80 years of qawwali in Bombay cinema — one man is archiving Hindi music’s crown jewel – ThePrint

New Delhi: Much before Indians started grooving to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, qawwalis were a jewel in the crown in scores of Bollywood movies through five decades. It featured Muslim characters, showcased the lyricist’s poetry and quickened the pace and plot twists in the storylines. And then the qawwalis in Hindi films started to dwindle. Now, it is largely a phenomenon that has moved on to the realm of scholarly research and study. And Yousuf Saeed, has done just that with The Cinema Qawwali Project.
Kalyani Menon, Noor Jehan and Zohrabai Ambalewali singing Aahen Na Bharin Shiqve Na Kiye in the 1945 film Zeenat, and Archana Gore belting out Shikayat in Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022) bookend over 80 years of qawwali in ‘Bombay cinema’.
It’s Saeed’s labour of love after a decade of research and sifting through YouTube videos, commercial DVDs and CDs. So far, he has archived 700 songs in the online catalogue.
Classics like Na To Caravan Ki Talash Hai from the 1960 film Barsaat Ki Raat, Parda Hai Parda (Amar Akbar Anthony, 1977), and Teri Mehfil Mein by Lata Mangeshkar and Shamshad Begum all find a mention in this archive. The yesteryear films took a form of singing, which was stereotyped as Islamic, and made them secular and popular.
“We do not know how qawwali used to be performed before the 20th century, because that is when we started to get recordings,” said Saeed.
He is “strict” in his selection of songs that qualify as qawwali and sieves out those that are more heavily influenced by other forms like mujra for instance.
“If you ask hardcore movie buffs, they will also likely only be able to come up with a maximum of 10 qawwalis,” he said.
This is not Saeed’s first deep dive into South Asian music. He travelled to Pakistan in 2005 and spent about six months in the country documenting its classical music, and the impact of Partition on the compositions. The research was turned into a feature-length documentary, Khayal Darpan. He is currently preparing to organise screenings for his 60-minute film, Dastarkhwan-e Rampur, which explores the cultural demographic of Rampur through its culinary traditions.
When Saeed announced the launch of the Qawwali archive on Twitter last month, the response was overwhelming. Strangers reached out to him to commend this initiative.“Saeed’s archive provides a comprehensive insight into genres and eras of Bombay cinema, authentic or appropriated,”  Sufi musician, scholar and lyricist Dhruv Sangari told ThePrint. “Anyone researching popular Muslim culture or even music would find this immensely beneficial.”
He did, however, voice his concern about the lack of gatekeeping, and the subsequent risk of appropriation without due credit. It’s a bone of contention among many ‘traditional’ classical musicians. The most recent is the AR Rahman controversy,  where Drupad maestro Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar alleged that the song Veera Raja Veera in Ponniyin Selvan 2 ‘lifted’ materials from a piece his father and uncle had composed.
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Saeed’s fascination with poet, musician and singer Amir Khusrau, who rose to prominence in the 13th century, set him on this path. He was documenting live qawwali performances in Sufi shrines when he decided to look at the long-standing and inseparable relationship between qawwali and Hindi cinema.
The origin of qawwali in movies has its roots in popular theatrical performances such as nautanki or Parsi theatre, said Saeed. Its entry into films was a natural progression.
“Qawwali was used as a storytelling device, in all kinds of movies. Qawwalis are put in very unusual situations to take a story forward,” said Saeed. From dacoit movies to family entertainers, qawwalis were everywhere. In the 1978 film, Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, the song Salame-Ishq Meri Jaan by Lata Mangeshkar and Kishore Kumar is a vehicle to depict a heartbroken Sikander (Amitabh Bachchan) who walks into a kothi where Zohrabai (Rekha) is performing.
Away from the bright lights of Bollwood, qawwalis drew from Urdu poetry and some of them lasted almost 20 minutes—not the usual time for a Bollywood song which even at its maximum, is less than 10 minutes.
After the 1960s and 70s, qawwali became more of a vehicle for humour. One of the most famous examples is Parda Hai Parda from Amar Akbar Antony where Akbar (Rishi Kapoor) is declaring his love for Dr Salma Ali (Neetu Singh). The qawwali also often stereotyped  Muslim characters, they would wear elaborate costumes and speak in Urdu. While its influence on Bollywood has abated over the years, qawwali still informs popular culture. The Sufi song, Dama Dam Mast Qalandar, has had many iterations including one by Mika and Honey Singh in 2014.
