Raat Bhar Neend Nahi Aati

ajnabi

Ajnabi (Stranger) is an Urdu film released in November 1975. Though it ran for 20 weeks it was a commercial stinker and thus, receives the ugly sobriquet, ‘flop’.

1975 delivered a bumper crop of films. A total of 112 were released that year and Pakistan was riding high.  The disastrous civil war which had seen the creation of Bangladesh (and the loss of 50% or more of the audience for Urdu films) was history. Zulfikar Bhutto, the charismatic Prime Minister was confident and supreme in his political power. The country was positioning itself as the leader of the Muslim bloc of countries. Just a year earlier Bhutto had hosted the 2nd Islamic Summit in Lahore.  The casinos and cabarets in Karachi’s hotels were frequented by the rich citizens/subjects of more conservative Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia. Alcohol flowed openly. Religious parties occupied the pesky margins of national life. The Army, chastened after its humiliating defeat in 1971, was licking its wounds back in the barracks.

So shining was this golden age.

Though Ajnabi had a gaggle of stars (Mohammad Ali, Deeba and new arrival, Babra Sharif) it was unable to excite. Director Ali Sufiyan ‘Afaqi‘ was in essence a writer and journalist with an impressive CV in newspapers, magazines and as a screen writer. Throughout his long career (he passed away in 2015) he was associated with a number of major Pakistani films, the most famous of which is probably Kaneez (Slave Girl, 1965) which he both produced and wrote.  But Ajnabi was considered worthy enough, along with two other Afaqi films, Aas and Saiqa,  to be selected to represent Pakistan in the illustrious Film Festival of Asia and Africa held in Tashkent, USSR (Uzbekistan) in 1976 (?).

The song Raat Bhar Neend Nahi Aati (I Can’t Sleep All Night) is the work of the music director Nisar Bazmi and playback singer Nayyara Noor. It’s nothing to get overly excited about but does possess a nice lilt.  The entire 3 and half minutes is wrapped in swirling silvery strings  infused with flutes that sound like birds chirping in a morning tree. Its a dreamy sort of song.  One of restless anxious love,

Raat bhar neend nahi ati hain

Chandni dil ko tard pati hain

Kya yeh hua/ kyon yeh hua

Bata deejeeye

Zara meri nafs dekh kar dawa deejeeye

[I can’t sleep the night through

the moonlight makes my heart quiver

what is happening/ why is this happening?

oh tell me please!

Check my pulse and give me some medicine]

Nayyara Noor was born into a Punjabi merchant family in Assam, on the far eastern flank of India in 1950. At the age of 7 or 8 her family, sans her father who stayed behind to settle the family business, moved to Lahore.  In the early 70s, just a few years before Ajnabi was released, Nayyara put the industry on notice by winning a Nigar Award for best singer in her very first movie Gharana (1973).  What followed was a sparkling career as a playback artist and respected ghazal singer. Her interpretations of Ghalib and Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry are particularly special.

In Raat Bhar she gives a perfectly toned performance. Her singing and aspiration is light and coquettish. She captures the starry eyed rapture of the young love-struck girl to a T. As she sighs into the line about having her pulse checked we are instantly transported into the bedroom of a teenager gazing at the picture of her absent lover.

This is pure pop and as such is quite disposable. But like all pop music it has enough of that essential dam to keep you humming the melody for  days on end.

Well done I say. Well done.

 

 

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Wadah Karo Tum

bigdi naslein

Bigri Naslein (Spoiled Generations) is an Urdu film released in 1983 with a heavy hitting cast led by Mohammad Ali and Rani. It achieved Silver Jubilee status, so was quite popular with the punters.

 

Wadah karo tum (Promise Me), a song from the soundtrack, is one of those Pakistani film songs which exists like a bauble that has fallen off the Christmas tree and rolled under the sofa. It lays there hidden, completely disconnected from its source and reason for being. But when you pick it up long after Christmas Day you discover underneath the dust there is still a little shimmer and shine.

 

It’s a dainty little ditty and the closest thing to genuine ‘bubblegum’ I’ve heard in Pakistani film music. In this sappy love song full of heartfelt confessions and urgent demands lovers frolic under blue evening skies and birds chirp in the branches. All the while an intoxicating sonic atmosphere swirls around. You can almost see the unicorns and rainbows in the far meadow.

 

The song is the creation of Kemal Ahmed, a Bengali who drew upon the rich folk culture of his motherland and who preferred a soft, gentle approach to music composition. An approach that emphasized melody and texture over the lively rhythm and percussion championed by Punjabi colleagues such as Nazir Ali, who also contributed to Bigri Naslein.

 

The song itself is a near-perfect pop song. Ahmed creates an entirely credible six-minute world where love is spoken in sweet melodies, gently strummed guitars and the quicksilver sound of santoor descending the scales like a waterfall splashing down the side of a mountain. Into this perfect little world of puppy love, Ahmed injects a layered female chorus that sounds like a band of half-crazed angels.   The ladies’ voices envelop the entire piece with their non-syllabic singing but also repeatedly veer close to the edge of pleasantness with some raw and jagged wailing. At first, this is slightly disconcerting but in fact, it is the perfect antidote to such a saccharine confection. The tension created by the high-pitched choir pushing against the lush melody is spot on.

