Narendra Kusnur's music musings …

FRIENDS for 20 years, Jalebi Bhai and Karela Boy meet over a cup of tea and pakodas, for another round of discussions on Hindi film music. They do this once a month, greeting each other with a hug, choosing a topic for debate, slowly disagreeing with each other over various things, quarrelling and cursing each other, and finally reaching a compromise.

They think differently. In terms of their personality and musical taste, they are diametrically opposite. Jalebi is an optimist, Karela is a pessimist. Jalebi is open-minded, Karela is a stickler for perfection. Jalebi likes all kinds of music, Karela is stuck in the 1960s and 1970s. Jalebi loves pop music, Karela hates paap music. Jalebi keeps dripping with oily praises, Karela is a bored gourd. In short, Jalebi can be very sweet, and Karela extremely bitter.

This time, they meet just after watching Anurag Basu’s ‘Barfi’. The first 30 minutes are very different from their usual encounters, as they don’t disagree on a single thing. Both say in chorus: “The movie is great, one of the best released after the year 2000. The direction and screenplay are brilliant, and the performances by Ranbir Kapoor, Priyanka Chopra and Ileana D’Cruz are first-rate.”

So far, so good. The problem starts when they start talking about the film’s music. Just when both have agreed about the sheer brilliance of the movie, Jalebi makes the mistake of lavishly praising the music. Look at what follows:

Jalebi: Barfi has the freshest music released in the last 10 years. Congratulations to music director Pritam.

Karela: Freshest, did you say? It is fresh-sounding, all right. But calling it the freshest would be taking things too far.

Jalebi: Come on Karela, the songs are so hummable and well-written. In today’s movies, where do you find such freshness? It’s got that ’60s and ’70s feel. Pure, simple melodies. Look at the song ‘Ala Barfi’. It’s so hummable and clean in an era where people are coming out with ‘Halkat Jawani’ and ‘Jalebi Bai’.

Karela: Obviously they were inspired to write ‘Jalebi Bai’ after meeting you, Jalebi Bhai. Regarding ‘Ala Barfi’, it seems to have a Kishore Kumar hangover. And what do the lyrics mean? ‘Gud gud gud gud’. ‘Jhun jhun jhun jhun’, ‘Phuss phuss phuss phuss’. ‘Bud bud bud bud’. ‘Bhurr bhurr bhurr bhurr’. On top of that they use the word ‘Maula’, so that people can call it a Sufi song.

Jalebi: Ha ha ha, Karela. If ‘Ina Meena Deeka’ and ‘Main hoon jhum jhum jhumroo’ could become such a rage in their time, what’s stopping this? ‘Barfi’ has other wonderful songs too, where the lyrics have depth. Must give credit to lyricists Swanand Kirkire, Sayyed Quadri, Neelesh Misra and Ashish Pandit for writing clean and meaningful songs. On top of that, ‘Main kya karoon’, ‘Aashiyan’, ‘Kyon’ and that beautiful ghazal ‘Phir le aya dil’ are all wonderfully composed. Some lines are just awesome. Like “Nazar ke sihayi se likhenge tujhe hazaar chithiyan.” Or “Pyaar ke sikko se maheene ka kharcha chalayein.” Sheer poetry.

Karela: Good songs, no doubt. Wonderful lyrics, without question. But what inconsistent singing! If there was more uniformity in singing, this would have gone to another level. That’s my biggest problem with the music.

Jalebi: Would you care to explain your brilliant theory please?

Karela: You have half a dozen male singers literally – Mohit Chauhan, Shafqat Amanat Ali, Papon, Nikhil Paul George, Arijit Singh… even lyricist Swanand Kirkire sings a version of ‘Ala Barfi’. With no disrespect meant, the character of Ranbir Kapoor cannot speak. Yet, he’s got six singing voices crooning in six different pitches. On some songs, he seems like he’s been awarded a Sangeet Visharad. On others, the vocals are flatter than punctured tyres. Some songs sound like an American trying to learn his first few words of Hindi. Others sound like Mirza Ghalib speaking in a mushaira.

Jalebi: You are stuck in pre-historic times! Don’t you know that using different singers has been the trend for the past 10 years? Even Rahman does it.

