Mumbai, 26 October, 1996: More than two decades after fictitiously chronicling the Emergency days in Aandhi, Gulzar has made another film on Indira Gandhi. This time, he focuses on the aftermath of her assassination and the insurgent 80s of Punjab. The film showcases a grim transformation of young Sikhs as they grab the guns to avenge the 1984 pogrom. It has a new lead in Chandrachur Singh, who is paired opposite Tabu, along with Om Puri among others. Should a film about violence, tragedy and loss feature songs? While Hollywood would feel iffy, Hindi film's resident bard has managed to write songs that are in sync with the film's story.
The director-lyricist has always found able composers for his soundtracks. From relatively less frequent collaborators like Salil Chowdhury (Mere Apne), Madan Mohan (Mausam), and, more recently, Pt. Hridaynath Mangeshkar (Lekin), to his life-long friend R. D. Burman, every musician has done justice to Gulzar's craft of profound poetry, tangled and yet simple narratives. It has been two years since Burman passed away, leaving a deep void of silence for Gulzar's filmography ahead.
And the future seems promising. In Maachis, Gulzar has roped in Vishal Bhardwaj, an upcoming composer from Meerut. Bharadwaj's commercial record has not been as attractive as contemporaries like Jatin-Lalit, Nadeem-Shravan, or A. R. Rahman. His discography – featuring the soundtracks for a children's film, a forgotten feature, and an arthouse film – suggests that he is here to make context and narrative specific music. Such music does not sell well. But this is after all the duo that gave us the immensely popular Jungle Book song: "Jungle-jungle baat chali hai pata chala hai! Chaddi pehen ke phool khila hai, phool khila hai!".
A similar spark must have ignited between the two for Maachis. The 10-track soundtrack with eight songs and two themes does two-fold justice to the story and soundscape of the film. It's dark, it's depressing, it reeks of loss –- and it's relevant. There are no fillers in this soundtrack. It's ambient. Most of the songs commence with melodic synths that set the tone. All of this might sound a bit NFDC-like (read 'too arty') on the first listen but I suspect it'll grow on the listener.
The "Opening Theme", for instance, begins with a haunting church organ orchestration followed by a melancholy back and forth of the organ, flute, sarangi and violins. The ambience does not restrict itself to the murky and efficacious background score (available on CD). It percolates into the first song of the album as well. Kay Kay, the new singer on the block, calls out in a high pitch: "Chhod aaye hum, woh galiyan". The chorus – Hariharan, Suresh Wadkar and Vinod Sehgal – croons along. Not to forget the infectious whistles that bring about a chirpy youthfulness to the song.
The 4/4 beat cycle and an all-boys ensemble lends to it the feeling of 'a bunker song'. The lyrics suggest something else. Gulzar's verses are a clarion call for a politically restive youth who has left home for revolutionary pursuits but still gets homesick once in a while. The song serves as a major motif in the soundtrack, leaving its tonal effervescence all over.
Following the karaoke-worthy, brothers-in-arms anthem are five solos by Lata Mangeshkar . She lends her vocals to Tabu that suits her mature but vulnerable character sketch. The first one, invoked by a mournful shehnai, "Tum Gaye", is a jazzy ode to loss. Mangeshkar sings it in a tender yet tense, motherly voice. Gulzar's lyrics create a haunting image of the self crumbling and subsuming itself in its soil post the parting of a loved one. "Tum gaye, sab gaya. Koi apni hi mitti tale, dab gaya." The song also delves into the diegetic, bridging two stanzas with the brief ambience of bells and Gurbani-kirtan, "Satnam satnam satnam ji, Wahe Guru, Wahe Guru, Wahe Guru ji!"
The most poignant and vivid lyric of this song would be "Koi aaya tha kuch der pehle yahaan, leke mitti se lepa hua aasman. Kabr par daalkar vo gaya, kab gaya?" (Not so long ago, somebody had come here, bringing a sandful of the sky. He dropped it off my grave and went away. When did he go?), a massive contrast to the dulcet "Aaj main upar, aasman neeche" from this year's Khamoshi: The Musical. Speaking of Khamoshi, the male version of "Tum Gaye", sung consummately by Hariharan, is reminiscent of his soft, balanced baritone as it featured in "Baahon Ke Darmiyan", and "Tu Hi Re" (from Bombay). Last but not the least, both versions of "Tum Gaye" have a cameo in the form of an impeccable alaap by Sanjeev Abhyankar.
Upping the element of viraha rasa prevalent in the soundtrack, Mangeshkar and Gulzar follow up "Tum Gaye" with "Yaad Na Aaye Koi". The song begins with a warm but sombre flute riff, segueing into her melancholy calls bemoaning the memory of the beloved (compared to Jogi and Ranjha). The song has a folkish ring to it, together with the hand flicked tambourine, giving it a vidai flavour.
What happens when the parting becomes unbearable? The mere thoughts of death flood the dreams of the expectant eyes of the lover. "Bhej Kahaar" ably transports listeners to that frame of mind. Crooned, or rather cried out, by the heart and soul of Mangeshkar, this elegiac ode to the palanquin bearers induces goosebumps on the first listen. The eerie, minimal soundscape of the track only accentuates the haunting vocals of the song.
The last two solos of Mangeshkar offer partial respite from the overwhelming sadness of the album and venture into inflexions which are more Pahadi than Punjabi.
"Aey Hawa" begins with an "Ae-aa-ha" call from Mangeshkar, which is slightly nostalgic of Kishore Kumar's prelude in Aradhana's "Kora Kaagaz Tha Yeh Man Mera". The lyrics personify the wind as a flaneur, who is asked the whereabouts of those who are parting. What binds the listener to the song is the hook harkening "Laut aana! Tum, laut aana!" (Do return!)
"Paani Paani Re", the last Lata solo, can be arguably the most soothing track of the album. Bharadwaj masterfully syncs the aquatic ambience of a river into a string-bass backed rhythm, ultimately segueing into a matka-maracas beat pattern . The rhythm staging is very Pancham-esque. After all, it was Burman who had conjured a similar rhythm out of the oars of a boat, in Kati Patang's sombre "Jis Gali Mein Tera Ghar Na Ho Baalma".
The distant bells and the alpine atmosphere of the song's orchestration soften even the highest of Mangeshkar's notes. What remains is Gulzar's poetry, which meanders briskly over the duly complementing music. The song has its moments, some saline, some sweet, all enriching.
The last track of the album is the most 'commercial' in the Maachis album. The boys come back with a bang. Like Irishmen in a cheery gathering at the pub, jigging to the mandolin and remembering the good ol' days, these Sikhs gather around a bonfire and pump up the bhangra, lilting to a rabab, remembering the halcyon days back home –- and especially the ladies! "Chappa chappa charkha chale" the alliterative, onomatopoeic title goes. And it goes a long way.
Dampening the cheer with a final pall of gloom, the film and its soundtrack come full circle with grief. The "Closing Theme" riffs off to the whistles of "Chhod Aaye Hum". This time, the whistles evolve into a quiet staccato of string plucks, followed by Suresh Lalwani's pathos-filled rendition of the song on the violin. Perhaps this signifies the consequence of uncalculated angst. The inflamed youth of a politically tumultuous Punjab had escaped home, training for the thrill of revolt. But did they go too far? Is there a way back home now?