It has been a weird and interesting year for Hindi film music. Or should we call it something else? It’s the year when it was hard to tell a theatrical release from an OTT one. Web series went mass-scale. It’s the year when the title credit music of a show on Sony LIV became a sensation. It could be the theme music for 2020 itself — unpredictable, unprecedented, and something that went viral. It was a better year than 2019, music-wise. More variety, new possibilities, some revisions that were long overdue. The lyricists banded together to get their name on the credit list in music streaming platforms.
Composers and singers went independent and started their own labels. Someone had the cool idea to get Viju Shah do an old-school synth score for a Netflix film. The remixes kept coming. Most importantly, the year has shown that everything can coexist. Traditional albums from AR Rahman and Pritam were like comfort food. More so in a year that needed comforting. We are not going to discuss the philosophical implications of listening to music in such a time but everything was touched by the pandemic, from the listening experience to the consumption.
A year as strange as this deserves a different kind of a look back. No ranking, not even a list of best songs but just things — songs, albums, composers, genres, ideas, themes, in the order of their release.
“Shayad”/”Mehrama”, Love Aaj Kal
Enduring composer-lyricist-director (Pritam, Irshad Kamil, Imtiaz Ali) partnerships surviving seismic changes in the music industry is good news, even if the album falls short of the standards set by past works — in this case Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal and Jab Harry Met Sejal. “Shayad” and “Mehrama” are slow-burn love songs with somewhat off-kilter melodies. Both grow on you. Notice how unusually high the first notes of the singers (Arijit Singh, Darshan Rawal) are. There is some impressive production — like the languid start in “Shayad”, which wraps you in a kind of sound bath of gentle strumming and chirping of birds.
AR Rahman Double Bill
One week into the national lockdown, AR Rahman dropped the entire album of 99 songs, almost as if for a greater cause. The release date of the film is still nowhere in sight, and the decision defies the marketing logic of Hindi music industry to release albums closer to, or after, the film releases.
It set the tone for a year of the Academy award-winning composer going against the current, like dissing the Masakali remix by putting up a picture of a man trying hard to control his anger, on Instagram, or doing uncharacteristic things like taking part in Zoom Call sessions with colleagues and fellow musicians.
That he had been away from Hindi films for four years, but suddenly had two albums in three months is proof that good things can happen in a terrible year. 99 Songs provided much comfort in those initial months, a song for every mood. A love song (“O Aashiqa”) that segues, midway, to something more spiritual. A stadium-rock anthem (“Nayi Nayi”) that sounds like a band that hired pom-pom girls from a Jo Jeeta Wahi Sikander inter-college competition. A jazz number (“Soja Soja”) where the punchline literally translates to ‘Go to bed, it’s late’. A drunk, broken reprise version of the title track (sung by a superb Purvi Koutish). A devotional song (“Sai Shirdi Sai”) that works like medicine.
99 Songs may take its time to grow on you, but Dil Bechara is instantly likeable. And healing in a different way, the soundtrack a fitting sendoff to Sushant Singh Rajput in his final film. The album is like an exquisite bouquet. The groovy title track is unlike anything you have heard from Rahman since Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, and songs like “Taare Ginn” and “Khulke Jeena Ka” boast of amazing vocal harmonies.
Themes from Bulbbul
Amit Trivedi’s knack for theme music pieces produce two memorable themes in the supernatural fairytale, Bulbbul — a song-less chamber piece. “Churail’s Hum” sounds like a tune hummed by a gothic heroine haunting a palace (the voice belongs to the lead actress Tripti Dimri). It’s beautiful, and sad, followed by orchestral flourishes that recall the period Bengal of Lootera. “Satya Meets Bulbbul” is a happier piece, reminiscent of the vocal refrain of one of the Dev D themes, sung in schoolgirlish tones by Lagnajita Chakraborty.
“Bharat Ki Beti”/”Dhoom Dhadaka”/”Rekha O Rekha”, Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl
Good, new patriotic songs in films are hard to come by, maybe because most of them are so full of aggressive jingoism. Gunjan Saxena was an exception, and the song “Bharat ki Beti” is similarly understated, yet stirring. Amit Trivedi’s more than adequate album has more than a memorable song. Sukhwinder Singh is in form in “Dhoom Dhadaka”, an infectiously danceable bhangra number, while “Rekha O Rekha” has the earthiness of Trivedi’s Luv Shuv Te Chicken Khurana days.
