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Tuesday, November 1, 2011

‘Yahoo’ – The Cry of a Generation

Shammi Kapoor, nee Shamsher Raj Kapoor, could safely go down in history as Hindi Cinema’s first true blue youth icon. As one who changed the very essence of screen dynamics, Shammi was inviolably sacrosanct as the ‘rebel star’, whose comic wit could degenerate into clenches, just as his serious banter could swell into a bombast. And the audience loved it all. Plus, there were those pulsating numbers enacted by him so vigorously on screen, where every vein, every muscle of his, swiveled & swirled in a manner that was as indescribable as it was indefatigable.

Shammi's music in fact makes for an entire subject of study and analysis. It started out on a circumspect note with the stately Talat doing most of his playback, which didn't really jar for Shammi himself, had a relatively sedate persona when he started out. It was much later when Rafi synthesised his singing style to a point of ‘hybrid vocal calisthenics’ even as an unimpressive gait metamorphosed into the  flamboyant, swaggering 'Yahoo' star. Two of Talat' evergreen numbers, 'Chal Diya Karvan..' ['Laila Majnu'] and 'Aye Gham-e-dil Kya Karoon..' [from 'Thokar'] were in fact, picturised on Shammi though the film themselves tanked. As did another lesser heard number, 'Tere dar pe aaya hoon fariyaad lekar..' from an even lesser known, 'Chor Bazaar'. Rafi made the first impression as the voice of Shammi with a song seeped in the Punjabi idiom, 'Tune mera yaar na milaya..' from another box-office failure, 'Shama Parwana'. Films like 'Rangeen Raatein', 'Rail Ka Dibba', 'Jeewan Jyoti' and 'Hum Sub Chor Hain' only added to his dwindling stocks at the box-office. This lasted for a full four years, 1953 to 1956.

‘Yahoo’, a kind of guttural rasp, which became his very own vocal fiefdom, first made its appearance in ‘Tumsa Nahin Dekha’ in 1957 and reached a crescendo with the mega-hit, ‘Junglee’ in 1961 to become a sort of a national chant. And thus was born a star among stars!! Always the irritable hell-raiser to his leading ladies, his kind of romance was akin to brandishing a red rag to a bull. And the hits followed thick & fast, ‘Professor’, Kashmir Ki Kali’, Raajkumar’ and ‘Jaanwar’. But as it happens, once you reach a career peak, there predictably is a downslide. The year 1965 was to prove a watershed in Shammi’s life, when his first wife, Geeta Bali succumbed to small-pox, leaving behind a shattered husband. ‘Teesri Manzil’, now rated a cult film, was then under-production but had to be halted for months. A broken, embittered Shammi unable to cope up with the tragedy, hit the bottle with a vengeance and drained it to the very dregs. By the time he was back, the once envied physique had started showing signs of neglect. Though, some of his celebrated hits, ‘An Evening in Paris’ & ‘Brahmachari’ were to come in the following years, the expanding girth now required the exigent camouflage of a suit or an un-tucked shirt. Inevitably, came the flops, ‘Pagla Kahin Ka’, ‘Jaane Anjaane’, ‘Preetam’ & ‘Jawaan Mohabbat’. Even as he slithered into the sunset plumes, Shammi had to share his last box-office success, ‘Andaz’ with Rajesh Khanna and his motor-cycling zip-off.

Subsequently, Shammi tried his hand at direction with ‘Manoranjan’ but the attempts to recreate the aura of ‘Irma La Douce’ with the same voyeuristic undercurrents fell flat on its face. Towards the end, after his days as character actor too faded into a dim tint, it was sad to see a wheel-chair bound Shammi being subjected to an exacting dialysis routine, though he still maintained equanimity with the caresses and bruises of life.

