The Punjabi contribution to cinema - XII

Ishtiaq Ahmed explores the magical collaboration between music director Madan Mohan and song writer Raja Mehdi Ali Khan

The Punjabi contribution to cinema - XII
In this instalment of my series on the Punjabi contribution to cinema, we highlight the achievements of two Punjabis belonging to small towns of northern Punjab. That both partnered in the creation of supreme melodies using the Urdu ghazal as their hallmark - poetically and musically - indicates to some degree the mastery of Punjabis in general over the Urdu language.

One of them was from Chakwal - a town which we have earlier noted has been extremely productive as far as providing talent to cinema is concerned. He is music director Madan Mohan (25 June 1924 - 14 July 1975). His birthplace is sometimes given as Baghdad and sometimes Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan. His father Rai Bahadur Chunilal Kohli worked in Iraq as Accountant General. At that time Iraq was under a mandate from the League of Nations to Britain. In 1932, the family returned to India. Chunilal brought his family to his native Chakwal where the young lad lived for some time with his grandparents and then they moved to Lahore. In Lahore, Madan Mohan went to school and received initiation in classical music from Kartar Singh. Such training was brief but it seems the precocious pupil imbibed the essential ethos of Indian ragas and raginis, which stood him in good stead all his life.

In Anpadh (1962), Madan Mohan and Raja Mehdi Ali worked with Lata to produce musical marvel 'Aap kee nazron ne samjha pyar ke qabil muje'
In Anpadh (1962), Madan Mohan and Raja Mehdi Ali worked with Lata to produce musical marvel 'Aap kee nazron ne samjha pyar ke qabil muje'

Naushad paid tribute to Madan Mohan's use of ghazals with originality and imagination

Naushad paid glowing tributes to Madan Mohan as the man who specialised in using ghazals with originality and imagination. The ghazal is a genre of poetry whose subject is love, or rather, about the pangs of love: not only unrequited but also requited. Each couplet captures a distinct feeling - all weaved together in the same metre and thus aesthetically most amenable to rhythm and melody. Originating in Arabia, it became part of Persian literature and in India it blossomed in both Persian and Urdu literature, and was adopted by Hindi and the regional languages. Apart from the geet which is poetry composed for a song, the ghazal has been used extensively in films because the poetry in it is often of superior class.

Although his father Rai Bahadur Chunilal Kohli was the production manager of Bombay’s famous Filmistan Studios, we learn that he was most reluctant to let his son take up a career either as a singer or a music director - although Madan Mohan had a good singing voice and his exceptional talent with learning music was known to him. Consequently, the future ghazal maestro had to first join the British Indian Army, which he later left and then joined All-India Radio at Lucknow and then Delhi. Finally, he came to Bombay and after a long struggle got his big break in Ankhen (1950).

In 'Mera Saaya' (1962), the music of Raja Mehdi Ali and Madan Mohan was given life by vocals from Lata Mangeshkar, Muhammad Rafi and Asha Bhonsle
In 'Mera Saaya' (1962), the music of Raja Mehdi Ali and Madan Mohan was given life by vocals from Lata Mangeshkar,
Muhammad Rafi and Asha Bhonsle

Madan Mohan’s constant collaborator in the composition of film songs, of which the ghazal was the most prominent, was Raja Mehdi Ali Khan (1928? - 29 July 1966). He hailed from the hamlet of Karmabad, tehsil Wazirabad, district Gujranwala. Firebrand Islamist activist, agitator and journalist Maulana Zafar Ali Khan was his maama (maternal uncle). Mehdi Ali Khan, however, seems to have been a thoroughly romantic individual, secular and liberal unlike his fanatical uncle.

Mehdi Khan’s father died when he was only four. His mother Hebay Saheba was an accomplished poet in her own right. The year given as Mehdi Khan’s date of birth on several Internet sites is 1928 but it sounds most unlikely because already in 1946 he was writing songs for films in Bombay after first getting a break in some Lahore films. That means he accomplished all this when he was only 18! From the accounts available about the Lahore literary scene of that time, one learns that Mehdi Ali Khan was groomed in Lahore and was famous in that city for his continuous chewing of paan-sapaari and was notorious for spitting out reddened saliva all around. It means he must have spent some time in Lahore and gained notoriety and fame.

Raja Mehdi Ali Khan brought the linguistic finesse of the Urdu ghazal to the mainstream Indian film industry
Raja Mehdi Ali Khan brought the linguistic finesse of the Urdu ghazal to the mainstream Indian film industry

Mehdi Ali Khan was famous in Lahore for his continuous chewing of paan-sapaari and spitting out reddened saliva

Som Anand was a Lahore Hindu who stayed behind in Model Town Lahore because his father Lala Faqir Chand, a leading banker, had married a Muslim and converted to Islam. He knew Mehdi Khan’s family very well and told me that Mehdi Khan continued to send money to his family in Pakistan from Bombay but he and his wife Tahira never returned themselves. The more likely year of birth of Raja Mehdi Ali Khan should therefore range between 1918 and 1922. Why and how such a wrong date is given everywhere is because Wikipedia, although a great source for ready reference, is totally dependent on voluntary contributions and therefore a great deal of information is erroneous.

The Madan Mohan-Raja Mehdi Ali Khan partnership produced some of the most exquisite film songs, many of them ghazals. In his very first film, Ankhen (1950), Madan Mohan’s two outstanding compositions were penned by Mehdi Khan. ‘Preet laga ke menay ye phal payaa’ was sung by Mukesh in his inimitable pathos-laden deep voice and the other, ‘Hum ishq mein barbaad hain’ by Mohammad Rafi, who rendered it in his inimitable skill - moving from lower to higher tones with an ease no other male singer has ever managed. The next film of Madan Mohan-Raja Mehdi Ali Khan was Adaa (1951). ‘Pritam meri dunya mein do din to rahey hotay’ is an absolute treasure. In Madhosh (1951) both created immortal melody with ‘Meri yaad mein tum naa ansoo bahaa na’ rendered by Talat Mahmood, the man with the velvety and silvery voice.

