Hindi cinema — and Indian mainstream cinema in general — is not background score friendly simply because it’s a song-driven film music culture. So, the more song-less a film is, the purer the score. What we think of as ‘great background score’, however pretty-sounding, is often an extension or reworking of the melodic lines of the songs themselves (case in point: Lootera). There is not much creation, unlike in Hollywood or other cinema cultures, where the score has traditionally held a more important position: whether it’s Ennio Morricone’s thrilling, iconic score for Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy (1964-1966), or Neil Young improvising on his electric guitar for almost the entire length of Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man (1995). Both were reinventing the soundtrack style for the Western genre in their own ways.
We don’t have equivalents — yes, there is a brief history of memorable theme music, but great themes don’t necessarily make for great scores — even more so in Hindi cinema, which excludes the Bengali films of Satyajit Ray or the works of Ilaiyaraja from the South. (Perhaps the decline of songs in Hindi cinema will at least lead to more imaginative background score in the films). That’s why we don’t have a tradition for soundtrack albums either, where you could listen to the score of a film on a cassette or a CD, which means most of the times you have to play the film if you wanted to revisit its background score. With limited time, that becomes a serious hindrance in the selection process, and therefore, my list will have its limitations. I’ve tried to put together a list of films (from the last 20 years) that did something out of the ordinary in the context of Hindi film.
Black Friday, Indian Ocean
One of the rare instances of a band composing for a Hindi film, the background score of Black Friday has Indian Ocean written all over it—the Indianness of the guitar playing style, the familiar voices of Asheem Chakravarty and Rahul Ram blending into the soundscape. The predominant genre is jazz, which adds a great deal of mood, and also perhaps alludes to Bombay’s jazzy history as we are taken through the different stages before and after the blasts of ’93. Anurag Kashyap’s first feature film was an indicator of his unconventional approach to film music—”Bandeh” was a big hit, but the soundtrack is largely instrumental-driven. Listening to the official soundtrack album, you get the feeling of it being performed live, improvised over one or two sittings while watching clips from the film.
Ab Tak Chhappan, Salim-Sulaiman
If the Pink Panther theme music is drained off the camp and given a deadpan treatment, you might get something like the Ab Tak Chhappan theme— perfect for the wry, absurdist world of a squad of encounter specialists at the centre of Shimit Amin’s feature film debut. It was braver to make a song-less film in 2004 than it is now, and this lean, affecting cop drama has no place for it. Instead we get an equally unfussy, minimalistic score by Salim-Sulaiman — the composer duo were film score specialists during this period, bringing new ideas in a changing landscape of Hindi mainstream cinema — that feature a smattering of Hindustani classical music pieces, cellos and use of silences. The highlight is the evocative sitar passages by Niladri Kumar that underscore that these cops, after all, have a soul and are not just ruthless killing machines.
Swades, AR Rahman
The instantly catchy accordion theme — uncategorisable, unexpected — is perhaps one of AR Rahman’s most widely heard compositions, thanks to its diegetic appearance in the Oscar-sweeping Slumdog Millionaire (as a character’s ringtone that keeps ringing). It would’ve been a pity if it didn’t because it’s missing from the official album, and so are all the other micro beauties that come in between the 7 songs in this 3 hour 30 minute film: from the fun, techno ‘Easy Listens’ from segments when the protagonist, Mohan Bhargava, is at NASA, to the madly inventive folk stuff when he comes back to the village, the Swades score includes instruments as wide ranging as Carnatic violins and hang-drum.
Farhan Akhtar’s Lakshya is scored like a Hollywood war movie, with sweeping symphony orchestra and leitmotifs. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy have a feeling for piano-driven melodies — Kal Ho Na Ho! — and they came up with a gorgeous instrumental: the melancholy “Separation”. But the piece de resistance is the exhilarating electric guitar riffs that appear in a rock-climbing sequence in the war portions of the film. I remember watching the film at a now defunct single-screen in Kolkata on a Saturday afternoon and I remember how the music elevated the scene: it jumped out at you (and didn’t really stay in the ‘background’). No wonder that the composers — and the filmmaker — couldn’t resist using it as the foundation for the Rock On! title track.
Black, Monty Sharma
A Sanjay Leela Bhansali film without songs is unthinkable. And yet there was Black, which had no songs (barring a promotional one), but it had a score that expresses his manic, operatic vision. Before he took charge of the music of his own films from Guzaarish onwards, Bhansali used to channel his inner music through Monty Sharma — a damn fine composer (Saawariya) who had a short-lived career. His Michelle’s Theme is a transcendental explosion of the symphony orchestra that matches the extreme intensity of Bhansali. The rest of the score has a kind of muted, oppressive monotony in the way it sticks to a select few symphonic elements, perhaps to go with the mental state of the blind and deaf protagonist. But since it’s Bhansali, who has a strong affinity for traditional Indian music, you also have strains of tanpura, and soft, fleeting aalaps.
Had Ilaiyaraja worked in Hindi films as regularly as AR Rahman, Hindi cinema would have had a richer history of scores. (The National film awards were late to the party when they recognised the value of the art-form in 2009, and fittingly, the first recipient was Ilaiyaraja). For Indian composers interested in the ways of the symphony orchestra, Raja is the benchmark. Only years of mastery over the form could yield something as joyous and universal as the theme from Paa, played on swirling Celtic violins—every instrument moves like clockwork to create magic. But Ilaiyaraja is also groovy; he mixes it up with bits of electro-funk and synth-pop, and what sounds like the results of tinkering with analogue-era keys.
Many have pointed at the Amelie-ness of the Barfi score, but I’d say they are as similar as any film or piece of music within the same genre—in this case, waltzy ballroom dance routines with a touch of whimsy. (Melodically, the Barfi theme is closer to this Tango piece from 1935 “Gardel – Por Una Cabeza”, but still different enough to be called an original). This type of wall-to-wall accordion-and-cello style of film score is such a rarity that it alone makes Barfi stand out among other Hindi film scores. At once sad and beautiful, rapturous and dramatic, the music and visuals are of a piece. It brought out a different side of Pritam, just like it brought a different side of Anurag Basu.
Trapped, Alokananda Dasgupta
Alokananda Dasgupta’s score for Vikramaditya Motwane’s survival thriller Trapped begins with pleasant strings and woodwinds, flirts with harsh sound design and becomes grander and more epic. Like the protagonist who gets locked inside an apartment for days and has to find ways to survive, the score is creative, sometimes drawing from real sounds of the place, like the last remaining drops of water or the clobbering of metal; in the end what we have is the spiritual journey of the character charted through sound. Dasgupta belongs to a new generation of composers who specialise in scores—she would go on to compose for the TV series Sacred Games—and her pieces for Trapped are refreshingly clutter-free: you can hear the clear, distinct sounds of the instruments.
Tumbbad, Jesper Kyd
A video game composer for a Hindi film? But then Tumbbad is no ordinary Hindi film. It’s a supernatural period-horror-fantasy with a very video game conceit: the main character’s treasure hunt buried in a fortress. The score by Danish composer Jesper Kyd, known for his work in the Assassin’s Creed series, is appropriately immersive, that transports you to a different world even when you’re listening to it separately. It avoids the usual trappings of a horror film soundtrack and instead fills you with atmospheric dread. Keeping with the film’s genre-bending nature, the score changes—from thumping percussions that convey the film’s primal, ancient core, to the mournful cellos that underline its impending, final tragedy.