AR Rahman, Music

On PK Mishra, The Forgotten Hero of Dubbed Lyrics

This post has been in my drafts for ages. I was trying to get citations on certain facts, but that would have required months of burrowing through old issues of Filmfare and Stardust magazines and time, which I don’t really have. It’s sad and strange that the Internet does not remember PK Mishra anymore, even though his songs ruled the airwaves back in the day. If you have any more PK Mishra facts, including what his real name was, anything at all, hit me up. He needs a Wikipedia page at least. I want us to not forget.

You are a poet from Rajasthan, and you have been trying to break into the film industry for a while. Out of the blue, you get a call. You have been employed to write the lyrics for songs in a new movie. The director is well-known in his field, and the composer is new to the game, no baggage, zero ego. You feel a thrill as you go in to your first session. Song-writing for Indian films is all about creating words and music based on a situation, a feeling, a bend in the road, an ode to the vagaries of life, and you are eager and curious to see what’s in store for you.

But what is this? You are told that the songs have already been written, in a different language, and you actually have to translate it into Hindi. Harsh, but what to do? You know the original language, so it’s not all that bad. It’s all about coming up with rhymes and verses in your mother tongue. You can roll with that, you say, and get to it.

Except there is a hitch. You cannot just translate as is, you see. The actors in the film have already shot the visuals in a different language, and you have to ensure that their lips sync with the new words as well. “What do you mean?”, you ask. “They are singing in a different language.” “Er, no, ” you are told. “They have to seem like they are singing in Hindi.” Well, fine, it’s a constraint. But you are an artist and you understand constraints, so you go about and do your job. You have to pay attention to the visuals, so that you understand at what points of the song you see lips moving, and others where you can get away with playing fast and loose. “Asha” and “Aasai” sound about the same, so that’s easy.

Another hitch. You see, the composer and director both insist that certain words have to stay the same. They match the mood perfectly, and even though they do not have any meaning per se, those words need to be around. “MTV generation, sir. Youth, sir,” you are told. “They need to latch on to something catchy, otherwise how can they remember the song?” You don’t really understand, because you saw the movie and there’s no one named ‘Rukkumani’ in it, and you try to bring up the fact that the North Indian version of the name should probably be ‘Rukmini’, but no one cares. So you shrug and you do your best.

Yet another request. There is this song , a full-blooded, goose-bump inducing song about how great….Tamil Nadu is. But the rest of India wouldn’t care, so you need to talk about the country instead. The good thing is, there is no lip-synced video, so you can go wild, and you do.

So Roja comes out, and the songs, your words accompanying them, go stratospheric. Never mind the fact that they got your name wrong on the cassette cover. Your name is not PK Mishra, they called you Mishra-ji when you came in every day, and they forgot to ask you what your first name was. When they couldn’t find you, some wit decided to put PK in there, since you came in to work a little tipsy, every now and then. Ha ha, really funny. But none of it matters, because they love the music, and those songs you wrote, they are playing on the radio, and even on Chitrahaar.

People are talking about AR Rahman, the new wonder kid from Madras, and every now and then, somebody even talks about you. But mostly, they laugh at how saucy that Rukmani song is, even though you thought it was tame by what your peers were putting forward in Hindi cinema at the time. The kid ends up winning a bunch of awards, as does the lyricist for the original songs. Nobody pays much attention to your work. After all, what you did was nothing original, anybody can translate words from one language to another, right?

But yet, it turns out that you make this a steady career. You fit a niche. There is opportunity to be seen for every producer that wants the pan-Indian market, and you are the go-to guy when it comes to transliteralipsyncizing songs into Hindi. You accede to every demand, and you do your best to play by the rules. You take it easy, as a matter of policy. Other lyricists would have run screaming for the hills if asked to write a rap song that talks about localities in Chennai, one that makes use of local references, puns, and tongue-twisters, but you gamely take on the challenge, transposing it to a different audience. For some songs, you put in the exact English words they want in the verses. Well, except for that time you thought nobody up North cared about Elizabeth Taylor so you put Madonna in there instead, but hey, it went well. You don’t bat an eyelid when they ask you to take on songs that swim in alliteration and onomatopoeia; if it’s possible in Tamil, you will find a way, any way, to get a Hindi version. You become flexible with meaning sometimes, when a song about the Goddess Kali becomes one about being the Prince of Delhi. Despite your lyrics being burdened with the broken accents of singers unaccustomed to Hindi.

