hindi film music

Behind bars but still free to sing: the songs that perfectly capture the state of confinement

From ‘Do Aankhen Barah Haath’ to ‘Qaidi Band’ and ‘Lucknow Central’, the songs that perfectly express literal and metaphysical imprisonment.

In most Hindi films, there is plenty of action going on behind bars. Hefty men placed in custody, such as Sunny Deol, have rattled the bars in anger; conspiracies and escape plans are hatched, as in Sholay; politicians and gang leaders have held court within the premises.

There are various kinds of confinement, of course. Sanjeev Kumar in Khilona struggles with mental illness as well as physical confinement in Khilona Jan Kar.

Young lovers have been restrained in their rooms and prevented from leaving on pain of serious injury, usually to the legs. Sometimes, whips and sticks are employed. In some cases, the victims get through the ordeal with remarkable aplomb, as Madhuri Dixit did, swinging to Ek Do Teen in Tezaab, not missing a single step.

And in Tridev, three nubile young women, held in the villains’ den, perform, with impeccably synchronised movements, the song that became an anthem in the late 1980s.

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Gajar Ne Kiya Hai Ishara, Tridev (1989).

Non-state actors have also detained heroes for political reasons, but such captivity has rarely resulted in musical protest. One exception is Roja, in which Arvind Swamy plays a just-married scientist visiting Kashmir, where he is kidnapped by an armed group. There, confined to a hut, looking out at snow-capped terrain, he sets aside his nationalist feeling and his befuddlement about the complexity of the Kashmir situation and launches into a ballad to his new wife. The lyrics, translated from the original Tamil, are clumsy, but the score, springing from raag Desh and sung to perfection by SP Balasubrahmanyam, placed composer AR Rahman firmly in the spotlight in Hindi filmdom.

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Roja Jaanemann, Roja (1992).

Incarceration by the state, however, is a different story, and it appears that only three kinds of people have been hauled into prisons and have gone on to sing eloquently about it.

The first kind are the ones in love and made to suffer for it, not just by society but by the mighty power of the state. In poor, naive Anarkali’s case, it was the entire Mughal apparatus that did her in. In these two classics from Mughal-E-Azam classic, written by Shakeel Badayuni and scored by Naushad, a shackled, exhausted woman describes her fate. Mohabbat Ki Jhoothi Kahani, in raag Darbari Kaanada, unusually, begins with any instrumental or vocal prelude – it is a lament rendered with childlike incredulity.

I didn’t watch out, didn’t stop to think, she cries. Your love proved to be my undoing.

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Mohabbat Ki Jhoothi Kahani, Mughal-e-Azam (1960).

Beqas Pe Karam Kijiye, set to raag Kedar, on the other hand is a more formal complaint, a fariyaad, evoked in the prelude. It is also a naat, a prayer to Prophet Mohammed, as Raju Bharatan explains, quoting the composer himself, in Naushadnama: The Life and Music of Naushad. Come to my aid now, the forlorn Anarkali pleads, save this sinking ship. Singer Lata Mangeshar excels in both songs, “setting the mood”, as the composer termed it. One, a brisk protest, another, a more delicate supplication.

The second category includes songs of patriotism, usually in the context of the freedom movement. Among those, Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna is distinctive – written as a rallying cry by Bismil Azimabadi and popularised by freedom fighter Ramprasad Bismil, it was first used in Shaheed (1965), scored by Prem Dhawan and performed by Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey and Rajendra Mehta.

In The Legend of Bhagat Singh, a flute and santoor accompany the opening stanzas as Bhagat Singh, played by Ajay Devgn, attempts to revive the spirits of his cellmates. As the men are re-energised, the tempo picks up with a tabla joining the orchestra. Sonu Nigam and Hariharan come together for this fine number scored by AR Rahman.

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Sarfaroshi Ki Tamanna, The Legend of Bhagat Singh (2002).

Finally, there are those resigned to their fate or striving for redemption. One of the best-known examples of rehabilitation is Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum from Do Aankhe Baarah Haath, a film about six hardened convicts and a prison warden who attempts to reform them through hard manual labour at a farm.

The most poignant prison song is possibly from Bandini, sung by Asha Bhosle, scored by SD Burman and written by Shailendra. A woman convict in a prison yard works at a grindstone and sings the traditional song of young bride who is now far away from her parents’ home.

The imagery of home is evocative – the woman sings of “mango trees, with swings under them, the gentle rain” and nostalgia for a childhood, toys, dolls and all, that is now lost forever.

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Ab Ke Baras, Bandini (1963).

Refreshingly, we now also have a fourth category reflecting the egregious conditions of prisons in the country, and the shocking, recurring cases of miscarriage of justice, that don’t always stir the national conscience.

In Qaidi Band, seven young undertrials form a music band in an attempt to score some points with the authorities, possibly get justice and an acquittal. Their music videos go viral – of these I Am India makes stock references to the taste, sights and sounds of India, presumably appealing to young Indians’ patriotic spirit. The more nuanced and believable number is Hulchul, an edgy, hard-strumming score by Amit Trivedi, about dreams that boil and churn, and about waiting to escape. That sounds more like the India we know.

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Hulchul, Qaidi Band (2017).
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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.