The clichéd ‘running around trees’ Hindi film song was made possible by that other strange practice that’s quite unique to Indian cinema, playback singing. As long as some much more talented singer was sitting in a studio singing their heart out, it allowed the actors to get up to all sorts of antics on screen to the pre-recorded music. There was a time though, when such pre-recorded music was either technically impossible or simply too expensive an option. In that era, actors needed to also be singers, as songs were recorded live on sets as the cameras rolled. Ashok Kumar started his acting career during that era, but the undisputed star of the time was Kundan Lal Saigal, and Main kya janu kya jadu hain from the 1940 film Zindagi is just one of his gems.
It’s almost impossible to imagine the impact Saigal would have had as king of the Hindi film industry, then located in Calcutta rather than Bombay, in a pre-independence India. To that age, Saigal, a fairly ordinary looking chap by today’s film standards, who both acted on screen and sang with a passion few would have had the opportunity to witness outside royal courts and rural theatre, would have been an idol of unprecedented proportions. Here was a hero of the new urban India, separate from freedom struggles and politics, and his following in a time before true mass media, built of posters and scarce radio broadcasts, is a phenomenon to marvel at.
From what I read, Zindagi sounds like an edgier story than most would tackle for many decades following Indian independence. It was the story of a gambler and a woman running away from her abusive husband, who happen to meet and then try to make a life together. Strong stuff, even by melodrama standards. And this song is a wonderfully archaic, if universal, love song in praise of a woman’s eyes.
Saigal‘s voice is as unmistakable today as it surely was in that age of much sparser entertainment, as testified by the recent Saigan Blues from the soundtrack of Delhi Belly. The music by Pankaj Mullick is upbeat and perfectly suited to the live orchestra that was playing it on set as Saigal acted on camera, while also serenading his co-star with the song. It was recorded theatre, and imagine getting it all right in a single take; A interesting time for sure.
Kidar Nath Sharma, who later went on to direct his own films, here wrote the lyrics for the song. It is a simple romantic ode to beauty in words that only romance can justify. Poetic license such as:
Ek ek athah sagar sa hai,
In do matavale nainon mein, jadu hai.
Each one is like the unfathomable sea,
In these two marvelous eyes there is sorcery.
… slips off Saigal’s lips with an honesty that we now require a lot more convincing in the form of musical showmanship and vocal nuances to swallow. I couldn’t find an actual video version from the film. Perhaps none exist, as plenty of those old nitrate negatives have been lost to cinema all over the world. But even in plain audio (supported by a helpful slideshow), Main kya janu kya jadu hain is still a striking and memorable song, and a glimpse into another time.