Few genres have pervaded the music of the subcontinent as Rabindra Sangeet. Lest we need a gentle reminder, the song we have sung most number of times in our lives is a Rabindra Sangeet. We call it the National Anthem — of late a matter of contention for being forced down upon people, not because Tagore wanted it that way but due to some kind of warped, forced sense of nationalism imposed by others. And guess what, he had warned us about it all along in his writings about the dangers of patriotism.
National anthem aside, some of the most popular Hindi film songs — be it "Tere Mere Milan Ki Yeh Raina" or "Chhoo Kar Mere Mann Ko"— are straight up imitations of Rabindra Sangeet, intended as a tribute or otherwise. The point being that so all pervasive is Tagore's music that it's already a part of you, even though you may not know it. A synthesis of Hindustani and Carnatic classical, folk music, as well as Oriental and Western, the Tagore songbook is a gift that keeps giving. Naturally, the films have turned to it time and again, right from early Hindi cinema to a recent Bengali film (with the composers either playing by the rules or breaking them, largely depending on which side of 2001 copyright abolition they were made in).
The songs featured in this list range from the obvious to the not-so-obvious to the innovative. More so than anything else, they're subjective.
Rabindra Sangeet came early to Hindi cinema, thanks to the number of Bengali composers working at the time like SD Burman, Pankaj Mullick, Hemant Kumar. This particular song from Afsar is based on one of the most popular Tagore songs — and a personal favourite — "Shedin Dujone." The song evokes imagery of lovers in a moonlit forest, but when you listen to "Naina Deewane," you get a completely different feeling, because the lyrics have been changed, and they mean something else, although it's still a love song: a signature SD Burman number with a strong element of folk music and the tempo speeded up. What really changes the personality of the song is the vocals of Suraiya — one of the last of Hindi cinema's singer-actor superstars — who infuses it with the kind of nasal crooning style that was synonymous with the sound of cinema music of 40s and 50s.
Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak are considered opposites in terms of sensibilities, but they're bound by a shared admiration for Tagore. Ghatak once said of Tagore, "I cannot speak without Tagore. That man has culled all my feelings before my birth." The sequence in Meghe Dhaka Tara, where Shankar (Anil Chatterjee) and Nita (Supriya Devi) sing "Je Raatey Mor Duarguli," is claustrophobic and carry the stamp of Ghatak's style: the camera angles radical and the tone melodramatic. Sung by Debabrata Biswas and Geeta Ghatak, the song acts as a kind of foreshadowing of Nita's fate, as the characters are shown in darkness, with the thatched walls allowing little light.
Tagore songs in Satyajit Ray films are a separate list in itself. And everybody talks about Kishore Kumar's memorable renditions of "Ami Chini Go Chini" in Charulata and "Amar Bidhir Badhon" in Ghare Baire. Lesser known is the way the haunting "Baje Koruno Shurey" is placed in Monihara — Ray's adaptation of Tagore's gothic horror short story. Ruma Guha Thakurta sings in the traditional style — with the turn of phrases and the ornamental flourishes — but it's the lack of a musical accompaniment that makes it stark, sad, and somewhat eerie.
It's amazing how many directors have shown Rabindra Sangeet being sung in plain voice, without any music— particularly true for Bengali directors who find it natural to show characters sing a few lines in their everyday surroundings. A great director like Rituparno Ghosh — obsessed with Tagore songs — would use it as a key murder mystery plot point in his Miss Marple adaptation. There's a lot going on in this scene, and one of them is Sharmila Tagore's yesteryear actress being moved to tears and reminiscing how she never used glycerine in her shoots — she would simply play "Jibono Moroner Shimana Chharaye." Heard in the film in the sonorous, open voice of Monomoy Bhattacharya.
The lifting of Visva Bharati's copyright over Tagore's works in 2001 meant that filmmakers and composers were now free to experiment with Rabindra Sangeet. What are the odds that one of the first composers to do so was AR Rahman? For Shyam Benegal's Subhash Chandra Bose biopic, Rahman created an entirely new composition while retaining the chorus, with lyrics by Javed Akhtar capturing the essence of the original — Tanha Rahi Apni Raah Chalta Jayega. It's got some of the epic sweep of a Rahman composition, but the touch of genius is to get Nachiketa Chakraborty sing next to Sonu Nigam — two superstar singers from two different industries who are as different as they are similar.
Around the same time came this song, with a similar approach of incorporating a famous Rabindra Sangeet into a new Hindi composition — a Sonu Nigam-Shreya Ghoshal duet, picturised on Saif Ali Khan and Vidya Balan. It starts off with the chorus "Phoole Phoole Dole Dole" (adapted by Swanand Kirkire with minimal change into "Phool Phool Bhanwra Dole"), becomes a soul-shattering performance on the piano, and beautifully lands back on Tagore's original chorus line — a demonstration that the composer, Shantanu Moitra, has a genuine feel for the genre.
As if freed from the shackles of years of restrictions on what you can do and cannot do with Rabindra Sangeet, Neel Dutt's irreverent, fun take on "Pagla Hawa" in The Bong Connection went all the way. Starting with the blasphemous Ooh Lalas (by an extra spunky Shreya Ghosal), fast beats, and improvisations on the percussions, the song's trump card is however Nachiketa's masterful entry in the Sanchari segments of the song: you have to listen to the way he plays with each word, by shifting between two contrasting notes. It's almost mischievous.
A continuation of the streak of experimentation with Rabindra Sangeet, "Ekla Cholo" from Kahaani combines Amitabh Bachchan's voice with an R'n'B/soul sound. Vishal-Shekhar add English verses (sung by Clinton Cerejo), vibey vocal harmonies, and suddenly intersperse Hindi. It's an interesting combination, because the profoundness of the message and Bachchan's baritone are offset by the light arrangement.
The best Rabindra Sangeet is characterised by the perfect marriage of melody and lyrics. But when you take out the words, and the melody is all that is left, you see why Tagore was a great composer. This instrumental of "Tumi Robe Nirobe" from Bela Seshe, played on the esraj (by Shubhayu), is melancholy and aching. That the film centres on Soumitra Chatterjee and Swatilekha Sengupta — seen together for the first time on screen since Ray's Ghare Baire — at the winter years of their life, adds another layer of poignancy.
Srijit Mukherji's Chotushkone came out in 2016, but this version of "Chirosokha He" harks back to a time when all Rabindra Sangeet was traditional and done by the book. What makes it special is that it has been made to sound like an old recording, adding a ghostly, grainy quality. What makes it divine is Srikanto Acharya's voice—velvety, handsome, and the kind they just don't make anymore.
"Hriday Amar Prokash Holo," Paromitar Ekdin (2000)
"Jokhon Porbe Na Mor," Aalo (2003)
"Jagorone Jay Bibhabhori," Ranjana Ami Ar Ashbona (2011)