Indepth Musical Review of
‘ Bombay Talkie’ 
‘ Bombay Talkie’ shall always be a `stand-alone’ in S-J’s phenomenal musical output. This happened to be the first and the only English film that they composed for and therefore, the music too had (and still has) a feel of elusiveness about it. It brought together the formidable team of Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Ruth Prawer Jhabwala following their earlier `Householder’ and `Shakespearwallah’ . This one too, like many of the predecessors from the Merchant-Ivory stables, stresses upon a juxtaposition of Eastern & Western ideologies and the Shashi-Jennifer team-up lends credence to the depiction.
With a title like that, one would imagine the film had something to do with the bygone era of the studios, which has now receded into the past. At least that is what I had pre-supposed. But it isn’t quite so. The film actually has a very modern & contemporary setting and carries the feel of a `film within a film’. Shashi (as Vikram) plays the role of a successful but unhappy star whose marital life with Aparna Sen (as Mala) is thrown adrift as the couple is childless, which leads him on to an extra-marital affair with Jennifer (as Lucia), who plays an American novelist on visit to India looking for literary inspiration. Shashi, while articulating his plight to Jennifer sounds palpably chauvinistic when he says – `We Hindus need a son to light the funeral pyre’. During her several meetings, Jennifer falls for the charms of Shashi but when it dawns upon her that the affair is heading nowhere, decides to spurn his overtures and runs off to an Ashram, seeking spiritual solace. Ruth Jhabwala, true to her bona-fides and also her penchant for the self-made Godman (a la `The Householder’ ), weaves in a cameo of a spiritual guru (played by Pinchoo Kapoor) in her screenplay. Again, in keeping with her predilection for suggestive digs at the Indian Godmen, Pinchoo Kapoor is shown mollycoddling Jennifer as he gets servilely evocative with – `Come, let’s get cosy…. I am thirsty, I am waiting…!’. By this stage, it dawns upon Lucia that everything about the Ashram and the Guru is shambolic and she decides to return to her unrequited love only to meet with tragic consequences. Then we have Zia Mohyeddin (as Hari), who becomes the fourth player in a love quadruped of sorts, playing a film writer who is palpably frustrated at the commercial trappings that have stymied his creativity. He is in love with Jennifer, but when it dawns upon him that she has her heart set on his friend Shashi, decides to forego his love. Quite inconspicuous throughout the film, his character acquires significance only towards the end, when in an act of desperation, he stabs the hero for his seemingly philandering ways with the very dagger that the latter had presented him. Thus, the maxim, `those who live by the sword perish by it as well’, underscores the denouement. The film essentially narrates a tale of four people, all of whom are in love but each of them ends up a loser owing to the quizzical quirk of fate.
Except for Shashi himself, other `filmy’ characters are there merely as `decorative adjuncts’ which leads no credence to main storyline. Utpal Dutt for one, as a filmmaker playing to the galleries, surprises you with his chaste English but has little or no connect with the basic plot. Then we have Nadira who funnily breaks into – `Badi mushkil se dil ki bekarari ko karaar aaya..’ as a throw-back to her salad years, used as a cleverly garbed metaphor to delineate her current eclipse as an actress. Interestingly, Anwar Ali sings a few lines of – `Mere Angne Mein..’ (almost a decade before its commercial release) while Jalal Agha is there only to strike crude poses and expressions. The famous documentary filmmaker, Sukhdev too is wasted in a group sequence. And finally, the veteran character artiste, Mirza Musharraf, who after several decades of mouthing inane `Hinglish’ dialogues finally gets his place under the sun with an extended monologue to Jennifer in pure, unadulterated English, while the two climb down the spiral staircase of the Taj. Incidentally, this is the Taj of Mumbai whose interiors looks exquisite (who would have predicted the carnage that was to be wrecked two decades later) but strangely even celebrity stars are shown climbing up and down the staircase. Was it to heighten the emotional impact of the dialogues or was Taj devoid of any lifts in the 70s? Honestly, I am not aware. And finally, why pray, has an artiste of the caliber of Iftekhar been wasted in a nondescript sequence in a hotel bar?
