The Search for a Voice – On Khayyam, Part 11

Kamaal Amrohi was an actor long before he became a director. Records state that he debuted as an actor in the film Jailor, which was released in 1938. The first film he directed was the chartbusting Mahal (1949) of “aayega aanewala” fame. Mahal introduced Hindi cinema to a theme that the industry would soon be besotted with: that of human reincarnation. This theme was later repeated in different ways over the decades, with some versions of it becoming hits: think Madhumati, Mehbooba and Karz.

In an active career span of 45 years, Kamaal Amrohi made just 4 films. After Mahal came Daera in 1953. The gap between Daera and his next film, Pakeezah, was long by any yardstick: 19 years. And the gap between Pakeezah and his last film, Razia Sultan, was ten years. Many people put these long gaps down to Amrohi’s perfectionist attitude. Others gave less salutary reasons for it. The truth was somewhere in between: Amrohi was a dreamer who conjured up fantasies on the basis of just an odd spark of truth. And once he had conjured up a fantasy in his mind, he would give his all to ensure that it came true – on screen, that is. Mahal, Pakeezah and Razia Sultan were all outcomes of this quirk in his personality.

Razia Sultan hit cinema halls in 1983, but work on the film began eight years before that. Amrohi wanted Khayyam to compose music for this film. But Khayyam was extremely busy with Kabhi Kabhie those days, and had to decline Amrohi’s request. Amrohi then turned to one of the popular flavours of the ‘70s, Laxmikant-Pyarelal. L-P got down to it in right earnest, and composed a few tunes for the film. Amrohi felt that one of these tunes was too fast for this film, which he was conceiving as a romantic epic, and requested L-P to slow it down. L-P asked him to come to their office to discuss the matter, and made him cool his heels for an hour. A furious Amrohi walked out their office and went straight back to Khayyam. This time, the composer could not ward off Amrohi’s insistence; he accepted the film.

Over the next few years, work on the film progressed patchily. Though Razia Sultan’s rule was marked by equal parts romance, intrigue and violence, Amrohi chose to focus on the romance. He left no stone unturned in his quest for the “right” sets, the “right” costumes, the “right” locations, and so on. Everything had to be just so. In fact, he went as far as Hollywood to get an expert to work on the special effects for this period drama. All of which inevitably lead to massive delays. The film inched along.

Meanwhile, Khayyam, working with veteran Jan Nisar Akhtar, was fashioning a magnum opus of his own. In their characteristic style, the composer, his wife and music assistant Jagjit Kaur, and Akhtar saab dived into the depths of history. Khayyam recalls in an interview that they studied everything about the Turkish rulers who settled in India, and who were the forebears of the Slave dynasty to which Razia belonged. “We studied even the route taken by those rulers when they came to India,” he says. The outcome of this painstaking study is evident when we hear the music of the film.

The standard approach of music directors for a film like this would have been to paint the music with a “Muslim” brush. Meaning, the liberal use of sarangi and rabab. Also, the music would have leaned heavily on Arabic tunes. Contrast this with the wondrous, richly-textured musical landscape Khayyam creates for us; a landscape that straddles the deserts of Rajasthan and the courts of Delhi. In fact, so beautiful is the work of art that it is the only reason this film stays on in the collective memory of our nation. Take the music away, and little remains of the film or its memory.

Jan Nisar Akhtar passed away in 1976, leaving two songs unwritten. Another Urdu poet stepped in to complete the work. It is a measure of Nida Fazli’s grip of the Persian-Urdu milieu and his ability as a poet, that you can’t identify which of the songs are his, and which are Akhtar saab’s.

The screenplay included two songs to be sung by Razia’s slave-lover Yaqut (played by Dharmendra). Amrohi and Khayyam searched high and low for the right voice for Yaqut. They did not want to use one of the regular playback singers for a simple reason: they were not looking for a regular voice. They wanted a voice that was rough-cut and slightly amateur, typifying the way slaves were thought to have spoken and sung. There was no way he would sing like a professional singer, they thought. In fact, a hint of the guttural would actually not be out of place. Jagjit Kaur agreed with them.

But weeks of searching led them nowhere. Amrohi was getting antsy. He even organised a mammoth audition, inviting to it more than 50 singers. But THE VOICE remained elusive.

And then, one day, someone in the team suggested the name of a noha khawan: someone who sings elegies for Imam Hussain’s martyrdom during Moharram. The man had a job as a programme host at All India Radio. Since they were clutching at straws by now, Khayyam and Amrohi decided to give it a shot.

The man was promptly met. After much cajoling, he agreed to sing a trial song for them. A couple of minutes into the song, it was astonishingly clear to the composer and the director that they had found their man! Amrohi, in particular, practically lost his head at this sudden, joyous discovery.

Over the next few weeks, Khayyam and Jagjit Kaur put the debutant singer through his paces. Hours of rehearsals later, he got the diction and tone right – just the way they wanted. And the two songs meant for the slave-lover were recorded.

Most people, when they talk about this film today, recall only Lata Mangeshkar’s “ae dil-e-nadan”. While this song is no doubt a masterpiece, there is much more to love in the mosaic of Razia Sultan’s music. There is “jalta hai badan” with its sensuous lilt. There is Mahendra Kapoor’s and Bhupinder’s robust qawwali “ae khuda shukr tera”. The soft, dreamy “khwaab bankar koi aayega” with its sexually charged lyrics, and Asha Bhosle’s and Jagjit Kaur’s “haryala banna aaya re” are also extremely pleasing.

And then, there are “aayee zanjeer ki jhankar” and “tera hijr mera naseeb hai”. Those Two Songs sung by the reluctant debutant. The man who, for a brief while, went from broadcasting programmes on radio to being the voice of a 13th century slave (and one of India’s most handsome actors). Listen to his voice come at you, as if from the depths of a canyon and across vast swathes of time, bringing with it gusts of love, longing and desolation. And the music swirls around you.

Amrohi and Khayyam were looking for the perfect voice for a slave. And by Jove, they found it!

37 years after the film’s music swept people off their feet, Kabban Mirza remains a never-before, never-after phenomenon in the history of Hindi film music. A freak one-off that will forever stand out against the industry’s homogenised idea of a male playback singer. I can never think of Razia Sultan without thinking of Kabban Mirza.

Mirza never sang for another film, though there are reports that BR Chopra offered him a song in Nikaah. He went back to the recording studios of All India Radio, from where his unclassifiable voice continued to boom through the homes of lakhs of people across India.

In a cruel twist of fate, Mirza contracted throat cancer a few years ago, and lost his voice. It is suspected that he has passed away. If true, I wonder who was there to sing an elegy for this noha khawan.




  1. Kabban Mirza singing “aayee zanjeer ki jhankaar”



2) Kabban Mirza singing “tera hijr mera naseeb hai”



3) Ae dil-e-nadaan in Lata’s voice



4) The sensuous “jalta hai badan” in Lata’s voice


5) Lata sings “khwaab bankar koi aayega”










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