In Anparrh (Anpadh), 1962, both created magic. Two ghazals sung by Lata, ‘Aap kee nazron ne samjha pyar ke qabil muje’ and ‘Hai issi mein pyar kee abroo’ are collector’s items. Another in semi-classical style ‘Jiya ley gayo ri mera saawariya’ is also most valuable.  Both Madan Mohan and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan were nominated for ‘Aap kee nazron ne samja’ for the Filmfare Best Music Director and Best Song Writer awards but the influence of influential lobbies tilted the jury in favour of other competitors. In ‘Wo Kaun Thee’ (1964) ‘Lagg Ja Gale keh Phir ye raat ho naa ho’; ‘Jo humne dastan apni sunayee aap kyun roye’ and ‘Naina barse rim jhim rim jhim’ - all by Lata, are a class in themselves. In Aap ki Parchhaiyan (1964) the ghazal sung by Lata, ‘Agar mujh se muhabbat hai mujhe sab apane gham de do’ will always be remembered and treasured. In Mera Sayaa (1966), Lata sang in semi-classical style the geetNaino mein badra chaaye’, Mohammad Rafi ‘Aap ke pahlu mein aa ke ro diye’ and Asha Bhonsle ’Jumkha gira re Bareli ke bazaar mein’. These melodies are works of exquisite craftsmanship from the duo. The Madan Mohan-Raja Mehdi Ali Khan team is most definitely indelible Bollywood cinema history. However, both got opportunities to work with other colleagues as well.

Madan Mohan collaborated with fellow Punjabi Rajinder Krishan in many films. In Ashiana (1952), which was a Raj Kapoor-Nargis starrer, the ghazalMera Karar ley jaa mujhe beqarar’ was sung by both Talat Mahmood and Lata Mangeshkar. and ‘Mein Paagal mera manwa paagal’ by Talat Mahmood. Who would not acknowledge that these are simply magnificent? That Talat sung for Raj Kapoor (he did in one or two other films as well) and did it well is often not known because the voice of Raj Kapoor was otherwise Mukesh. In Dekh Kabira Royaa’ (1957), Madan Mohan and Rajinder Kumar once again bequeathed absolute treasure. Manna Dey sang, ‘Kon ayaa mere mann ke dwarae paayal kee jhankar liye’; Talat Mahmood ‘Hum se ayaa na gayaa’ and Lata Mangeshkar ‘Tu pyaar kare yaa tukhraye’. In Adalat (1966), Lata sang the superlative ghazals ‘Yun hastron ke dagh mohabat mein’, ‘Jaana Tha Humse Door Bahaane Bana Liye’ and ‘Unko Yeh Shiqaayat Hai Ki Hum Kuchh Nahin Kehte’. Who can deny that these songs are eternal? In Dastak (1972) it was Majrooh Sultanpuri with whom Madan Mohan partnered to create divine film music. There was the ghazal, ‘Hum hain mataye Kuch-o-Bazaar kee tarhaan’ and the tantalising ‘Bainyaan naa maroro balama’. Finally, Madan Mohan was rewarded with the National Award for Best Film Music but Filmfare awards were denied him even after four nominations. The last nomination was in 2004, long after he had died. Yash Chopra used for his film ‘Veer Zaara’ Madan Mohan’s tunes which the maestro had composed but never used in films. The film is about partition and Lahore figures centrally in the story. Javed Akhtar penned the lyrics for that film.

On the other hand, Raja Mehdi Ali Khan worked with many other music directors as well. In Do Bhai (1947), Geeta Roy (later Dutt) sang his unforgettable ‘Mera sundar sapna toot gayaa’ and ‘Yaad karo gay, ikk din hum ko yaad karo gay’. The music director was S. D. Burman. In Shaheed (1948), he composed a patriotic song, ‘Watan kee rahaa mein watan ke naujawan Shaheed hone’. The music director was Master Ghulam Haider, who was the pioneer of the Punjabi beat in Bollywood.  In Eik Musafir Aik Hasina (1962), the duet, ‘Mein pyar ka rahee hun, teri zulf ke saaye mein’ was sung by Mohammad Rafi and Asha Bhonsle, written by Mehdi Khan and composed to music by the eccentric Lahori O. P. Nayyar.

Researching for this article to learn about Madan Mohan and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan, and in the process their achievements separately, also brought forth some of Jalalpur Jattan and Rajinder Krishan’s poetic magnificence too. However, I must say that it saddened me to learn that Madan Mohan and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan could never win the Filmfare Awards, which since 1954 enjoy the highest status in the film industry for conferring recognition of talent and contribution.  Awards are not the objective measure of a creative individual or a scholar’s true qualities and often, politics and networking play a crucial role. Both died young without their peers doing them justice - although in their own lives they were respected and much sought after. The world of cinema churns out dreams and ideals but like any other arena of competition and contestation, it is not immune to the pulls and pushes of power. It was, however, a pleasure for a Punjabi Lahoria like me to put on record the amazing talent of these two natives of my cleaved homeland of the Five Rivers. That both Madan Mohan and Raja Mehdi Ali Khan had at some point in time been residents of Lahore endears them to me in a special way, although I myself have chosen to live far, far away from it.

Dr. Ishtiaq Ahmed is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Stockholm University; Visiting Professor at the Government College University, Lahore, and Honorary Senior Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore

The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at: