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Zubeida's from a quieter age

A R Rahman puts away his drum kit for Shyam Benegal's Zubeidaa, but the period film can't drag him away from his Bombay and Pukar orchestral style

After Govind Nihalani, it's Shyam Benegal. Nihalani made Thakshak with a big starcast and Rahman's music. Now Benegal, director of such new wave films as Ankur and Mandi, steers his art onto the Mumbai highway with Zubeidaa.

Why have these masters of low-budget, non-mainstream cinema, who worked mostly with theatre actors, now decided to fight it out in the big, bad world of Hindi films? Cinema historians will study the fall of parallel cinema, and perhaps point to various reasons, including liberalisation, that forced directors like Nihalani and Benegal into the cut-throat commercial space that worships success rather than ideas. Does this pressure make them better public communicators or ruin their art altogether?

Karishma has recently moved from Raja Hindustani and Biwi No 1 to more artistically ambitious films like Fiza. She now stars in this 'story of a princess'. Khalid Mohammed, Filmfare editor who made his directorial debut with Fiza, wrote this as a continuation of his Mammo and Sardari Begum, stories that Benegal filmed.

Karishma plays the second wife of a maharaja. Manoj Bajpai plays the maharaja. His role was first offered to Amir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, both of whom turned it down because a woman was playing the main character. Benegal may modify his style, but Mumbai cinema's patriarchal priorities can hardly change!

Rekha makes a comeback and plays the maharaja's first wife, Mandira. She has earlier worked with directors from outside the commercial circuit -- Girish Karnad gave her the role of Vasantasena in Utsav. And Rahman's score for the controversial film Fire endeared him to people attempting alternatives to Mumbai masala.

Dheeme dheeme by Kavita Krishnamurthy opens the album. It is a slow realisation of what being in love means. This utterly confusing emotion turns dust to gold, all that the heroine is experiencing in mind and body is thanks to this love. The tune is predictably Rahman in its movements, a flute which carries on the tune and then introduces a Karnatak inflexion before being overwhelmed by rich symphonic violins.

Kavita sings well, only her nasal twang is getting more and more pronounced and when she sings Ye man behke behke, the word man almost comes out as pan.

A free borrowing of Latin elements and you have Albeli, also by Kavita. She sounds younger in this number. The song describes a young girl trying to understand her fears and dreams. This is not loud pop Latin as in Enrique Iglesias, rather sober and closer perhaps to what originally was termed Latin before globalisation.

A wedding song with no fanfare is how you might describe the mehndi song. This is sung when the women gather to get the bride ready and sing songs. Teasing and tearful by turns, the voices here don't sound commercially cheerful, only normally so, and strains of the shehnai far away herald the wedding. Even the line Tere manko jeevan ko / Nai khushiyan milne wali hai (Your mind and your life / will find new delights) does not soar, it remains sedate.

So gaye hain expresses the end of all anticipation. The bleakness Rahman achieves in the first version sounds somewhat overemphasised in the second by the choral passages and the violin crescendo, transporting you from the understated style of Benegal's Ankur and Mandi into the world of Bombay and Pukar. The orchestra is markedly Western -- horns, pizzicato, a deep drum, piano... Lata Mangeshkar sounds strained and tremulous.

Pyare se gaon is also by Lata Mangeshkar. The mastering on these two songs makes Lata's voice sound more electronic than natural; the highs are raised and make the number extremely sibilant. The sarangi interlude is well done and conveys a sense of subtle pain.

Chode mera bhaiyan is a thumri and reminds you of Umrao Jaan and Pakeezah. The orchestra -- sarangi, tabla, tanpuras -- is what you'd expect for a thumri. The tune gets a violin ensemble backing it somewhere in the middle. Richa Sharma sings well, but seems to have recorded in multiple takes: you can hear some changes in the voice level.

In its rhythm and arrangement, Hai na echoes Uppu karavadu, Rahman's song from the Tamil film Mudhalvan. It also tries a period feel, with an occasional lilt bringing to mind the style of the Mohammed Rafi hit Chahoonga main tujhe saanjh savere. Udit Narayan and Alka Yagnik sing this cheerful number.

The period of Zubeidaa doesn't allow Rahman a display of keyboard wizardry and heavy drumming. This is a quiet album by his standards, but it doesn't fill you with the kind of peace that a fully acoustic score -- where you hear only real instruments and no synth sounds -- would. Shyam Benegal's Sardari Begum featured such a score. Not many may be aware that Zakir Hussain, the tabla-playing, highflying wizard who preceded Rahman, came up with a wonderful, warm album for that film.

S Suchitra Lata

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