Note from the author

I interviewed Sohail Rana in the summer of 1993 but the following profile could not be written up and published until much later. It appeared in Dawn, Tuesday Review, January 23-29, 1996.

The Unstrung Hero

A few weeks back there was a musical programme arranged by some university students. The band on the stage was singing Kokokorina, and the unsuspecting crooner mixed up a couple of lines. I was amazed to see that not only did all the listeners begin hooting the performers, but they also stopped them and repeated the whole song themselves, in one voice, not a single line confused! This is indeed remarkable. For a song to be living in the hearts of a generation that was born about a decade after its first notes faded, is what makes a song a “classic” (please don’t read classical).

And there is Sohail Rana, the man behind Kokokorina. Of course, the classic owes a good deal of its popularity to the lyricist, the singer, the performer and the film director – all of whom were themselves big stars in this particular case. But after all, how can you ignore the composer.

Yet, upon meeting Mr Rana for the first time my immediate reaction was that of disappointment. I had expected to see a person who would reflect at least some of the “young at heart” spirit that his song emanates. But the man I met was an “uncle type” and just then he was sermonizing an ex-student on all things good in life. It was only when I was nearing the end of Side B of my first C-90 cassette that I began to see connections between the different facets of Sohail Rana.

Sohail Rana comes from a learned literary but somewhat conservative middle class family. His father was Raana Akbarabadi, a renowned poet. Sohail’s first passion was painting. It was only when his paints were stolen that he turned towards music for the satisfaction of his father. The latter was aghast when he learnt that his son had not only learnt music, but was also toying with the idea about making a name in it. Any name associated with a performing art was, of course, bad for a typical middle class family of the times.

“In fact, this was one of the major reasons of my taking up music. I asked myself if music is such a bad thing then what was the music that Hazrat Amir Khusro gave us? What about the works of Shah Abdul Lateef Bhitai and other Sufis? What double standards we have! We listen to the qawwals and ghazal singers but treat them as outcastes. I decided that I will change these double standards”.

Some years later Sohail produced Doraha (1967). It includes a scene where Waheed Murad (playing a singer in the movie), declares proudly before Talish (playing the singer’s college professor): “My art is a necessity for the society!” and he gets a repartee from Talish: “Yes, but this necessity is sold at the prostitutes’ den in our society.”

Unlike Waheed in the film, Sohail in real life could not summon enough courage to face his elders over such an issue, and instead sent his sister to convey his reply: “Father,” said Sohail with his sister as mediator. “Please look at the changing world. How professions are growing. The job that was once done by the humble jolahas (weavers) has now been taken up by textile industrialists. The job of the dhobis is now owned by prestigious dry cleaners. The job of the hajjam has now been taken up by respectable women who call themselves beauticians, and hold diplomas from London and Paris. This only proves my one point. That there is no profession good or bad, but only how we do it. If you want me to give up music and take up engineering, I sure will obey you. But why do you think that I will end up playing harmonium in a brothel if I take up music? Why can’t you imagine me playing music in the United Nations?”

It worked. He was given a test period of six months. If he could not prove within six months what he had claimed before his father, then he would have to become an engineer. It so happened that within those six months of 1962, Sohail Rana got himself appointed as a composer in Radio Pakistan, began composing music for EMI. He also got assigned as a composer for the television displayed at the Philips stalls in an exhibition (TV had not yet come to Pakistan) and last, not the least, he entered into a contract as the music director for a film. The producer was Waheed Murad, who had booked Rana for his second venture, Jab Say Dekha Hai Tumhain (starring Darpan, since Waheed had not started acting by that time).

“And how old were you then?”

“Nineteen!”

“And how did you enter into a contract with Waheed Murad?”

“I first met him through a friend. It was some party … and I had taken my accordion to amuse them. We became good friends.”

Waheed himself was only 22. And did he influence Sohail’s music? Or did Sohail influence him?

“I will not say we influenced one another. We were one. We use to spend a lot of time together. (This includes other members of the team, Pervez Malik, the director and Masroor Anwar, the lyricist). Even on the sets we remained friends. Waheed would never pretend to be vain or make us feel that he was the boss around there. We believed in respecting each other’s work, each other’s feelings and efforts. And we never closed our minds to anybody’s suggestion.”

