Movie Songs

Where are Hindi cinema’s political songs?

May 29, 20245 Mins Read

Takht na hoga, taj na hoga/ Kal tha lekin aaj na hoga/ Jisme sab adhikaar na paayen/ Wo saachha Swaraj na hoga”.

(“There won’t be a throne, there won’t be a crown/ Where everyone does not have rights/ That won’t be true independence”).

These fiery lines by Sahir Ludhianvi in Vasant Joglekar’s Aaj Aur Kal (1963) — the story of an oppressive erstwhile king who fights the local election against a young social activist wanting to rid his country of crony capitalism and feudalism — have stood the test of time. They are not only a rallying cry in the film but also a reminder of a time when cinema gave a voice to the masses and showed an unforgiving mirror to the powerful. The campaign song in the film goes: “Mehnat par majdoor ka haq hai/ Jeene par pabandi kyun ho/ Jeena har insaan ka haq hai (A labourer has the right to his labour. Why should there be any restriction on living? Living is the right of every human being)”.

As the seventh and final phase of India’s Lok Sabha elections comes up on June 1, having been accompanied by raucous and auto-tuned campaign songs by different political parties, one can’t help but look back at Ludhianvi’s song. It is a reminder of a time when the Hindi film song attempted to uphold principles of democracy by speaking about injustice; when writers created socially-conscious songs — ones that revolved around constitutional rights, elections, political awareness and justice.

The political themes of the 1950s and early ‘60s cinema started as an extension of post-Independence Nehruvian ideology. It included ideas of socialism, secularism and industrialisation. Films like Naya Daur (1957) and a song like ‘Saathi Haath Badhana’ examined the costs of development.

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Around the same time, Kaifi Azmi also asked a piercing question in Pyaasa (1957): “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain” (“Those who are proud of the nation, where are they?”) scoffing at the pride of those in power. The ‘60s saw two wars, the deaths of two PMs (Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri), the rise of Indira Gandhi and the coming up of other parties and a reduced majority for Congress in the 1967 elections, leading to a split in the party. All these were fodder for interesting poetry and lyrics on elections.

The turbulent ‘70s would see a resurgence of the “election” song in films. Mere Apne (1971), Gulzar’s directorial debut, explored themes such as student politics, unemployment and corrupt politicians. The song ‘Haal Chal Theek Thak Hai’ had the lines, “Aab-o-hawa desh ki bohot saaf hai… Aadmi ko khoon voon sab maaf hai/ Aap ki dua se baaki sab theek-thaak hai” (“The air in the country is clean… Even murder is forgiven/ With your blessing, all is well”). There was “Kaun sachha hai, kaun jhootha hai, pehle ye jaan lo, phir apna vote do” (“First find out who’s truthful and who’s a liar, then cast your vote”) from Tapan Sinha’s Zindagi Zindagi (1972). Kishore Kumar sang Anand Bakshi and RD Burman’s crisp ‘Woh jhootha hai vote na usko dena’ (‘He is a liar, don’t vote for him’) in Namak Haram (1973). These songs, besides energising voters and being non-partisan, offered a glimpse into the politics of lyricists and sometimes, filmmakers.

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Film music was affected directly by labour unrest in the days after the Emergency in 1975. Take “salaam keejiye, aali janaab aaye hain, ye paanch saalo ka dene hisaab aaye hain”, penned by Gulzar in Aandhi (1975). In the film, politician Aarti Devi (modelled after Indira Gandhi) is walking the streets during a campaign. The scathing satire-laden qawwali came with hard-hitting lines such as “Hamare vote khareedenge humko ann dekar/ Ye nange jism chhupa dete hain qafan dekar” (“They’ll buy our votes in return for food/ They shroud naked bodies by giving them palls”).

While the political song declined more and more in the later years, it mostly came in bursts and spurts and often from Gulzar. In Hu Tu Tu (1999), his last outing as a director, there was ‘Ghapla Hai’ about government malfeasance and ‘Bandobast hai’ about farmers vulnerabilies and their fight for their rights.

From here on, the space for the irreverent and socially conscious political song has shrunk in films, especially at a time when dissent has come to be equated with sedition. One of the last such songs that comes to mind is from Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy (2019). Rapper DIVINE knocks out a banger: “Desh kaise hoga saaf/ Inki neeyat mein hai daagh/ Vote milne par ye khaas, phir gayab pure saal” (“How will the country get cleaned when their motives are smeared/ When voted, they become special and then they vanish for the whole year?”).

In recent years, Hindi cinema has found itself under attack in a polarised nation, where criticism of the government gets misconstrued as “disloyalty”. In this climate, how can one still create “Chin-aur Arab hamara/ Rehne ko ghar nahi, saara Hindustan hamara” — Ludhianvi’s criticism of Nehruvian socialism, which was never censored or asked to be toned down?

© The Indian Express Pvt Ltd

First uploaded on: 29-05-2024 at 08:04 IST

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