Ghulam Haider revolutionalized the face of the Hindi Film song and laid the foundation for the Hindi film as we know it today by combining popular ragas with the rich verve and rhythm of Punjabi music.
Haider was born in 1908 in Hyderabad (Sind, Pakistan). He studied dentistry and learnt music from Babu Ganeshlal. Giving up dentistry, he worked in the theatre in Calcutta as a harmonium player - first at the Alfred Theatrical Company and then the Alexandra Theatrical Company. He briefly worked with the Jenaphone recording company as composer and broke into films in Lahore with the father-son duo of Roshan Lal Shorey and Roop Kishore Shorey.
He got his big breakthrough film with DM Pancholi's Punjabi film Gul-e-Bakavali (1939) followed by Yamla Jat (1940), both starring Noor Jehan.
His biggest hit came the following year with Khazanchi (1941). The music of the film, in particular, the song Sawan ke Nazare Hain sung by Shamshad Begum and himself caused a revolution. By then Music Directors of the 1930s, who had embellished films with their exquisite compositions set in classical ragas, were beginning to sound commonplace. Khazanchi's refreshingly free wheeling music not only took the audiences by storm but also made other music directors sit up and take notice. With this film, Haidar ensured that the Indian film song would never be the same again.
Khandaan the following year with Noor Jehan was again a mega hit establishing Haider at the very top. Amongst its very popular songs, the film is known for the classic Noor Jehan solo, Tu Kaunsi Badli Mein Mere Chand Hai Aaja.
Following the success of Pancholi's Poonji (1943), Haider moved to Bombay where he worked in films like Chal Chal re Naujavaan (1944), Phool (1945) and Humayun (1945). His best-known compositions were sung by Shamshad Begum and invoke Punjabi folk and extensively featured percussion instruments like the dholak. Naina Bhar Aaye Neer by Shamshad in Humayun took the country by storm.
According to Haider, much of the popularity of a song would depend on its lyrics as well as the skill and style of the singer. As soon as he heard the voice of a singer, he composed a tune suited to that voice. It was essential to him that the singer conveys emotion enough to create the situation the scene demanded.
It was Haider who gave Lata Mangeshkar her first major break in Hindi films with Majboor (1948) and took her to S Mukherji to sing in Shaheed (1948) but Mukherji rejected her saying her voice was too thin! Haider warned him that this 'poor little thing' would soon put every other singer in the shade including Noor Jehan! He managed Shaheed with Geeta Dutt and another singer he introduced, Surinder Kaur, singing his compositions.
Shaheed, Padmini (1948) and Kaneez (1949) were among his last big hits in India. In the former, as patriotic songs go who can forget Watan ki Raah Mein Watan ke Naujawan Shaheed ho? The song was used twice in the film, the first at a brisk tempo to raise the moral of the revolutionaries and the second slowly and solemnly as the revolutionary's dead body is carried to the cremation ground, an early use of the sad version of the same song..
Music aside, Ghulam Haider was also responsible for raising the status of Music Directors. In those days he demanded and got Rs 25,000 a film! It was a result of his efforts that musicians were given their due and paid better wages.
After partition, Haider returned to Lahore. His first film in Pakistan was Shahida (1949). He then composed music for films like Beqarar (1950), Akeli (1951) and Bheegi Palken (1952) but unfortunately for him, the films flopped. He started Filmsaz with director S Nazir Ajmeri and actor S Gul. Gulnar (1953) reunited him with Noor Jehan and resulted in some great songs like Lo Chal Diye Hain Woh and Bachpan ki Yaadgaron but he could never taste the kind of success that he had in India. He passed away in 1953, just days after the release of Gulnar. He had been keeping ill and Lata Mangeshkar kept requesting him to come to India for treatment but he couldn't make it.
Ghulam Haider's success encouraged other Punjabi music directors to enter films. These included among others Shyam Sunder, Husnlal-Bhagatram, Feroz Nizami and Hansraj Behl. Today Ghulam Haider's name is almost forgotten. What remain are remnants of his great work and the works of others influenced by him.