Underrated—is the word that most serious followers of Hindi film music would use to describe music composer Ravi. I myself must have used the adjective for him umpteen number of times during our college day discussions on film music. So, I was not surprised to find that the title of the chapter on Ravi in Raju Bharatan’s book, A Journey Down The Meoldy Lane, was exactly that: The Underrated Melody Maker. Underrated—he was; and melody maker—he was to the hilt. Bharatan, to the uninitiated, is arguably the most well-known journalist covering the golden era of Hindi film music, often giving an insider’s view.
As the word suggests, Ravi’s value as a music composer was far more underestimated, as compared to the popularity that his songs achieved.
I myself put him as one of the top five composers—along with Naushad, who is my No 1; Madan Mohan, Roshan, and Sachin Dev Burman. Except for Naushad, I would not rank anyone. So, that also makes him, in my eyes, one of the top three versatile greats of all times. Madan Mohan and Roshan would, of course, not exactly qualify for the “verstaile” tag.
But whether you look at tangible recognition such as Filmfare awards (No, he did not win it for Chaudvin Ka Chand; Shakeel won the Best Lyricist for the title song and Mohd Rafi the Best Playback Singer for the same song) or the list of all time greats that people keep making, somehow Ravi’s name takes a backseat.
Why, I never understood.
But I had some idea when I met him for an interview a few months back—on 12th November 2011, to be precise. The interview, which I and a friend took, lasted for more than two and half hours and touched all aspects of his career and life and we got interesting anecdotes. But I will post a write-up on that separately.
The reason I refer to it here is that it gave me an idea why he might have been underestimated. It is probably because of his unassuming nature that extended to his professional life. He readily listened to the directors. So, if a Rafi did not sing for BR Films, and he was asked to manage with Mahendra Kapoor, he did. And ended up giving us a few classics. But this is something which did not go well with his peers. Bharatan, in his book, quotes Salil Chowdhury saying, “I don’t rate Ravi as a composer at all; at best, he is a tunesmith.”
Do not get me wrong. He was not exactly an epitome of humbleness. He did vociferously deny in that interview that Kalyanji had much to do with the Nagin been music in Man dole and he did not hide his disappointment over not being recognized enough (for some reason, he thought that he was much better recognized in the South as Bombay Ravi, when he scored for Malayalam movies). But when he did that, it was the way a ten year old child would do. It was never in a tone that was arrogant or dimissive. And I could see the excitement and a little blush on his face when I said Tora Man Darpan, I consider to be one of the three best bhajans in Hindi films. And who was I? A nobody in music. And who was he? Creator of some of the most successful songs in Hindi film music.
I will come back to why I went so much into his personality—his unassuming nature.
The Situation Songs
About half of the songs in the Hindi films are romantic/love songs. And tt least 10-20% are songs that celebrate youthfulness, energy etc. That leaves only 30-40% songs for every other type of songs—comic, tragic, philosophical, festival songs, bhajans, and situation songs.
For long, I have felt that it was Ravi’s songs that always have stood out as iconic situational songs. Over all these years in Hindi cinema, though many songs have been composed for a particular kind of situation or occasion, it is always Ravi’s songs that have ruled.
Even today, there is no Hindi film lullaby that comes anywhere near Ravi’s Chanda Mama Door Ke, from his debut movie as an independent music director, Vachan, a song which Ravi himself wrote. As children’s birthday songs, there is little comparison with Hum bhi agar bachche hote from Door ki Aawaz. No matter, how many birthday songs that you have in Hindi films, it is Hum bhi agar that still rules.
Similarly, even with the advent of all Punjabi songs, no baarat is complete without, Aaj mere yaar ki shaadi hai, from a forgettable movie, Aadmi Sadak Ka. And as a bidaai song, what can replace, Babul ki dooaen leti ja from Neel Kamal ? Which marriage recording does not have these as the background music? Another such song—though its popularity has faded in recent years because the idea of a doli is now alien to many—is Doli chadh ke Dulhan Sasural Chali from Doli.
And when it is time to celebrate a 30th anniversary of marriage, what do children play to the ageing couple? Of course, that classic in Manna Dey’s voice, O mere Zohra jabeen from Waqt? There is no other song that is anywhere close to this song.
It is not just events in one’s life that Ravi’s music is apt for. It is also meant for typical situations. For beggars, there is hardly any match for his O babu, o janewale babu from Vachan or Garibon ki suno woh tumhari sunega from Dus Lakh.
Ravi himself described an incident. He once saw a rich looking young man stopping his car in Marine Drive in Mumbai. The young man took the begging bowl from a beggar and started singing ek paisa de de. Within no time, there were people throwing coins to the bowl. The young man then advised the beggar to learn that song well and sing it while begging so that people would oblige him.
I can give a few more examples—one specifically played to us in the beginning of a time management workshop was the title song of Waqt.
All these–I can go on and on, but the above list is fairly representative–just prove that there is something about his music that stands out, when it comes to situational songs.
I never understood what that something was. It is somewhat understandable if they are by one lyricist. But why one music director? I had thought a lot over it, asked quite a few of my friends who are knowledgeable about this area. But had not found a satisfactory answer.
Till, Ravi himself provided me with the answer. And in hindsight, it looks so simple.
This, of course, was one of my first question to him. And he said, “That is because I do not ask lyricists to write to a tune, as most composers do. Most often, I take a piece and then create music for it.” Many composers would find it below their dignity to do so. But isn’t it more logical?
And then you understand why some of the best situational songs—where the lyricist is already under a constraint—came from pens of these lyricists, when there was no additional constraint of writing to the tune.
And this is why I got so much into his unassuming nature. It is because of this nature that he never thought it important enough to force the lyricists to write to the tune. And that, in turn, helped his situational songs become so lively. And apt.
Ravi will always live through his songs. As long as we have the need for a lullaby to sing to our children, as long as we dance on our baarats, we will remember Ravi’s songs–even though we may not explicitly remember the composer.