Anyone claiming to draw up a list of 50 best songs from Hindi cinema is a very brave person indeed. A catalog of favourites certainly, though even that would trigger disputes, but a definitive listing out of tens of thousands of songs is a futile task. For every song, there would be 100 alternatives offered. Why is such and such song missing, why didn’t you include more of so and so; it is one of those endless debates that can turn friends into enemies.
And yet, two intrepid writers and hardcore music fans, Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal, have set out to produce a book called 50 Classic Hindi Film Songs. This is a bit of clever subterfuge on their part—they say clearly these are personal favourites, but ‘Classic’ gives the list much more weightage. But let us not carp.
What stands out is that very few people would – on the face of it – have much quarrel with the songs chosen. These are all good, in some cases even great songs. But what is common among most is that they are all worthy songs. They all would raise a “wah” among fans, because each one, over the years, has acquired a certain gravitas. This is a representative playlist that takes us through the decades, starting with Pankaj Malick singing Chale Pawan ki Chaal (Doctor, 1941) and ending with Dil hai Chota sa (Roja, 1992). There is a nod to K L Saigal in the beginning and a reverential bow to Ae Mere Vatan ke Logo in the end (though truth be told, I have never found it to be a great song.) In between, all the expected greats make an appearance, from Aayega aane wala to Lag ja gale to Dum Maaro Dum. though some get edited out, the major lapses being that fine lyricist Rajinder Krishan and music director Sajjad Husain.
Story behind the songs
Bhattacharjee and Vittal have formidable credentials to undertake this exercise. Their book on R D Burman was a well-researched work, with a good mix of fanboy enthusiasm and dogged enterprise. They don’t talk just about the song, but what and more importantly who is behind it. The ragas, the blending of east and west, the musicians, all are unearthed with great care and affection. They have a special regard for the unknown instrumentalists who toiled away in the studios to give that special touch to a song but never, till recently, got any attention. If you want to know the story behind each song, this is the book you must read. The two writers have travelled far and wide and tracked down not just the musicians but also the music directors and if that was not possible, their progeny, to put together some charming anecdotes that bring the song alive. For instance, the chapter on “Allah tero naam” tells us that M S Subbulakshmi was rumoured to be the first choice to sing it and also informs that the an extra stanza was recorded for the film. There are is a delightful chapter on Kai baar yun bhi dekha hai Salil Chowdhury’s lovely number from Rajnigandha. The book is full of trivia, but the writers also show deep understanding of the technicalities of music.
The writers seem to be somewhat predisposed to songs of contemplation and melancholy, otherwise how to explain numbers such as “Zindagi ka safar” or “Zindagi, kaisi hai paheli hai”, both serviceable songs but hardly in the great category. Classical music seems to be another preference. Some songs have novelty value; “Main hoon jhumroo” seems to have got in because of the yodelling rather than any intrinsic quality—if Kishore Kumar the composer had to be included, I would much rather have added “Jin raato ki bhor nahin” from Door Gagan ki Chaon Mein. Similarly, if at all one token cabaret number had to make the list, why not the far superior, “Aaj ki raat” from Anamika instead of “Piya tu ab to aaja” from Caravan?
When the occasional gem pops up, it is a pleasant surprise indeed. “Jaag dil e deewana” from Oonche Log is one such, as is “Tum jo mil gaye ho” from Hanste Zakhm, a bluesy number and one of the most complex compositions in Hindi cinema. This is no reflection on the rest of the list; it’s just that often the “wow” factor is missing—these two mavens have on the whole preferred to be safe than sorry. (On this note, using a still from Tere Ghar ke Saamne on the cover is inexplicable, since no song from the film makes the cut.)
But hey, it’s their list and we can at best disagree with it, complain about it and argue. Which is what makes it fun. Everyone has their own preferences, so the best way to see if your songs made the cut is to pick up the book and smile or fume as the case may be. The writers warn in the beginning of the book that there will be heartburn, but for the most part, I found myself humming some terrific numbers.
Here are six of the 50 classic songs from the book:
2. Chori Chori
3. Oonche Log
4. Amar Prem
5. Hum Kisise Kum Nahin