Hindi Cinema: Singing in the Rain

Rachel Dwyer is Professor of Indian Cultures and Cinema at SOAS, University of London
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Our columnist returns to the classic monsoon songs of Hindi cinema. A seasonal reminder of love and longing, desire and sorrow

I DON’T REMEMBER such a rainy summer in London. May and June have been grey and damp and the two months when the garden is at its best have been almost wasted. The months are brief, but the days are long. Yet it has been a grey backdrop to political confusion to rival the last days of Rome.

Rain songs are not desirable in our damp climate. ‘Rain, rain, go away’ is more the thought than the oddly chirpy ‘Singing in the rain’. Yet rain songs in Hindi films can help us imagine what rain means in another climate, where an entire society is dependent on the life- giving annual monsoon.

Rain songs are usually associated with eroticism and fertility, carrying the emotional meaning and aesthetic associations in their lyrics, musical style and images. Rain songs existed long before the Hindi film. Kalidasa’s Ritusamhara collection, or ‘the seasons’, opens with rain poetry, while songs of ‘the 12 months’, Barahmasas, found across many Indian languages, evoke the monsoon. Film songs, however, almost drown out other music.

Film songs are complex in the way they bring together music, lyrics and picturisation. They have a great deal of work to do in films, including introducing characters, condensing emotions and narratives and entertaining audiences. They feature stars who are often defined by their songs, which help create their emotional repertoires. The song is key to the whole soundscape of the film. It brings together singing stars and a whole new set of personnel—lyricists, music directors and musicians.

Rain songs bring together images and lyrics about rain, and may be based on ragas associated with rain, notably Megh Malhar raag, such as Garjat Barse Sawan Aayo Re from Barsaat Ki Raat (1960). However, they can be defined also through their emotions.

There are two major types of film songs, divided by emotion, similar to the rasas of sambhoga shringara and vipralambha shringara—love in union and separation The first group is about eroticism, love and happiness, while the other expresses longing and desire, yearning mixed with sorrow.

The second type includes a category I particularly enjoy, namely rain songs set in Bombay, a surprisingly popular location. This is a city where the monsoon brings floods, making it difficult to travel. The sea is rough and the smell and dirt can be unpleasant. Yet it also brings joy, even to urbanites who enjoy the festivals of the holy month of Shravan, not least for its delicious fasting food.

I have three particular favourite songs among these, but first indulge me as I mention my most loved film song, Pyaar Hua, Ikraar Hua from Shree 420 (1955). Although Raj Kapoor’s films are closely associated with water, this lovely song is only a rain song in part. The glamour of rainy Bombay—or at least a studio version of it—and of the star couple, RK and Nargis, are framed by a comic-pathetic sequence where he cannot afford to buy his beloved even a cup of tea from a street stall. The catchy music, orchestrated in a modern style, enhances the profound lyrics about the dilemma of love. The couple have declared their love but stand on the brink of the unknown. Raj and Nargis were known to be lovers without a future or family life ahead of them. Many viewers would know that they were to split after this film and that the children in the song are those with his wife.

The song has a chorus and verse structure—mukhda-antara style—but the music has clear Middle Eastern features. Although the opening violins may sound like rain and the falling drops of rain match the rhythm, it’s not a rain song. It’s raining, but the song is not about rain or even emotions associated with rain—only the picturisation is.

I’m also going to set aside songs which are primarily erotic and where Bombay is a backdrop, even a set, rather than a real location. These would include: Aaj Rapat Jaayen’ (Namak Halal, 1983), which is huge fun; Behta Hai Mann Kahin (Chameli, 2003), with lyrics about reflection while the images are of pleasure, though a passing mention of the rainy month of saawan echoes the images; Hum Tum (from the eponymous film of 2004) has the couple getting drenched as erotic love meets a hyper-romantic mode.

