Monday, 23 December 2013

Likhe jo khat tujhe...

Had the man lived, he would have turned 89 today. As it turned out, he died at the relatively young age of 56. Hell, today I myself am a full six years older than he was when he died.

But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back in the 60’s, when melody really reigned as queen in Hindi cinema, playback singers each had their own niche strengths, around which they built their repertoires.  The velvet voiced Talat was the ghazal maestro. The nasal vocals of Mukesh were best suited for pathos. The classically trained Manna Dey dominated the semi classical genre. Kishore was little more than a yodeller who sang the occasional breezy number for Dev Anand. Mahendra Kapoor, when he wasn’t singing those loud patriotic numbers for Manoj Kumar, was basically the poor man’s Rafi.

Why, even the females had their roles clearly cut out – while Lata crooned for the heroines, the more seductive Asha was earmarked for the vamps.

An aside here. It was Talat who indirectly set up my craze for crossword puzzles. When I was barely ten, a crossword in the Sunday ToI (Children’s Section) caught my eye. It was a Bollywood based crossword meant for kids. One of the `Down’ clues was `Singer going up the way he comes down (5)’. The answer, of course, was TALAT, which being a palindrome read the same way up or down! And I was hooked - man, this is so cool!

The only true blue `all rounder’ we had in those glory days was Rafi – the Gary Sobers of playback singing! And his greatness lay in the ease with which he could outdo each of the specialists in their own genre. He sang ghazals better than Talat, he out pathos-ed Mukesh, and clearly matched Manna Dey’s classical virtuosity raag for raag. As for Kishore, since Rafi also provided playback for Kishore the star, that was a no brainer to begin with!

Before diehard fans of these legends go up in arms, allow me to elaborate.

I remember a mellow evening at Jhansi, when we were discussing - over drinks, naturally - the merits and demerits of the Mukesh versus Rafi `sad songs’ argument. Col Mishra was a total Mukesh bhakt, and would have none of my `Rafi-is-the-greatest’ argument. “Ok, sir – the proof of the pudding” I argued, “is in the eating”! I slipped the vinyl LP (those were the vinyl days) out of its jacket. It was an SD Burman record, and had `Bandini’ on one side and `Meri Surat Teri Aankhein’ on the reverse.

I first played Mukesh’s `O jaane wale ho sake toh laut ke aana’ from `Bandini’. Now this is one of Mukesh’s best, and would take some beating. After Col Mishra was done swooning, I flipped the record over. “Now, sir – listen to real pathos” I told him, and played `Tere bin soone nayan hamare’, which is easily the most heart-rending outpouring of a torturous soul wringing in anguish. The songs spoke, or rather sang for themselves.

Manna Dey was, of course, formally trained in Hindustani classical music, so when the two got together to sing a raag based duet for Uday Shankar’s dance epic `Kalpana’ (1960), Manna Dey was expected to totally walk all over Rafi.  The song `Tu hai mera prem devta’ remains a classical gem, and each of the singers performed superbly - but once the recording was over, Dey shook his head ruefully. “For all my classical training, where do I get a voice like his?” he bemoaned.

Much the same thing happened when Talat and Rafi got together to sing `Gham ki andheri raat mein’ from `Sushila’ (1966). The silken vocals of Talat render the pathos so beautifully (Dard hai sari zindagi, jiska koi sila nahin), and when he tapers off his anguish, Rafi simply takes off in his positive note (Subah zarooooor aayegi, subah ka intezaar kar). 

The Kishore-Rafi debate is no debate actually - when you consider that Rafi has actually, on more than one occasion   provided playback for Kishore! I mean, can you imagine Lata providing playback for Noor Jehan? Of course Lata did provide payback for Suraiya, which is why nobody talks on any Lata-Suraiya debate.

The fact that Kishore dominated the 70’s is more of an accident – Dada Burman falling ill half way through `Aradhana’ , handing the mantle over to his less accomplished son RD. This was after he had already recorded two duets with Rafi (I still believe the best song form Aradhana is not Roop tera mastana or Mere sapnon ki rani but the Rafi-Lata duet Gunguna rahe hain bhawrein). This, combined with the phenomenal rise of Rajesh Khanna, laid Rafi low post Aradhana in 1969.

But there is no doubt that this man who had no formal education, this humble, God fearing Muslim was actually the voice of God. Proof? The best bhajans, in or out of movies, have been sung by Rafi – just listen to him sing `Hari Oooom’ the alaap of the mesmerising `Man tarpat Hari darshan ko aaj’ from `Baiju Bawra’ (1952). Even an agnostic like me turns believer!

Born on 24th December 1924, Mohammed Rafi would have turned 89 today. He now belongs to the ages. Happy Birthday, Rafi saab!

Sunday, 15 December 2013

'Nothing is Written!'...

