New Delhi: Let’s face it — these aren’t the best of times. There is a virus on the loose, the economy is in shambles, there are growing social and communal tensions — and those are just the basics. It is difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel in times like these, so we turn to the one common comfort we Indians share — cinema.
Be it a potboiler entertainer or a middle-class family comedy, Bollywood has always had the ability to unite. And then there are the films produced soon after independence that critique the social and political situations of the time.
One such gem is 1958’s Phir Subah Hogi, starring Raj Kapoor, Mala Sinha, and the stirring words of poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi. On this day, when Sahir would’ve turned 99, ThePrint looks back at this underrated gem.
A Dostoevskian tale
Phir Subah Hogi is loosely based on Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and looks at the dark side of newly independent India, which was treated almost as the proverbial promised land. Kapoor plays a penniless student, struggling to make ends meet by pawning off his possessions. He saves a boy’s life, and meets Sinha, who is also struggling financially as her father is an alcoholic.
To save her from an abusive alliance, Kapoor tries to rob the pawn shop, but it all goes south and he ends up murdering the owner. The rest of the film focuses on his guilt and fear, as he evades the law despite his conscience.
Directed and produced by Ramesh Saigal, Phir Subah Hogi is not just a mere commentary on social justice. It takes an unabashed look at the cruel realities of the poor, the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised, in a country struggling to find its independent feet.
BJP leader L.K. Advani revealed that he and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, who would go on to be prime minister, had once sought comfort in this film after an election loss in 1958.
But what really stands out in the film, apart from the performances, is the music.
A Sahir masterpiece
Sahir’s words, complemented perfectly by Khayyam’s compositions, were what made this film iconic. It all starts with Woh Subah Kabhi Toh Aayegi — a song about holding out hope for a better future, and goes on to other memorable numbers like Aasman Pe Hai Khuda Aur Zameen Pe Hum, Cheen-o-Arab Hamara and Jis Pyaar Mein Ye Haal Ho. Sahir’s romantic genius, evident in so many other songs across the decades, is represented by Phir Na Kije Meri Gustakh Nigahi Ka Gila, an Asha Bhosle-Mukesh duet that is considered one of the latter’s greatest performances.
Sahir was always known for his radically Left-leaning poetry, and his film lyrics weren’t any different. He was a staunch critic of Jawaharlal Nehru’s government, and more significantly for a socialist, of Nehruvian socialism.
Saigal’s film was the perfect avenue for his poetry to flourish, and the director chose him specifically for that. Sahir was also known to be very particular about whom he worked with, and insisted that Raj Kapoor stray from his usual music composers, Shankar-Jaikishan, and go with Khayyam instead.
Khayyam often narrated this story: “Sahir Saab told Saigal, ‘There is no doubt they (Shankar-Jaikishan) are a very successful and competent team. But the music director should be someone who has read and understood Crime and Punishment. Read and understood.’ Saigal asked, ‘Who do you have in mind?’ Sahir Saab replied, ‘Khayyam’.”
The song Woh Subah Kabhi Toh Aayegi is haunting, featuring Kapoor and Sinha clutching each other for comfort, both suffering and struggling, with no respite in sight. It criticises the growing economic disparity of the time with millions being left with nothing, while a few flourish. “Insaanon ki izzat jab jhoothe sikkon mein na toli jaayegi, woh subah kabhi toh aayegi,” sings Kapoor in Mukesh’s voice, the words laying bare how human life has lost all meaning and respect.
In Aasman Pe Hai Khuda Aur Zameen Pe Hum, Sahir takes on God, caustically asking when the Almighty doesn’t care about us, why should we even bother?
Cheen-o-Arab Hamara was probably the most popular, and most controversial, number in the film. Dripping with sarcasm, Sahir parodies two of Allama Iqbal’s poems — the Indian nationalistic Saare Jahaan Se Achha Hindustan Hamara, and the Islam-centric Cheen-o-Arab Hamara, also known as the Tarana-e-Milli (anthem of the community).
“Cheen-o-Arab hamara, Hindustan hamara / Rehne ko ghar nahin hai, saara jahan hamara,” he writes, taking a dig at the Nehru government for propagating idealised nationalism while ignoring the real problems plaguing the people.
In many ways, Phir Subah Hogi is Sahir’s movie through and through. It is not only a great example of his range, but also his story. Like many of his comrades, Sahir hoped for a more equal future, free of capitalism and nationalism.
And today, when things seem bleak, all one can do is hum to oneself — woh subah kabhi toh aayegi.