Pancham: Just a Song Before I Kill

Party scenes in Hindi movies have always had an arterious connection with the movie plot, and even more so with the soundtrack. And I don’t mean today’s party songs that are only reason for you to reach out for your goggles, as the strobe lights and thumping beats assault your sensory sensations, more often numbing you than causing you to tap your wanting-to-be-happy feet.

I’m flashbacking into the pre-Madras cinema days, when a party meant the focus was on two-four folks. When parties weren’t meaningless all-nighters, but a defined, definite occasion. Usually, it was a birthday party, and if it was the heroine’s birthday, there were a couple of possibilities – one, the hero would use the chance to serenade her by plonking in front of the piano and plink on the hapless instrument, usually in a way that made you confident that guests would be served very soft, well-kneaded phulkaas. Or, the leading pair would have had a tiff, followed by enter the bad wagon, where the villain, looking mighty chuffed, would brandish a ring or an expensive piece of jewelry – not for himself, but for the leading lady. Our woebegone hero, meanwhile, he the bearer of a bunch of flowers that’d rather be someplace else, would wearily plonk in front of the piano, or, hold the flowers and sing despondently – some of the mightiest melodies have come our way thanks to the villain turning up like a bad penny.

Or, the occasion could be the second lead’s engagement, where the leading pair would waltz; or the party could be a chance for the good-hearted but thieving hero to blag the host or another glitzy guest and walk away with “ek laakh ke heere.” In any case, the guests would invariably be holding a glass of a scotch-looking drink in their hand, dressed nattily, and swing to the superb melody that the movie’s composer would have churned out. For a brief time, I was sure I wanted to have a career as a party guest in Hindi films. Until somebody told me the glass contained apple juice.

But one of the best party scenarios to me is when the ostensible occasion is a happy one, but one of the major characters has devious plans – usually to kill someone. Rahul Dev Burman, who composed glittering numbers for innumerable party occasions, revelled in the music room when the party’s undercurrent was a view to a kill. He shone like no one else, say in the scenes in Rampur Ka Lakshman, Pukar, or, in the song for his birthday today – Jhoomti Raat Jawaan from the 1984 entertainer, Duniya. Personally, I rather enjoyed Duniya – it had some fun moments, an enjoyable revenge theme back-boned by a lost-and-found sub-plot, some superb dialogues by Javed Akhtar (who also wrote the screenplay and lyrics), sharp acting – Dilip Kumar, doing a class act; Rishi Kapoor, suave and lost and superb; Ashok Kumar, the guiding force behind the revenge plan; and, the ever dependable Amrita Singh. And of course, there was Pancham.

Without giving too much of the plot away, the party scene is this – Ravi (Rishi Kapoor) has come to the party to bump off Mohan Kumar (Dilip Kumar). Neither knows they are, to put it mildly, related to each other – son and father, no less. Mohan Kumar does have paternal feelings for Ravi, but the latter’s been turned by the heroine’s – Roma, played by Amrita Singh – evil uncle, Jugal Kishore (Pran) – to kill his eternal enemy, Mohan. Obviously, Ravi has to sing a song before he moves in for the kill. At this point, nothing else matters, as RD kicks off his band with a Goan sounding brass-and-drum lager sip – and then gives enough time for Amrita to look lovingly at Rishi with a lovely guitar pluck and rhythm.

Rahul Dev’s choice of playback for Rishi had to be the grand vocals of Kishore Kumar, and no one else could really the swing the night this way. Pancham splits the mukhda into three segments, ably supported by Javed Akhtar’s lyrics – the first segment is the happy piece, “Jhoomti raat jawan, jagamagata ye jahan”, where RD takes the tune for a twirl, and makes his violins section nod gracefully in agreement; the second segment where, lest we (and Rishi) forget the true motive of his mission – RD slopes down an ominous piece of tune – “do ghadi kaa hai samaa koi nahin jaane yahan”, where he makes his violins stop bowing and approach the tune with an almost menacing quality; and the third segment, where he shakes off the ominous feeling and extends the opening mukhda tune of partying with a slightly faster taal  –  “haath mein saaz liye, dil mein ek raaz liye, hum chalein aaj kahaan koi najhin jaane yahaan”, where, RD doesn’t use violins in the background, but makes the keyboards fill almost the same space that the violins occupied, but making them sound playful. Truly, Pancham was the instrument whisperer, making them do whatever he wanted them to do.