Karela: What Rahman does needn’t work for everybody. And mind you, even Rahman stuck with only one singer Mohit Chauhan for Ranbir in ‘Rockstar’.  That worked perfectly. Moreover, this trend wasn’t invented by Rahman. In the past, there have been numerous examples of two singers singing for the same actor in the same film. Manna Dey and Mukesh for Rajesh Khanna in Anand. Kishore and RD for Amitabh in Shaan. Rafi and Kishore for Rishi Kapoor in Karz. But those guys could really sing and adapt themselves. You never noted such a stark difference. But by and large those days, you had specific voices for specific actors, which worked better. Kishore for Rajesh Khanna. Mukesh for Raj Kapoor. Rafi for Shammi Kapoor. Even later, Udit Narayan and Abhijeet mainly sang for Shah Rukh Khan. Today, any singer seems to go with any actor.

Jalebi: It’s not fair to compare everybody with Kishore or Rafi or Mukesh. Or Udit or Abhijeet, for that matter. Times have changed. Most films today have rubbish music. This is a welcome change. Unlike those days when there were only four or five male, and two or three females singers, today there are so many talented playback singers…

Karela: Half of them consist of non-playback singers. Or playback non-singers, whatever you might want to call them. Actually, only half the people today can actually sing. The others sing songs like ‘Pareshan pareshan pareshan’ to make headlines. People like me get ‘pareshan’ in the process. As for music directors, where was C Ramchandra in ‘Anarkali’? And where is Sajid-Wajid in ‘Anarkali disco chali’?

Jalebi: We’re digressing from the topic of ‘Barfi’, but let me tell you, today, ‘Pareshaan’ and ‘Anarkali disco chali’ have more takers. They are in keeping with trends.

Karela: You so-called modern people do any rubbish in the name of innovation, and you call it a trend. Anyone who disagrees with your so-called fads is an old-fashioned fool.

Jalebi: You can only describe yourself best. Old-fashioned fool, that’s what you are. Your words, not mine. By comparing ‘Pareshan’ with the ‘Barfi’ songs, you have just proved how foolish you are. The ‘Barfi’ music rocks. That’s it. In this film, each singer has been selected on the basis of how his texture suits the song’s mood.

Karela: What texture are you talking of, you… hmmm.. new-fashioned oaf? Look at this singer, Nikhil Paul George. In ‘Main kya karoon’, he just keeps croaking ‘Kya karoon main kya karoon main kya karoon’. Aur kya karoge? Vicks ki goli lo, khich-khich door karo.

Jalebi: There’s no need to be so rude. Even your favourite Bob Dylan has a very cracked-up voice.

Karela: You’re comparing Nikhil Paul George with Bob Dylan? You must be joking. Yes, Nikhil has half the Beatles in his name. But he can’t hold a single note like them. For instance, ‘Aashiyan’ is a nice and peppy composition, am not arguing about that. But he pronounces ‘Itni si hasee, itni si khushi’ as ‘Itti si hasee, itti si cushy’. He sings ‘Mahine’ as ‘Maahine’. In fact, in the duet version, Shreya Ghoshal saves the song. Though she too sings ‘Itti si hasee’, her voice is gorgeous. Then, there’s Arijit Singh singing ‘Saawali si raat’ and pronouncing it ‘Saawaley’, and his tone sounds like he’s singing a kindergarten nursery rhyme.

Jalebi:  Okay, agreed their diction isn’t great. But by themselves, the songs are catchy. ‘Main kya karoon’ has some nice flamenco guitars, and ‘Aashiyan’ has a nice folksy feel and great violins. Look at Papon’s singing in ‘Kyon’. He’s got a lovely rich voice that sounds so good in the film.

Karela: Agreed, but don’t you think Sunidhi’s sudden husky entry messes up the song? If Shreya had sung that song, it would have been a great contrast. After two minutes of sheer melody, this song suddenly sounds jerky.

Jalebi: You talk like you’re the most enlightened music critic in the world. But since you’ve grown up on ghazals, you couldn’t possibly have a problem with Shafqat Amanat Ali singing ‘Phir le aya dil’. Shafqat has been trained in your favourite Patiala gharana. And those singers can never go wrong. I also like the female version sung by Rekha Bhardwaj. It’s an absolutely great song.

