When Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan sang Prem jogan banke in Mughal-e-Azam, he made history for several reasons. For one, his mellifluous rendering of Raga Sohini served as the backdrop for one of Hindi cinema’s most romantic scenes.
And more important, he was paid Rs. 25,000 per song at a time when even Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi would get Rs. 300.
While that may not be the kind of premium a classical singer can command today, the appeal of the classical voice in a film soundtrack is intact. And filmmakers are keen to use them too. Take Dor, for instance, whose largely folk and classical-based album is making waves.
“It gives music directors an opportunity to showcase the depth of their knowledge,” says Salim Merchant, who composed the music for Dor along with Suleiman.
And filmmaker Akbar Khan, who roped in Kolkata-based Ajoy Chakraborty to recreate the effect of Tansen and Baiju Bawra for Taj Mahal – An Eternal Love Story, says: “You have to make a judicious use of a classical voice. Period films demand that kind of a voice as they recreate the era.”
So what is the appeal of the classical voice in a film track? Shashi Vyas, director, Pancham Nishad, a Mumbai-based organisation dedicated to the promotion of classical music, feels it lies in the fact that “classical singers have a voice that comes from the rigours of training.
While a film song will sound the same in its umpteenth repetition, a classical singer singing the same raga can bring in a different sound at every subsequent rendering.” And it works both ways.
While purists would earlier view film music with disdain, that is changing now. “Earlier, film music was considered lighter stuff. But now vocalists from the younger generation not only take talim in khayal gayaki, but are also singing the so-called lighter songs and doing a lot of fusion,” says Vyas.
As performing in films gets increasingly lucrative, vocalists like Shubha Mudgal, Ustad Rashid Khan, Ustad Sultan Khan, Sanjeev Abhyankar, Pt Ajay Chakraborty, Shruti Sadolikar regularly dabble in playback.
As Vyas says: “Classical singers today have realised that they cannot afford to continue sitting in their ivory castles.” Agrees Mudgal, a recurring voice in film tracks (Aks, Monsoon Wedding, Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi, Raincoat and Sehar):
“I do not believe in hierarchies in art and have never considered film music in general to be frivolous stuff.”
And as Vyas points out, Mudgal enjoys greater visibility vis-a-vis other classical singers, thanks to her “experimentations with all forms of music – film songs, albums and ad jingles.”
Rekha Bharadwaj would agree. She is all set to launch her second music album after four years after the success of “my semi-classical song Namak (Omkara),” which has led to a spate of singing assignments beyond husband Vishal Bharadwaj’s home productions.
“The occasional film songs, if successful, create and sustain the buzz around a classical singer, especially in reaching out to a larger mass audience or promoting solo albums,” she feels.
A fact highlighted by Vyas, who points out that even Bhimsen Joshi had once stated, ‘The common man knows me more as the Mile sur mere tumhara singer’.
“It helps reach that section of the masses which wouldn’t otherwise get to hear a classical singer.” And while both filmmakers and singers reap the benefits of the association, Hindi film music is raining ragas.