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).