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Singing in the rain

The rain song in Hindi cinema encompasses many moods, from the tragic to the upbeat, from closure to regeneration

A rain-drenched scene from ‘Manzil’.
A rain-drenched scene from ‘Manzil’.

One of Hindi cinema’s most indelible monsoon scenes—Nargis and Raj Kapoor holding a single umbrella between them, singing Pyaar Hua Ikraar Hua in Shree 420 (1955)—has a new resonance these days, given the fuss over the Sanjay Dutt biopic, Sanju. When Nargis sings “Main na rahoongi, tum na rahoge, phir bhi rahengi nishaaniyan (We won’t be around forever, but the tokens of our love will remain)", we see two-year-old Rishi Kapoor walking down a drenched street with his siblings. Could any of the people involved in this shoot have imagined that more than six decades later, the son of that infant (Ranbir Kapoor) would play Nargis’ “baba" in a hagiographical film?

But while we know that actors can pass their nishaaniyan down to us in the shape of star children and star grandchildren, the Shree 420 scene is noteworthy in another way. How unusual it is for a star couple, at the peak of their popularity, to pause and remind us—midway through a passionate song about first love—that nothing is eternal; that they will fade away and be supplanted.

There could be something about rain that encourages this manner of philosophizing. A few years ago, Shyam Benegal (not himself a director you would associate with “monsoon songs") told me about an educational TV series he had worked on for Unicef in the early 1970s, combining science with folk tales. One story about rainwater harvesting had an explanation of why water bodies disappear in extreme summer. “We started with a lake," Benegal said in a charmingly staccato tone. “It looks up. Falls in love with the sky. Burns with love. Evaporates into a cloud. Goes looking for the sky. Does not find the sky. Weeps, becomes rain. And the cycle of life continues."

Rain as regeneration: washing away the old, heralding the new. Such depictions occur in many types of film songs, such as the ones where villagers look to the skies, waiting anxiously for the “weeping" cloud that will bring fertility and future generations of crops. Interestingly, two of the most iconic sequences in this vein, shot 50 years apart— Hariyala Sawan Dhol Bajaata in Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Ghanan Ghanan in Lagaan (2002)—don’t show us any precipitation. In a literal, visual sense, these aren’t “rain songs", but in a spiritual sense they are: The scenes are soaked in the anticipation of the monsoon and its joyful, life-giving effects.

A still from ‘Shree 420’.

Then there is the romantic rain song, which seems like a cliché but operates in many modes and metres. We have the giddy, light-hearted sort (watch Aamir Khan, umbrella in tow, channelling Gene Kelly as he serenades Neelam in Afsana Pyaar Ka’s Tip Tip Tip Tip Baarish in 1991) as well as the intense version that uses the raging elements as a metaphor for unrest in the heart. “Baahar bhi toofan, andar bhi toofan (There is a storm both outside and inside)," sing Amrita Singh and Sunny Deol in Baadal Yun Garajta Hai in Betaab (1983)—the scene articulates the elation and fear of young love, while also supplying a pretext for the lovers to cling to each other when the sound of thunder scares them.

Everyone knows about the sensual rain song, with the wet heroine catering to the male gaze, but the same sort of scene can offer something more complex: Watch how Mr India—a lovely children’s film with Sridevi playing a desi Lois Lane to the titular superhero—takes a right turn into grown-up territory when the uninhibited heroine sways to Kaate Nahin Kat Te (for many of us children watching in the mid-1980s, this scene was a jaw-dropping introduction—not too common in the mainstream films of the time—to the possibility of the sexually desirous woman).

There are the tragic love songs too: the ones that have a silver lining (in Chandni’s Lagi Aaj Saawan Ki Phir Woh Ghadi Hai, Vinod Khanna experiences both sad remembrance for a lost love and hope for the future) and the ones that don’t—the title song of Barsaat (1949) plays in the film’s last scene, as a young man, repentant much too late, lights the funeral pyre of the woman he had wronged.

But my all-time favourite rain sequence is probably the location-shot one in Manzil (1979), where Ajay (Amitabh Bachchan) and Aruna (Moushumi Chatterjee) splash through south Mumbai’s monsoon-lashed roads and maidans, while the second, female version of Rim Jhim Gire Saawan plays on the soundtrack.

Stunning as this scene—shot by K.K. Mahajan—is on its own terms, it also makes for a fine visual contrast with the earlier, more sombre version of the song, which we saw at the film’s beginning, when Ajay sings for an audience in a room. That scene was poised, tranquil, controlled (dare one say “climate-controlled"?), while the outdoor one is spontaneous, exhilarating, improvised. In a story about a man whose vaulting ambition leads him to bend ethical codes and then repent, the difference between “Rim Jhim" indoors and outdoors is a bit like the gap between theory and lived experience—sitting in

one place and pontificating about life versus going out on the streets and facing it in its gusty, splashy, unpredictable madness.

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