 

None of this is exceptional or unique. South Asian music directors of the Golden Age at their best were creative geniuses, fluent in multiple musical languages and supported by talented musicians who could play any number of Eastern and Western instruments. What makes Wadah karo tum a truly outstanding piece of puffery is the singer.

 

Less than 40 seconds into the song the opening two syllables of the lyric–‘wa’ ‘dah’–emerge from the background, whole, complete and polished. As if they have always existed and are coming from the very vortex of heaven. Is the singer a woman or a man? There is something familiar about this otherworldly voice but we struggle to put our finger on it.

It is not until the first verse, sung in a slightly lower register, that the penny drops: this is none other than the great ghazal maestro Ghulam Ali!

 

Ghulam Ali, who was rigorously trained in classical music by some of the tradition’s luminaries has spent his entire career devoted to interpreting the ghazal. Unlike most of his peers, including arguably the greatest ghazal singer of the past 50 years, Mehdi Hassan, who recorded hundreds of film songs, Ghulam Ali’s filmi output is relatively minor. Indeed, his best-loved film song, the ghazal, Chupke chupke raat din appeared in an Indian film Nikaah (1982).

 

So, to hear him in a Pakistani movie, singing an entirely disposable piece of filmi pop is akin to finding a small diamond at the bottom of the biriyani. Though the lyrics are inane Ali turns in a worthy performance. Indeed, his masterful breath work, subtle use of vibrato and deep feel for melody takes Wadah karo tum to an entirely new plane. From mere bubblegum to something ethereal. A genuine keeper.

This is  a genuine keeper.

 

Kya Haseen Jism Hai

ek-gunah-aur-sahi

Ik Gunah aur Sahi (One Sin More) is an Urdu film released in 1975. It ran for 52 consecutive weeks in Karachi’s cinema halls achieving Golden Jubilee status.

The super hit film was  based on the controversial short story Mummy by Sa’adat Hasan Manto. Manto is considered one of the Urdu language’s best writers and is appreciated(for his concise prose and deprecated for his unabashed discussion of topics such as sexuality, which his peers found distasteful.

Mummy is a portrait of one Stella Jackson, an Anglo-Indian woman in Poona (Pune) who is painted in the shades of a madam/procuress for those connected with the film industry.  The story begins by attaching all the stereotypes of ‘loose’ Christian, Anglo-Indian (Eurasian) women to Stella: heavily made up to the point of ugliness, drinker, prostitute.  By the end of the story, however, Manto is less moralistic about Mummy and leaves the reader feeling a great deal of empathy and compassion for his character.

I’m really looking forward to watching this film to see how director Hassan Tariq (who also wrote the screenplay) handles the drama.  The film starred beauty queen/dancer Rani (Tariq’s ex-wife) and dashing leading man Mohammad Ali.  

The album cover of the soundtrack (above) is revealing on a couple of counts. First, the image of a modern young lady giving you a ‘come hither’ look next to a bottle of whiskey pretty much sums the storyline for the casual observer. The whiskey, Vat 69, was apparently the preferred poison of villains and vamps on both sides of the border. Watch any film made in Lahore or Mumbai from this era (60s-80s) and you’ll see Vat 69 in the clutches of some shady character or another.

The other interesting thing about this cover is the prominence given to the music director,  Nisar Bazmi.  Not every music director would be afforded such visibility and only those whose name would in its own right draw customers into the cinema or shop.  Bazmi, without a doubt was one of the few.

Originally from Maharashtra, Bazmi began his career in Bombay and until he left for Pakistan, the mentor to one of the greatest musical duos of Indian film, Laxmikant Pyarelal.  In Pakistan, he composed music for dozens of films in a wide range of styles from folk and classical to pop and rock.

Today’s song Kya Haseen Jism Hai (What a Beautiful Body You Have) is an ‘item number’ but without the usual disco/dance beats.  Rather Mehnaz delivers the mid-tempo number with huge pathos and sadness.  This the song of a woman who knows exactly what sort of world she is living in. A world of fleeting desires and pleasures where bodies are sold and traded for cash and cheap, hollow laughs. Through unrelentingly depressing lyrics and Mehnaz’s moody singing, the audience is treated to a cold critique of a certain class of cashed up Pakistanis who lived lives far removed from those of most of the audience.

The music is understated, which as I said, is not what one would expect from a vamp’s nightclub solo .  Bazmi gets some excellent, soulful electric guitar licks out of his band of musicians and expertly increases the emotional tension by employing a small orchestra of strings but overall the music is composed in such a way as to give Mehnaz the space to do her moody interpretation of a very sad business.

VAT 69

All in all, top shelf stuff!