The strange thing is, when given creative freedom with your translations, you go above and beyond. I look at your translated version of songs that were remade with different actors (oh yes, that was a thing too, later in the nineties) and they are so different from the ones where you need to adhere to specific imagery from the original Tamil version. You also made the best of the leeway from tracks that do not involve lip-syncing. Also interesting are the translation choices you make, like taking a song that’s about the daughters of various people in a village (can’t even) and make it one with actual women’s names. A song about a flower blooming to the touch becomes one about falling in love, but just a little. (What does that even mean, we wondered, to have thoda thoda pyaar, as opposed to dher saara pyaar? But that was you playing around with the Tamil words “thodath thoda” and picking the word transposition of least resistance. The meaningless word “Kulivalile“, shoehorned into the visuals of a film just because the composer and lyricist couldn’t think of a better word, to you that word became “Phoolwaali ne“. I don’t know whether to laugh or just be in awe of your creativity every time I hear the Hindi version.

But tell me, Mishra-ji, was there ever this feeling in the recesses of your mind, that all your work, the kind of ideas and effort you put into unraveling the cultural Gordian knot of North and South, all of it was temporary? That by transferring near-verbatim the flavor of one end of the country, you relinquished some of the ownership that comes with pure art. I am into comics, and there is this recurring joke in that field about inkers. The punchline is that inkers are not real artists, that they just trace the penciller’s work. I see that similar argument made about your contributions to Indian cinema, and pardon my language, that is such bullshit.

Maybe you realized that there will come a time when there is more money to be made in remaking films outright, using a different creative team. Perhaps you suspected that, had you continued work in purely dubbed films, you would become a relic, and those colleagues and patrons that offering you a steady assembly-line of work will switch off the lights and walk away anytime the money dried up. There were songs you were clearly phoning in, employing the bare-minimum effort to string coherent lines together.

By 1997, the writing was on the wall. Others had taken your place in the corridors of Panchathan Record Inn. You branched out among other music composers of the South. Your oeuvre included names like MM Kreem and Deva and Illayaraja, you bringing their tunes to a different market, just as you brought Rahman’s. It was interesting to see you branch off into doing original Hindi and non-Hindi films. Your work with director Mani Shankar, in particular, stemming from your collaborations with Karthik Raja. You did not burn up the charts or the box office with those, but they remain worthy snapshots of your career.

My personal favorite of your non-Rahman career however is this all-but-forgotten album called Meri Jaan Hindustaan, released in 1997, the same year ARR’s Vande Mataram appeared, with lyrics by your spiritual successor Mehboob. Pop patriotism was at a fever pitch, that fiftieth year of our independence, and one cannot fault you for climbing aboard that money train. But what a product, sir ji. Your song for Lucky Ali, ‘Anjaani Rahon Mein’, remains the most famous of them all, still accessible on YouTube. But there are others I find worthy of both mention and memory. This Chitra and MM Kreem duet called ‘Kho Jaane Do’, which had Deepti Bhatnagar and Rani Jeyaraj in the video. Karthik Raja’s ‘Sehra Baandh Ke Nikle’, a strange, almost atonal ditty punctuated with a rap section that you wrote. I have never managed to find out if you wrote the Baba Sehgal number “Howzzatt”, or the Illayaraja track with Kamal Haasan vocals ‘Apna Josh Hai’. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were so.

It is 2020, Mishraji, twenty eight years since you first brought a nation together with your words. I was a twelve year old boy in Assam when I saw your name on that cassette cover, and for the next couple of years, seeing your name on a byline made me wince and celebrate all at once. Because I did not know what to expect, and believe me, that is not a bad thing. Your words are seared in my brain, and come back to me in the strangest of moments, like when I am outside and there’s a bus across the street, I half-expect a man in red socks to come flying out the window and begin thrusting his pelvis gloriously at the world. The words accompanying the song in my head are like confused bursts of radio static, and go from Tamil to Telugu to Hindi, and of course, your words are the ones I really understand, even though it’s the other languages I mouth along. I envied the lucky folks who had access to Tamil releases, but your work helped relieve some of that FOMO. A phrase that did not even exist back then, but the feeling did, believe me.

