Thursday, December 31, 2009

no smoking: random puffs on the soundtrack

[cross-posted on the Passion For Cinema blog]

A sign in the lobby of the marriott said: "welcome trial of K., liberty ballroom A/B", and in smaller letters underneath: "a smoke-free building"
-- K for Fake (Jonathan Lethem)

A darkness prevails over the soundtrack of No Smoking. It's the hypnotic darkness of clubs and lounges drenched in shadows and light diffused through clouds of smoke. Vishal and Gulzar serve a surreal stew of potent metaphors, appropriate musical styles (the jazz club song, trance, psychedelia) in their second collaboration on a film that neither directs. This is Vishal's second soundtrack for Anurag Kashyap; the first one was for the yet-unreleased Paanch -- that soundtrack packed some of the best rock songs in Hindi films along with light pop and the plaintive fusion of अँखियाँ चिपकी जाए. It also contained the only other song that I know Deva Sengupta to have sung. He returns after तमस with Ash Tray, where Gulzar adroitly injects the English phrase into an otherwise Hindi song. There is a nice flat texture to the voice and it so appropriately sounds like the voice of a smoker. There were times I thought of Shivaji Chattopadhyay singing ये सफ़र. Vishal seals the wounds of dissonance with his trademark lingering melodic endings and strong arrangements. The arrangements reinforce the feeling that you're sharing the depressing soliloquy of a smoker -- listen to how layers of the chorus intoning धुआँ धुआँ swirl in and strongly about a crescendo conjuring images of fresh smoke blown into the air. This chorus rising from the dark recesses of the song's ambience in what is probably the most compelling metaphor for smoke ever arranged in 2007. The version on CD isn't in standard tuning: I wonder if this was done when mastering the song to preserve a certain texture in the song or if everything was moved a bit up the fretboard.
Everything dark and introspective about Ash Tray is turned inside out by the bucolic कश लगा. It's an exhortation to smoke that works like a folk ditty you'd hear as you walked along the banks of a river in the morning. Vishal joins Sukhwinder Singh and Daler Mehndi in an interesting vocal collaboration and his trademark breathing works in favour of the film's theme. Gulzar bounces from the combustible stacks of cowdung to mixed signals about the addiction (ज़िंदगी के कश लगा हसरतों की राख उड़ा) to his metaphoric pronouncements (ये जहान फानी है बुलबुला है पानी है / बुलबुलों पे रुकना क्या / पानियों पे बहता जा). The second a.ntaraa is evidence of how far Gulzar and Vishal have come since छोड़ आये हम: छोडी हुयी बस्तियां जाता हूँ बार बार घूम-घूम के / मिलते नहीं वो निशाँ छोड़े थे दहलीज़ चूम-चूम के.

The bass in Rekha's voice seems to get chopped as she belts out फूँक दे while the earthy rhythms give the song a percussive immediacy. हयात फूँक दे हवास फूँक दे / ये साँस से सिला हुआ लिबास फूँक दे seem to be the successor to न ग़िलाफ़ न लिहाफ़ ठँडी हवा भी ख़िलाफ़ (or I'm just reading too much into the song). The female voice that opens the song fades away reminding us of the breath of death, before Rekha takes over with another paean to kicking the habit (or rather "blow" it away). Sukhwinder's version hits the surreal without wasting time (पीले पीले से जंगल में बहता है धुआँ). This version is faster and more aggressive. It also boasts a female voice intoning some of the best psychobabble ever heard in an Indian film:

You have just traversed a hole(?) in space-time
You are no longer confined to physical objects, aspects or surfaces or contained within them
You will now experience power to identify and change the semantic sensory field that influences the final consequences of your journey
You are now at the limits of the multiverse but not beyond the space of this dream(?)

जब भी सिगरॅट (why ciggaret instead of cigarette in the track listing?) with its mix of jazz and lounge sets up the right milieu of a club with trails of smoke wafting about. The song unfolds like the thoughts of the compulsive smoker, whose craving has begun to itch as dusk approaches. Gulzar spins out images (शाम होने लगी है/लाल होने लगी है) and similes (उपले जैसा सुलगता हूँ) with ease and aplomb (the eyebrow hardly rises when the smoker/cigarette is compared to a smoldering cow patty). For his first collaboration with Vishal, Adnan Sami croons away in typical style. Sunidhi Chauhan's version opens with a vocal loop (statutory warning) dedicated to the deplorable disclaimer on cigarette packs (the vocal loop also closes the song). The brass riff from the Sami version becomes a wonderful guitar lick in the tradition of Badalamenti's theme for Twin Peaks, Chris Isaak's Wicked Game and Boy George's The Crying Game. Lounge and jazz are replaced by trance. Interestingly, the lyrics remain from a masculine perspective. Belting out the song with characteristic gusto, Sunidhi gets to employ the falsetto to good effect and curiously rolls the 'r' in cigarette just as Sami does.

Vishal and Gulzar manage a coup yet again as they explore the dark, hypnotic world of the smoker where shards of light are drawn through curtains of smoke. This is perhaps the closest a Hindi film soundtrack has come to working remarkably well as a concept album as well.

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