Karela: Agreed. But why have another version by Arijit Singh? He just can’t match up to Shafqat. He does try hard, by singing a ‘sargam’ passage to show that he’s attended music lessons, but his version falls flat. Anyway, three versions of the same song is a bit much

Jalebi: The song uses some wonderfully Urdu poetry by Sayeed Quadri.

Karela: That’s what. All the songs have very simple words, which can be identified easily by the lay listener. Then, this song throws up high-flown Urdu words like ‘muyyassar’, ‘badastoor’ and ‘mussalsal’. Yes, I agree people will need a dictionary, whether they want to find out the meaning of ‘Muyassar’ or ‘Phuss phuss phuss’.

Jalebi: Lord, it’s difficult to argue with you. But you must agree that this is Pritam’s best and most original score ever.

Karela: Some of the background  music has been taken from the film ‘Amelie’. And from western classical pieces. The song ‘Saawali si raat’ seems obviously inspired by Oriya singer Akshaya Mohanty’s ‘Chandramalli hase’. I don’t suspect anything with the other songs, though one never knows with Pritam. In the past, he has lifted songs from Arabic, Indonesian and South Korean melodies. Maybe he has chosen Greenland or Equador this time, we will never get to know.

Jalebi: Is there anything about the film’s music which you can praise without putting in a thousand counter-arguments.

Karela: Yes, they used the original Bengali hit ‘Duranto ghurnir ei legecche paak’, sung by Hemanta Kumar and composed by Salil Chowdhury. Just proves that great words and a great tune have to be accompanied by a great voice. If one of them goes haywire, the song loses its charm.

Jalebi: You have a point. Probably, if Pritam had on all songs just stuck to KK or Atif Aslam, two singers who are versatile and who can adapt, he may have got more uniformity.

Karela: That’s what I’ve been saying all along. You’re so pessimistic, closed-minded and negative by nature, you just can’t agree to what I say. You just can’t appreciate art.

Jalebi: Look, this argument can go on and on. But both of us have to go home now. What’s important is that these things don’t really matter because the film is so brilliant. People like you can keep cribbing about the music, but ultimately, it’s the beauty of the film that matters.

Karela: I totally disagree when you say that between the two of us, only you think the film is brilliant. In today’s age, or whatever age for that matter, ‘Barfi’ is a masterpiece. Hats off to Anurag, Ranbir, Priyanka and Ileana.

Jalebi: And Pritam?

Karela: Definitely, but he should have been more careful in choosing his male playback singers. Good night.

 This blog has been inspired by a very lively discussion we had on Facebook, after this writer posted that much as he liked the tunes and lyrics of the songs of ‘Barfi’, the choice of playback singers wasn’t perfect, as each singer had a different texture and style. The writer’s  view was that in ‘Barfi’, there was a “mix of voices ranging from classically trained to pleasant with no frills to downright jarring and off-key.”

Those participating in the discussion were Mimmy Jain, KJ Singh, Rajiv Vijayakar, Jessica S Dcruz Menezes, Sridhar TVN, Pranay Rilja, Nilakshi Sengupta, Subhasree Basu, Shubhodeep Pal and Vicky Solanki.

Both Jalebi and Karela represent various views put forth by the participants, with many additional sentences thrown in. Some spoke in favour of multiple singers, and others felt too many variety kills the spice.

Today, there is obviously a tendency to use multiple singers in a film, even if for the same actor. Gone are the days when you identified specific voices with specific stars. But what’s also happening is that any voice is being chosen for any actor, in the name of experimentation and talent promotion. Some good songs have been marred by a wrong choice of singers.

What view do you, the reader, subscribe to? It would be great to hear your feedback.



Comments on: "The music of ‘Barfi’: Jalebi or Karela?" (5)

  1. Playback singing in some sense is an abstract expression of what the person on screnn is feeling. In that sense anything goes. Multiple voices, songs without words (instrumentals), multiple versions of the same song, same tune but different words, different singers for the same character etc. So I do not have any problems with multiple voices being used.

