The Pagglait album has the average run time of a modern-day movie — a little over an hour and a half. And considering Netflix likes to keep its films on the shorter side, it might be that we have an album that's longer than the film. That'll be historic. If it doesn't turn out so, the album is still going down in history: as the second or third Hindi film album to have released the full background score along with the songs in one go.
Which alone is a big win. Hindi film music buffs have long fantasised about such an ideal-world scenario and no one would've placed their bets for it to happen in 2021 (even though, with physical sales going, all it would take to release the score online is some internet bandwidth and little else). Bollywood music had reached its nadir in the past few years; song albums are almost a thing of the past — with producers and labels favouring a singles-driven approach. But something might have changed last year. Some developments pointed at exciting new possibilities — as I wrote in my pandemic year-end list — and the audaciousness of the Pagglait album is something of a result of that. It is not only Arijit Singh's debut as a Hindi film composer, it's also published under his own music label Oriyon Music. This one factor changes everything. Ultimately it's all about how much creative freedom the label allows the composer and in this case, Arijit gets to do things on his own terms (the producers would've obliged, considering the publicity buzz the event would generate).
The music reflects this. You may not love each and every track, but there's no denying that this is an uncompromising labour of love. And there is a lot to love. Arijit is melodically gifted as a composer and his songs for Pagglait mark a return to the Hindi film melody in the age of recycled tunes (much like last year's Dil Bechara). Every song is enlivened by at least one inspired musical phrase. "Dil Udd Ja Re" — the Neeti Mohan version kicks off the album — for instance, pivots on a beautiful melody line ("Khwahishein toh karte hai", Neelesh Misra writes), and "Lamha", my current favourite, sounds as if the songs from Barfi made love with a plaintive Hindi film oldie on a very Goan evening.
Like some of the other songs of Pagglait, the latter has three versions; while it's fruitless debating which one is the best — right now, the Antara Mitra-Arijit Singh, version, with its mellow, Mediterranean vibes, is winning — you wonder if so many reprises were needed. As a result, you have a feeling that some of them are indistinguishable from each other. "Thode Kam Ajnabi" and "Meera's Poem" — reprised as "Radha's Poem" — sound like like-minded cousins, or maybe that's the point: the album is classical in the way it adheres to a family of sounds, recurring motifs, callbacks.
The B-side (the background score half of the album) is all soundscape. This is where things get really experimental. Like really. Electronic tinkering abound, along with a flute that recalls Ravi Shankar's Pather Panchali score… A track runs up to eight and a half minutes
Equally interesting is Arijit's choice of singers, mixing familiar names like Mohan and Chinmayi Sripaada with fresh voices like Amrita Singh and Jhumpa Mondal. Mondal's rendition of "Meera'a Poem" throws you off at first with its trilling high-pitch sharpness, but it's a distinct, unique voice. Can the same be said about the album? Does it have, what we call, a signature sound? An AR Rahman influence looms large and nowhere is this more evident than in "Phirey Faqeera", which could well be a tribute to him. We see Arijit switch to a Rahmanesque singing mode and the song has a kind of Sufi madness, ending with echoes of a demented laugh and furious taans — the playback superstar is also a programming geek and the song arrangements are always interesting, sometimes adventurous.
The B-side (the background score half of the album) is all soundscape. This is where things get really experimental. Like really. Electronic tinkering abound, along with a flute that recalls Ravi Shankar's Pather Panchali score (in the "Desire Makes Reality" track). A track runs up to eight and a half minutes and there's a piece titled "Confusion" that plays like a leaked version of a sound testing for an avant-garde classical performance, complete with atonal distortions and blips. This is not easy listening by any standards and if the album appears overlong and a little all over the place, it's because we aren't conditioned to such radical departures from format. There is a method to the madness, a sense of movement within the album, from top to bottom. Appropriately, then, the last instrumental, "O Beautiful Unknown", callbacks "Dil Udd Ja Re", the first song, bringing a sense of closure.