They have been around for more than 20 years and it had never occurred to me that Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy have to be the only trio in the history of Hindi film music composers. And therein lies some of the answers to what defines them. With a vocalist, a guitarist and a synth player, they are like a band. A pop group. Shankar's Carnatic and Hindustani classical roots get a counter point from Ehsaan's indie music credo, with Loy on the keys, who mixes it all up. And yet, despite their band-like anatomy, SEL have done some of the biggest, most mainstream work—"Kal Ho Na Ho", "Kajra Re", "Dil Chahta Hai", you name it. And they have done it their own way, an important entry in the post-AR Rahman, pre-Amit Trivedi narrative of modern day Hindi film music.
Their website lists 68 film albums—and that's excluding Bandish Bandits, which marks their foray into composing for a web series (the critics have described it as an 'East-meets-West' soundtrack) and the first of its kind by any major composer. Here's 20 of their best—excluding non-Hindi and Bandish Bandits—ranked.
The retro sleekness of the Don remake can be felt in its soundtrack too. In the brand new title track, where the composers rework the old theme and create a new; in the smooth-sounding "Aaj Ki Raat" that could well be a portal to a 70s Bollywood of molls and gangsters. In the earthier "Maurya Re"—where the bulbul tarang sends us on its own kind of throwback—SEL gives us a Ganpati song to remember.
I love everything about the title track. The retroish guitar riffs, the lyrics—'bhala kar, toh tera bhala ho'; very Sriram Raghavan—the gruff vocals of Suraj Jaggan, the slightly cheap, and feminine in a very conventional sort of a way, vocals of Smriti Kakkar, that acts as a counterpoint. A most perfect musical distillation of this stylish crime thriller. It might be the only reason why this album is in this list.
SEL have worked within the Sufi and Hindustani classical traditions multiple times, each one different in its own way. Here the songs get their colour from the period and place: a Punjabi village in the raw, unadorned title track, sung by Arif Lohar; a romance at a post partition refugee camp ("O Rangrez"), a song set in a military cantonment ("Havan Karenge"), and the old-timey "Slow Motion Rangreza" with a Colonial hangover, set in a pub in Melbourne. The only contemporary song, "Zinda", is a blazing hard rock number with fire-breathing lyrics by Prasoon Joshi.
2 States had very little going for it, and the music was one of them. The Sufi-esque "Mast Magan" and "Chaandaniya"—soothing—are fine, but the wedding numbers are spectacularly fun. "Hulla re" and "Iski Uski" are not only catchy, but they are also musically playful. And "Locha-E-Ulfat", that starts with a terrific bagpipe hook, is proof that SEL, on a good day, can turn froth into gold.
Is there a sound that's distinctly SEL? Something about guitar-based Easy Listens, Anglicised vocalists singing in Hindi, a fusion of the techno and the semi-classical, it's all there in Karthik Calling Karthik. Special mention to KK's "Jaane yeh kya hua", that unlocks solid Indipop nostalgia.
More than anything else, the album is a singing masterclass. Shafqat Amanat Ali performs furious taans with effortless ease in "Tere Naina". Rahat Fateh Ali Khan and Richa Sharma go full-throttled in "Sajda", a qawwali. And in the cross cultural "Noor e Khuda"—which hovers between country music from Middle America and a Sufi offering—Adnan Sami and Mahadevan complement each other. And if you are up for more, there is Rashid Khan too ("Allah hi Rahem").
When the album had come out, I had just passed out of school, and not cool enough to hate it. But Rock On hasn't fallen from grace because SEL are melodically so strong. Even if the power of the big rock numbers have dimmed somewhat, it's the quiet, soulful songs that linger. "Phir Dekhiye", for instance, sung by Caralisa Monteiro, where the simplest of Javed Akhtar's words and the strum of an acoustic guitar, registers the loudest.
London Dreams has one of my favourite SEL songs, "Barso Re", that begins all distorted guitars and grungy vocals and ends with Roop Kumar Rathod singing Hanuman Chalisa, reaching for the skies in terms of the notes he hits. There is "Khanabadosh", a rhythmically playful number sung by K Mohan, that sounds as though it were improvised by street musicians. The album would've made it to this list on the strength of these two songs alone, even though there is the fabulous bhangra number "Tapkey Masti", and "Khwaab Ko", where we get a Mahadevan-Rahat Fateh Ali Khan jugalbandi.
It must have been tricky to compose an album around the themes of Zoya Akhtar's debut film, which is set around the film industry. SEL offer an assortment. There is the burlesque-like Rajasthani folk number "Baawre", where the musical acrobatics are as dazzling as the video. "Sapno se bhare naina—a semi classical song with an underlay of techno beats—ruminates on the depths of a struggler. The understated "Yeh Zindagi Bhi", sung by Shekhar Rajviani. Even when SEL are doing a pastiche as in "Jab Hawayein Sunati Hai", a straightforward 'Bollywood romantic duet', it's pleasurable and sweet.
There are several sub-genres within the SEL umbrella and one of them is the soundtrack-to-the-South-Bombay-slacker, which is all about good vibes and taking you to a happy place. Laid-back and dreamy, like the Ranbir Kapoor character in the film, the songs of Wake Up Sid are also equally likeable (even if you take out Amit Trivedi's album-stealing single Iktara from it). The lazy vocals and guitars of "Kya Karoon" are charming and "Aaj Kal Zindagi" is soaring and soul-searching.