The words you strung together felt so random sometimes, and yet when I listened closer to the Tamil versions, and pore over online translations, I realized you were not the one rhyming “sensation” with “temptation”, nor were you the one with the fishing net metaphors. You were however wholly responsible for the evocative phrase “baadal tirikit tirikit bole“.

Despite being good at your professional career and a symbol of change, you are barely a footnote to that decade of musical upheaval. Your words have now become samples of memetic derision among those that sigh over the poetry of Hindi film music. AR Rahman has always maintained a studied distance from your existence, and would rather not consider the pre-Rangeela years of his dubbed catalog as canon. Your namesake turns up when I look for you online, a gentleman associated with the current political party. There are one or two articles about your death in 2008, with the vaguest of allusions to your life other than what we already know. There is not even a picture of you available anywhere. No interviews, even though I scrounge through a multitude of YouTube channels that trade in vintage film videos. What I have figured out is that you came from Sujangarh, Rajasthan, and that you lived in Chennai for the major part of your life, and that you knew Tamil well. Or you must have. I wonder how and why you made it to the Madras film industry, of all places. There is not even a Wikipedia page for you, sir, and I have thought very hard about how I can create one. But alas, without citations and online paraphernalia, it is impossible to categorize you as a “person of note”.

And it’s sad, Mishraji, that your work does not get the sort of appreciation that it should. Without you, there wouldn’t be this cross-pollination of North and South that defined Indian film music of the nineties. At least, it wouldn’t have happened this early. You had created a path for others that followed, people with more clout who could insist on a little more respect for lyrics and their translation, getting producers to pay up for re-shoots so that the constraints on their words were loosened. You did not have that luxury, but you delivered without complaint or drama, with professional courtesy, not letting your ego get in the way of a director’s vision or a composer’s idiosyncrasy.

What remain with me are memories of conversations I have seen on random channels at random times of my life. How you proudly spoke about changing the main lyrics of Dalapathi to something more palatable in Hindi, than the exact translation that you were asked for (“Aye ladki, chutki bajaa” just didn’t have that zing, you said. ) How you felt forever cheated because they got your first name wrong on the cassette of Roja and you were stuck with it for the rest of your career – and life. And I can see you chuckling over not using “the ship of friendship” in your translation, because it just wouldn’t work in the song.

You have popped up the most random of places when I went hunting for you – is that really your voice on the Akshay Kumar version of Jhoole Jhoole Lal, from that smelly turd that is Jai Kishen? IMDB seems to think so. Your name also comes up as composer for Sapna Avasthi’s album Pardesiya.

The one question I would have liked to ask you, though, is this. Were you doing this because no one else would, or did you really enjoy it all? I would like to believe it was the latter. I would like to think that there is no way you could come up with a phrase that goes “flexible like a noodle” without chuckling to yourself, and weren’t indulging in your drink of choice when rhyming “Glaxo baby” with “BP”. Your lyrics, sir, remain among the most fun experiences of my adolescence and a pleasure (and sometimes, a pain) to revisit. Is there anyone else who will match your chutzpah when it comes to visual poetry? There is no muqabla, subhanallah.

