Hindi film music has a wide range; it is also quite rich in content. Our film lyricists have always excelled in writing all kinds of songs to suit every occasion — love songs, comic songs, lullabies, nuptial songs, pensive ghazals, scintillating qawwalis, piety-inspiring bhajans and naats, and of course sad and tearful songs on the plight of the poor and hapless.
It’s the songs of the last named genre that are now, not much heard in Hindi films. Maybe it is because of the changes that have been taking place in our socio-cultural life over the last three or four decades. Or maybe the stories of the films now being made in Bollywood are mostly centred on people who come from the well-to-do classes of urban India.
India of course is still quite poor, but perhaps not as depressingly poor as it was, say, some 60 or 70 years ago. Rural India, however, is still in a bad shape. Our farmers are still at the mercy of natural forces. Excessive rains or a prolonged spell of drought can even today ruin a farmer economically. Imagine if Bimal Roy’s film, Do Bigha Zameen (1953) were released today with some changes in order to contextualise its story for these times — would anybody find anything incongruent about it? I think it would be considered a good film and quite relevant to our times.
It’s because even today a small farmer is as helpless as Shambu Mahato, the protagonist of Do Bigha Zameen. Like the hapless Shambu, the small farmers are in distress now as well. Shambu was ruined because he could not repay a debt of around Rs 250 that he owed to the village zamindar. Farmers are ruined now and commit suicide because he cannot repay the bank’s loan. So, sad, tearful film songs bemoaning the plight of the poor — though no longer heard in Hindi films — can touch our hearts even today.
Perhaps the first sad song on the plight of the poor was heard in the 1942 Hindi film, Zamindar. The song, “Duniya mein garibon ko araam nahin milta, rotey hain to hasney ka paigaam nahin milta…” was written by Qamar Jalalabadi, set to music by Ghulam Haider, and sung by Shamshad Begum.
After India achieved independence, the poor naturally looked forward to the coming of achhe din in their lives. But, like an ever receding mirage, those achhe din kept eluding them. But still the poor did not give up hope. In 1951 came Ranjit Movietone’s film Hum Log, starring Balraj Sahni, Nutan, Sajjan and Shyama. It was directed by Zia Sarhadi and was a dark, gloomy film telling the story of a family living in grinding poverty. With every passing day, the hardships of the family keep increasing. The unemployed young son has given up all hope of ever seeing achhe din for his family. The young daughter suffers from TB but there is no money in the house for her medical treatment. The film ends on a note of vague hope for the poor with the song, “Gaaye chala ja gaaye chala ja, ik din tera bhi zamana aayegaa…” The song, “Ajab tori duniya ho morrey Rama, ajab tori duniya…” in Do Bigha Zameen is sung by poor rickshaw-pullers, roadside hawkers, and down-at-heel dailywage labourers when, at the end of a hectic day, they sit together outside their hovels to relax and entertain each other with some music. This song in the film is reflective of the irony in the life of the poor — it is they who build the palatial buildings and roads for others but themselves live in hovels. They grow cereals, vegetables, and fruits for others but their own children often go to sleep on an empty stomach. In mills, the poor make cloth for others but they remain clad in rags. This song was written by Shailendra and composed by Salil Choudhary.
Raj Kapoor’s Boot Polish (1954) was a landmark film in the history of Hindi cinema. The film tells the story of two orphan children living with their stonehearted aunt, who ill-treats them and forces them to beg on the streets of Bombay (now Mumbai). But the children, encouraged by a cripple of their locality called John Chacha, try to earn an honest living by working as shoeshine boys. There was a touching song in this film in the voice of Mohammad Rafi and chorus. On the screen it was sung by orphan children, “Tere laadlon ki dua maangte hai, tumhaare hain tumse dayaa maangte hain…” Set to music by ShankarJaikishen, it was written by Shailendra.
In the 1955 Hindi film Seema, a miserably poor man with some orphan children in rags goes from street to street begging for alms. With an old harmonium dangling from his neck, he sings, “Hamein bhi de do sahara ke besaharey hain, phalak ki godh se toote hue sitare hain…” and the little orphan children dance to its tune. The most touching couplet of this song is, “Bharaa ho pet to sansaar jagmagaata hai/Sataaye bhookh to imaan dug-magaata hai…” (When one’s belly is full, the world looks brightly lit up, but when the pangs of hunger torment, one’s honesty and integrity are in peril).
In 1956 came a film called Naya Aadmi starring NT Rama Rao and Anjali Devi, in which there was a stirring song on the pathetic plight of the poor, “Garibon ka paseena behraha hai, yeh paani behte behte kehraha hai, kabi wo din bhi aayega yeh paani rung layega….” It was written by Rajinder Krishan, composed by Madan Mohan and sung by Mohammad Rafi.
In the 1966 film Dus Lakh, the duet sung by Mohammad Rafi and Asha Bhonsle, “Garibon ki suno, wo tumhari sunega, tum ek paisa do ge, wo dus lakh de gaa…..” became so popular that for years it was the favourite song of street beggars in northern India as they moved from door to door.
A song in Manoj Kumar’s film Roti, Kapada, Aur Makaan (1974) graphically showcased the plight of the common man who is unable to meet the daily needs of his life because his expenses are always outstripping his meagre income. The song, “Powder waalley doodh ki malayee maar gayee, gareeb ko bachche ki padhaee maar gayee, Baaki jo bacha awo mehangaee maar gayee…” evokes in vivid detail the setbacks that the poor face in their daily life because of inflation and soaring prices of essential commodities. It was sung by Mukesh, Lata, Narinder Chanchal, Jani Babu and chorus.
“Happiness is but an occasional episode in a general drama of pain” was the last line of Thomas Hardy’s famous tragic novel, The Mayor of Casterbridge. Indeed, happiness, in the life of the poor, is just an occasional episode.