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Discernment. Online

















A Noor Jahan classic makes an appearance: a musically inclined aunt sings this film song in a totally  believable situation
Hanging over the Farida Khanum number 'Aaj jaane ki zid na karo' is Aditi's fear that Hemant will indeed leave her 
Serendipity: Canadian music composer Danna and Aparna underwent a traditional North Indian wedding ceremony even as he was working for 'Monsoon Wedding'


A resonance beyond 'background music'

Monsoon Wedding
Music: Mychael Danna
Dir: Mira Nair

The soundtrack in Monsoon Wedding is not a decorative add-on but an integral part of the movie's texture and flow

In the liner notes to the CD of Monsoon Wedding, director Mira Nair remarks: "Unlike typical Bollywood films where all music is newly composed and in playback, the characters in our film use music as our own families and friends do -- to celebrate, mourn or honor any occasion." She goes on to say that the soundtrack is meant to illustrate "something ineffable and distinctive about India: the essential inclusion of music in our everyday lives." The appeal of Monsoon Wedding's music lies precisely in how naturally the score fits into the movie, in the same way that music naturally fits into urban Indian existence. While in most films, the songs are deliberate set-pieces (with the entire plot put on hold while the characters sing and run round trees), in Monsoon Wedding the songs are part of the life and pulse of the movie.

At the same time, it would not be precisely correct to say that the songs are used in the way Western movies use songs, just as snippets or in the background. Sometimes, yes, this is how the music gets used in Monsoon Wedding. More frequently, though, the movie captures the way music gets integrated into urban life in India.

In some ways this is obvious enough. The ribald songs sung by the gathering of women at the mehndi ceremony, for example, would certainly be sung at a Punjabi wedding, so they naturally find their way into the movie. Likewise, when the teenaged Ayesha (Neha Dubey) gyrates to the strains of Anu Malik's Chunari chunari, sung by Anuradha Shriram and Abhijeet originally for Biwi No.1 (1999), it's because teenagers do in fact dance to film songs at weddings and so-called cultural functions. These songs show up on the soundtrack because they'd show up in those situations in real life.

There's more to the soundtrack, though. Consider the appearance of Noor Jahan's classic "Mujh se pehlisi muhabbat mere mehboob na maang." Originally set to music by Rashid Attre for the Pakistani film Qaidi (1962), Faiz Ahmed Faiz's nazm shows up in Nair's movie in an immediately familiar context. Anybody who has ever been to a large family gathering can recognize the scenario: the relatives press the musically inclined aunt to sing something, and after a show of reluctance, she launches into an old film song. The song is rendered with no playback, the actress simply singing in her own unaccompanied voice. The believable situation and the absence of artifice in the rendition by themselves make this song fit perfectly into the movie's action.

But the song does more. It also provides a comment on that action. Monsoon Wedding is centered around the blossoming love of the young bethrothed couple Aditi (Vasundhara Das) and Hemant (Parvin Dabas). For neither of them is this a "pehlisi muhabbat." Indeed, they find common ground only when each confesses to the other that they are recovering from broken hearts. From this perspective, Faiz's nazm turns out to be an integral part of the movie not just situationally, but also thematically. The entirely believable aunt sings an entirely believable song which unwittingly turns out to have an entirely apt relevance to the situation.

Similarly, Faiyaz Hashmi's "Aaj jaane ki zid na karo", sung by Farida Khanum, turns out to fit both situationally and thematically into the movie. The song plays naturally enough on the tape deck in the car when Aditi and Hemant go out for a drive together. But hanging over the drive is the fear Aditi has that once she tells Hemant about her affair, he will indeed leave her. It's perfectly credible that a Farida Khanum cassette should be playing in the car, but underlying this credibility is a larger thematic comment.

Unfortunately, neither the Faiz nor the Hashmi song is included on the CD. It does, however, include other well-known songs that are used equally effectively in the film. Laxmikant-Pyarelal's "Aaj mausam bada beimaan hai", sung by Mohammed Rafi for Loafer (1973), plays at the beginning of the movie, suggesting at once that rain, romance, and unpredictability will govern Monsoon Wedding: "Aanewala koi toofan hai, koi toofan hai, aaj mausam." Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's Allah hoo and Bally Sagoo's Aaja naach le also turn up, as does a remix by MIDIval PunditZ of Jaidev's superb composition from Gaman (1978), "Aaja savariya tohe garva laga loon, ras ke bhare tore nain," exquisitely sung by Hiradevi Mishra. (In a glaring omission, the CD makes no mention of Jaidev as the original composer.)

