Beyond ‘Maa Tujhe Salaam’, the film songs that dare to step out of line when things go off-key

Rather than pop patriotism tunes, it’s the songs about dissent and debate that resonate as India turns 70.

As August 15 approaches and a billion Indian hearts begin to throb as one to the beat of Mere Desh Ki Dharti and Maa Tujhe Salaam, let us also take a minute to recall the anti-nationals in Hindi films who stepped out of line and reminded us of the times when things went off-key.

They did so poignantly, often comically, but tunefully. The songs convey a poet’s despair over social and moral decay, the agony of a man unfairly marked as a traitor, and the exuberant cynicism of city-dwellers who discovered that “sone ki chidiya” rhymes nicely with malaria.

Nasbandi (1978) was so out of line, it was banned right after its release. An acerbic comment on the forced sterilisation drives during the Emergency, the film was written and directed by IS Johar, with music by Kalyanji-Anandji and lyrics by the wonderfully pen-named Hullad Moradabadi. The film’s title couldn’t be more direct – no Indu Sarkar-type subtlety here – and its song lyrics are a mix of hilarity and hopelessness.

Kya Mila Gaya Sarkar Emergency Laga Ke leaves little to the imagination – newly sterilised men hobble around in a graphic demonstration of their pain and sing of a childless future. Mahatma Gandhi gets some grief too, for his now-shattered promise of non-violence and humanity, in Gandhi Tere Desh Mein Yeh Kaisa Atyachaar.

Kya Mila Gaya Sarkar Emergency Laga Ke, Nasbandi (1978).

Nasbandi was preceded by Kissa Kursi Ka (1978), which lampooned Sanjay Gandhi and his supporters and their famed Maruti car project. Gandhi got back at the filmmaker, Amrit Nahata, by having all the film prints destroyed and even went to jail for it. Janata Ki Jai Bolo begins with a caustic invocation to the “God of the Chair’ by two classical dancers flanked by men and women dressed ironically in Congress-white, all ranged around a throne-like chair.

There is hope for a better tomorrow in Phir Subah Hogi (1958). There will come a time when the worth of human beings will not be measured in fake coins, Raj Kapoor assures a sobbing Mala Sinha in Woh Subah Kabhi Toh Aayegi, scored delicately by Khayyam. But there is also much to be disillusioned about, and few could have said it as well as lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi.

“Cheen-O-Arab hamara
Hindustan hamara
Rehne ko ghar nahin hai
Sara jahan hamara”

The song takes sly potshots at Sare Jahan Se Achchha, with its allusions to “woh santri hamara, woh paasbaan hamara”. But the 1950s were still hopeful times, and Ludhianvi ends the song with a call to the young, who are “built of steel”, who will make the nation the envy of the rest of the world.

Cheen O Arab Hamara, Phir Subah Hogi (1958).

The songs that probably best sum up the disillusionment of a nation that might have lost its way are Jinhe Naaz Par Hind Par and Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye, in Pyaasa (1957), another masterpiece by Ludhianvi scored by SD Burman and sung by Mohammed Rafi. While the first song addresses the dire condition of the country’s women, the second is a wider denunciation of society, morals and injustices.

Yeh Duniya doesn’t directly refer to a country, and the poet played by Guru Dutt can’t help viewing the world through the lens of his own troubles. But the implication is clear. Crass materialism, the hankering after power, and “societies that oppress individuals” – all go to make a world that’s not worth living in. If artists can speak of dreams and hope, they must also speak of upended promises, although as Pyaasa showed, and current trends indicate, there are no guarantees that they will be heard.

Yeh Duniya, Pyaasa (1957).

Fighting for the nation has always been depicted as a valorous pursuit with few digressions from the aggression-laced, ready-for-death narrative. Haqeeqat (1964) was an unusual war film, as much about the futility of war as about bravery while fighting in it. A trapped platoon of soldiers facing the Chinese army is waiting to be rescued, but the odds are slim. The more popular number from this film is the moving Kar Chale Hum Fida Jaan-o-Tan at the end of the story when all is lost. But there is also Ho Ke Majboor Mujhe, a tender imagining by the soldiers of how their loved ones back home will mourn their loss. A stellar cast of singers – Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey, Talat Mahmood and Bhupinder Singh – lend their voices to this sensitive number, written by Kaifi Azmi and scored by Madan Mohan.

A newer song that spotlights the vulnerability of men in war is Sandese Aate Hain from Border (1997), although it doesn’t have the sense of hopelessness that defined Haqeeqat.

Ho Ke Majboor, Haqeeqat (1964).

Khoon Chala in Rang De Basanti (2006) echoes more contemporary disenchantments although the targets are the same – the corrupt and the powerful. Here too, a soldier has been lost, but not in war. He died flying a faulty plane, and his friends are out demanding accountability. They are inspired by freedom fighters and believe they can replicate the struggle, this time against their own country and its many flaws.

It is not easy, as Khoon Chala shows. The forces of state power that were ranged against Bhagat Singh and other revolutionaries then, are still as oppressive – midway through the song, the police breaks up their protest with a lathi charge. Outside of the movies, India Gate is not a spot for a police crackdown; that is done elsewhere in spaces where the protestors forgot to bring candles and are not very well-dressed. But anybody who demands justice is vulnerable, the song appears to say. That is fair warning.

Khoon Chala, Rang De Basanti (2006).

Urban angst meets suppressed energy in Bharat Mata Ki Jai, a frenetic street dance number in Shanghai (2012). It sums up the story of the film – plans are afoot to turn the city into another Shanghai, a manifestation of the glass-and-chrome dreams of politicians who believe in progress through large infrastructure projects that might or might not displace multitudes of people. The song was not without controversy, with a right-wing group going to court asking for the song to be removed. The court dismissed the plea with the welcome observation that in a democracy people have the right to express their views.

Bharat Mata Ki Jai, Shanghai (2012).

For some, expressing views, wearing markers of identity or even having a certain name might be more difficult. In Chak De! India (2007), a hockey coach has a history – as India’s hockey captain, he was hounded and made to leave the neighbourhood after his team loses to Pakistan. Maula Mere Le Le Meri Jaan, written by Jaideep Sahni, scored by Salim-Sulaiman, and sung intensely by Krishna Beura and Salim Merchant, has flashbacks of the coach’s story, ending with victory – the all-girls’ team he’s coached has won their big match.

Does redemption come only with success and victories dedicated to the nation? What does it take to prove that you belong?

Maula Mere Le Le Meri Jaan, Chak De! India (2007).
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