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The Hindi film industry and its sorority of regional-language sister industries in the sub-continent has elevated the song-and-dance sequence to a rare art form. Inspired partly by turn-of the-century stage adaptations of popular "musicals" in the West and partly by the equally popular though entirely home-grown Parsi theatre, film songs serve a variety of purposes. Studded at judicious intervals all through the story, they can make a more telling statement than mere dialogue; they can be both entertaining and illuminating; they can, of course, leaven an otherwise flat story with humour and spice and colour. Though the average song "picturisation" does tend to require large dollops of "willing suspension of disbelief" given the mind-boggling change of costumes, the hordes of incredibly dressed background artistes who descend every time the hero and heroine romance against sylvan backdrops (imagine something more incongruous than Rajasthani folk dancers on a Swiss mountainside) and the callisthenic exercises that pass for dance movements the results are, to say the least, eye-catching. In fact, many a "hit" song has contributed to a "hit" film!

It would be fair to say, film songs have, by and large, served the Hindi film industry rather well in the last 80-odd years of constant use and abuse. Yet, oddly enough, little serious work has been done either on the craft of song writing itself or on the men who pen these lyrics. Though there are plenty of biographical studies of eminent film personalities, there has been nothing whatsoever on the film lyricist, his compulsions and inspirations. For the average film buff, there is precious little on what goes on behind the scenes, what constitutes a great song that might catch the nation's fancy for a given time till the next big one comes along and why some songs stay "evergreen", the oldies-goldies as they are lovingly called. For me, it was, therefore, a not-to-be-missed opportunity to meet Akhtar Akhtar, the reigning "superstar" among film lyricists, and ask him about film lyrics, cinema, Urdu poetry and much else besides in the course of an hour-long freewheeling conversation, aired on Doordarshan on Saturday 12 May, 2012.

Making the most of this occasion, I started the conversation by talking of the differences between lyric-writing and poetry. I was reminded how, once, Kaifi Azmi had described a film lyricists job as first digging a grave and then finding a corpse to fit it! Needless to say, he managed to find some spectacular corpses. So has Javed Akhtar, not only one of the most popular film lyricists of our times but, coincidentally, Azmis son-in-law. In fact, several of Akhtars songs have far exceeded the brief extended to a song writer by the Hindi film industry; they have risen beyond their time and circumstance and spoken to our collective consciousness. Blurring the definition of lyric and poetry, there is a great deal in Akhtars cinematic ouvre that is outstanding poetry, such as this lyric from the film 1942: A Love Story which contains within it tremulous beauty and technical finesse in near-perfect proportions:

Kuch na kaho, kuch bhi na kaho

Kya kahna hai kya sun-na hai

Mujhko pata hai, tumko pata hai

Samay ka yeh pal thum sa gaya hai

Aur iss pal mein koyi nahin hai

Bas ek mein hoon, bas ek tum ho

In the past, Nasreen Munni Kabir, with her impeccable credentials as a film historian, has attempted to demystify the craft of song writing. In her scholarly book, Talking Songs and Sixty Selected Songs: Javed Akhtar in Conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir, Oxford University Press, 2005, Rs 295, she has done a commendable job of taking us on a journey into the mindscape of Javed Akhtar with many an interesting detour on the workings of the Hindi film industry. Talking Songs was a sequel to her equally fascinating Talking Films: Conversations on Hindi Cinema with Javed Akhtar (OUP).

In Talking Songs, Kabir had kick-started her conversation with Akhtar with a seemingly simple question: "How would you define the perfect song?" She probed, and prodded and questioned, throwing a barrage of questions. Akhtar served some and ducked others. But all the while, the conversation was lively and engaging, laced with humour and insight. Underlying it all, giving body and shape to what would otherwise have been a flighty dialogue, I remember being struck by Akhtar's keen understanding of the Hindi film industry. Here was a man who had witnessed the Bombay film industry from the bottom up, known it inside out and all the way through. As Shabana Azmi noted in her pensive Foreword, "He hardly ever talks about his work, but when he does, it is with such astounding clarity that I listen on in rapt attention and learn something new each time."

