The latest musical offering by Vishal Bharadwaj and lyricist Gulzar reminded me of the Confessions of Zeno, Italo Svevo's modernist classic about a man who has smoking, and only smoking, on the brain. The terminology of smoking pervades Gulzar's lyrics, bleeding from one song into the next, even as the sound changes radically from track to track. Bharadwaj's music is alive to this theme as well, reflected in repetitive beats and loops in the more electronic tracks here. And while this sort of music has nothing to do with smoking per se, it is a first for Bharadwaj, suggesting that he sees the sort of club trance that the likes of Midival Punditz and many many others specialize in, as the right vehicle for a musical representation of addiction and mania. "Mania" is doubly apt, given we are talking about a film that is not only about a hopelessly addicted smoker and the insane world around him, but is directed by Anurag Kashyap, whose previous outing -- Black Friday -- is nothing if not psychotic (yes, I mean that in a good way). How good is this album? If you expect the musical riches of Omkara, or the purity of The Blue Umbrella, you will be disappointed. No Smoking is a proudly "minor" work, tending in a direction Bharadwaj hasn't gone before, and its pleasures are those of the niche: odd, and more than a little interesting.
Jab Bhi Cigarette Jalti Hai (Jazz) is an anthem of sorts for charsis everywhere, its lyrics capturing the mania of smoking along with generous doses of whimsicality. The music serves as perfect complement to Gulzar's lyrics, beginning with a mellow, jazzy vibe and over the course of the song alternating with more conventional Hindi film vocals. Those vocals are Adnan Sami Khan's, who infuses genuine upbeat feeling into the song; indeed the moments when Sami lets it rip serve as contrast and counterpoint to the more restrained music in the instrumental portions of the track. The result is a flouncy souffle of a song, not catchy main event so much as charming backdrop.
Sunidhi Chauhan is unwilling to cede center-stage to anyone, and her rendition of the same song, Jab Bhi Cigarette Jalti Hai (Trance), is a far more urgent affair, both because her vocals infuse a throatily carnal vibe (not since Asha Bhonsle can anyone have enjoyed mouthing the word "kambakht" as much as Chauhan clearly does here) and because Bharadwaj's music here tends toward an ominously ambient yet sleek sound, one reminiscent of both the Midival Punditz instrumental in Farhan Akhtar's Don and 1970s Hindi film music as re-imagined in the likes of Bombay The Hard Way. It all adds up to a less charming song than the Adnan Sami version, but undoubtedly a more impressive one.
At times Rekha Bharadwaj's voice sounds indecent, so perfectly does it marry womanly maturity to a sort of childlike simplicity. It speaks volumes about Bharadwaj that this is actually a compliment, to one of the most compelling female singers in Hindi cinema today. Phoonk De (Club Mix) illustrates just why, her incongruous and enthralling voice soaring above the sort of electronic background more associated with the likes of The State of Bengal than with Bollywood music (at least music not made by Vishal-Shekhar when they're in the mood). But make no mistake, Phoonk De is recognizably Vishal Bharadwaj's music, largely because of the way he uses Rekha Bharadwaj here: the relatively narrow and concentrated vocal range, suggests an intimacy that borders on the illicit, and is oddly reminiscent of Maqbool's Rone Do (albeit in a very different musical context). I must confess that I'm unsure how much I like this track at the moment -- but Rekha Bharadwaj's singing keeps me coming back for more.
The same cannot be said for Sukhwinder Singh's rendition of Phoonk De, which is a catchier, but ultimately duller sibling of the club mix version. Sukhwinder sings with great passion, although as a general matter I can't shake the feeling that his passion is indiscriminate, and that an advertising jingle or a passionate love song would both be grist for the same mill where he is concerned. The track is not bad by any means, but lacks the freshness and personality of the others.
Kash Laga is hilarious: the most conventional song in the album, and structured like a "straight" Hindi film song in its recognizable chorus and stanza-moments as well as its instrumentaion, in any other album this might be a love song, or something the hero sings as he returns to his hometown after a long absence. Here, however, the "Kash Laga" chorus is in reference to dragging (on a cigarette that is), and the humor lies in the utter seriousness with which the song takes this notion, and in the awkwardly rushed way in which the chorus lines end in "behta ja behta ja". This song can say with a straight face "Zindagi hai...kash laga", and charms addicts everywhere. The music itself is not as interesting as the conceit: it is by far the most Rahmanesque song in the album in its orchestration, while simultaneously serving up a throwback to the film music of old (for a better sense of what I mean, think of Dekho aayee Holi from Mangal Pandey), yet the combination is a trifle more staid than I would have liked. Nevertheless I do suspect this song will grow on me, if for no other reason than that the chorus brings a grin to my face every time I hear it.
Deva Sen Gupta's voice bears a distinct kinship to Adnan Sami Khan's, and on the evidence of Ash Tray, that isn't a bad thing. But it's not the best thing about this track -- that palm has to go to Bharadwaj's night-time notes enframing Gupta's voice, in particular an incessant electronic throb that means the other shoe is about to drop. Don't hold your breath waiting, though: Bharadwaj is not in the business of satiating us, which means that the song doesn't end so much as simply cease, leaving us wanting more. Fittingly so. I think I'll go light up.