Pop goes classical
Could the web series be the unlikely saviour for Hindi film music? I know, I know, Bandish Bandits is a one-off — How many web series are based on Hindustani classical? But Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s album for the Amazon Prime show makes you wonder if composers can find a new refuge in the long-form. For one, it has the advantage of length, and, it might be more open to experiments. “Sajan Bin”, the first track of the album, starts like a Vengaboys song, with soft techno under-throbs, and soon, we are hearing Shivam Mahadevan launch into a proper bandish. The rest of the album shuttles between the pop and classical. Singers include Bollywood playback Armaan Malik and Pt Ajoy Chakraborty, the last great proponent of the Patiala gharana. Topped off by an epic theme music.
The Sweet Sound of Synth
Viju Shah’s keyboard-driven score in Class of 83 is an immediate blast of nostalgia — its more Giorgio Moroder and Miami Vice than Mohra and Gupt but nostalgic regardless. Filmmaker Atul Sabharwal made a canny choice by roping in Shah to do the score for his cop drama set in 80s Bombay. No genre is more associative of the 80s than the synth, and no music director in Hindi cinema is more synonymous with the synth than Shah. Of late, there has been a synth-pop revival internationally as a reaction to the omnipresence of overproduced, generic electronic music, seen in acts like Daft Punk and movies and shows like Drive and Stranger Things. No such luck for fans of Hindi film music, where the themes and subjects don’t lend themselves to the retro futuristic sound. Unless you are making a sci-fi like Cargo, where Sagar Desai’s “Forget Me Not” transports you to a Space Disco costume party.
“Theme”, Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story
The insanely catchy music that plays over Scam 1992’s Mad Men-ish title credits is perfectly in tune with the style of theme music we hear in international TV shows. Part headbanger, part old-school hip-hop, with a vocal shout refrain thrown into the mix, the 1 minute 26 second theme has brought into spotlight the indie musician Achint, whose past work includes fronting a psychedelic rock band, a fusion project with Rajasthani folk singers, and working with AR Rahman and Mikey McCleary. The theme has become popular enough to earn itself a release on Apple Music, and become a soundtrack for workout videos. Don’t be surprised if the DJ starts playing it in the next party.
“Roshni Si”/”Re Baawri”, Taish
A new Bejoy Nambiar film comes with the promise of a good soundtrack, and the Taish album has at least two great songs. Make that three, because the reprise version of “Re Baawri” is a beauty in its own right — stripped down, with minimal pianos, a wailing sarangi washing over Soha Mahapatra’s vocals like late afternoon light. It’s what they call in lay Bollywood terms a ‘sad version’, Nambiar calls it ‘Jahaan Lost in Love’.
The original has a more chill out vibe, featuring smooth semi-classical singing by 16-year-old Prarthna Indrajith and Govind Vasantha, also the composer, and one of the founding members of the Malayalam band Thaikkudam Bridge. Prashant Pillai (Angamaly Diaries, Jallikattu) — who composed some of the trippiest shit in Shaitan — comes up with the spacey, addictive, “Roshni Si”, an electronica track with pulsating beats and flutes, that probably plays in an imaginary rave inside the director’s head. Evidently, the new wave in Malayalam cinema is true for their music as well, and Vasantha and Pillai stand out with their freshness and originality in this multi-composer album.
Another Pritam album, another composer-director team with a working history. If the earlier Pritam-Anurag Basu collaborations were dark (Gangster, Life in a… Metro), and bittersweet (Barfi, Jagga Jasoos), Ludo is feel-good. “Aabad Barbaad” and “Humdum Hardum” are gift-wrapped in happy, upbeat dressing, but take them off and they are classic film melodies. “Meri Tum Ho” is a breeze, but the album’s real surprise may be “Dil Julaha”, which sounds like an Assamese folk standard performed in Hindi in a Nescafe Basement episode. Swanand Kirkire’s lyrics have some of the goofy tomfoolery you expect from Pritam and Basu, and the singer, Darshan Raval, normally associated with treacly romantic ballads, is a revelation.