  2. I agree with you. The music directors have obviously decided that the era of the star playback singer is over. So they get new singers for every film, who disappear after singing one of two songs. This means that the music directors are also not committed to the singer and have no stake in grooming, training, or honing them. Unlike you I also blame A R Rehman for this trend. His penchant for using untrained, “natural” voices had ensured that many of his songs are just great pieces of music, with the vocals being an afterthought.

    This was extended by the surprising popularity of obviously (deliberately?) off key singers like Atif Islam, and Ali Azmat. Abhijeet is absolutely right when he claims that these should not even be considered singers in the true sense! Of course, I am not singling Pakistanis out,since Shafqat, Rahat and even Adnan are pretty good singers. I have heard Mohit Chauhan in concert live and he is pretty ordinary, and frequently off key. But he’s got great voice quality and in a studio his problems can be electronically corrected. PLus he’s got a great racehorse in Ranbir that he’s riding to glory.

    Pritam has made a point of getting singers from the East and NE, and I credit him for that. But that approach is also hit & miss, especially with diction. Papon, James, that Assamese singers whose name I can’t recall, are all very good singers, but suffer in diction. Sometimes it still works, like James’ spectacular renditions of “chal chale apne ghar” from Gangster and “na jaane koi” from Life In a Metro, but it’s hit or miss.

    I am not getting into Pritam’s Plagiarism, because that could be the name of an extreme thick book(I am amazed though that he gets a free pass while people who have plagiarized far less, like Anu Malik get a bad rap, in spite of giving great music otherwise), but I do wish, like you, that he’d be more discriminating in choosing singers for a particular film. Just use 2-3 singers for one film!

    • Thanks Shantanu. Precisely my point that no thought is given while choosing playback singers. A lot of them want to introduce new voices, but they do that very haphazardly… just one random song here and there. I mean when Shreya did Devdas, she got an ideal break… just her voice for Aishwarya which was noticed and see where she’s gone today. That kind of talent-spotting is necessary.
      It beats me why six voices were needed for Ranbir in Barfi – ranging from the totally off-jkey to the very sureela. The music will work no doubt – if anything, it’s good that younsgters are going in for melodious songs and ghazals. But the entire effort could have been much better if some thought was given into choosing the singers.
      And yes, you’re right about Rahman’s case where music becomes more important than the voice.
      Do keep in touch

      • pritam said in an interview “singer is the main instrument for a song” and he tried 17 singers for “one” of the songs in barfi
        so pritam deifinitely isnt taking singers lightly…the variety of singers you see in barfi is not because of not giving importance to the voice. its because they did not create a song keeping any singer in mind….it shows there was freedom for the music to flow and then fit the “perfect voice” for that tune and that particular situation regardless of whoever fits in the song…and in barfi as the lead pair doesnt speak what songs are doing is narrate the story and i dont see any need for voice suiting the actor here…the voice should suit and convey the message of that particular scene and that was done perfectly by all the singers…

        papon hit the perfect spots in barfi
        arijit singh’s voice in saawali si raat was intentionally kept “besura”…pritam said to suit the situation he did not auto tune that song even a bit….he himself said he kept it “besura”

        anyways this whole new concept of using fresh singers is great…but singers like shaan sonu nigam kk should be heard more often…we miss them

      • Hi Chisel. Thanks for your response. While I am absolutely in favour of using new voices, which will add freshness, I also thought ‘Barfi’ overdid it by using six of them, who were very varied. Guess three would have been fine, to capture different moods and yet lend a certain uniformity. Papon was definitely good, and so are Mohit and Shafqat. Even Arijit in his ghazal was fine, but his weakness was exposed in Saawali si raat. Sounds odd that the same singer can sing a complicated song in tune, and an easy song out of tune. Obviously his voice was doctored in the former. And there’s a total contrast from Nikhil Paul George – totally off and cracked, though I honestly won’t be surprised if he gets a couple of awards for best playback singer (which would be an embarrassment for the likes of KK and Sonu)
        Of course, all these are personal views. What matters is that the film indeed has good songs, and the compositions and lyrics are good. A little more discretion would have made it even better, I feel.

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