Today Shammi is no more but his legend endures. A legacy of the days when the nation swayed with the unbridled vigour of ‘Aasman se aaya farishta, pyaar ka sabak sikhlaane….’ that now makes for sweet shenigans on TV channels, just as the ‘Yahoo’ mystique has a glorified halo around it. A star among stars has indeed gone back to where he came from, ‘aasman’ or the eternal skies!! God bless his soul!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Mystique of Mani Kaul

 Let me be honest! I am not a Mani Kaul fan by any stretch of imagination. In fact, he seems to have created more tremors in death than during his lifetime, when for a major part he was the butt of ridicule of Bollywood filmmakers, particularly one Manmohan Desai, who had the propensity to say things impromptu and then try and give lame justifications for the same. For so many, Mani was simply a red-rag, whose cinema was an incomprehensible as it was a drag, he made films devoid of filigree whose frames were like the ripples of the ocean, slow and expressionless.

I managed to catch a glimpse of 'Uski Roti' way back in the 70s during the black & white days of Doordarshan, which also happened to be my pubescent years in Lucknow. And all I remember of the film was a woman unpacking a sack for her truck driver husband which consisted of the obvious epicurean wonder : the 'roti'. I was anyways not really enamoured of watching the movie beyond this momentary glimpse. Gradually things changed for with age and time, one does learn to appreciate such esoteric strands of cinema that have created their own diminutive space in a wider canvas of film making. 

Mani was now well within my ambit of curiosity primarily because he was one of the leading lights of the off-beat cinema movement along with Mrinal Sen and Bhisham Sahni, way back in the late 60s. A kind of cinema which holds a strange fascination for me now. More specifically, Mrinal Da's 'Bhuvan Shome', Mani Kaul's 'Uski Roti' and Bhisham Sahni's 'Maya Darpan' are considered neo-classics in having pioneered the art cinema movement in India. Around the same time, Basu Chatterjee also came up with 'Sara Aakash' but unlike the other three, he chose to move away from the art genre and gravitated towards the middle path that straddled the realm of art and commerce a.la. Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar. The most unique aspect of these four films was that they were all devoid of songs, something unimaginable in the heady days of the 60s and the 70s.

A still from 'Uski Roti' [1969]

As usual and as is the norm in our film industry, once an artiste or technician departs, he becomes the focal point of conversations & discussions, regardless of the fact that his life was shrouded in obscurity during his last days, like Mani's. Having gone through the whole gamut of obituaries that have been written on him, the one anecdote that stood out for its jocularity and was a satirical garb in self-deprecating humour went like this : Mani's landlords, an ageing couple once called him over for dinner and the husband, in an obvious jibe at the filmmaker said, 'Do you about Mr. Kaul's latest film which is about a man waiting at a bus stop...'. The wife immediately chortled, 'No, please don't reveal the story and spoil my joy'. At this Mani just smiled and said, 'Sorry, but he has already told you the story, ma'am'. If anything, this was reflective of the kind of filmmaking in which Mani revelled and excelled too. He essentially belonged to a school of filmmakers who followed a cinematic pathway that was subvertible from its narrowness or the imperfections of its very basis. Throughout his chequered career, Mani struggled to find his niche as a film-maker. Even the cerebral often lamented that he  found it hard to comprehend his kind of film-making.

I would define Mani Kaul as one who swam against the tide, but rarely did he manage to wade out of deep waters; his kind of obscurantism on celluloid had little or no takers. Yet, I would be willing to give my right hand to get hold of 'Uski Roti' and Aaashad Ka Ek Din', which were both based on literary works of Mohan Rakesh and 'Duvidha', which took inspiration from a Rajasthani folk tale. These three works of Mani have given him some kind of a halo in a world of cinema that depicted stark  & stoic realism.

God bless his soul!!

