Thursday, June 5, 2008

The boy who lived

May 29, 2008

H/l: Aaj ki raat mere dil ki salaami le le...

Intro: Short film made after Naushad Ali's death is a great story well told

Byline: Vrushali Lad

It's easy recounting a rags-to-riches story of an ambitious young man setting out into the world to realise his dreams against all odds. But filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta didn't have it easy by any means – he was recounting a true story and the hero of his tale passed away just as research on his life was underway.

But Dasgupta persevered, and culling information from family collections, old associates, interviews and photographs, presented the journey of one of the greatest musicians of Hindi filmdom, in a fitting tribute to the boy who gave up all and won much more back. Dasgupta's 39-minute documentary film on the life and genius of musician Naushad Ali is sensitively put together in the Films Division-funded 'Naushad Ali – The Melody Continues'.

Naushad's story began in true filmi fashion: as a boy, he loved Hindi film music so much that he would regularly skip school to catch movies at a local theatre in Lucknow. Later his father told him to choose between music and his family. Naushad chose music and moved to Mumbai, never to return to his ancestral home in Lucknow but to remember his grandmother and the trees and houses of his childhood till his dying days.

This beginning leads into an absorbing story told through Dasgupta's eyes, as he chronicles the rise and rise of Hindi film music's enfant terrible Naushad Ali. The story within the story is that the film, screened this week by Films Division at Cuffe Parade, almost didn't get made.

Dasgupta almost shelved his work after Naushad died in year 2006. "I had started work on it just a few days before he was hospitalised in April 2006. I thought I would continue with it once he was discharged. But he didn't make it and I wondered how I could make a film about his life if he wasn't there on camera and to guide me as the work progressed," the Bengali filmmaker and National Awardee says.

"Then I internalised the idea that Naushad Ali would never die. I started afresh." The film initially seems dull since there are no family members on camera to describe Naushad's early life. But five minutes into the narration, the film picks up pace and comes to life when Dasgupta presents Naushad in Naushad's own words.

Most people forgot Naushad's second death anniversary this year. Dasgupta's film becomes especially precious for this reason, since it presents a picture of the composer in an impish yet sensitive manner.

For instance, in an early video clip, Naushad describes how his mother wrote to him in the 1950s, telling him that she had selected a bride for him but had told her family that the groom was a tailor in Mumbai. "When she wrote to me, I agreed to be a 'tailor' just to placate her. By then I had already scored the music for a few films and it was popular. And during the wedding, I was tickled to find that the band kept playing numbers from my films – my family finally realised that the tailor was famous!"

Another clip shows an old Naushad at his plush bungalow Aashiyana at Bandra's Carter Road, singing melodiously with family members while playing the harmonium. Dasgupta says, "Apart from being a great musician, he was a great singer and he lived constantly in the world of music. But he had other unusual interests. For instance, do you know that he was a keen fishermen and hunter? Till he died, he was President of the Maharashtra State Angling Association."

Naushad was also a photography enthusiast, and his love for the visual medium prompted him to produce three Hindi films.

However, Naushad slowly began to phase himself out of the film music scene when Western music began pervading Bollywood. "Suddenly there was the Rumba, then the Samba, then Cha Cha Cha. I had no use for such music. I always was and always will be committed to Hindustani classical music," Naushad states in a short colour video.

In fact, his score for the 1960 superhit Mughal-e-Azam was an acid test for him as a musician. "A lot of film composers told me that the public would reject the music outright. Nobody had the patience with classical music, especially when it was set to Urdu shayari. But my director K Asif had full faith in me, and this was proved in a surprising way.

We were to begin recording for the Tansen song, which plays in the background as Salim romances Anarkali in the palace. When Asifsaab asked me who would sing the songs, I said only Bade Ghulam Ali Khan had Tansen's genius. Asif agreed to get him on board. But Khansaab charged Rs 25,000 per song – a shocker since even top singers then charged about Rs 500 per song. But Asif agreed and immediately handed over Rs 10,000 as advance payment.

When you saw that people were willing to invest in true talent, it inspired you to give your best for them. Sadly, that devotion to the craft was missing in latter day filmfolk, and I was not interested in many projects offered to me later," Naushad reminisces emotionally on camera.

In an interview given to a film magazine in the 1960s, Naushad spoke of himself as a man who "did nothing to further the cause of music. The music has existed for several thousand years. I only presented old wine in new bottles."

Naushad faded from the public eye altogether after Pakeezah in 1971, only for his music to resurface one last time for the eminently forgettable Taj Mahal: An eternal love story in 2005, a year before he passed away. The fact that the film did not do well nor was Naushad's music lauded, only served to prove that the genius of his composition probably belonged to another forgotten era.

At the end of the film, Dasgupta cleverly weaves a voiceover by Naushad onto a visual showing the many awards and honours the musician won in his lifetime. In a soft voice laced with nostalgia, Naushad says, "A lot of people, many of them journalists, ask me to name three of my best songs. I often ask myself if I have a best song. My best song is still to come, I haven't composed it yet…"

Like Dasgupta promises, the melody continues…

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