There is almost a sub-genre of erotic rain songs shot on Bombay terraces, a private outdoor space. These are about the rain rather than the city itself: Bheegi Bheegi Raaton Mein (Ajnabee, 1974) or Tip Tip Barsa Paani (Mohra 1994) and Lagi Aaj Saawan (Chandni, 1989).

Three of my favourite songs depict the city clearly, and are romantic but not erotic. To these, I could easily add three more, but shall spare the reader: Saawan Barse Tarse Dil (Dahek, 1999); Geela Geela Paani (Satya, 1998) and Boondon ke Moti (Wake Up Sid, 2009).

The first song I shall explore is Rimjhim ke Taraane (Kala Bazar, directed by Vijay Anand, 1960). This song typifies the associations of the rain song with memory, often of happiness. It is set in a present that is not sorrowful or tearful, yet is imbued with nostalgia for happier days, mixing the joy of the past with its loss precipitating the sadness of the present. In this song we see an estranged couple, played by Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman, meet in a taxi queue and share an umbrella— very reminiscent of Pyaar Hua—bringing them physically close after a long separation.

SD Burman’s music, following Shailendra’s lyrics, uses short regular beats which seem to sound like rain before ending on one long last beat: ‘Rimjhim ke taraane le ke aaye barsaat ’. It doesn’t use the full filmi orchestra, depending mostly on sitar and tabla along with some sound effects of rain between verses, using plucked strings and a brief run of the orchestra. The rain brings songs with its ‘rimjhim’, using onomatopoeic words associated with rain, ‘rimjhim’ and ‘ghum jhum’.

The star couple, RK and Nargis, are framed by a comic-pathetic sequence where he cannot afford to buy his beloved even a cup of tea from a street stall

The song evokes memories of their first meeting. They are brought as messages by the rain, using familiar imagery of clouds as messengers travelling from other places, while the mind dances like a peacock. Again, the purity of the rain reminds one of freshness, the first, the original.

The lyrics are by Shailendra, a lyricist of many celebrated rain songs. He wrote the lyrics for Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat songs, such as Barsaat Mein, and of Shree 420, including Pyaar Hua. He also wrote bhatiyali (river boatman) inspired songs for films, O Re Majhi for Bandini and Wahan Kaun Hai Tera for Guide, a film whose climax is about rain.

This song is structured as a duet where Rafi sings a line, then Geeta responds in one verse, reversed in the next. Although the couple have separated by this stage in the film, this creates a close connection between them as they seem to connect and echo each other’s emotions, completing the verses. The song is not lip-synched, but as we hear the two voices, we ‘know’ —or rather, infer—that it’s the couple singing, bringing them back together before the event.

As in Pyaar Hua, Ikraar Hua, the umbrella brings moments of shared intimacy. It offers a moment of closeness even if they cannot touch each other. The wetness of skin and the whole body creates a further awareness of one’s physicality linked to the weather.

The thoughts of both characters, now in the rain in the city, are replete with nostalgia as they remember sunnier, happier days in the hills. Today, as viewers, we introduce our own nostalgia on seeing these beautiful stars and the city, looking modern and attractive in real location shots, even though the happy memories are mostly of Ooty. (Who remembers a taxi queue?) The sea crashing on rocks is emblematic of Bombay city and its glorious waterfront, but also of passions dashed on the shore.

The making of the song also has its own story. It is said that Geeta Dutt wouldn’t sing for Waheeda who was rumoured to have had an affair with Guru Dutt, but the gossip is that she sang this for SD Burman knowing it wouldn’t be lip-synched. Geeta’s voice was famed for its evocation of sorrow, but here, with this shared knowledge of offscreen life, it is further underlined.

My second song is Rimjhim Gire Saawan (Manzil 1979, directed by Basu Chatterjee). The film is not well known today, yet remains one of the most popular rain songs.

Composed by RD Burman, one of the major drivers of the Bollywood sound of the 70s, it is based on Raag Kirvani, which is said to be originally Carnatic, associated with melancholy. The instruments mix santoor and tabla along with a Western guitar and rhythm section as well as the regular filmi orchestra. Like the last song, the opening word ‘rimjhim’ uses onomatopoeia to evoke the rain.

