In the late 1990s, a foreign tourist befriended me. I no longer remember his name or from which European country he came from (I think it was Austria), but he was a musician and studying composition in his country. He had come to India to study its music, and had fallen in love with filmi (today better known as Bollywood) music.
He told me that one song in particular had caught his fancy, and that he planned to write a piece inspired by its catchy melody. When he sang the tune to me, I couldn’t help laughing. It was the hit song ‘Nazrein Mili Dil Dhadka (Love You Raja)’ from the Madhuri Dixit starrer ‘Raja’ (1995), all the rage at that time. I pointed out to him that the song was a direct lift from Billy Vaughn’s runaway hit ‘Come September’, composed by Bobby Darin, from the eponymous 1961 romantic comedy film featuring Sandra Dee, Rock Hudson and Gina Lollobrigida. He wouldn’t believe me, until I actually showed him the 45 rpm record and played it for him. He was quite crestfallen, and I don’t know if he followed through on his decision to compose a piece ‘inspired’ by this melody that he had believed to be so intrinsically Indian.
I was reminded of this when the media attention turned recently to the fortieth anniversary of ‘Sholay’ (1975), that historic film which has endeared itself to several generations of the Indian diaspora across the world.
The runaway success of the blockbuster is due to a whole host of factors, not least among them the film soundtrack and the many songs that have acquired cult status. Among them is ‘Mehbooba Mehbooba’. With lyrics by Anand Bakshi, the music has been officially attributed to Rahul Dev Burman. Burman himself even sings the song. But the melody and structure of the song is almost wholly identical to ‘Say You Love Me’ by Egyptian-Greek singer Artemios Ventouris-Roussos, better known to us as Demis Roussos, and who died in January this year.
Now here’s the thing. ‘Say You Love Me’ seems to have been released in 1974, a year before Sholay. So could Burman have gotten his ‘inspiration’ for ‘Mehbooba’ from here?
Or could one or both of them have in turn been ‘inspired’ by ‘Ta Rialia’, a traditional song in the Cypriot dialect popularised by Mihalis Violaris, which rose to the top of the charts in Greece in 1973?
It would certainly seem so. The three songs are much too similar for it to be coincidence.
Voliaris’ version of ‘Ta Rialia’ (which means ‘The Money’ in Greek, something that besieged country sorely needs right now) begins at a measured pace with a trilling flute, and two Greek mandolins playing the introduction in thirds in the Greek folk tradition. A Greek Sandouri (a close cousin of our santoor) and a bass instrument complete the orchestration, while a chorus repeats each line sung by Voliaris, in typical folk fashion. It is a seductive song, with the gist implying that the woman being sung about (with an ‘angelic body and a ring-like waist’) can become his, for the money, with even a smutty reference to a pimp (if the English translation can be relied upon).
The allure of ‘Ta Rialia’ must have proved irresistible to Demis Roussos, who was born and raised in Alexandria Egypt before the Suez crisis compelled his family to move to Greece when he was ten. The cosmopolitan nature of 1950s Alexandria, the harmonious co-existence of many communities and assimilation with cultures stayed with him, and Arabic music remained a huge influence on him.
Roussos cranks up the tempo considerably, adding a rather large percussion section, which seems to include tambourines, tom-toms, and maracas. He still retains the folk pattern of the repetition of each line by a chorus. The lyrics are a clumsy fit, though, with words like ‘patiently’, tenderly’ getting the wrong syllables emphasised: patient-LY, tender-LY.
Burman’s ‘Mehbooba’ has a pace midway between the Voliaris and Roussos songs. He builds the excitement quotient gradually, and Ramesh Sippy mirrors this brilliantly on screen. A syncopated beat of an octave (bass at the root, and a flute at the top) against a steady, resolute drum beat sets it off while the campfire-lit dacoits’ den is revealed to us, and just the flute begins its fluttering trill, the ‘thrill’ (the belly dancer played wonderfully by Helen) is made manifest to us. Then the dance beat plays out in earnest, with the entire percussion section unleashed as Helen gyrates round the fire. We hear the introductory melody, played singly (as with Roussos) and not in thirds, as Voliaris does in his version of ‘Ta Rialia’.
The melody of the sung portion, which ascends and descends in steps with Roussos becomes much more undulating in Burman’s adaptation. Bakshi-Burman also add an open-ended couplet, whose melody is not part of either ‘Ta Rialia’ or ‘Say You Love Me’: ‘Phool bahaaron se nikla, chaand sitaaron se nikla, Dilrooba’. The instrumental interludes provide an opportunity for the action in the film to move forward, and we see the saboteurs Jai and Veeru plant their explosives in the camp, without missing the sung portions of the song.
There are no choral forces on the soundtrack of ‘Mehbooba’ with the lyrics all sung by Burman himself (lipsynched memorably and flamboyantly by Jalal Agha on screen).
In general, Bakshi’s lyrics in ‘Mehbooba’ fit the melody so much better than do those in ‘Say You Love Me’. The elegant Urdu text reads as poetry on its own merit. The song may be a copy, but it has been reworked masterfully, and I know I am biased, but it is an improvement upon its templates.
Further down the line, to continue the cascade of ‘inspiration’, we have A La Carte’s disco hit ‘Doctor Doctor Help Me Please’. It has dance-floor and eye-candy appeal, but despite desperate calls for medical help, the song has too much ‘trouble in its knee’. It lacks the finesse and craftsmanship of ‘Mehbooba’. The A La Carte song was short-lived, but ‘Mehbooba’ lives on, in its original version and remixes, and has spawned several imitations.
Imitation is the best form of flattery, isn’t it? To paraphrase Tina Turner, What’s Copyright Got To Do With It?
(An edited version of this article was published on 30 August 2015 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)