I was in the 10th Standard when the school took us to see `Lawrence of Arabia’ at the Alaka theatre. As the credits unrolled, all the great names flitted by – Alec Guiness, Anthony Quinn, Omar Sharif, Anthony Quayle, Claude Rains, and finally – introducing Peter O’Toole as Lawrence of Arabia! That evening I anointed Peter O’Toole as the greatest actor EVER!

Today, over four decades later, I stand by my word. Nobody, just nobody has come anywhere near him. Not Brando, not De Niro, not Redford, not Hoffman, not even the back to back Oscar winning Hanks or the triple Oscar winning Day-Lewis!.

Two scenes in the movie left a deep imprint. In the first, Lawrence strikes a match, and then clamps it tight between thumb and forefinger till the flame dies out against his fingers. When Potter tries it, he screams in agony “It bloody well hurts!” “Of course it hurts!” Lawrence tells him. “So what’s the bloody trick?” Potter asks. “The trick, William Potter” Lawrence replies “is not minding that it hurts!”

I lost count of the number of times I burnt my fingers repeating that `trick’ and repeating that dialogue. To date, that remains the best, the only response to pain!

The second scene, and the one I tried to make my motto in life concerned the diehard fatalistic attitude of us Easterners. “It is written, and therefore it shall come to pass.” When crossing the desert on their way to Accaba, Lawrence and his team lose a straggler (played by IS Johar), and consider him to be a goner, as anyone lost in the desert surely is. Lawrence decides to go find him. Sharif tries to dissuade him “It is written that he shall die” he prophesies glumly.

The obdurate Lawrence trudges back, and by the end of the day, he drags a half dead Johar back to the camp. As he collapses himself, he tells Sharif “Nothing is written!” Sharif is overwhelmed. “Truly, Lawrence” he intones “for some men nothing is ever written except what they choose to write themselves!”

Peter O’Toole spent two years and three months making Lawrence. He became so obsessed with the man that he needed psychiatric help later to `come out’ of the character. That would become a staple with him – he lived each part and then needed help to become himself again.

By all accounts, O’Toole should have walked away with the Oscar for Lawrence – he was that good. But he came up against a competent Gregory Peck playing Atticus Finch in `To Kill A Mockingbird’. Peck was good, but nowhere near O’Toole - but then Peck was an American sweetheart, and he had already lost four times. So O’Toole lost out.

He played Henry II in two films, `Becket (1964)’ and `The Lion in Winter (1968)’. In the latter film, Katherine Hepburn, herself a superb actress, got so unnerved by O’Toole’s performance that she remarked “He’s so bloody life like, he gives me goose bumps!” O’Toole was nominated for both these films, but lost out in what are surely asinine choices.

If in `Becket’ he had any competition, it was from his own co-star in the film Richard Burton. (Imagine a movie in which two leading men are both nominated for Best Actor – the only time this has ever happened!). But both of them lost out to yet another Britisher – Rex Harrison in `My Fair Lady’. I kid you not!

`Becket’ continues to be shown as a training film in the Film Institute as a consummate study on acting. Just watch Burton and O’Toole pitted against each other – such sheer delight! Years later, Hrishikesh Mukherjee was to use the same theme, of a hireling turning against his provider, in `Namak Haram’.

In 1969, O’Toole played the whimsical Arthur Chipping in `Goodbye Mr Chips’. Now this was a role which had already fetched an Oscar for Robert Donat in 1939, so it was expected to be a cakewalk for O’Toole. While shooting his farewell speech scene – a long scene done in a single take, by the time he finished the speech, the director forgot to say cut, everyone in the studio was spell bound or in tears, and then there was pin drop silence. Then the applause began and went on and on.

Yet, did he win the Oscar? That year, a cancer stricken and dying John Wayne had finally received a nomination for his role as Rooster Cogburn in `True Grit’. So how could the Academy deny `The Duke', the larger than life American idol?

Peter O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor a record EIGHT times. He remains the most nominated actor never to have won an acting Oscar – Burton was nominated seven times, again without ever winning!

When Puja went abroad for the first time, she asked me what DVDs she should pick up. “Anything with Peter O’Toole” I told her. Today, thanks to her, I have a pretty good collection, and watch them again and again, each time marvelling at this genius.

And if you think he only excelled at serious roles, just pick up `How to Steal a Million’ in which he was paired with the delectable Audrey Hepburn. Or take the Pixar animation `Ratatouille’, and watch him as the voice of the acerbic food critic Anton Ego. Total, absolute pure delight!

Peter O’Toole was the last of the British Hellraisers of the 60’s – along with Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Oliver Reed. They have all gone now. I know this is as cliched a cliché as they come, but a part of me died with him this weekend. Thanks for the memories, Peter – they don’t make them like you anymore!