Sunday, March 20, 2016

Kaagaz Ki Kashti Review

Director: Brahmanand Singh

First of all, I feel highly under-qualified to write about a film that discusses the life and works of an artiste who was already a legend when I wasnt even born. But then, it also gives me an opportunity to talk about someone whose voice has always been around since the time I learnt what music is.

My father used to play bhajans in his voice, elder brother used to play melancholic ghazals in his voice, and hum along with the look on his face of someone deeply affected by something. Years later, I found myself doing the same. The voice, of course, is Jagjit Singhs.

Mahesh Bhatt, in this documentary, says Jagjit sang as if he had lived those words. This sounds about accurate, and also explains why his ghazals hit listeners where it moves them the most. "His singing doesn't make you go in awe of him. Awe creates a distant feeling. He sings with an intimacy that makes you feel closer to him," Bhatt continues, finding words that most suitably describe Jagjits style.

Jagjit Singh, in his ghazals, makes a spectacle of the personal. He gives words to a shared grief. This is probably why his ghazals still remain a guzzlers best drinking companion. The jukebox at South Bombays ever busy Sunlight Bar has a dedicated Jagjit Singh playlist which competes with Pink Floyd and Guns N Roses every night. And every time a Hoshwalon ko khabar (written by Nida Fazli, who incidentally passed away last week) starts playing, you can hear a collective sigh from the hip So-Bo crowd.

Well, there are other artistes too whose ghazals would evoke similar reactions. But Jagjit dominated the contemporary scene for decades, eventually entering the public consciousness as the original 'ghazal rockstar'.

"He is India's first sellable non-film rockstar," says Abhinav Upadhyay, a close associate of Jagjit. There are reports of his records being sold in black. Though he has no Grammys or such to his name, he is so much revered in his country that he needs no global validation.

When AR Rahman returned with double Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire, Jagjit was not very appreciative of the feat. His exact words to a news channel were, "Rahman ko thoda josh chhadein toh do chaar ghazal banayein (Let Rahman find some passion to compose a few ghazals)."  

Sure, ghazals are not Rahman's forte. Just as rock-and-roll isn't Jagjit's. Yet both are "rockstars" in their respective ways, and what is a rockstar if s/he has never been a badass about fellow rockstars?

Also what is a rockstar if s/he hasn't bent any classical rules? Sound engineer Daman Sood reminds us how Jagjit introduced bass-line into ghazalslike how Pancham did in Bollywood songs (Brahmanand Siingh has also documented a film biography of 'India's filmy rockstar' RD Burman, titled Pancham Unmixed).

Indias first digitally recorded album, Beyond Time, also belongs to Jagjit. You can hear synth sounds, violin, keyboard, and even saxophone in some of his ghazals. "Instruments naye hain, sound alag hai, lekin sur wahi hain," Jagjit justifies in this documentary, after Rajat Sharma, in his uniquely formatted interview show Aap Ki Adalat, argues that a classical purist like Begum Akhtar would weep in disbelief and shock after listening to his style of ghazal.

Despite his choice of instruments, he remains true to the ragas on which the compositions are based. Tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain has one interesting anecdote to share in this film about how, once, by changing just a single note, Jagjit corrected his composition to its inherent raga.

The film opens with a recorded black-and-white footage of Jagjit uncorking a bottle of champagne at a private house party. We see him in his jovial moment drinking, dancing. Cut, and we see another footage of him, sitting with a harmonium and his band on stage performing for a huge audience in front of himlost in the moment. This forms a brilliant opening passage for a film that tries to understand the personality beyond his body of work, or his popular image. In between these two contrasting scenes, you sense what the person was like off-stagein his private lifeand how, while on stage, he could make many cry, with only a harmonium and that divine voice.

Such footages are strung so smartly and neatly (by Jabeen Merchant) that they stop being mere footages and come across as evocative images. At times, they become the film, with such ethereal quality that you start responding to it as you would seeing Jagjit perform live. Of which Gulzar says, Woh sama baandh leta tha.

This review was initially published on

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