How classic numbers inspire filmmakers to make them part of fresh films and serials
One of the many joys of watching Anurag Basu’s Ludo is seeing gangster Sattu Bhai listening to ‘O Betaji, O Babuji’ as he goes about his criminal activities. The C. Ramachandra composition lends heft to the anthology where the four strands are connected by a quirk of fate. After all, one of Sattu’s victims was watching the song before being killed. Originally part of the Bhagwan Dada and Geeta Bali film Albela (1951), the song sets the tone for the Netflix film that muses over the purpose of life and death, without being didactic.
It helps the audience identify with the emotional arc of its zany characters. Lyricist Rajendra Krishna’s simple yet profound verse, ‘Qismat ki hawa kabhi naram, kabhi garam…’, makes our landing in Basu’s signature universe, where you feel the urge to embrace even a dreaded gangster, smooth.
“I am an encyclopedia of Hindi film songs from the 1950s to 1970s,” says Basu. “The songs of Albela are with me since childhood as we had an LP of the film at home. While writing the script, I said that this is the song I would like to use if we get the rights. It is so apt for the situation,” he explains.
Basu is not the only one to rely on old songs for fresh situations and contexts. Unlike remixes, which are largely used as ‘items’, it is an art to infuse old songs into new scripts. Recently, director Ram Madhvani made Balika Badhu’s ‘Bade Achche Lagte Hain’ central to his story in Disney Hotstar’s Aarya. The protagonist’s husband used to sing the R.D. Burman composition to her and when he is shot dead, the Anand Bakshi song becomes a leitmotif for him and even inspires his family to crack the code to his wealth.
In an interview, Madhvani said he was inspired by Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddar (2007), where Sheshadri played by Dharmendra listens to Bandini’s (1963) ‘Mera Gora Ang Laile’ when he remembers his wife. Interestingly, like Basu’s Sattu, Raghavan’s Sheshadri is not a cardboard criminal and the S.D. Burman composition provided a window to his heart.
Ofted, directors use the audience’s familiarity with a song to surprise them or to establish a period. In Aarya, Madhvani uses ‘Akele Akele Kahan Ja Rahe Ho’ (An Evening in Paris) in the background just before a kidnapping sequence. In Sacred Games, Do Bigha Zamin’s ‘Dharti Kahe Pukar Ke’ is played to establish the socio-political churning.
Aanand L. Rai used ‘Ja Ja Ja Bewafa’ (Aar Paar, 1954) in Tanu Weds Manu Returns. “I was dealing with cracks in a husband-wife story and I really needed a song to depict that they are still connected. Majrooh’s (Sultanpuri) simple lines ‘Ja Ja Ja Bewafa, Kaisa Pyar, Kaisi Preet Re, Tu Na Kisi Ka Meet Re’ has so much love and pain,” says the director. Again, the O.P. Nayyar composition helped the audience understand the turmoil the character was in.
A fan of C. Ramachandra, Basu reminds us that all the songs of Albela are a little quirky and apt for our times. “Remember ‘Sham Dhale, Khidki Tale’? The cinema, stories, and music of the 1950s and 1960s were ahead of time. It is we who are going backward,” he says.
On YouTube, in the comment section of the original song, many have said that they were introduced to the song picturised on Shyama through the Kangana Ranaut number. “This, I feel, is the true tribute,” says Rai, recalling how he repurposed Nayyar’s ‘Kajra Mohabbat Wala’ (Kismat, 1968) in Tanu Weds Manu.
He fondly remembers how Saroj Khan, who choreographed the song and was a dancer in the original picturised on Biswajit and Babita, praised his effort.
Both Basu and Rai, however, say that getting the rights is a complicated and expensive process. The rights of most old songs are reportedly with Saregama (previously HMV) and the negotiations involve time and, at times, a give and take approach. “Creating an original song would have been easier and cheaper,” says Basu.