Monday, February 7, 2011

A Typewriter that continues to go Tip, Tip, Tip…..In the memory of Late Ismail Merchant


The one and only number that I can recall as having been composed on a 'typewriter' was a duet by Kishore & Asha that went ‘Typewriter Tip Tip Tip Tip Karta Hai…’, which really caught my fancy as it used to be played with frequent rapidity on Vividh Bharti and Radio Ceylon. As the years went by, the song barely lingered in my memory but a decade later, HMV released the song in one of its compilations, which rekindled my interest. I managed to dig out the information that ‘Bombay Talkie’, the film for which, it was recorded, was a co-production of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, whose banner went by the name of Merchant-Ivory productions. Like many of their previous ventures, ‘Bombay Talkie’ was released only in Mumbai and its proximal areas but never went any further. I was given to believe that no print of the film existed anywhere, which gave a severe wrench to my hopes of procuring a copy or at least watching the film on the cable, if for nothing else, then just for ‘Typewriter…’.

Even as I sifted and pared in all VCD shops round the country, I came across Ismail Merchant’s autobiography, a damn expensive memorabilia and one of the visuals in the book showed a gigantic typewriter, with stills of a rollicking Shashi Kapoor and some colourfully clad dancers transfixed on the keys in paroxysmal poses. In a trice, I could visualize what the picturisation of ‘Typewriter…’ would have been like. Rich, sonorous and energetic, just like Shanker-Jaikishan’s infectious beats that were a rage till the turn of the 1970s.

Ismail Merchant for once broke away from his pre-defined norm and came up with a film that was the closest approximation of a Bollywood pot-boiler. So what if ‘Bombay Talkie’ did not run, for Ismail ji’s films were never meant for the turnstiles nor did they ever played to the gallery. They were all polished, up-market ventures that more often than not were a throw-back to the stark Colonial days in India. Ismail ji, sadly has left us forever and the elusive Typewriter has moved from my inner consciousness to a level of sensuous cognition, metaphorically speaking!!

It isn't yet time to put it in the back-burner, not as yet. Not until it stops going ‘Tip, Tip, Tip…’.

How Bright are the Royalty Stakes??

The Government of India recently introduced a bill in the Parliament for amendment in the Indian Copyright Act, 1957 with regard to music rights for films. If passed, then, along with the producers, the lyricists and the composers would also have a stake in the profits generated from the sale of musical tracks. In other words, the latter would be joint shareholders with the producers on the ‘royalty’ from sales through various channels.

The fallout has been a ban imposed by the Film Federation of India [FFI] on Javed Akhtar, who parlayed a career as a dialogue writer to lyric-writing success, as he was the one who pushed for the bill for what he felt was a just cause. FFI justified the ban saying that the producer was already in a high-risk zone and such a move would only increase the level of financial burden on him.

The royalty issue is nothing new to the industry. In the 1960s, Lata Mangeshkar had pushed vehemently for singers to be given a share of the advance royalty paid by the music companies to the producers, of which, a miniscule portion used to be transferred on to the music director. Lata’s argument was that if the producer surrendered a part of the royalty to the music director, the singer in question, brooked a similar claim as it was he/she who carried it across to the masses. Javed Akhtar’s line of call is similar in tenor to Lata’s, for in his opinion, the lyricists always get a raw deal as they are paid once for a song and then totally bypassed, while the producer is able to exploit its selling potential for an indefinite period.

Lata, however, was unable to have it her way, for despite having the backing of almost the entire playback fraternity, the most crucial of them all, Mohd. Rafi, stood in intrepid opposition. Rafi’s argument was that as a playback singer, his claim over a song ended once he had recorded it, for unlike a music director, he was not ‘contractually bound’ to the producer to demand a share in royalty inasmuch as a song’s success or failure had no bearing on the singer, so long as he had been paid his legitimate dues. FFI’s point in a way vindicates Rafi’s stand, that if the lyricists demand a share in the profits as royalty, would they also be prepared to bear the losses if any, with the producer? After all, even the best of song writers cannot claim that every single number of theirs would hit the bulls-eye.

Four decades ago, Rafi’s opposition to Queen-bee Lata not only put a spoke in her royal(ty) wheel but also led to strained relations between the two super-singers. It would be interesting to see the outcome of a similar crusade when the new Copyright bill comes up for debate in the Parliament. Would Javed Akhtar emerge as a key benefactor for the song writer’s fraternity or just fade away like one of those fleeting phantoms who raise dust but no level? Only time will tell.