I associate the voice of Shamshad Begum with my father’s generation, nay, with my father. Hazy memories of early childhood appear before my eyes when a Shamshad and Talat Mahmood song would play in the background, and my father would sit listening, with a cigarette in his hand, and Gujarat Samachar before him.
I associate the voice of Kishore Kumar with my life, listening avidly to songs of Amitabh Bachchan and Rajesh Khanna. So when I recently chanced upon a lilting and lovely duet, Mere neendo mein tum, mere khwabon mein tum from the film Naya Andaz (1956), it felt like the coming together of two different eras.
Voices, some at least, carry the imprint of their times. A great example is Talat Mahmood for instance, which a dear friend rightly remarked, was a voice of undivided India. It has a cohesion and low-key serenity that is seldom heard again after independence/partition.
The song Mere khwabon mein tum is alluring even visually, with Kishore Kumar singing both on and off stage; and Meena Kumari (as Mala in the film), joining him, waltzing and dancing, and expressively looking into his eyes. I had type-casted Meena Kumari from Pakeeza and Sahab Bibi Aur Ghulam, or even Kajal. She had become for me a synonym of the long-suffering look, and with her early and tragic death, I was not far off the truth. It seems Nargis wrote an obituary for her in which she says, “Meena, I am glad you are no more, for you deserved better”.
Be as it may, the song took me to this hardly-known film Naya Andaz. The film had some surprising elements, and a delightful script for the first half. True to its name, the film shows the son Chand (played by Kishore Kumar) as a new poet, who has no patience with the didactic poetry of his father. His is a new style- for he mixes metaphors, English with Hindi, expressing unusual turns of phrases, and making Urdu an intimate and everyday affair. The surfeit of poetry and cleverness manifest in witty comeback and parody of and through language appears from our times like a different universe.
The dialogues have a sunny quality that makes poetry light and natural, so that from selling soap to soul, it has the repertoire needed for a living language. Our association of Urdu with only poetry, and imagination of it like lying like a moribund maiden is clearly a historical development. Chand leaves home for he is thrown out of college for responding to each examination question with a poem, and along with him is his friend Karim (played by Johnny Walker). The pair calls itself Chand-Suraj and meet up with a man called Tara (Chand).
Meanwhile, the song Meri neendo mein tum occurs as a leitmotif, first playing as a theatrical performance by Chand and Mala on stage; but the performance becomes real as the song is now played for them, to say those words to each other and not to us. The disjunct between the Meena Kumari I had type-casted and imagined in Lata Mangeshkar’s voice and a waltzing, gown wearing woman lip-syncing to Shamshad’s voice lingered. So did the fact that Kishore Kumar was singing in a song that Talat Mahmood should or could have.
Where was this disjunct coming from, and what was it saying to me? I found the answer in the logic of memory. Here’s the thing- songs do not come in singles. They come as leftovers of another song, a spillover of some other note somewhere. And while listening to this one, I was haunted by Milte hiaankhen dil hua diwana kisi ka from the film Babul (1950).
The opening notes have a similarity and the fact that in both songs, the men are playing the piano while the women are singing freely in a duet. Shamshad’s voice remains common to both, but it is only natural that the naya andaz (new style) was best captured by the impish Kishore Kumar than Mahmood.
The disjunct I experienced was one of trying to fit a pre-Partition voice to the modernity of another film, or creating a seamlessness between long-suffering looks and the sweetness of Mangeshkar’s voice – both of which Meena Kumari escapes in Naya Andaz.
Now that I know the genesis of my disjunct, I can live with the two moments of Babul and Naya Andaz, both from the same decade and similar visuals but apart by temporalities created through different voices.