Rishi Kapoor - looking worried
Pancham’s antara gives credibility to Rishi Kapoor’s worries

As is the code of conduct in such parties, major characters had to step in and share the antara, but by dint of doing the opening honors, Pancham gives the first antara to Kishore. With that secret antara sauce that he invariably used, Pancham makes Kishore sounds wistful, worried, and then playful again – and I simply love the happy jig that Rishi and Ashok Kumar share. Truly, a blessed moment for life in a cinema hall.

The next interlude is as innocent as they come, and you know who’s going to step into RD’s recording cubicle next – and here again, Pancham trains Asha Bhosle, playback for Amrita Singh, sing the same tune, but note how it sounds fresh, happy, and bouncy – not a care in the world. If I was Rishi, I would have said, “To heck with it!”, thrown the gun, and cavorted with Ms. Singh. But Pancham and director Ramesh Talwar would throw a fit, so on the goes party. And thankfully so, because RD has a nice turn in wait here. From the Goan trumpets to the violins, he gets in the dholak and an emotional heft to the song.

It’s Dilip Kumar’s turn, and if you knew what the man has been through thus far in the movie, you’d guffaw if he began doing the tango. Instead, Rahul Dev gets in the stolid and solid Mahendra Kapoor for the master – and what an inspired choice by the composer. Pancham, sitting at the console, fades out the plucking guitar rhythm, and gets in a melodic flute to herald Mahendra Kapoor’s arrival – and once again, the antara tune is the same, but Pancham sprinkles his magic sauce to make it sound world weary and brings in a paternal connect. Javed Akhtar’s writing is inspired too – “ek naam sau gham jagaa gaya, tum mile koi yaad aa gaya”. At this point, RD makes a smoothly abrupt segue from the dholak rhythm back to his staggered percussion, for “main kise yaad karoon, dil ko barbaad karoon, mere zakhmon ke nishaan koi nahin jaane yahaan”. Such lovely wording, made more so by their simplicity. Pancham, fully appreciating Mahendra Kapoor’s breath control and singing prowess, doesn’t break the flow of his singing at “yahaan”, and instead, magically, floats him back to “Jhoomti raat jawaan”. And that’s the beauty of RD’s craft – he so superbly melds the unlikely and poetically-360-degrees-apart “Yahaan” and “Jhoomti” without a break.

Dilip Kumar
Pancham uses the dholak and flute to bring emotional heft to Dilip Kumar’s demeanor

Rahul Dev ends the song with a crescendo of violins (before what seems like imminent violence) and unfortunately, the video ends before what actually happens in the movie, and what the composer did in the studio to end the song.

The studio version has a superb growl of synthesizers and donkey-jaw in one of the interludes, followed by a pacy, racy percussion piece, that’s missing in the video; as is the song end, where Pancham ends the song with a crash of violins that echo like the crack of a gunshot.

It didn’t matter to Rahul Dev Burman what the occasion was, he’d be ready with a sheeny, crystal clear, classic soundtrack to cover it. In these ironical times, when his birthday celebrations are becoming a “me-too” event for one and all, just this once, you wish he’d come back and cover it with his snazzy take. Until then, this killer of a song will have to make do.

Watch the movie version of Jhoomti Raat Jawaan here:

Listen to Rahul Dev Burman’s studio version here, resplendent with the interlude and the climactic drama:

Rahul Dev Burman: throwing a killer party