This song about rain, love and desire appears three times in the film with the words changed slightly between the two main versions, the first being when Ajay (Kishore sings for Amitabh Bachchan) sings a version at a wedding the first time they meet although Aruna (the aptly named Moushumi Chatterjee) has seen him on the street. Her initial fear of a stranger turns to attraction as he sings. When he finishes, they set up future meetings, which lead ultimately to their own wedding.

In Rimjhim ke Taraane, an estranged couple share an umbrella, bringing them physically close after a long separation

There is a short version when Ajay calls her on the phone and sings, uniting the lovers across the city. Telephone songs are usually romantic, those endlessly annoying landlines of the time transforming into a way of uniting lovers across distance and enabling things to be said that would be hard to convey face to face.

The other full version is sung by Lata Mangeshkar. Although the Kishore version is the preferred audio, the visuals in this song are the best remembered. The repetition of the song at another stage in the relationship also signifies their growing closeness as they make the public city into a quasi private venue for romance.

The song mixes joy and yearning, the rain prompting an examination of feelings at this first rush of romance. It contains images of smouldering fire in the rain, but Yogesh’s lyrics are not matched by the picturisation, which shows them as happy.

Again, there is no lip- synching, but we assume it’s Aruna’s thoughts because of the female singer’s voice. It is strange that this song isn’t a duet, which the picturisation would suggest, but within the film it makes sense as her response to his earlier version of the song.

The rain feels very real: they get a good soaking as they run around the city, splashing through puddles and walking along the seawall in the spray. There is no eroticism, though, as we focus on clothes (I love 70s fashion), but not sexily so. As an over-involved viewer, I worried about Amitabh ruining the suit he borrowed as part of his pretence to be well off.

The pair moves easily around South Bombay. It is as if the rain makes the city more private as no one is looking at them but focussing instead on moving from A to B. Aruna normally travels in a chauffeur-driven car while taking occasional cabs, but Ajay has to take buses (no trains?) and cabs and borrow his friend’s car. However, Ajay is more mobile in the city, living in a tiny flat in Goregaon with his widowed mother, hanging out in Irani cafes, but living a double life using his rich friend’s flat on Peddar Road, borrowing an office, going to posh shops (Century Bazaar) and Chinese restaurants, and Eros Cinema. The film shows how people from different backgrounds can come together in this cosmopolis, with chance encounters taking place in the city’s public spaces—at the beginning, she gets out of a car and meets Ajay while walking along a road. However, it’s clear she’s not used to doing this, as when she hears Ajay behind her, she thinks he’s going to rob her.

Here the couple moves freely—although Moushumi, looking tiny next to Amitabh, can’t keep up with his long legs, skips, runs, and balances on the seawall. She is finding her way through the city in which he moves with confidence. The song starts from Gateway and moves north through the city, though loops around rather than following a way towards where they live, around the government buildings, across the maidans, along Marine Drive with its tetrapods, the biggest public space in south Bombay, a location for romance and love, with waves crashing here to Worli Seaface. Mobility. We see a fountain, then they cross the road nearby, and we notice the few cars on the street—guaranteed to raise a sigh today. But not then, when the city represents glamour, even in the rain.

The audience could enjoy nostalgia for the couple in the song 36 years later, seen again in Piku (2015), though not as a romantic couple.

My last song is another favourite: Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho (Hanste Zakhm, 1973, directed by Chetan Anand). The film is based on a Gulshan Nanda melodrama where two girls are swapped in childhood and both fall for the same man. Somesh (Naveen Nischol), the rich kid, becomes a taxi driver to impress, so also doubling up to match the two women Chanda and Meena (Priya Rajvansh).

