I’ll admit I’m not as much into Hindi film music as I used to be – blame it on age, or the scarring experience of accidentally hearing a song from the sequel to Hate Story IV. Fearing that I might miss out on something while compiling this list, I went through the Top Twenty Playlists in the music streaming sites. I listened to every song. The charts have almost nothing in common with my list.
There are a scary number of remixes. There is a remix of a song from the year I was born (“Gazab ka hai yeh din”), there is a remix of a song from when I was six (“Urvashi,” “Ghar se nikalte hi”), eight (“Aankh Maare”), nine (“Mundiya toh Bachke Rahi”), twelve (“Dil Tote Tote Ho Gaya”). Heck, they even remixed a song from when I was seventeen (“Aashiq Banaya Aapne”). At this rate, soon my entire life will be a remix. I read somewhere that the pop music charts of a country are reflective of the ‘national condition.’ What do the music charts, then, say about us? Does it go on to prove the recent report that said India is the most depressed country in the world? Is our current political and economic slump linked to the creative bankruptcy in Hindi film music? Why are our cricketing icons and favourite movie stars turning out to be such douchebags? Could a remix of “Aashiq Banaya Aapne” not have been avoided?
It’s not just the remixes, but they are symptomatic of larger crisis in Hindi film songs today: a laziness, a tendency to recycle and rehash, and get away with it. The music label-big studio machinery make shiny music videos, rig the numbers on YouTube, play them in PVR washrooms, and make self-proclaimed hits in the process. Compiling a list of best songs hasn’t been easier, and more difficult. Easier – because there were not enough exciting music; difficult – because there were not enough exciting music.
Here are the top ten songs of 2018, ranked:
10. Binte Dil (Padmaavat)
Arijit Singh does what is generally expected of an actor – completely transforming into a character. With his wild inflections, and well-pronounced Persian-sounding lyric, he inhabits Malik Kafur, Alauddin Khilji’s androgynous man-slave performing in front of his master as he makes love to one of his women. How does a popular singer switch to an androgynous voice? Singh’s singing is mysterious, smoky and his vocal tricks, beyond a point, are impenetrable. The song plays out like an erotic fever dream, mashed-up with our memories of Arabian Nights. It’s one of the great singer-performances – if there is such a thing. And it couldn’t have come at a better time, when everyone, and not just the singer himself, has started to sound like Arijit Singh.
9. Dhadak Title Track
It’s difficult to hold a candle to the awesomeness of the “Sairat title song” – that piece de resistance interlude, the joyous singing, the wild, rustic-ness of it all. With the “Dhadak Title Track” Ajay-Atul handle a situation unique to Indian cinema – working on the Hindi remake of a Marathi film they had composed for. They could’ve taken the short-cut and gone the same route as in the rest of the album – substituting with new, Hindi lyrics and singing, retaining everything else. But something about replacing the word Sairat with Dhadak and expecting the rest of the composition to remain undisturbed seems off. A remake with a new title needs a new…title song. The composers do a superb job in the way it evokes the spirit of the original, with goose-flesh inducing chord shifts and a winning hook. I’m not so hot on the Shreya Ghoshal portions – they are too…demure. But Ajay’s singing is enjoyable as ever, a touch of SP. Balasubramaniam, going in unpredictable directions. It is its own thing and still very much in line with the duo’s signature sound: lush, original, big.
8. Chaav Laga (Sui Dhaga)
Anu Malik’s reputation for lifting tunes sometimes eclipses his flair for conjuring up the purest melodies. Even as the world of film music changes, and changes, he seems blissfully unaffected, continuing to peddle tunes by singing them out to directors and singers on his harmonium. Does it have place in today’s world? Sharat Katariya who put Malik’s tunes to smart use in the 90s throwback Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), does it again – at least in this song from his new film Sui Dhaga. It’s a winsome duet, and the song’s choreography is beautifully in sync with the swaying rhythms of tabla-dholak. It’s the unlikeliest collaboration in Hindi film music in a long time – the team of “Moh Moh Ke Dhaage” from Katariya’s earlier film – with Varun Grover supplying unusual words, and a gravelly Papon, both of whose musical universes are far removed from Malik’s.
7. Naina Da Kya Kasoor (AndhaDhun)
When a composer is dealing with the sound of a musical era, the line between copying and homage becomes thinner. Amit Trivedi has a preternatural ability to walk the tightrope (Bombay Velvet, Lootera). He subtly, uncannily evokes a certain type of Hindi film song, and specifically a song, in “Naina Da Kya Kasooor.” You won’t be able to tell at first – it’s a lively, happy Amit Trivedi number – but think about it and it is a clever take on “O Mere Sona Re.” The song is from Teesri Manzil, one of the Vijay Anand-directed noirs from the sixties that AndhaDhun’s director Sriram Raghavan keeps referencing to. This intertextuality is perfectly in sync with a film that is its director’s own macabre love letter to the golden oldies.