The film was censored alright (19th of February, 1971 to be precise) and was reviewed in ‘Filmfare’ too, when the S-J team was still ruling the roost. Harmandir Singh Hamraaz’s `Geet Kosh’ strangely includes it in the addendum list of films that were either shelved or whose censorship dates are not recorded. The film also has some intimate scenes, which apparently held it up with the censors for quite a while but it eventually was cleared with `a `U’ certificate with a triangle’ (meaning with some cuts). It is another matter that the film didn’t have a proper commercial release anywhere in India though, it found its audience in the West.
So then what is the high-profile S-J duo doing in this non-commercial but haunting symbiosis woven into a narrative of myriad relationships? As a matter of fact, the film’s music marks yet another triumph for the duo as a conflation of the trends prevalent in the West and the East. The inherent genius in their works is discernible in the unfolding of the credit titles itself, where they employ a haunting melody with minimal use of instruments as it all begins with a huge hoarding of the film being carried across Mumbai’s Bori Bunder stretch. This is followed by separate hoardings announcing the various creative heads associated with the film, placed at various points in the city and the camera zooming in from unusual angles. The hustle and bustle of a busy Mumbai is avoided and instead, the somber & wistful moments of the city life are captured vividly in glorious colour; a huge credit to the cameraman, Subrata Mitra, famous for his earlier collaboration with Satyajit Ray. A single collage is dedicated to Shanker, Jaikishan, Hasrat, Asha, Kishore & Rafi, which has you riveted to the screen. The accompanying lilt to the title track is punctuated by a whiff of a `choir’ that perfectly matches the mood of the sequence with the unison of the sitar, the veena, the Spanish and the tabla for orchestral accompaniment. It was only after repeated hearing that I realised that it was an instrumental version of Usha Uthup’s `Good Times and Bad Times…’. At first, I found it strange that only Kishore, Asha and Rafi are credited as playback singers but then I realised that Usha Uthup was not used as a playback singer in the conventional sense as she makes a `guest appearance’ in the film to herself put over `Hari Om Tatstat…’ and does a commendable job of it.
For that matter, none of the songs are used in the conventional sense in the film; just a few lines of each are picturised, perhaps to run concomitant with the `realistic narrative flow’ that Merchant-Ivory films were famous for. The question then is – why did the producer duo sign up the high-profile S-J for this film when any other composer could have provided them with such piece-meal ‘deliverables’ ? I got the answer to this in the brief interview of Ismail Merchant that is included in the DVD where he says – `I had known Jaikishan when I was in college and `Bombay Talkie’ was a great opportunity to work with him and the fulfilment of a dream’. Point noted
Curiously enough, HMV released the LP record of the film (it is there in my collection) using just the 04 tracks along with some instrumental pieces. And it is worth its weight in gold. However, as the songs are used quite sparingly in the film, I had to re-visit the LP record, which allowed me the luxury of probing, dissecting & scrutinizing each of the 04 songs – as a combination of its visual (on film) as well as the aural (on record) essence –
** The only song from the film that made considerable waves on Vividh Bharati was ‘Typewriter tip tip tip tip tip tip tip tip karta hai…’ but to my utter disappointment, it is badly mutilated in the film. I wonder whose brain-wave it was to spend so much of money in erecting a huge, opulent set of a gigantic typewriter and then picturising just a few intractable lines of the song to go on it. Only the producers can have the answer. It unfolds at the very beginning when Jennifer is brought along by Zia to get the feel of a typical Hindi film set – with all the music & dance that form its qualifying benchmark. The song has a rich, opulent ensemble of instruments, with the prominent use of the saxophone and the trumpet and follows a rhythmic pattern of drum beats – befitting the regal stature of S-J as composers and underscoring their orchestral panache. It surely makes for an `inviolable S-J template’ of the 60s and the 70s. James Ivory, while giving a backdrop of the sequence explains how it took a week to build the set of the typewriter and another week to picturise the song sequence, which lasts but a few embittered moments in the film. To heighten the impact of the typewriter on screen, it was decided to colour the entire background in black and that shows quite prominently in the long shots, giving it a 3-D effect. If James Ivory is to be believed, the complex dance numbers of Busby Berkeley’s, a one-time rage in Hollywood , apparently inspired this song. And one can definitely see a striking similarity between `Typewriter…’ and the song `By a Waterfall…’ (from the film `Footlight Parade’ – 1932), which was choreographed by Berkeley using a crowd of girls performing to various floral & geometrical patterns, to create the impression of a human waterfall. (watch the video of this song on http://8ate.blogspot.com/2009/04/typewriter-tip-tip-tip.html)
One other instrument that stands out quite prominently is the trumpet that plays in the prelude and each of the interlude pieces. As for the vocals, I must admit that Kishore’s falsetto does mitigate the impact of the song somewhat, especially as it isn’t required in the first place. One would have preferred Kishore not stretching his vocal calisthenics to such extreme limits. Asha keeps pace with Kishore right through except for the inimitable `yodeling’ which in many ways, was Kishore’s exclusive and impregnable bastion.