This is an unusual song composed by Madan Mohan, which is filmi only in parts. It is languid and bluesy to begin with, played on guitar until half way through, when the tempo rises and the filmi orchestra comes in. The sound effects boom with rain and thunder, and crashing waves as the tempo speeds up, creating a sense of urgency and passion.

The lyrics of Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho are not so much about rain. They are about longing and love, union and sadness

The song then shifts again to show the couple sitting on the beach in daylight, and she—or rather, Lata—starts to sing. There is no rain in this section. Then the song returns to the bluesy sounds, the wet streets and the moving car. They speed through the city as rain belts down at the end. This is done by chroma keying, although it is spliced with shots of a real taxi driving around Bombay.

Kaifi Azmi’s lyrics are not so much about rain, for, although they mention bheegi raats, they are about longing and love, union and sadness—while the music is more emotional. Getting you is like getting the world, but it’s not entirely happy. Again, it is the visuals which drive the rain-song affect, creating the mood of rains and its evocation of Bombay.

The singers are much bigger stars than the actors. Navin Nischol is dressed in a Dev Anand- style neckerchief and moves in a style reminiscent of him (the star of my first song)—for whom he also sang—as a taxi driver (Taxi Driver, 1954, also directed by Chetan Anand). These evoke nostalgia—and perhaps one remembers Chetan Anand’s greater films with bigger stars.

For viewers today, it is hard not to think of the terrible story of Priya Rajvansh. She had a long affair with the film’s divorced director and was murdered. Chetan Anand’s sons were among those convicted, though they were later released.

Looking at the three songs together, we can see that they contain many emotions, conveyed through the lyrics, music and picturisation. These shift during the song, as do the emotions of the characters—which the stars have to make visible and communicate—and of the audience.

The songs are primarily about love between the male and female characters shown on screen and the revitalisation that the first impact of love has, showing life anew, afresh. The songs talk of remembering the first meeting, feeling an inner fire, gaining everything in the world. This exciting feeling of love is of the moment in the second and third song, which are set in the film at the point the characters fall in love, but it is also the remembrance of these happy times that is underlined in the first.

The characters may be in love but in different ways. The first song is infused with regret and yearning; the second is full of yearning but the images are joyful; the third abounds with happiness and yearning, shifting between the two.

Rimjhim Gire Saawan mixes joy and yearning, the rain prompting a probe of feelings at this first rush of romance

Yearning is shown as an active desire in which melancholy is experienced in a way which is satisfying and even happy. While the ‘weepie’ wants the audience to respond physically by crying, melancholy, though often classed as an emotion, is also a mood. It is associated more with the creative person, as it is a particular kind of reflective sorrow, often bearing an urge to remove oneself from company, to be alone and thoughtful and creative. It is something one may wish to experience as a ‘sweet sorrow’, and to be able to enjoy the pleasure of tears.

We the audience can enjoy three particular kinds of nostalgia. We can be nostalgic for the past, as we are watching these films at a remove from the time in which they were made. We may also feel that now is not the best time, and the past was richer and better, while the future means that even the present will be lost.

In these songs we also have a great nostalgia for place, for the lost cosmopolitanism of the city of Bombay and its switch to Mumbai, which these three songs pre-date.

We can also be nostalgic for the cinema itself. We often say that today’s films no longer have great music, lyrics and stars. It is true that in these songs we see and hear some of the greatest talents of Hindi cinema—Lata, Rafi, Geeta, Kishore; SD and RD Burman, Madan Mohan. We may also think of the absence of dance in these songs, when they were less about sexuality and displaying the body and more about emotions expressed through the face, especially the eyes, and the context seemed simpler and more innocent.

Above all, these songs release mixed emotions. This nostalgia is a yearning, but for something that wasn’t ours, for a time we weren’t there. Perhaps also for our lost loves, our own emotional history. I certainly wasn’t part of this history, but I still feel the emotional pull of the songs.

Chalo, I’m off to make my chai and will have to dream of eating pakodas. Bring on the rain.