6. Ae Watan (Raazi)
The wave of aggressive jingoism and its normalisation of late has been so off-putting that I wasn’t sure if I’ll be able to like a new song that is ‘about loving your nation.’ But “Ae Watan” from Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi – composed by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, with lyrics by Gulzar and sung by Arijit Singh – has a moving sincerity about it, like a school-prayer. The softness in the singing, the gentleness in the arrangement and the chorus reflect this quality. There is a “Female Version,” which is shown being sung in the film by Pakistani children on their annual day celebrations, and which begins with lines by Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet. Sometimes, context is everything.
5. Chonch Ladhiya (Manmarziyaan)
Punjabi, bastardised by Bollywood since forever, hasn’t sounded this sweet in a while. I’m a melody-over-lyrics person, and Amit Trivedi has tuned this one dreamily, but I can’t imagine the song without Shelle’s beautiful rhymes and wordplays, which are firmly rooted in the language and place of the film; one of the lines in the song go Satluj mein ikk samundar naache (A sea dances in the Sutlej)… Notice how Trivedi and Shellee work together around the Yaad Teri Vich, hich hich hich… line, breaking hichki into several hichs, and emulating a ‘getting-stuck’ effect, before completing the word in the next line. It’s an evocation of the Indian adage that if you are hiccuping someone is probably thinking about you. Jazim Sharma and Harshdeep Kaur sing like they are blushing. It’s a perfect marriage of form and content, lyrics and melody.
4. O Meri Laila (Laila Majnu)
I’ll cheat a bit here and put two songs in a slot for one. If you find the excesses of the the original “O Meri Laila” too Bollywood for your taste – the interludes are a bore – check out the more casual “Radio Edit” version. Assamese musician Joi Barua, who has composed the song, reprises it with the kind of raw, imperfect playfulness composers bring in when they sing their own tunes. With a nice touch of self-restraint, he tones down the hook, which is the most irresistible thing about the original – sung by Atif Aslam with euphoric energy and his knack for nailing high-pitched melodies. It’s a strange kind of musical double bill – each one make you crave for the other a little bit.
3. Hafiz (Laila Majnu)
A Hindustani rock number gradually launching into a Sufi madness, “Hafiz” plays out like a spiritual successor to the anthems from Rockstar. Broadly speaking, it terms of sound it is nothing new. But it has a terrific energy and compositional tightness. The slaying, quick sound of the zitar is followed by children singing Kashmiri folk song Hukkus Bukkus. Mohit Chauhan is in familiar territory, but for a song like this his manic, romantic singing is irreplaceable. ‘Hafiz’ (the firm believer) and ‘Kafir’ (the non-believer), Irshad Kamil’s wildly evocative lyrics say, are the same thing. They are mirror images, and so are Laila and Majnu (Main asal mein tu hoon, Teri nakal nahi). The composition plays with this duality, echoing lines, cyclically returning to where it had began. All the while, composer Niladri Kumar’s soundscape gives the song a sense of a ticking time bomb – like the doomed lovers of the film, for who death awaits.
2. Bol Ke Lab Azad Hai (Manto)
Sneha Khanwalkar draws rich semi-classical melody and orchestration from the politically potent Urdu poetry of the 1940s. This is a stirring composition on Faiz’s poem on freedom of expression for a film on Manto – never more timely. Rashid Khan, with his deep, weighty voice and Vidya Shah’s thumri-styled singing are perfect. But it’s the arrangement which reveals something new every time I go back to the song. Violins and clarinets, percussions and mouth percussions play off each other wonderfully, as if in a private session of an intimate four-piece chamber orchestra. There is some inspired harmonium, and I love the big sounding cellos, that give the song a sense of constant urgency. Khanwalkar’s programming has always been masterful, and here she does something remarkable. The first thing you hear in the song – the strains of an off-the-string viola – is around the 8 second mark. Before that there is silence. What can be a more apt beginning for a song that ends with these lines Bol jo kuch kehna hai keh le?
1. Paintra (Mukkabaaz)
As though written in a fit of rage – which it was, by lead actor Vineet Kumar Singh, with lyrics by rapper DIVINE added later – Nucleya’s visceral, furious “Paintra” sounds like a voice from the margins that has finally found an outlet. As far as I can think, it is also one of the first Hindi film songs in which the rap verses are the mainstay, and not fillers. In the film it is the soundtrack to which Singh’s boxer, whose real fight is against the caste-system, trains in the ghats of Benaras. It’s Anurag Kashyap’s idea of a ‘motivational song,’ with references to cow vigilantism. The song is performed by DIVINE, who has brought a street-level grit to the mainstream hip-hop scene loaded with bling. His water-tight, aggressive rapping is complemented by Ravi Kishan’s droll commentary. Nucleya fills it up with noise – trumpets, horns, big drums, a visarjan band on acid – pushing the buttons till it explodes into the most satisfying musical climax of the year.