The sequence that unfolds before the song promises the moon, of course. The sequence of extras doing a jig on the typewriter keys has a cute feel to it as they swing and sway to the lines being played on the tape-recorder. This appears quite natural if one looks at the fact that the film is an attempt to demystify the world of cinema by going behind the actual scenes. Helen appears for a brief moment as herself in the sequence but her presence is limited to just a few paroxysmal movements in a shining white attire. Shashi on his part, does his typical sinewy moves in the few portions of the verse – “Hum bhi apne dil ki haalat roz type karte hain…’ that are picturised on him. Too brief in fact to warrant a judgement!
Interestingly, the director of the sequence played by Prayag Raj gives an interesting preamble to the song as he explains the connotation of the typewriter keys to Jennifer – `We call it the fate machine. Typewriter keys represent the keys of life and we human beings dance on them. And then when we dance, as we press down the keys of the machine, the story that is written is the story of our fate’.
To me honestly, this sounds quite juvenile, quite puerile, but Jennifer is quick with her riposte – `Very Symbolic’. Fine, so long as the lady is convinced. What perhaps, is the underlying motif here is that our continued influxes of feeling are modified and directed by the movement of typewriter keys.
The essence of the follow-up line in the `mukhda’, `…Zindagi ki har kahaani likhta hai…’ isn’t quite brought out in the song by Hasrat Jaipuri, who seems ill at ease in penning down the lyrics to the tune. Yet, he comes across as a game-trier with the lines –
`Pyar ki arzi karna ho to isse pyar badhaalo, isse pyar badhaalo…
Apne dil ki haalat likhdo apna kaaam bana lo, apna kaaam bana lo…
Jeewan ka hamraaz yehi hai, haalat sabki sunta hai….
Typewriter tip tip tip tip tip tip tipt tip karta hai….’
On hearing the full version of the song, one can feel the impact of a thunderbolt as the drums open out in a cascade at the end of each of the 03 stanzas. The second stanza is preceded by an innovative use of the `muted trumpet’ with excellent results. S-J were, of course, past masters at such unconventional arrangements. They tried and executed something similar in the song – `Hai isika naam zindagi naach aye dil gaa aye dil…’ by Asha from `Nadaan’ the same year.
The first time I visualised the picturisation of the song was when I came across Ismail Merchant’s autobiography, some three years back, a damn expensive memorabilia showing the typewriter with `stills’ of dancers in their `stilettos’ striking characteristic poses. It was therefore, sad that the film didn’t quite recreate the way I had visualized the song. Chronologically, it was among the last of the typical S-J rock-based numbers that were a rage right up to the time Jai was alive.
** Usha Uthup’s ‘Hari Om Tatsat…’ is the next number which again is not utilized to its potential in the film but in its own capacity, overflows with the magic of S-J’s musical baton. The background to the song is a party that is thrown to celebrate the success of one of Shashi’s films (which interestingly is supposed to be `Naina’, as snatches of the song – `Humko to jaan se pyaari hain tumhari aankhen..’ are shown before the arrival of hero to the party venue). Amid the blowing of cigar fumes, Usha’s vocals stretch from a low moan of anguish to a high-pitched expression of euphoria, holding the promise for more when she entreats the guests with – `Now I want all of you to join me and sing – `Hari Om Tatsat…’ – but a sudden change-over in the sequence, scuttles its prospects. The focus then shifts to Lucia who joins in with – `I have an idea of a story of an American Star who runs away to India ‘. Supposedly picturised in Mumbai’s Sun’n Sand Hotel, the song lasts barely a minute in the film but in the record, a good 6-8 minutes (in 02 different versions). S-J’s `King Emperor’ touch actually enhances the piquant vocal appeal of Usha’s, the `Queen-bee’ of a nightclub swirl.