Those of us who were raised on a steady diet of Hindi film songs aired by Vividh Bharti, those of us who catch ourselves humming snatches of film songs, those of us who do not pucker our noses with disdain at this form of popular entertainment will do well to look out for this book. Kabir asked questions that we have all pondered over at some time or the other: Is it melody or lyrics that give a song a long lifespan? Do certain songs have a sell-by date? Does one write songs to tunes or the other way around? What sort of people say balma or sajna while addressing their beloved? Then there are, of course, questions related to Akhtar's own sensibilities, his highly individualistic way of working, his understanding of his own craft and the elements that define his poetic oeuvre. The one I liked especially was: "Does a lyricist have to be a great poet?" And Akhtar's answer: "No, he doesn't, but he must be versatile. That's essential to song writing."

Clubbed with the conversation was a collection of 60 of Akhtar's film songs, chosen to express the range of his themes and emotions. Accompanied with some rather workaday translations, this section of the book seemed to cater rather obviously to Kabir's expatriate audience, the sort of people who watch her Movie Mahal series on British television!

Coming back to Javed Akhtar and his poetry my interview with him for Doordarshan revolved around differences between filmi and non-filmi poetry as well as differences between the ghazal and nazm. Since much of film lyric-writing is in the nature of a command performance, Akhtar has written another set of poetry too, one that is a truer reflection of his real concerns and a more faithful echo of his own poetic voice. His first collection, Tarkash, meaning quiver published in 1995, established him as the writer of the nazm. With his second volume, Lava, we see him dabbling in both the ghazal and the nazm and I personally rate his ghazals as being superior to his nazms. Conventionally, and by the admission of several poets themselves, the ghazal is relatively easier to write; the poet has a time-honoured mould of the two-line couplet (sher) in which the poet pours an equally time-honoured repertoire of words and images. The nazm, on the other hand, demands far more mehnat and mushaqqat (labour and diligence) from the poet; as the late poet Shahryar used to say, the nazm has a will of its own and often takes the poet on an uncharted course in a way that the ghazal can not and does not. Akhtat told me how the nazm doesnot allow the poet to hide behind the veil of allusion; it demands greater directness and clarity from the poet: Shair ka qad saaf nazar aa jaata hai, as he put it.

The matter of technique and labour aside, I do believe Akhtar reveals himself fully to us as a poet in his ghazals. The nazms contained in Lava, several of which he has recited with great verve and passion at recent mushairas, have immense aural charm; stunning, multi-hued images tumble out of them as though in a kaleidoscope, dazzling us with bursts of ideas and thoughts. The nazms also have a questioning, probing quality as though the poet is using the nazm to ask larger metaphysical questions about the world around him, as in Kainat, Aansoo, Yeh Khel kya Hai? where he creates an avalanche of questions.

The pace and tempo, the almost quicksilver-like quality of the nazms, is replaced by a quiescence and lucid stillness in the ghazals. If the nazms have the swiftness and haste of a bubbling mountain brook, the ghazals have the sedateness and leisure of a river that has descended to the plains. Brimful with the pain of loss, longing and loneliness, the ghazals contained in Lava show Akhtars mastery over the genre. Using both short and long beher (metre and rhyming scheme), he infuses the classical template of the ghazal with a sensibility that is modern and unconventional, as in:

Bahut aasan hai pehchan iss ki

Agar dukhta nahi to dil nahi hai

(It is easy to tell its identity

If it doesnt ache, it isnt the heart)

Or,

Aaj woh bhi bichad gaya hamse

Chaliye yeh qissa bhi tamam hua

(Today, I lost him too

So, this matter too ends here)

Like the earth that spews molten rock from deep within its bosom in the form of lava, Akhtars ghazals emerge from some deep crevice within his soul. Flowing like a molten river, gleaming and incandescent on the surface but rippling with a singeing and scorching heat, this latest collection Lava (Star Publications, available in both Urdu and Hindi) hides unexpected depths. But just as, upon cooling and calming, the lava that erupts from the innards of the earth can also nurture and nourish, so too can this collection of poetry that is by turns angry and philosophical, questioning and answering, restless and restful.

(Rakhshanda Jalil blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com)



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More about Rakhshanda Jalil

Rakhshanda Jalil writes on culture, literature and society. She has published over 15 books, including the much-acclaimed book on Delhi's lesser-known monuments called 'Invisible Delhi' and a well-received collection of short stories, called 'Release & Other Stories' (Harper Collins, 2011). She blogs at www.hindustaniawaaz-rakhshanda.blogspot.com. Her Ph D is on the Progressive Writers' Movement.
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