Breaking Down The Music Of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Gangubai Kathiawadi

From Bhansali’s influences to his lyrical references, from his visual cues to his subversions

The word “jaan”, meaning life force, is written in Urdu as “ja-anh” — the “anh” as a nasal twang that doesn’t allow the tongue to quite touch the roof of the mouth, suspended mid-air, attempting, but not fully able to produce the flatness of the sound “n”. A strange, stretching, languorous, nasal limbo, it is called noon ghunna. Even the script used to give shape to this sound produced the empty, curved ں — like a receptacle whose purpose does not come from merely being, but by being useful, to hold, to store something else. When Geeta Dutt sings ‘Meri Jaan Mujhe Jaan Na Kaho’, when Lata Mangeshkar sings ‘Meri Jaan Meri Jaan’, when KK sings ‘O Meri Jaan’, there is an allegiance to the Urdu language which, when transliterated to Hindi and then romanized into English loses the limbo. Ja-anh often becomes jaan, and remains so. (In Urdu, too, this difference is slowly disappearing.)

Tune the ears, then, to how, in the very first song of Gangubai Kathiawadi, Neeti Mohan pronounces “jaan”, lending the word its noon ghunna, severing the finality, the flatness of “n”, bringing in her full bodied blues, breathing loudly as she arrives at the end of the one-syllable word “jaan”, with the saxophones dancing in a funky, rhythmic loop behind her. The shoulders shimmy, the heart sighs.


Her voice loops upwards while singing the word “nasha”, as though walking up a flight of broken, uneven stairs, drunk. Kumar’s lyrics are very much a playful ode to not just the fixation in
Urdu poetry on the jaam and the paymana — the glasses and goblets that hold both alcohol and its intoxication — but Bhansali’s fixation, too. Alcohol becomes both comfort and catastrophe in Devdas, in Saawariya it is introduced as that which holds and hides intoxication, the way the body holds and hides the soul — the hero reminds us that like fire in a matchstick, like intoxication in alcohol, the soul too isn’t visible but why should that mean it doesn’t exist? In Bajirao Mastani and Ram-Leela it is a sign of emotional tempests, in Padmaavat, it is a moral conclusion.

‘Meri Jaan’ has an atmosphere of unsteady eros, which girds the visuals he spools around it — you don’t know which kiss, which insistence becomes charming, then disarming, becomes arrogant, becomes violative. Suddenly there are horns and percussion, suddenly she yodels, suddenly you can hear her smiling behind the mic. There is a rough around the edges, everything-ness to this song that is both endearing, yet difficult to latch onto because of its amoebic intensity — moving in many directions with the full force of feeling.

The music video shows Alia Bhatt playing the titular character, a sex-worker of grandiose gumption, and Shanatanu Maheshwari as her much younger lover, in the back of her car as they wonder, in erotic anticipation, what holds next. Shantanu is eager, Bhatt is uncertain, trauma and sadness glazing her eyes, and yet there is that fatal attraction they can’t resist. When Bhansali confines his characters in one space, without overt choreography — like the lovers in a room in Ram-Leela’s ‘Ang Laga De’ — the music takes on the heavy lifting.

The next song on the album, ‘Dholida’, doesn’t need that intensity or intricacy. It needs the throw of a voice, instead, looping in the steady, enamel-like timber of Jahnvi Shrimankar. A throw that isn’t confected but innate — on Instagram, as a vote of gratitude, she sang this song without any of the instrumentation, layering, and post-production, and yet that strength is so visible, so confident, so unshaken.


‘Dholida’ is visualized as a Bhansali trope we have seen before, in
Ram-Leela’s ‘Nagada Sang Dhol’ — celebratory garba where the heroine jousts insouciantly with the dholida, the dhol player, followed by a mournful yet fierce trance. This is not to suggest that Bhansali is running out of ideas as much as he keeps snagging at some recurrent visual and psychological preoccupations, like the woman who is tipped over like a bowling pin by circumstances and music.