It is only on hearing the entire track on the LP record that you get a feel of S-J’s luminosity as composers as it galvanizes the track to a `tempestuous high’. The combination of drums, violins, saxophone and the trumpet explodes ever more raucously with every single utterance of the catch-phrase – `Hari Om Tatsat…’. Usha’s exuberant, rabble-rousing style of singing brings the audience down to its knees with –
`I’ll tell you of a vision I saw last night,
A man in saffron robes, his face as white as light,
I went to him and asked him, why are you lamenting,
His eyes brightened, his reply came,
A strange enlightened chanting,
Truth will always prevail, truth will always prevail….
So say – `Hari Om Tatsat…’…’
The song in fact has three stanzas with the tempo considerably slowed down to a hush as the singer renders the verses in a mode familiar as `rhythmic recitation’ followed by `Hari Om Tatsat..’ where the drums gather pace with the vocals.
A second version of the song on the LP record begins with Usha imploring the audience again with –
Hello everybody, it is wonderful to see you all here tonight, I want all of you to join me and say – `Hari Om Tatsat…’
When she realizes that the audience is not all that forthcoming, she comes up with the rejoinder –
`If this is your idea of audience participation, it is really sad, I am sure you can do better than that…’
This time the audience takes the cue and everyone rise in perfect union with `Hari Om Tatsat…’ and the song concludes on a frenzied & vociferous high.
Sadly, none of this is visible on screen where the song appears a `vocal interjection’ during a conversation between high-profile movie people. Yet, the song marks a `torrential triumph’ for the S-J duo as their formidable orchestra propels the song beyond imaginable limits.
** Rafi’s ‘Tum mere pyar ki duniya mein basi ho jab se, zarre zarre mein mujhe pyaar nazar aata hai…’ has no logical build up in the film but still happens to be the only number cast in the conventional `filmy’ mantle. I heard this song much after the film’s release as it hardly gained a semblance of popularity but Rafi, the genius, renders it in his characteristic trademark style as he follows up the opening lines with such tender drips ‘n dribbles of `cloying emotionalism’ as – `Meri har saans mein aati hai tumhaari khushboo, saara aalam mujhe gulzaar nazar aata hai…’. S-J, for a change appear in a less adventitious mode but do a highly commendable job as their composition sounds genial & spontaneous. The interlude pieces before the 1st and the 3rd verses are marked by their trade-mark electronic claviolin followed by the Shehnai. The interlude preceding the 2nd stanza has a (s)lush outpour of violins. The arrangement which follows a 06-beat percussion cycle, sounds very much a Jaikishan tune to me. Picturised on Dattaram himself, the first stanza of the song conjures up a most perfect specimen of self- expression with a vivid portrayal of an individual at the pinnacle of love. Hasrat gets his one and only chance in the film to pen a song which is perfectly congenial to his neo-Ghazal style of writing and he does a grand job of it –
`Jab guzarta hai mere jism ko baadal chookar
Phir koi reshmi aanchal mujhe yaad aata hai
Main to har cheez mein paata hoon tumhara chehra
Ishq kya kya mujhe parchaaiyaan dikhlaata hai…
At this very point, just as the song gathers the right mood & tempo, it is struck down by the proverbial bayonet (musically speaking!) and jettisoned from the sequence; another of those inexplicable acts by the filmmakers. Dattaram, used as a dummy singer, hints as though, he has lost the cue and apologises to Shashi standing next to him, more out of cinematic necessity than anything else, for such a `faux pas’ by a professional seems implausible. Incidentally, Hasrat Jaipuri too figures for a split second just after the song sequence when he is seen shaking hands with Shashi Kapoor outside the recording cubicle.