After Jab Say Dekha Hai Tumhain came Heera Aur Pather (1964) which starred Waheed as the hero. This was the film which brought for Sohail the well-deserved praise of his work from his first opponent: his father.

But the best was yet to come. A song which deserves a note here. “I did not compose that song. It came to me one night when I was dreaming. Call it intuition. I noted the composition down the next morning, and gave it ‘dummy lines’, so that I may not forget: Akalay nah jana hamein chore kar tum. Tumharay bina hum bhala kiya jiyein gay.”

Sohail included this tune in a film he was making those days, but the producer (not Waheed Murad, this time!) could not afford to record the song with 65 musicians in Lahore, and approached Sohail to accept arrangements for second class recording. But this kind of compromise would have been quite unlike Sohail’s nature, who had always dictated conditions for his own work. He disassociated from that film and together with his friend Pervez Malik, launched his own production, Doraha (released three years later in 1967). He decided to include his song in Doraha, so that he may get it recorded in his own style. “The tune reached Waheed’s ears one day, as I was humming it. He said, ‘it’s a good song, just give it to me’. I said, ‘No, it’s Doraha’s song’. ‘But Doraha’s a long way, and I am launching my own film. I have even conceived the story and this song fits in well. The film is going to be called Armaan.”

Sohail put his conditions before Waheed, who met them by offering him a blank cheque. “I agree to all your conditions. I just want that song!” And that is how Armaan came about.

Sohail Rana thinks he achieved something in Armaan (1966). “Film is a medium which embodies all the performing arts within it – painting, poetry, music, decoration, what not. Our field is music, therefore we (the music directors) restrict ourselves (to composing music). But composing is more than turning words into music. You have to study the character. The point in Armaan is that is is the story of a young boy who is modern, and likes to go out to clubs. And what used to happen in those clubs was rock ‘n’ roll, foxtrot, twist …. If he sings a song there, what should he sing? Of course, something which has a western touch, western beat, western instruments. That is what we did to Kokokorina. But we kept its background a bit oriental. Kokokorina was meant to depict the boy’s character as we find him at the beginning of the story. As he matures through falling in love with a girl, he undergoes a reformation. Now he is not a visitor of the clubs; he does not take his beloved to the club, nor does he want such a girl as his beloved. So, now he expresses his emotion through Akailay na jana…. Which is based on raga Aiman. This song embodies our own (oriental) art, our own value, our own metaphors. Later, when that same boy goes back to the club, he is singing a different song. Things at the club appear to him as false shadows (Saye ki talab karney walo) and he expresses himself in raga Bhopali: (Jab piyar main do dil miltay hain…. Now this song is a long way from Kokokorina you see, I have made the same character sing three different types of songs at three different phases in his life, I have given you justification for each one.”

Yet film music is just one of the many sides of Sohail Rana’s talent. “The main thing which I would like to convey to posterity, which I learnt from my seniors and elders, is that one should never keep all one’s eggs in one basket. This is also, if I may say, the reason of my success. Had I limited myself to the film, leaving films would have posed a problem of survival for me. And (also) I thought that if I only work in films then I am a film composer, not a composer. To be a composer I must also be able to produce commercials, symphonies, instrumentals, folk dances, ballet, national songs, nursery rhymes. Only if I can do all these things then shall I become a composer, otherwise I am going to be branded as a film composer.”

Right at the very beginning of his career, Sohail Rana was involved with a number of things. His love affair with gramophone records had produced a hit number by about the same time as his earlier films were released. This was called folk tunes of Pakistan, which was produced against the advice of the EMI management. Nobody thought it had any chance of selling but it did record business.

Two years later came Shahbaz Qalandar and around 1970, Khyber Mail. This time Sohail Rana had the luxury of doing it the way he liked to do his work: on his own terms. He made the EMI Company import equipment for stereophonic recording, make arrangements for producing LPs, change the printer of record “sleeves”, improve the microphones at the EMI studios and arrange for publicity banquets.

“May I tell you why I was so determined to release these records, based on Pakistani folk tunes? It was because I had seen an eight-year-old girl dancing to the soundtrack of Come September. This was 1964. You could not have imagined Western music being played in a middle class family. And there it was, an eight-year-old from the middle class dancing to the tune of Come September. I was shocked. If this goes on like that, our younger generation will run away to the West and forget its own traditions. What do I do? Why not use these kinds of beat, tune …. But with out own melody? And then I thought, why not folk?”