The musical landscape inherits that transition, then, from contained rhythmic joy to a more scattered devotional chorus of women overlaid by a man flinging his voice at a pitch that feels one swar, one note, away from the voice cracking into dust, the tranced woman fallen to the ground in exhaustion. This gruff, aged, masculine lone voice in a pond of feminine abandon with the full throated choir and flaring fabrics is a Bhansali invocation that tracks from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’s ‘Nimbooda’, Devdas’ ‘Kaahe Chhed Mohe’ (Birju Maharaj, here) to ‘Deewani Mastani’, ‘Ghoomar’, and now ‘Dholida’.

‘Jab Saiyan’ is Bhansali’s first montage song. Alia Bhatt noted in a conversation with Shreya Ghoshal, how Bhansali was pacing on the set agitated, nervous for he has never done the montage song so apparently in his filmography. Anyone with ideas, he was asking for suggestions. The nerves are understandable, given how Bhansali’s music is so inextricably woven into his visuals, I have rarely listened to his albums as much as imagined the visuals while listening to it. The songs I keep coming back to in my playlist, to just listen to, to while away the day, are songs which Bhansali hasn’t given visuals for — they either never make it to the movie, or are used briefly as connecting tissue, like ‘Dhundhli’ from Guzaarish, ‘Laal Ishq’ and ‘Dhoop’ from Ram Leela, ‘Aaj Ibaadat’ and ‘Ab Tohe Jane Na Doongi’ from Bajirao Mastani. The montage song is a test, a tight-rope act of the composer’s restraint, because the music cannot demand more attention than the visuals for which it is providing an emotional bellwether. Is that why ‘Jab Saiyan’ croons musically without the gasp, the show, the spectacle of voice? It is pleasant, but never sweltering. We are talking of love, aren’t we?

This song continues Bhansali’s invocation of the name of the lover — one that is compared to remembrance in ‘Aayat’, to perfume and pride in ‘Tera Zikr’. His characters scribble the name of the lover on walls across the city, like in Saawariya or insist on being called together, not as name and surname but as a hyphenated togetherness — Ram-Leela, Bajirao Mastani. We rarely title films after characters today (the “In And As” tradition is, without Bhansali, quite dead) because our character names, over the decades, have sponged off their lyrical, suggestive heft. Gangubai Kathiawadi continues the older tradition and in ‘Jab Saiyan’, even attributes the moon-like radiance of Gangubai’s name to her lover, without which Kamathipura, the red light district of which she is the doyen, is soaking in darkness.

For a song filled with soft syllables AM Turaz’s sudden sharp lyric “Chaukhat raukhat” stings the ears. Shreya Ghoshal inhabits the song with her range that never sounds strained or stretched, moving between the sudden changes in the pace of the song without bringing attention to it — stretching through one syllable, rushing through others.

In ‘Jab Saiyan’ Bhansali allows for uninterrupted stretches of the sarangi and the harmonium — not as interludes between paragraphs of the “real” song as it often is employed in AR Rahman or Shankar-Ehsan-Loy’s compositions. In Bhansali’s music, these stretches are often the centerpiece of a song, the emotive anchor, the climax where it crescendos into pulp, like that stretch in ‘Lahu Munh Lag Gaya’ where the bhungal, the Gujarati folk instrument, blares up the scales like a gust of hot wind.

From here, we skip geographies and centuries into the qawwali, which, in Hindi film music has been refashioned into extremities — from the techno qawwali of ‘Kajra Re’ to disco qawwali to being a mere background music in Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Veer-Zaara. What was once a musical rendition of sufi abandon becomes something more secular, more accessible, less esoteric. Rahman is, perhaps, the few who retain the religious underpinning of the genre.

While there is a lead vocalist (Archana Gore, here, in ‘Shikayat’) who steers the music, what is novel about the qawwali are the singers in the background who “join in and vie with each other as the song builds towards its crescendo and sudden, abrupt end.” It is a genre where the chorus is suddenly given the spotlight. While melody is important in classical Hindustani, the qawwalis are like an exchange of words put to incidental music — that exchange could be with god, with a competitor in love like in Mughal-e-Azam, just a competitor like in Shandaar, or in the case of ‘Shikayat’, with the lover himself. There is a jostling of voices that takes place, and in ‘Shikayat’, in one of the most sinuous stretches of music in the album, you can hear a chorus of women cascading down the scales, then a jump up the scale, then lower, then pushed up, then lower, as though women, strapped with ghungroos, are running up and down a proscenium. That playfulness is intact — you can hear it — even as the complaint, the shikayat described by lyricst AM Turaz — ‘kaleja chahiye khud ko marne ke liye’ — is lodged. To be able to hold both pain and pleasure together?