An Incomplete PK Mishra Discography

RojaTamilRojaAR Rahman
Dharam YodhaMalayalamYodhaAR Rahman
Muthu MaharajaTamilMuthuAR Rahman
Tu Hi Mera DilTamilDuetAR Rahman
VishwavidhaataTamilPudhiya MugamAR Rahman
Humse Hai MuqablaTamilKaadhalanAR Rahman
Chor ChorTamilThiruda ThirudaAR Rahman
PriyankaTamilIndiraAR Rahman
Love BirdsTamilLove BirdsAR Rahman
HindustaniTamilIndianAR Rahman
Duniya Dilwalon KiTamilKaadhal DesamAR Rahman
Mr RomeoTamilMr RomeoAR Rahman
Aaj Ka RomeoTamilIndhuDeva
GrahanHindiOriginal movieKarthik Raja
Meri Jaan HindustaanHindiOriginal AlbumMM Kreem/various
PardesiyaHindi Original AlbumPK Mishra
Naya JigarTeluguSnehamante IderaMM Kreem
Govinda GovindaTeluguGovinda Govinda
Mitr My FriendB Illayaraja
The Smart HuntTamilVettaiyadu VillayaduHarris Jayaraj
Coffee Aur KreemHindiOriginal AlbumMM Kreem
16 DecemberKarthik Raja
MukhbiirKarthik Raja
Vellu NayakanTamilNayaganIllayaraja



The Ultimate 90s Indian Music Playlist

Listen, the 90s were great for Indian music. A far cry from the end of the previous decade, when the average Hindi song would suck 8-9 minutes of your life, and if you had the  fortitude to stick with it to the end, your brain had either internalized this prolonged sonic assault, or found itself completely repulsed. Film music was kind of just there, playing on weekdays on National TV and All India Radio, heard in hotels and barbershops. Most film soundtracks followed a template [ref]One-minute instrumental introduction. First verse. Chorus. First instrumental interlude. Second verse. Chorus. Second instrumental interlude that sounded exactly like the first. Third verse, exactly like the second. Chorus. First verse again. Chorus again, a little speeded up. Fade-out or abrupt end.[/ref] that had been unchanged for decades, sung, written and composed by folks who had either been around for decades or were too entrenched in the system to go beyond the commercial bottom-line. Yes, there were the annual musical blockbusters that shattered records and launched careers. But in general, the consensus was that the industry was broken, that the age of giants had gone with the passing of Messrs Rafi and Kumar. All that remained were pale echoes of their vocal legacy, zombie nightingales, and the crazy disco hedonism brought about by Bappi Lahiri and Kalyanji/Anandji, in the First Age of synthesizers.

In many ways, this decade embodied a period of dramatic change, a time when both the form and the market surrounding it somehow managed to brush off the grime and creakiness of the previous years. By the end of those ten years, those 8-9 minutes had shrunk to a more manageable 4-6 minutes, and the film song, instead of being an excuse for a restroom break in the middle of the proceedings, became one of the reasons you would go watch a movie in the theater. If there was a common theme to all that transpired in the industry in that timespan, it was that Indian film music wanted to – and did – break out of its provincial roots and limited audience. The music scene brashly tried on everything, unsure of what worked on its awkward frame, embarrassing itself in the bargain.  Yes, some of those experiments fail, but when they work, you’ll notice an unmistakable swagger and strut. That made those ten years the gangling teenage years of Indian music—awkward, experimental, hormonal, and mercurial. The best of times, the worst of times; when grand orchestras, all shriek and bombast, yielded to a more refined use of electric guitar solos, piano and synth flourishes; when the gentle, pabulum rhythm of dholkis and bongos gave way to sequenced drum machines and crunchy 4/4 bass thumps; when the rigid distinction between sur and besur began to blur. Significantly, musical instruments no longer remained unobtrusive little minions cowering in the background as mere “accompaniments;” they gamboled around the song’s vocals on equal terms. By 1999, a song was not just voice and lyrics and tune; it grew to become a complete soundscape.

It was a decade when a fresh generation of musicians and composers, armed with a new generation of recording technologies and techniques, began to extricate the industry out of the talent vacuum that had plagued it for years. Singers like Udit Narayan and Kumar Sanu began the decade with a well-established resume of their own while Anuradha Paudwal, Kavita K, and Alka Yagnik chipped away at the Mangeshkar sisters’ hegemony. By the middle of the decade, there were quite a few brash new kids on the block. The likes of Shaan and Sagarika and Sonu Nigam began their careers from behind the shadows of stalwarts, slyly moving out into the sun when their voices gained popularity; others – like  Sunidhi Chauhan, Ila Arun, Hariharan and Shankar Mahadevan – had voices with distinct personalities unfettered by past expectations, and found non-judgmental, appreciative audiences.[ref]I cheered for Sunidhi that Tuesday night she took the crown on Meri Aawaz Suno, as Lata Mangeshkar and Annu Kapoor looked on. None of us had any idea what was coming, obviously. I remember being so happy about how this young girl my little sister’s age sounded.[/ref]Semi-retired singers written off as irrelevant and over-the-hill found themselves a new generation of fans; classical and folk musicians, long marginalized by the mainstream machine and who had in turn turned their noses up at their bland offerings were embraced back into the fold. This also meant that the kind of vocal range that had thus far passed for mainstream slowly began to accommodate other permutations. Convention demanded a booming male baritone and a trilling female singer on the upper soprano range; by the end of the decade, an earthy contralto female voice taking the lower registers while the male voice soared to the heavens not only found critical acceptance, but also burnt up the charts.