A neglected, under-appreciated SEL gem. Decidedly different from the sound of Rock On—but not too much—this is grander, and weirder. Shraddha Kapoor makes a fine debut as a singer and the songs sung by her include the spectacular "Udja Re", where the interplay between Kapoor's straight, almost robotic delivery and Mahadevan's classical flourishes complement Javed Akhtar's lyrics: '…Ki ab insaan machine hai banne laga'. The album takes an unexpected turn in "Hoo Kiw/Chalo Chalo", a superb, wild folk-rock number by Usha Uthup and the Shillong band Summersalt; while "Ishq Mastana" is a curious fusion: of bhangra, Sufi and electric guitars that are straight out of a prog-rock track.
The composers build on the Karan Johar template they had previously worked in Kal Ho Na Ho, only gloomier. Some gorgeous melodies ("Tum hi dekho na" and the title track). Some stellar singing (Shafqat Amanat Ali in Mitwa, with a great Mahadevan cameo). This is perhaps SEL at the peak of their powers, nailing the big numbers with effortless ease ("Where's the Party Tonight" and "Rock n Roll Sohniye").
An album that achieves what it sets out to do—that is to provide hit, enjoyable, and memorable, music—with the SEL stamp all over it. You have their deft handling of stars behind the mic in the soulful, light, Flamenco-styled Señorita. "Ik Junoon" is just peppy enough. You have the sunshine pop-rock quality in "Sooraj Ki Baahon Mein' and the breezy, car-drive romantic duet in the boss-nova infused "Khwabon Ke Parindey". I love the music they provide to the poems by Javed Akhtar–their oldest collaborator–in "Zinda Ho Tum", where they are accompanied by melancholy cellos and guitar.
The first half of Lakshya is a slacker film, and the second a war film. SEL go half-fun-half-serious and they excel at both. The hook of "Main Aisa Kyun Hoon" (which is such a bizarro hybrid that I wonder what the brief for it was) sounds like the theme music of an alternate James Bond thriller, while "Agar Main Kahoon" pivots on a piece of music that's straight out of a Chinese martial arts film. The other, sombre half, includes the title track, a stirring 'motivational song' for the ages; the Rahman's Bombay-like "Kitni Baaten", and the elegiac instrumental "Separation".
Steeped in the flavours of Hindi-speaking small town India, SEL and Gulzar deliver a big, splashy and colourful album—characteristics that would go on to define the director, Shaad Ali's future collaborations with the composers and the lyricist. Beginning with "Dhadak Dhadak", that chugs along like the rhythm of a train, and ending with "Kajra Re", that showed Bollywood how to do item numbers the classily. The tagline summed it up perfectly: The cool desi musical.
A melting pot of SEL's subcontinental musical influences, Mirzya is the composers' own private Coke Studio, a laboratory of sounds and experiments. From the light classical recitals of "Doli re Doli" and "Aave Re Hichki", to the theatrical imagination of "Mirzya" and "Kaaga", to the trippy, hypnotic "Chakora", listening to the soundtrack is akin to being treated to a musical kaleidoscope. Like Amit Trivedi's Bombay Velvet, a doomed box-office befell the music of Mirzya, which didn't get the love it should have.
Cut from the same cloth that can be described the 'Shaad Ali-SEL-Gulzar aesthetic', Jhoom Barabar Jhoom finds the composers at their vibrant best. Musical and circus-like, with a touch of the kitschy and the outlandish, it's a shining example of a musically-minded director finding his greatest allies in the composer and the lyricist more than any other aspect of his film. "Bol Na Halke Halke", the popular choice, is great, but it's the title track that gets me every time—'Har baar bachaata hoon main, har baar yeh mar jaata hai, rabba'—and the weird and wonderful "Ticket to Hollywood" the wild card entry.
It's not just the title track, which has joined the hallowed gallery of Hindi film music as one of its timeless tunes. It's the freshness and energy that's injected into the Dharma-Yash Raj variety of a 'shaadi' standard ("Maahi Ve"). The electric guitar riffs in "Pretty Woman". Ehsaan and Loy bringing in some of their experience from their Instant Karma days in the Indipop retro of "Its the Time to Disco", that pulsates with the sweet assault of muffled electronic beats. Kal Ho Na Ho followed the same set of standards as Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (which sounds a little dated in 2020). The difference was Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy.
SEL and Prasoon Joshi convey the state of mind of the film's troubled child protagonist with a nursery-rhyme simplicity. The heavy, emotional stuff is offset with light, acoustic guitar strummed melodies. A complete, satisfying album that ranges from the hymn-like title track to the ad jingle-like "Jame Raho"—look out for the bit where the song, deviating from its military music tempo, breaks into a daydream—to the touching Maa. But I always find myself siding with the unusual "Mera Jahaan", sung by Adnan Sami who's accompanied by a children choir, and the stirring, breezy anthem "Kholo Kholo".
Before Dil Chahta Hai, SEL had done Mission Kashmir, and a couple of other albums. But this is where it all started. And they were experimenting, having fun. For instance, using a didgeridoo at the start of "Jaane Kyun Log Pyaar Karte Hai", a song sequence set in Australia, where the instrument is native to. And there was something about the sound: clear, fresh, like stream water. Something hip. The chorus in the title track, bursting with youth, announced the arrival of SEL as we know it. I remember listening to the album for the first time in vivid detail. There was a family function the night before and I found a cassette with a missing cover lying around the morning after. I picked it up and played it, with no expectations. And I felt the same cliche that we use on our discovery of any great, new music: I had never heard anything like this before.