‘Bollywood Odyssey’: Taxman Unravels History Of Hindi Film Songs 

Hindi film songs are an abiding part of our lives. But how many of us actually know about the history of iconic Hindi songs? How many of us are aware of the various facets and genres of Hindi film songs – like title songs, break-up songs, tandem songs, back-to-back songs, club songs, vicarious songs, and so much more?

Sample these questions: How did OP Nayyar ‘disrupt’ the Hindi film song? Why Ravi did not find his rightful place at the high table?  How did Usha Khanna give Rafi his confidence back? Why did Jaidev die in penury? What did Fyodor Dostoevsky have to do with Khayyam? Why did the classical titan Manna De sing comic songs? Why did Noor Jehan become better with age? Why do male singers generally fare better than female ones in tandem songs? What are vicarious songs and what is their role?  Why do judges quote songs in their orders?

Ajay Mankotia discusses all this and much more based on his lifelong passion for music, the musical background of his family, and his personal interaction with music directors in his book Bollywood Odyssey. That he is a former taxman makes it even more interesting.

Mankotia’s research is detailed. He ferrets out information straight from the horse’s mouth in most cases. His passion for Hindi film music is on display on every page of the book.

The narration keeps the reader hooked with hitherto unknown background information and personal nuggets spicing up the facts, piquing the interest of the reader.

He analyses the break-up song so beautifully. Here’s a sample:

“In the ’50s and ’60s, what did the Indian man do when his ladylove rejected him? He would reason with her; maybe plead with her; or perhaps even threaten her. Or he would see her viewpoint and accept it gracefully; he might even become her friend. Of course, he would get hurt. He would either take it on the chin, or hit the bar, dive into depression, or withdraw from society. But eventually, things would become normal, and he would move on in life.

But in that era, the Indian film hero did one thing more—which you and I did not get to do. He would attend her engagement or wedding ceremony, or any social function where guests and her new beau were in attendance, sit at the piano, and sing out his anguish, his disappointment, his ire, his frustration. He would be wry; his words would reek of double entendre. He would remind her of their love. But he would also assure her that he bore her no ill-will and would quietly exit from her life. He would wish her a happy future with the partner she had chosen. All very dignified, no violent outburst. All this drama would ensure that the lady’s special day was wrecked. A final musical good riddance!”

Mankotia’s analysis of the genius of Jagjit Singh is summed up succinctly – Jagjit Singh had condensed a Stephen King story in the Reader’s Digest’.

“The ghazal in India remained cloistered in the rarefied closed confines of the cognoscenti. It remained beyond the reach of the people. Its language, its gayaki, its intellectual content, its classical moorings, and its very persona made it unattainable to the non-members of the exclusive club. Hindi film music, especially the ghazals of Madan Mohan, exposed the common listener to this fascinating world. But these were few and far between, whetting the appetite of a burgeoning educated middle class wringing their hands in despair at their difficulty in negotiating a Begum Akhtar. The landscape was ripe when Jagjit Singh released The Unforgettables in 1977.

The ghazals and the nazms were easy to understand, the style of singing was simple, the instrumentation (including a guitar — “Blasphemous,” cried the puritans!) gave a modern feel, the length was equivalent to the average attention span, the voice was rich and pure, and there were duets too (in ghazals? really!) with his wife Chitra whose skill levels and voice quality were different, making the pairing incredible. The sequestration was over, the rigidity was unshackled, the genre could finally come out to gulp fresh air.”

The way the book delves deep into lesser-known concepts like the use of Hindi film lyrics in legal judgments, songs featuring doctors, the analysis of the music of composers, and the vocals of singers, the author’s endearing account of his friendship with OP Nayyar, makes reading it a rich experience.

His narration is interspersed with songs and lyrics, making the experience magical. The language is racy while the content remains scholarly. The crisp editing and the superb cover make Bollywood Odyssey a jackpot for Hindi film music afficionados. It is entertaining, educative, and motivates the reader to discover, or re-discover, the allure and magic of the Golden Period of Hindi film music.



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