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Hindi cinema played an important role in popularising qawwali, but in doing so it also cemented the ‘Muslim stereotype’ in popular imagination. It gave rise to what is now called Muslim social dramas, which largely targeted orthodox families, who would probably not send women to cinema halls, or allow them to watch certain kinds of movies. The most ambitious film in this genre was K Asif’s Mughal-E-Azam (1960), which was 16 years in the making.
An analysis by Mint traces the origin of Muslim social dramas to Sohrab Modi’s Pukar (1939), which is based on the Mughal emperor Jahangir. Images of purdahs, colourful ghararas, achkans and women never setting foot outside the home without burqas were the more common cliches.
The appearance of a qawwal singer increasingly became associated with a bright achkan, skull cap, red paan-stained lips and sometimes, a colourful, long handkerchief. One prominent example of this is Pran as Banne Khan Bhopali in Adhikar (1979), singing Jeena To Hai Usi Ka.
From musicals, and romances to offbeat films like BR Chopra’s Nikaah (1982), the film genre was popular not just among Muslims but the general public too.
Muslim ghettos or Mumbai’s Haji Ali Dargah were common locations. “The lower middle-class audience was also shown how miracles take place at a shrine, often against the backdrop of a qawwali performance,” said Saeed.
At the end of the day, though, the films appealed to mainstream popular culture, and were not a reflection of how qawwalis were performed in more traditional setups, said Saeed. Even within Sufi shrines, there are two separate platforms for qawwali performances. While one is for the general public, and women too are allowed to watch, the other is reserved for an all-male audience.
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Kalyani Menon, Noor Jehan and Zohrabai Ambalewali singing Aahen Na Bharin Shiqve Na Kiye in the 1945 film Zeenat marks the first appearance of female qawwals in Hindi cinema. Written by Nakshab Jarachvi, the qawwali was hugely popular. The film was both a musical and box office success.
In Barsaat Ki Raat (1960), Asha Bhosle and Sudha Malhotra lend their voices to the song Nigaah-E-Naaz Ke. In the song Nazar Bhar Ke in Deen aur Imaan (1979), a group of women perform qawwali dressed as men.
This was also the era of Shakeela Bano Bhopali, considered to be one of the first female qawwals in India. She moved to Bombay in the 1950s to carve out a career in the film industry. With her flamboyant style, she soon left an impression and set cash registers ringing with songs like Milte Hi Nazar Tumse in Ustadon Ke Ustad (1963) and Peene Wale Mere Aankhon Se in Dharkan (1972).
“Such was her popularity that if a movie flopped, the directors or producers would re-release the film after adding one of her qawwalis,” said Saeed. Shakeela Bano would also perform in mehfils solo, holding court in royal fashion. She was called Mallika-e-Qawwali and could recite Ghalib and Mir with ease.
With the turn of the century, performances evolved into dance numbers like Jhalla Walla in the film Ishaqzaade (2012) and Billo Rani from Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal (2007).
Pakistani Qawwal legend Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and award-winning Indian composer and producer AR Rahman helped revive qawwali in Hindi cinema in the 1990s.
From collaborations with global artists such as Michael Brook, Eddie Vedder and Alanis Morisette to composing songs for Bollywood films, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was instrumental in bringing back the art form to the mainstream. The video of his song Dulhe ka Sehra has more than 300 million views on YouTube.
AR Rahman stormed the scene with songs like Piya Haji AliKun Faya Kun and Khwaja Mere Khwaja. Their contributions have made qawwali more dynamic. There are now elements of Turkish dervishes. One significant example of this is Khwaja Mere Khawja of Jodha Akbar (2008).
With the release of Rockstar (2011) and its breakthrough song Kun Faya Kun, the location shifted from Haji Ali Dargah to Delhi’s Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah.
Saeed argues that while qawwali’s influence on Bollywood music may be on the wane, it will never die. Its tenacity has survived cultural shifts over decades.
And every now and then, a qawwali tops the chart of popular songs of the year, be it Mere Rashke Qamar from the film Baadshaho (2017) and more recently, Shikayat from Gangubai Kathiawadi (2022). The powerful qawwali can hold its own against hip-hop, Indian pop and remixes.
(Edited by Theres Sudeep)
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