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Filmi gana

How the twentieth century turned the raga into a unique new genre

Filmi gana

The second half of the 20th century saw a great deal of strife and conflict but it offered a rarefied gift to music lovers in the subcontinent. It turned the raga into a unique new genre known as the filmi gana (movie song). Like the thumri, tappa, dadra, kajri, a filmi gana is now a part of our musical heritage. Its only limitation is that it must not last more than three to five minutes.

The geniuses who encompassed a raga into an alluring filmi gana include Master Ghulam Haider, Naushad, Madan Mohan, R.D. Burman, S.D. Burman, Roshan, Salil Chowdhary, Jaidev, the duos: Kalyanjee-Anandjee, Lakhsmikant-Pyarelal, Shanker-JaiKishan, etc. Master Ghulam Haider aside from giving us some appealing melodies, has the distinction of having introduced Lata Mangeshkar to the Bollywood film world.

I do not think it would have been possible for them to create their exquisite ganas if there had been no Lata Mangeshkar. Her voice, pure and chaste, with the ability to move from octave to octave effortlessly, was absolutely astounding. Urdu was not her mother tongue — she was born in a Marathi speaking family — but for over four decades, she sang songs in Urdu with a clear diction. Her presence enabled the composers to explore complex melodic structures which she alone could execute with perfection. I doubt if any other singer could have rendered a three minute recital of Jai Jai Vanti  in manmohana baray jhootay with such surety and panache.

I think I have been fortunate in not having seen any of the movies whose songs have so moved me that I have listened to them again and again. I say so because the half a dozen movies (but for the odd movie, mistakenly referred to as an ‘art movie’ all films made in India had to include songs) that I have seen, a stirring song sung by a male or a female has, invariably, been filmed with such exaggerated postures and clichéd mannerisms that I had to shut my eyes so as not to be distracted by the so-called ‘directorial touches’.

The out and out classical songs have mostly been composed for dance recitals in movies. There is no need to dwell upon them because most of these ganas are raga-made-easy numbers. I must point out that recognising the raga is which a song is set does not enhance the quality of a song. Indeed, there are scores of people who are moved by a song without ever bothering to know what raga it is composed in. Were you ever, tangentially, to suggest to someone that a particular song is so perfect for the lyrics because the music director has chosen to cast it in raga Shiv Ranjini, or Malgunjee, the quick response would be: “I don’t know about raga-vaga. All I know is that it touches my heart.” And he would be right.

Some of my favourite songs which do not have the feel of a raga are Chaudhvin ka Chand ho and Zindagi bhar nahin bhoolay gee ye barsaat kee raat both sung by Mohammad Rafi. It is a pity that today, in India, Rafi is not as admired as some other singers who were not a patch on him. Rafi had the incredible ability not only to sing street-smart, racy numbers with great aplomb, he could also render a soulful filmi gana as well. His rendition of “mun re too kahe na dheer dharay in raga Aimen sends a shiver down my spine.

The out and out classical songs have mostly been composed for dance recitals in movies. There is no need to dwell upon them because most of these ganas are raga-made-easy numbers.

One beautiful sensuous song Kahe tarsaye jiara… belonging to the re-make of the film Chitralekha enthralls me. Three singers perform it. One is the diva, the Mangeshkar, but I do not know the names of the other two female singers. The lilting melody passes from one to the other with the effortlessness of athletes handing over the baton in a relay race. I had always been under the impression that it was set in raga Kalawati until I was informed that the raga was Shiv Kalyan. When I was in India, in March this year, I read somewhere that many people think it was Kalawati but there was a debate about it, and that in all probability Kahe tarsaye was set in raga Janasamohini. Ah well! It is a saucy, pacy number and the composer, Roshan, has given it a tremendous vibrance.

A song has to appeal to me first in its own right, only later do the underpinnings of the raga become apparent to me. Let me elaborate: I listened to the mukhra (call it the face of the raga) of Sapnon main agar meray tum aao to so jaoon. I loved the manner in which Ms Mangeshkar paced the song. I was unable to detect the raga in which she rendered the asthai. The raga changes in the antara which again I could not locate, but it mattered not. The most wonderful aspect of the song, composed by Madan Mohan, (whom I regard to be one of the most imaginative and innovative composers) is that there is no ‘classical music’ air about it. It is one of the most bewitching songs I have ever heard. I must have listened to it hundreds of times and I still feel a lump in my throat. There is a whiff of raga Manjh Khamay about it, but who cares? It is an, evocative, soothing number, and Lata Mangeshkar uses the gentlest brush to make a beautiful painting on the sky.

There are filmi ganas in which the ragas have been used in such an ingenious and creative manner that the mind reels and the heart is overjoyed. I shall list just four: the first two are the works of the maestro, Madan Mohan. The first song is Mahi ree mein kae kaasay kahoon peer apnay jia kee. No one has been able to decipher for me the two, in fact, three ragas Madan Mohan has so mixed that the anguish of which the singer speaks permeates your soul. The second song, Bayyan na dharo o balma is set in an unstereotyped Charukeshi. Kalyanjee Anandjee’s Ik rut aye, ik rut jaay, too, has a similar treatment. The composers set the first part in Jait and then, dramatically, switch to Abhogi Kanra; the effect is stunning. The fourth song, Allah tero naam in Aiman, to which Mangeshkar has lent her luminous voice is a hymn and the composer, Jaidev, a maverick and a highly choosy composer, has given it a serenity which is ethereal.

The fact is that almost every raga under the sun has been used — and juxtaposed — in filmi ganas by composers who were stalwarts. Their era, alas, came to an end during the nineties of the last century and it is not going to come back again.

Zia Mohyeddin

The author is the president and CEO of National Academy of Performing Arts (NAPA)


  • Please do listen to some of the raaga based songs in kj yesudas voice. When it comes to film raagas nobody can come close to legendry singer trained in both Hindustani and cranatic and blessed with magical voice which is both velvet and deep.
    One wonders if yesudas mother tongue was hindiwhat heights he could have achieved in bollywood.

  • . I don’t think , Lata jee was the only one with ” Clear Diction ” … Rafi Sahib , Kishore jee, Mukeysh , and her sister Asha should also be considered …on the Indian side of border and Masood Rana , Ahmed Rushdi , Mehdi Hassan , Noor jehan …etc should be from this side of border.

    of course they are not the only one … there are many many others ….too


  • Who says Rafi is not admired in India ? He is considered the foremost male singer in the Hindi industry, along with Kishore Kumar. Apart from this, a great write up.

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