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Sanjay Leela Bhansali harnesses unsaid emotions

From the six songs in the album of Gangubai Kathiawadi, the poignant ones are leaps ahead of the dance numbers even though the latter will command more airplay.

A Sanjay Leela Bhansali film is a sensory experience as the visual tonality is usually deftly supplemented by a score and a soundtrack that weaves in the most compelling of narratives. Given how invested he feels in every aspect of the filmmaking process and the astute command he has on the music, suffice to say that whether or not we find the movie working for us, we usually cannot fault its audio-visual experience.

The filmmaker, who made his debut with a gorgeous musical like Khamoshi, has established over the years just how his keen ear for music supports his vision for the film. His upcoming release Gangubai Kathiawadi is no different. While the movie is days from release, the full soundtrack dropped on Friday, and it is very evident what Bhansali wishes for us to see with our ears.

I had read the story of Gangubai from S Hussain Zaidi and Jane Borges’ Mafia Queens of Mumbai, but that was over a decade ago. Not wanting to step into the movie hall with preconceived notions, I steered clear of revisiting the short story though some elements remained in my consciousness.

When you listen to the soundtrack — even as someone who has no clue about the titular character’s backstory —you are instantly transported to a rustic Gujarati setting, before moving to a court that straddles the gauche with the graceful and are left with a sense of feminist activism. You do not need to know the specifics of her story to feel what her life must have stood for.

We begin the six-song EP with the soulful ‘Meri Jaan,’ stunningly sung by Neeti Mohan. Setting the tone for the ’60s-70s period, the husky Mohan croons this groovy number most sensually, and yodels her way with much charm. The instrumentation and arrangement are typical of the time, and you feel like you are on the sets of a Nasir Hussain film where the glitzy and the heartfelt unite. The retro-ness is amplified by Mohan’s impeccable balance between restraint and letting her voice loose.

The album can be divided into the emotive and the festive. In the emotive section, ‘Meri Jaan’ is followed by ‘Jab Saiyyaan,’ possibly the best song in the album. This love ballad opens with a harmonium and a sarangi, perfectly establishing the ornate kotha vibe. Yet in the setting of a courtesan, sounds a voice so sweet and embodying so much innocence that only a singer of Shreya Ghoshal’s calibre can pull off something so virginal in a whore house. Bhansali is at his finest in his visualisation for this song.

Arijit Singh’s ‘Muskurahat’ is the third of the moving numbers, and holds within it the Bhansali brand of pathos. The heart-wrenching song that caresses through the most minor of notes, creates a setting for a ‘Tadap Tadap’ kind of longing from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam [1999].

‘Dholida’ is pipped to be the popular dance number, reminiscent that it is of ‘Dholi Taaro’ from the above mentioned film. It is upbeat, vivacious, and wholly peppy as a garba song with frenzied beats and tolling bells. It is no ‘Dholi Taaro’ but will certainly dominate the dandiya season later this year. Jahnavi Shrimankar does a confident job of helming the song as she makes a decisive playback singing debut with this film.

Another debutante in this soundtrack is Archana Gore, who is ably supported by a choir of female vocalists in what seems like a clarion call for an uphill feminist battle. Called ‘Shikayat/Qawwali,’ and sung in the eponymous style, Gore leads the singers in a conversation about women’s rights and equal opportunities, singing in a genre so predominantly male that the messaging is not lost on anyone.

Gore’s other song in the album, ‘Jhume Re Gore,’ is an up-tempo dance number that gives the album a fitting finish with a resounding dhol section. In another song driven by powerful female vocals, ‘Jhume Re Gore’ is foot-tapping at best though it is not one of Bhansali’s best.

Bhansali is at his finest in harnessing unsaid emotions and setting them to a memorable tune. We feel like we are a part of his ideating mind when we listen to the more sombre numbers. The dance ones are going to need more time to grow on us but given the oversaturation that is par for the course in the runup to the release of a film, perhaps it will find a way to occupy more of our mind space than it does currently.

AM Turaz’s lyricism is exquisite in ‘Muskurahat,’ ‘Jab Saiyyaan,’ and ‘Shikayat,’ making poetry seem so much more accessible to us without compromising on the subtle grandeur of the words. Listen to the album for what Bhansali is not projecting: the underlining sensitivity of human emotions.

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