Kailash Patra’s eerie, haunting violin lets us into ‘Muskurahat’, which like ‘Jab Saiyan’ is Bhansali bringing us into his rehearsal rooms, as if the melody is still being moulded. One of the few remaining music directors who insists on rehearsals, this is where the singer flexes the different dimensions a word can take under a melody. Arijit Singh takes one line, ‘Muskurat ko bhi aane de, Mazaa aane lage’ delivering it differently each time — a-a-a-hat, aaa-hat, aa-a-a-a-hat — like this were a classical concert and he were improvising; an unstudied, unsteady musicality.

Melisma is central to Bhansali’s sense of music, as has been pointed out by critic Baradwaj Rangan — where usually one syllable is assigned one swar, Bhansali packs a syllable with as many swars as he can, a greed but also a desire to produce a musical density. ‘Jab Saiyan’ doesn’t leave a syllable without pummeling it with melody. Here, too, train your ears to the aa in “muskurane” or in “nasha” or the ‘i’ in “khushi” — when he sees a vowel, he tests its tensile, musical malleability. How much can it be stretched? How much music can a sound produce? Then, smack in the middle of the song is a moment of complete silence.


And before the album sends us packing off, a folk song, ‘Jhume Re Gori’, like ‘Mor Bani Thangat’ or ‘Bhai Bhai’ in
Ram-Leela, bridging what is considered ‘classical’ with what is considered, by those who perform classical,‘folk’the merriment of folk, the sobriety of classical are categories that Bhansali, to his detriment, deepens in his albums, even as he brings them in conversation by placing them in the same film, shoulder to shoulder.

Bhansali’s artistry isn’t stuck in amber, that much is clear. He will bring in the popular Arijit Singh but make his voice unrecognizable. Even if he gives you a pale Shreya Ghoshal, he will throw in new artists, new sounds, a new way of thinking of the virah song, the song of separation, as not something that can be sung easily, replicated, re-sung, re-mixed across the cultural landscape, but must be soaked in. While relishing his influences — Lata Mangeshkar, K Asif, V Shantaram, Guru Dutt, RD Burman — he is never bound by his reverence, allowing for instinct to triumph. If the instinct is bluesy, then so be it. If the instinct is Arijit skating the highest pitch, in what Bhansali imagines as “Oriental”, while most composers would be content with Arijit merely breathing through words, then so be it. Who gives their heavily accented Gujarati protagonist a bluesy erotic song, a dholida to squirm in the streets with her gang, and a song that reaches back to the annals of Urdu poetry?

After producing three musical paragons of what an album should sound like — Guzaarish, Ram-Leela, and Bajirao Mastani — even if they were wasteful, and by wasteful, I mean filled with cinematic music that doesn’t make it to the film (‘Pure Chand’ from Ram-Leela, ‘Aaj Ibadat’ and ‘Tohe Jaane Na Doongi’ from Bajirao Mastani, ‘Saiba’ from Guzaarish), Bhansali is producing leaner albums, or perhaps musically leaner films. Just 6 songs, clocking in under 23 minutes, the songs of Gangubai Kathiawadi move quickly between genres of feeling. You cannot listen to it as a single mood piece neatly transitioning, like you would for his longer albums. Both Ram-Leela and Bajirao Mastani, for example, were released as jukeboxes on YouTube in two parts, each with a separate personality. The swerves here are sudden, the jolts more conspicuous, the genres more distinct. As if the songs don’t belong in the same universe, a patchwork quilt yanked together forcefully by Bhansali’s idiosyncrasy.

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"Prathyush Parasuraman: Prathyush Parasuraman read a pop culture philosophy book, changed his mind about an Economics PhD, and moved to Mumbai to write. He writes a weekly newsletter on culture at prathyush.substack.com."
  
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