Thus, we have as many as 04 members of the formidable S-J team making split second screen appearances that same year – 1971 – for a final hurrah – Jaikishan, Dattaram and Sebastian in `Main Sundar Hoon’ and Dattaram and Hasrat Jaipuri in `Bombay Talkie’. Who could have visualised the dramatic changes in the musical landscape that were to come about later in the year with the demise of the `greatest celebrity figure’ of the `greatest ever musical duo’.
** Listening to Usha’s other number, ‘Good Times And Bad Times…’, makes you wonder whether it is a shade too plaintive, given Usha’s robust vocals; a number best heard when you are in an introspective mood. It leads one not to bask in pleasant or wallow in harrowing times but just move on with life, even as its melodious strains unfold at the end of the film during the credit titles for precisely a minute.
Again penned by Usha herself, it sounds quite pleasing in isolation but has no tangible situation in the film. One can savour the lilting strains that accompany the vocals, which collectively depict an interchange of seriousness with merriment, by which the mind is softened at one time and exhilarated the other –
`Good times… we’ve had good times…
Although sometimes the bad times,
those times were so bad…
Let’s live through the night, let’s just kiss and fight…
And forever and ever more, we’ll say goodnight…’
Interestingly, the LP record of the film has the instrumental version of the above song figuring as many as 03 times in different moods. The first has drums and the veena playing in symphony and even as it unfolds, one just needs to close his eyes and savour the lilt of moonlit hues spreading across the opulent blue of the `sea’ and creating an undulated harmony of `sound waves’. Then we have another version with only the Spanish guitar playing for exactly a minute followed by a clutter of violins that slows down the tempo. A third version is a classical piece on the Sitar and a fourth has a combo of the guitar and the flute.
All of this sounds pleasant to the ear no doubt, but you get the feel that they have been stretched beyond pliable limits just to make up for an LP record as the film after all, had only 04 songs. But the effort, overall, is a credit to S-J inasmuch as their first-rate team of musicians, who were always up to any challenge, devoting their inexhaustible energies to crystallize all their ideas into empowering action.
Usha, on her part, has been strangely reticent in acknowledging these two numbers in any of her recent interviews or chat shows though, in one of the articles that appeared in the December 1970 issue of `Star & Style’ entitled `The New Vogue in Film Singing’, she discussed these two songs at some length and acknowledged them as `written by her and tuned by Jaikishan’. While she reserves no special praise for either Shanker or Jaikishan, she is quite effusive in her praise for Kersi Lord and Sebastian, two members of the S-J team. She also goes on to say how Ismail Merchant ran into her when she was singing at Oberoi International in Delhi and asked her to do her bit in `Bombay Talkie’ – not as a playback singer but by appearing and singing in person. The article also mentions that some sequences of hers were picturised `live’ in HMV’s recording studio under the supervision of Vijay Kishore Dubey. These seem to have been edited out of the final print.
As you go through the whole gamut of the songs on the LP, you feel as though you have struck a musical treasure trove of inexhaustible plenty but watching them as they unfold on screen does make you feel as though, the diamonds and pearls have been clouded by peevish incrustations. The lovely tunes surely deserved a much better and a more coherent placement in the film. The music even if heard today, is a `connoisseur’ s delight’ and who could have achieved it but the redoubtable S-J.
The DVD and the LP record of `Bombay Talkie’ are my priceless possessions and I would switch on to them ever so much in a celebratory mood over and over again. The music has almost everything that S-J’s musical prowess could exhibit: the zest of spirit, the cadence of rhythm, the undulation of sound and the sinews of poetry. Most importantly, it is a throwback to the `salad’ years of a duo which unleashed the most `eclectic’ of musical spreads, thus giving me some of the finest musical moments ever.
As the film nears the end, Shashi Kapoor laments – `The party is over’. But for me, the party has just begun – in a deluge of extravagance so to speak.
On a final note, the world today has been overtaken by technical gizmos – A.R. Rahman’s computer, the keyboard and a whole gamut of plug-in instruments hold sway. Yet, I do feel that S-J’s `Typewriter…’ that continues to go vibrantly `Tip Tip Tip Tip…’ shall always command its own melismatic place in the florid realm of film music.
FOR LISTENING TO MUSIC OF THIS FILM VISIT musicindiaonline.com