On World Music Day, remembering Nazia Hassan, whose fresh and sassy musicality was way ahead of its time
Nazia Hassan appeared on Bollywood’s radar for the first time through Feroz Khan’s unremarkable action film Qurbani (1980).
The 80s was a whirlwind decade for Bollywood. Sparsely populated by unremarkable films, it is only really salvaged by parallel cinema, and one other unlikely protagonist – music. While romance, grief and other moralising codes punctuated middle-class anxieties and therefore the art that would be created for them, the 80s would become the decade where music, its limited sensibilities really broke free.
Underlined to a large extent by the eccentric, unhinged music of Bappi Lahiri and the piquant voice of Mohammad Aziz, the 80s introduced a new musical idiom. It was wicked, naughty and boasted a stronger pelvic region, morality-wise. But while we try to imagine the broadsheet of 80s music, it was really headlined by the debut of one diminutive yet stylish teenager, Nazia Hassan. Nearly 40 years after Hassan was introduced to Hindi listeners, her legend, though sustained, waits to be feted for all the walls it helped demolish.
I discovered Hassan’s voice as a child, in Kumar Gaurav’s underrated film Star (1982). The story of a struggling musician, Hassan’s ‘Boom Boom’ was an oddly playful addition to a film soundtrack that was otherwise sombre and self-serious. Not that Hassan’s music seemed daft, just cheeky and unlike anything I had heard before. Moreover, it was her voice, its untrained sharpness that made it fresh. As if the idea of melody had been challenged. It now had verve and the capacity to surprise. Not just that, Hassan commanded a fascinating stage presence. Her televised performances - available on Youtube - ooze class and sophistication. Consider the fact that this was back in the morbid, over-the-top, pre-liberalisation 80s, and it seems impossibly ahead of its time. India embraced Hassan’s aristocracy, and the panache that came with it. A concession it reserved for certain established families of the film industry.
Hassan appeared on Bollywood’s radar for the first time through Feroz Khan’s unremarkable action film Qurbani (1980).
The film marks many firsts for Indian music. It is also the debut for London-based music composer Biddu Appaiah, who had already made waves with his disco records, including Carl Douglas’ massive international hit ‘Kung Fu Fighting’ (1974). Khan listened to a 15-year-old Hassan sing, in London. He somehow convinced Biddu to score a song that Hassan would sing for his next project. The sudden introduction of both Hassan and Biddu was allegedly opposed by Kalyanji-Anandji, the well-known original composers for the film. Khan, somehow, calmed the waters and squeezed in a single. Thus was born the classic, ‘Aap Jaisa Koi Meri Zindagi’, a song that overshadowed not just the film but an album that boasted stalwarts like Kishore Kumar. Qurbani’s greatest claim to fame became a song performed by an outsider, composed by an outsider, to an industry that valued only its insiders.
Born in 1965, Hassan was raised between Karachi and London. Stardom was unanticipated. It was also unlikely. Hassan became the first Pakistani artist to win a Filmfare award for Qurbani. Alongside her brother and regular collaborator, Zoheb, she released the album Disco Deewane (1981), composed by Biddu. The album became a massive hit, adored by people on both sides of the border, in Pakistan and India. The album allegedly sold out on its release in Mumbai. A teenager had transcended identity, somehow found the love of two warring countries that would rather have their stars compete. But politics could only be bypassed not rejected.
Alisha Chinai’s debut song ‘Made in India’, for example, was composed by Biddu for Hassan. But because they feared the political repercussions of a Pakistani singer singing about India, Hassan, who had by then retired from music, had to decline. Over the years, Hassan’s voice has been recalled, but never politically reclaimed. Even attempts to recreate her music, stripped of context of course, have largely yielded underwhelming results. The remixed ‘Disco Deewane’ from Student of the Year, sung by Sunidhi Chauhan, for example, does not possess the rawness of the original.
Hassan stayed in the limelight for a decade. Her ambitiousness can be confirmed by the fact that she also insisted on educating herself well. From holding a law degree to working with the United Nations Security Council, Hassan gave as much emphasis to emboldening herself all-round rather than just claim the rewards of her stardom. Her role in contemporising music in both India and Pakistan launched what would become the indie artist movement in the 90s. Biddu went on to launch artists like Shaan, Lucky Ali and Sonu Nigam as well. Doors were opened for the likes of Ali Azmat, Strings, Junoon and many others before music too, became an extension of political conflict.
Hassan’s rise was as meteoric and brief as her death was early and prolonged. Diagnosed with cancer at an early stage, she succumbed to it twenty years ago, at the age of 35, leaving behind a short-lived legacy and questions about what could have been, had the two countries that loved her in their own way, found to a way to continuously love each other.
Sure there are writers, poets and artists that we share, but Hassan broke barriers long after the dust on their legacies had settled and long before the gates had were thrown open. Forty years after the release of Qurbani, Hassan’s voice, her pedigree and her socio-political impact on the borderless idea of art, requires both, a revisit and a desperate encore.
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