For most of the younger generation, Sohail Rana is to be recognized by the songs he wrote and composed for children. “My own son learnt ABC through a song his teacher taught him. My father tried to teach him Alif, bay, pay, but the child would not pick up. Then one day I sat down and composed a song of the Urdu alphabet. It took only half hour for my son to learn it. Once again, his grandfather was convinced of the magical power of music.” In 1968, Sohail Rana started Kaliyon ki Mala, a music programme for children on TV. The programme continued under various titles right up to the 1980s.

In all it had around two hundred students over a period of time, including as Nazia Hasan, Afshan, Anwar Ibrahim and some others. In these programmes he followed a rigorous code of discipline for his pupils. Quite contrary to the expectations one might gather from his smiling, soft-spoken personality that appeared when the camera light went on, he was as harsh to his pupils as a Victorian schoolmaster at all other times.

“The elders have to present themselves as models before their young ones. And not temporarily but perpetually. And these values can only be passed on to the younger generation while they are growing up, but you cannot cultivate them once they have become mature persons.”

During his long association with the television, he also composed patriotic songs that gained enormous popularity, second only to the national anthem. To mention three: Sohni Dharti, Jeevay Pakistan and Hum Mustafavi Hain.

Now, he has turned his attention towards what is the big dream of most great composers. Symphony. “Now I want to compose symphonies. On Omar Khayam, Bu Ali Sina, who are our heroes. A few years back I composed an Anarkali symphoniette. Now I am reconceiving it. Maybe, I shall be able to present it with a big symphony orchestra with sitar and tabla. I am trying to do my best, however, I have been managing a number of things at the same time, and mind you, none of them get done substandard. You should organize yourself in such a way that not a single moment goes waste. And balance is the key. My father wrote me a poem when I was getting married. It is a pandnama (advice).”

But why did Sohail Rana leave the film industry? Well, his feelings towards the film are ambivalent. “Film is the best of all media,” he says. Yet he left it when he was at the peak of his film career. And he left it because a friend made him realize that he had done nothing for his country, and could not do anything in that direction through films. But he also left it because it was becoming stale, and he was no longer getting teams to his own liking. “ I don not say this as a matter of pride, but I like to work with educated people. I might have contributed more had there been more people like Javed Jabbar, Rashid Mukhtar and Waheed Murad … I did not leave the film industry with an announcement that I will never come back. In fact, I did go back to do Beyond the Last Mountain for Javed Jabbar. But I cannot work with people who do not believe representing our own culture in our films.

“I decided that I must temporarily disassociate myself from the industry because the films it was producing were rubbish, and I thought that the reputation that I had earned will be tarnished if I continue …. And then actually came a time when I met Waheed – my friend, my mentor – with sunken eyes, completely dejected, forlorn, in despair. I said to him, ‘turn your attention towards film-making, like Raj Kapoor. (What if you have become unpopular as a hero), you started primarily as a distributor and as producer. It was a mere chance that brought you to acting. You have even directed a film (Ishara, in which he even sang a song for me although the song was never released)’.

“Poor Waheed said to me, ‘when you left the industry we called you a fool. Now we see that you were right and we were wrong’.”

A career in music has brought Sohail what he had envisaged – he has not just played music in the United Nations, but also received the Peace Messenger Award from it. And how does he feel about it? “There was once a time when my parents wanted me to become an engineer, but nature wanted me to become a composer. So here I am. My parent’s apprehensions were correct, because learning music did affect my formal studies (which were left in a very bad state at the end) but I do not think I have paid a heavy price. Had I become an engineer I would have led a regulated life but with regret that I could not accomplish what I had aimed for in life. Today I have everything I might have had acquired as an engineer, plus the satisfaction that I have done what I wanted to do. I have given back the nobility and respectability that this art deserved, which it (had) always enjoyed but for a time being which people (had started denying it). The same parents, the same relatives, the same friends, the same neighbours, who used to consider (music) a bad thing, started taking pride in calling me their friend, their neighbour. But I haven’t done anything: a diamond, which was a diamond, had accumulated dust. I have just wiped away the dust. And the diamond has started shining again.”