Tunes of the past came back repackaged , sung by voices both familiar and unheard. On an aside, even song-titles of the past insinuated themselves once more into the industry – by becoming names of new, hip movies. Along with our baggy Levis and the wonders of Cable TV came Indi-pop, at first a hesitant, self-aware blend of global sounds and visuals which then metamorphosed into something in its own right. With multiple TV channels also came awareness – it became apparent how Southall bhangragga beats and the lush soundscapes of Vangelis and Peter Gabriel or – closer still – the devotional Sufi qawwalis of Pakistan were adapted, mangled and blended into sounds palatable to Indian ears. You faced bitter disappointment when you realized that your favorite tune on TV from last week was actually a Top 40 Hit on another continent six months ago, or that five different movies had versions of the same chart-busting song, each by a different composer. Indian film music was still part-jugaad in this tumultuous decade, until it wasn’t. [ref]As Jaaved Jaffrey put it succinctly in a memorable song, “chor-us”.[/ref]

The words, good Lord. We hummed the many names of love, in Urdu and Hindi and brajbhasha and khari boli and English, and giggled at inventive acronyms for mundane words[ref]ILU. 1-4-3. LML Baba[/ref]. The biggest name in the business thought nothing of lip-synching about kisses promised on a Friday, and neither did we. Lyricists, egged on by changing times and a generation that both watched and became Bold and Beautiful, unleashed a torrent of rudeness from their pens. It became okay to speak of creaking beds on wintry nights, of opening up the windows of love hidden behind blouses with brutal, raunchy directness – even the word “sexy” was no longer off-limits, shock and awe! More fodder for raging hormones when everyday words became sexual metaphors – cricket, chilli peppers, the cooing of pigeons, chicken fry .What was known in past decades as the cabaret song, a word that hints at seduction with a hint of elegance, became the brusque, mass-market term ‘item number’. And again, the cross-pollination of North and South, where the surreal imagery of a jazz music party in Jurassic Park[ref]’Muqabla’, Humse Hai Muqabla, PK Mishra[/ref] got just as much airplay as onomatopoeia for the sound of ocean waves. [ref]’Chhai Chhappa Chhai’, Hu Tu Tu, Gulzar[/ref]; where eyes were compared to strawberries around the same time as the seven shades of classical love was eulogized in words that we struggled to understand and appreciate. Also proliferating in this decade was the lyrical hook that became both meme and ear-worm. Rukmini and Urvasi, Humma and Ui Amma, Ruk Ruk and Hai Hukku, Chappa Chappa and Rama Rama – two-word phrases that dropped every other week and became unique identifiers for a generation.

It became acceptable for an actor to occasionally step in to sing his own lines, an act deemed sacrilegious until this decade.[ref]Few stars could get away with it. Amitabh sang his own songs in Laawaris and Mr Natwarlal, but then, his voice could put naysayers in their place. [/ref] And why not? Onscreen, dance masters of yesteryear had morphed into choreographers; in turn, actors who had previously shied away from shaking a leg or two on-screen (either out of incompetence or self-imposed gravitas) now found themselves dragged into exotic locales and bustling cities, into nightclubs and on UNESCO world heritage sites. They did not dance alone, because the perfect way to distract audiences from the shortcomings of a not-so-nimble protagonist is to ensure spectacle – through legions of synchronous dancers. [ref]A principle also employed by Michael Bay and his ilk to disguise their clarity of visual cohesion.[/ref] I am not saying that this began in the 90s, bear with me; it is just that suddenly the background dancer rose into greater prominence even as there were no longer the clear demarcation between dance heroes and fighting heroes and the serious thespians. What changed also, consequently, was the role of the chorus in the Indian song. Once a clunky construction of warbly voices, part of the vocal accompaniment, the choral section gained more personality, bolstering songs with a wall of sound and complex harmonics.[ref]A major chunk of credit should go to vocal arrangers who found their way into the industry, Clinton Cerejo and Hitesh Sonik being the names that come to mind.[/ref]