Such recycled film songs, folk numbers, and nazms make up about half the music of Monsoon Wedding. The score also includes a rollicking new bhangra number by Sukhwinder Singh, "Aaj mera jee kardaa." The rest of the music is credited to Toronto-based Mychael Danna, one of the most exciting composers of film scores in North America. Danna has provided the music for standard Hollywood fare such as 8MM (1999, starring Nicholas Cage) and Bounce (2000, with Ben Affleck), as well as for many movies directed by the Canadian Atom Egoyan.

Danna's interest in Hindi film songs goes back a while. His brilliant score for Egoyan's Exotica (1995), for example, "borrows" a couple of songs from Hemant Kumar and Madan Mohan. Monsoon Wedding is the second time Danna has worked with Mira Nair. Their first outing was Kama Sutra (1997), but not even the combined efforts of Rekha's presence, Danna's music, and Shubha Mudgal's vocals could rescue that movie, which remains Nair's worst to date.

The liner notes reveal that Danna and his wife Aparna underwent a traditional North Indian marriage ceremony even as he was working on the music for Monsoon Wedding. Apparently this was mere serendipity, and not (alas) a symptom of Danna's fanatic devotion to researching his art. Nonetheless, Danna's first-hand familiarity with the traditional trombone-laden wedding orchestras is evident in the joyous and appropriately raucous Baraat, which serves as both the title music and the music of the baraat at the movie's eponymous close.

The melodic line established by Baraat is worked and reworked in various arrangements and at varying tempi throughout the movie, almost in the manner of a raga interpreted and reinterpreted over and over again to bring out its varied facets. Danna's creativity reveals itself in the dazzling array of orchestral arrangements, emotional effects, and musical affinities that emerge from the reworkings of a single melody. The same tune conveys heartbreak in the sitar, sarangi, and flute arrangement of Banished, serenity via the strings, piano, and flute in Love and Marigolds. In addition, a piccolo plays the line over very softly in the brief Feels like Rain; a full orchestra including bass flute, sarod, santoor, sarangi, and tenor flute reprises the melody in Your Good Name; and part of Good Indian Girls features a synthesizer and keyboard version of the same motif. Fuse Box sounds akin to the instrumental pieces on the score of Laxmikant-Pyarelal's Utsav (1984), while the delicate, exquisite piano of Hold Me, I'm Falling is reminiscent of Debussy's Clair de Lune.

But the individually named tracks of the CD aren't experienced as such on the actual movie soundtrack. While watching the movie, the viewer hears just one theme in multitudinous variants. The repetition begins to function not only as a background to the action, but also a comment on it. For the same melody that accompanies the love story of Aditi and Hemant bears witness to the very different love story of P K Dubey (Vijay Raaz) and Alice (Tilotama Shome) and that of Aditi and Hemant. The same melody that plays peeping tom to the steamy, hormone-driven flirtation of Ayesha and Rahul (Randeep Hooda) also reveals the surprisingly deep and tender bond between the harassed patriarch (Naseeruddin Shah) and the wife with whom he's always bickering (Lilette Dubey). The melody suffuses the entire movie, linking the various characters and situations to each other even when the characters themselves are too confined within their own situations to be aware of the parallels.

The reimagining of the same melody over and over again has another, more tactical effect. Danna not only manages to relate the various characters and situations to each other, he also relates his own composition to the borrowings that pepper Monsoon Wedding. His recontextualizations of his own brand-new melody parallel the recontextualization of an old classic like "Mujhse pehlisi muhabbat". First off, Danna's own melody is credible as part of the story. The presence of a typical marriage brass band concoction like Baraat is natural enough given that the movie is, after all, about a wedding. But when that concoction recurs under various guises throughout the movie, it takes on a resonance beyond that of mere theme music. Just as with "Mujhse pehlisi muhabbat", something that could be taken for granted turns out on closer investigation to be meaningful in unexpected ways. So symbiotic is the relationship of music and action, that the music becomes the movie, as it were; the music is not a decorative add-on, but an integral part of the movie's shape, its texture and flow. It is, as Nair says, an "essential inclusion" into the life of the movie.

Surajit Bose

(The writer grew up in Mumbai and is curently at Stanford University)

Quick links:

Monsoon Wedding site and trailer

Music director Mychael Danna

Posted on 23 May 2002

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