We once asked a famous Bombay novelist about his unconcealed enthusiasm for Hindi movies. “Oh, the films have always been garbage,” he said. “But those songs they made, and what they meant to us.” His voice trailed away.
To complete that sentence comes Note By Note, a witty, energetic handbook of seventy years of national history, pegged to a song from every year. Journalists Ankur Bhardwaj, Seema Chishti and Sushant Singh fill the book with a sense of mischief their day jobs (writing about politics, defence and the economy) must not ordinarily provide. It’s also a political statement: the book is dedicated, not to musicians or singers, but to the founders of the republic.
Some of these 70 songs were the biggest hits of their year (1995? “Tujhe dekha toh,” of course). Others spoke directly to their time, like 1948’s “Saari duniya ke sartaj,” a song about Mahatma Gandhi. Sometimes, like 1984’s “Mann kyun behka,” they were “an instance of the great contrast (or refuge) that art can offer in times of deep tumult,” the authors write. Each accompanying essay offers a breezy overview of the context of the song, before engaging with the history that made headlines that year -- so if you like imagining what someone was humming while working on nationalising the Reserve Bank Of India (“Jiya beqaraar hai”), this is your jam.
A ton of rubbish has been written about how Bollywood and cricket are the two things that unite India, when they do nothing of the sort. On the other hand, Bhardwaj, Chishti and Singh’s song-book is, undoubtedly, the key to a certain dimension of Indian history. But this isn’t because all of India loves Hindi movies. It’s because Hindi movies, from the very beginning, took responsibility for a certain idea of India.
After all, the industry survived after 1947 largely thanks to the determination of Partition refugees who never wanted to see another religious holocaust. Its interest in politics didn’t begin when Anupam Kher took out marches pleading for tolerance for the BJP government. From Salil Chowdhury, the Communist who adapted a Soviet marching tune for a song in Do Bigha Zameen, to Feroz Khan, who dedicated Qurbani to the memory of Sanjay Gandhi, “the sleeping prince,” film artists have always been the cultural attachés to Delhi’s ruling classes.
It’s another matter that it’s difficult to draw this connection directly through individual songs or movies, and Note By Note isn’t always successful in doing so. Some small errors mar the text (Asha Bhosle’s voice isn’t “saline” so much as salty; Granville ‘Austen’ was no constitutional scholar, although who wouldn’t like to read an Emma adaptation feat. Indira Gandhi?). The songs from later decades, in particular, sometimes appear to have been chosen because of the authors’ personal interest in them, rather than any historical case. But even these provide openings for many enjoyable arguments. Almost every song invokes sharp, clear memories of its time. That’s perhaps the most fun thing about Note By Note -- it’s a long mood-playlist for modern India.
Vivid Bharati: A Song From Every Decade
1950 - Gore Gore O Baanke Chhore: “Its longevity, popularity, buoyancy and confidence make it [most suitable] as India took important steps towards defining itself,” says Note By Note. (NB: It’s also one of the top ten gayest songs in Hindi cinema.)
1967 - Aisa Mauqa Phir Kahaan Milega: “[...]The escapism that was to characterise the films of that era.”
1973 - Chura Liya Hain: “The songs, the set designs, the wigs, the looks and the dresses of the actors were meant to capture the zeitgeist.”
1988 -Papa Kehte Hain: “While Hindi cinema was watching with hope the arrival of another star on the scene, India was also experiencing the same in politics.”
1996 - Chhod Aaye Hum Woh Galiyan: “A song about nostalgia and the loss of innocence of youth.”
2004 - Yeh Jo Des Hain Tera: “The des Rahman was singing about in Swades was shining in 2004. That was the assertion of the ruling party, the BJP, as India went into election mode[...]”
2016 - Hanikarak Bapu: “While a father’s hard push yielded positive results in the world of sports, this was not proving to be true in the real world.
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