauge the scope of what digital art can achieve.

Sure enough, in the 21st century, entire creative industries are getting democratised like never before. Take photography, for example. Digital photography enabled everyone to capture a memory, and then convert it into personalised artwork with a plethora of editing options. Apps like Instagram reduced the learning curve even further with its set of filters that could lend character to even unremarkable snaps. Prisma further helped to make photos look like paintings, shaving off several more steps in the editing process. Now, yet another industry is showing similar signs of disruption – videography.

Once burdened by unreliable film, bulky cameras and prohibitive production costs, videography is now accessible to anyone with a smartphone and a decent Internet bandwidth. A lay person casually using social media today has so many video types and platforms to choose from - looping Vine videos, staccato Musical.lys, GIFs, Instagram stories, YouTube channels and many more. Videos are indeed fast emerging as the next front of expression online, and so are the digital solutions to support video creation.

One such example is Vizmato, an app which enables anyone with a smartphone to create professional-looking videos minus the learning curve required to master heavy, desktop software. It makes it easy to shoot 720p or 1080p HD videos with a choice of more than 40 visual effects. This fuss- free app is essentially like three apps built into one - a camcorder with live effects, a feature-rich video editor and a video sharing platform.

With Vizmato, the creative process starts at the shooting stage itself as it enables live application of themes and effects. Choose from hip hop, noir, haunted, vintage and many more.

The variety of filters available on Vizmato
The variety of filters available on Vizmato

Or you can simply choose to unleash your creativity at the editing stage; the possibilities are endless. Vizmato simplifies the core editing process by making it easier to apply cuts and join and reverse clips so your video can flow exactly the way you envisioned. Once the video is edited, you can use a variety of interesting effects to give your video that extra edge.

The RGB split, Inset and Fluidic effects.
The RGB split, Inset and Fluidic effects.

You can even choose music and sound effects to go with your clip; there’s nothing like applause at the right moment, or a laugh track at the crack of the worst joke.

Or just annotated GIFs customised for each moment.

Vizmato is the latest offering from Global Delight, which builds cross-platform audio, video and photography applications. It is the Indian developer that created award-winning iPhone apps such as Camera Plus, Camera Plus Pro and the Boom series. Vizmato is an upgrade of its hugely popular app Game Your Video, one of the winners of the Macworld Best of Show 2012. The overhauled Vizmato, in essence, brings the Instagram functionality to videos. With instant themes, filters and effects at your disposal, you can feel like the director of a sci-fi film, horror movie or a romance drama, all within a single video clip. It even provides an in-built video-sharing platform, Popular, to which you can upload your creations and gain visibility and feedback.

Play

So, whether you’re into making the most interesting Vines or shooting your take on Ed Sheeran’s ‘Shape of You’, experience for yourself how Vizmato has made video creation addictively simple. Android users can download the app here and iOS users will have their version in January.

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