But above all it was a decade where, for the first time ever, the musical differences between North and South dissipated. The 90s was truly the decade of the pan-Indian sound, the overture of which began in 1992, when a Certain Southern Composer began to quietly change the fabric of reality as we knew it; patiently inventing the future, laying the groundwork for a brave new world. It took a while – a whole generation actually – before his work ethic made sense to the industry at large, the idea that originality, attention to detail and a distinct style paid far more dividends than slapdash or second-hand tunes pasted together in haste. Keep up, the market said, or be sidelined.[ref]Even Nadeem-Shravan, the last bastion of the 80s sound caught up, with Pardes, in 1997 – I suspect to this day that it was more Ghai’s tinkering with Rahman during the making of the announced-but-never-made Shikhar that led to such a unique sound in that movie, but I may be wrong.[/ref] Bear in mind that this was a two-way flow – Carnatic rhythms came to Bombay even as bhangra was heard on the streets of Trivandrum.[ref]Daler Mehndi’s Bolo Tara Rara sold an insane number of copies in Kerala the year it was released. [/ref]

It is easy to lay all credit entirely to AR Rahman, but that is a disservice to the rest of the industry, as charting the careers of Anu Malik, Nadeem-Shravan, Anand-Milind, Jatin-Lalit, Viju Shah, Rajesh Roshan and even the less-remembered Sens, Dilip and Sameer –  show the clear graph of this wind of change blowing through Indian film music. Their musical catalog went places, both pedestrian and sublime. Styles evolved, bandwagons were pursued and jumped on with a lack of restraint or cohesion; and before we knew it, it was 2000 zamaana,[ref]Mela. Terrible movie that owes a debt to Sholay. Sorry, couldn’t resist.[/ref] when we would go on to Broadway Musicals, Academy Award nominations, and non-ironic references in Hollywood soundtracks[ref]’Chamma Chamma’ was the prom queen, used gleefully in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge. See what happens when you are original, Mr Malik? [/ref].

This post is accompanied by a playlist I created on Spotify, a way of providing hard data backing my claims. It is pretty damn comprehensive, though there are gaping holes in its catalog. Most of the T-Series catalog does not exist on the platform. There is no Aashiqui (which to me is the first great album of the decade), [ref]The Last Great Album? Logic says Taal and Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, but I am tempted to claim that Pyaar Mein Kabhi Kabhi set up the next decade, and so did one song from Shool. [/ref]Dil, Beta, Dil to Pagal Hai or Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. I am specially miffed by the absence of Ziddi, Major Saab, Shool (how can you have the 90s without talk of looting UP and Bihar?), Rakshak and Shastra (whither Paro?). No Papa Kehte Hai, Sardari Begum or Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, which are admittedly obscure but are undeniable stars of the decade’s musical firmament. It is best listened to on shuffle mode. Please, please do not try to work when you are listening to these – they deserve your attention, they demand it, and chances are high that, if you are a child of the 90s, the opening bars of a song will make you laugh in delight or shake your head bemusedly at the follies of youth. [ref]I also recommend a game of identify-the-song based on the first few bars. [/ref] Nostalgia looms large. That said, it is perfectly okay to be annoyed within a few seconds and skip to the next song; there is no way every song will appeal to any single person. I mean, this is a list that contains Altaf Raja; it has Anu Malik singing for Baba Sehgal and cat-calling at Alisha Chinoy; it has Poornima at her shrillest and Aditya Narayan at an age where his voice could make your privates shrivel. Seriously, what were we all thinking?