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Remembering S. Mohinder and his melancholic songs

Composer S. Mohinder’s wistful melodies continue to linger

The demise of music composer S. Mohinder (1925-2020) last Sunday evoked the presence of melancholy in our lives. One of our last links to the golden era of Hindi and Punjabi film music, Mohinder’s plaintive melody ‘Guzara hua zamana aata nahin dobara, hafiz khuda tumhara’ is emblematic of the times we are living in. Composed in 1956 for Shirin Farhad, the song, tenderly sung by Lata Mangeshkar, continues to linger, though many would have forgotten its context in the film.

In a way, perhaps, it reflects the personal pain of the composer and the lyricist. Both Mohinder and Tanvir Naqvi had to bear the pain of Partition. A young Mohinder was advised to board the Frontier Mail from Lahore to Bombay if he wanted to save his life. He had a singing assignment at AIR and a ticket for Lyllpur, his home town, in his hand, but destiny willed otherwise.

The son of a policeman, Mohinder spent his days as a Raagi singer in the Dadar gurudwara, his childhood training in Shabad kirtan and the time spent with Pt. Ram Das of Benaras helping him survive.

In a television interview, Mohinder once lamented that he had spent all his life yearning for the 20 years he spent in undivided Punjab. The images of singing Shabad in Nankana Sahib and playing hockey in Lyllpur haunted him. Fluent in Urdu and Punjabi, it took him time to learn Hindi.

Similarly, when circumstances forced progressive Naqvi to shift to the newborn Pakistan in 1950, he kept coming back but things were no longer the same.

It is said that Naqvi was called by K. Asif to write the songs for Mughal-e-Azam and the lyricist did write one, but by then Naushad had formed a formidable team with Shakeel Budayuni and didn’t want to change it. It is another matter that before Partition, Naushad had combined with Naqvi to give a string of hit songs in Anmol Ghadi, including the timeless ‘Awaaz de kahaan hai, duniya meri jawaan hai.’

Madhubala in Shirin Farhad

Madhubala production, Naqvi forged a bond with Mohinder. Together, they did many films. Naqvi was married to Noor Jehan’s sister Eidan Bai. Mohinder once said he was invited by Noor Jehan to compose music for a Pakistani film. But even before Mohinder could respond, war broke out.

When he came to Bombay, it was Suraiya, who had heard Mohinder sing in Lahore, who helped him find a toehold in the film industry with Nili (1950). Nili failed at the box office but the music flourished. Old-timers still swoon to Suraiya’s ‘Ulfat ka adhura afsana, kuch bhul gaye kuch yaad bhi hai.’ Written by Surjit Sethi, it is a wistful number, like his first song with Lata Mangeshkar, ‘Hum dil ki kahani kya kehte, kuch keh na sake kuch keh bhi gaye’ composed for Shaadi Ki Raat (1950).

Starting with Naata, a A master of rhythm, Mohinder composed songs for a rainbow of situations but the melodies that evoked a tinge of sadness were the ones that survived. Who can forget Rafi’s ‘Tera kaam hai jalna parwane, chahe shama jale ya na jale’ from Papi (1953). Written by Rajendra Krishna, it is said that Mohinder originally composed it for Filmistan’s Anarkali, but when circumstances forced him to leave the project, he offered it to Chandulal Shah of Ranjit Studios.

Composer S. Mohinder with singer Mohammed Rafi

Composer S. Mohinder with singer Mohammed Rafi  

As luck would have it, Papi tanked while Anarkali was the biggest hit of the year. Mohinder commanded respect and continued to deliver good music but could not make it to the top rung, dominated by Naushad, S.D. Burman, C. Ramachandra and O.P. Nayyar.

But what Mohinder missed in Hindi films, he more than made up in Punjabi cinema, where he delivered a string of big hits. His compositions for the Prithviraj Kapoor-starrer Nanak naam jahaz hai (1969) won him the National Award for Best Music, despite stiff competition from S.D. Burman’s Aradhana.

In the 1970s, as Hindi film music changed track from the music of the heart to the music of the legs, as Mohinder would say, he gradually lost interest and in the early 1980s migrated to the U.S.

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