Heartbreak has a special place in music and breakup songs are a thing. Naturally, Hindi cinema, with its abundance of songs and love stories, is full of them. The problem is when you are making a list. What do you include and what do you leave out? Do you, for instance, look at the timeline of your own history of heartbreaks? It doesn't always work that way. I happened to watch Dear Zindagi in a theatre on the day of my breakup, but that doesn't mean I'm going to include 'Just go to hell, O Dil' from the same—too cheesy, even by my standards. Listed, instead, are 15 songs that my memory threw at random—along with a little bit of research. Think of it as a personal, curated playlist—and not some definitive list—or a breakup themed music listening party where everyone's invited: the obvious and the not so obvious, the tearjerkers and the anti-romantic.
When The Beatles wrote 'Take a sad song and make it better', they probably meant sadder. In Aar Paar, in which two woman fall in love with Guru Dutt, OP Nayyar took the upbeat "Sun Sun Sun Sun Zaalima" and turned it into "Ja Ja Bewafa"—such is the power of the song that today, it's unthinkable that the former came first. Nayyar slows down the tempo as Geeta Dutt works her magic, like a bottle of alcohol on the night of breakup, with reworked lyrics by Majrooh Sultanpuri—so direct—as if coming from a place of ownership and hurt. The audio has acquired a ghostly quality, and the song a new layer of meaning, given the doomed, tormented marriage that awaited Geeta and Guru Dutt.
The ultimate anthem of the broken hearted artist, Sahir Ludhianvi-Mohd Rafi-SD Burman's masterpiece, from Guru Dutt's masterpiece, is a lament, that transforms deeply personal pain into a worldview. Also an artefact of Hindi cinema of the 50s, when poetry, political consciousness and the larger-than-life-ness of movies would intersect, the song has both become synonymous with Pyaasa and has transcended it. One of Rafi's greatest songs—and he has many—the utterance of each lyric considered, careful, the star is, however, Ludhianvi himself, who was channeling his unfulfilled love affair with Amrita Pritam at the time the movie was being made.
No post breakup drinking session is complete without an inebriated Kishore Kumar song, and this one's right up there, comforting many a broken heart since 1972. It's a deceptively simple song that mimics the swaying rhythm of a boat—where the scene is set, starring Rajesh Khanna's businessman and Sharmila Tagore's prostitute—made at a time when the singer and composer, RD Burman, were at the height of their powers. The third force is lyricist Anand Bakshi, who spins deceitfully simple similes and metaphors about a soul perpetually on the edge—while underlining the inherent connection of alcohol and heartbreak: 'Peete hai toh zinda hai, Na peete toh mar jate'.
There hasn't been a line of Hindi film lyric that communicates post-breakup baggage as clearly and beautifully as 'Mera Kuch Samaan, Tumhare Paas Padha Hai'. Part of what makes it so modern is how Gulzar gives us things to identify with: everyday, quotidian objects like saaman, chhatri; part of it is RD's late 80s upgrade in terms of sound and production. Asha Bhonsle—who won a National Award for it, along with Gulzar—has called it her favourite song, because it reminds her of her time with Burman, and it is her crowning jewel, her vocals gleaming like pearls. More than anything, the song is what it says: that sometimes, the way forward is not to flush it away, but keep the memories and accept it in all its poetry.
There's such an understated sadness in the song that its cathartic: the forlorn, stark quality of the melody; KK's stoic singing; the minimalistic arrangement—mournful violins and pan flute. MM Kreem's underrated gem from his sensuous soundtrack of Jism haunts you. Appropriately shot in an empty Pondicherry seaside, its the soundtrack of a journeyman ascetic who has cursed himself into a lifetime of loneliness.
Composed (by Vishal Bhardwaj) largely in the sombre ahir bhairav, the first line is a warning—'Naino ki mat maniyo re'. Gulzar's talking about betrayal, the deceitfulness of the eyes. He makes you think of it as a poisonous snake without actually ever saying it—'Naina thag lenge is close enough to dass lenge. The lyrics just keeping getting better—'Naino ki zubaan pe bharosa nahi aata, likhat padhat raseed na khaata'—and so does Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, who elevates Naina into the realm of gods in the song's final minute, with an insane aalaap.
There is no better outlet for pent-up stuff than rock'n'roll. The Pritam composed Alvida starts off like a sweet rock ballad before smoothly segueing into a punchy crescendo. Niladri Kumar's byzantine guitar riffs are like the tumult of a stormy heart, and KK shoots straight and hard, bohut hard.
If the more popular Brass Band version is a parody, this one's a freakout—that ends with the words 'You Bitch'—as if born out of a sweaty session at a rehearsal pad, rather than a Bollywood composer's air-conditioned studio. Amit Trivedi goes where very few Hindi film composers have gone and there comes a point in the song when things go out of hand—uncontrolled rage becomes controlled screaming, sung by a superb Bonnie Chakraborty, who brings his experience as a former rocker.
You go to a party. The first hour is non-stop dance music. An hour and a few drinks later, you find a dark corner, and this song is playing. Everybody sings along. Everybody is thinking about their exes. Nobody really cares about the lyrics, which are, perhaps appropriately, generic; it's about the feel: a pop-rock weepie that played in a prom night that never happened.
"Fix You" hangover aside, this song makes you think of the countless Bangla rock numbers written on heartbreak. They would often begin with unanswered phone calls and deleted SMSs—'Naa aaye ho, na aayoge, na phone pe bulaaoge'….begins this one. On vocals is Papon, who, with his throaty, bass-heavy singing, communicates both brooding romantic yearning and a satisfying spiralling into anguish.
If you thought that the Emosanal Attyachar (Rock version) was Bollywood breakup song subversion max, spare a thought for "Ja Chudail", composed by Ram Sampath, that makes fun of that type of song with its mock-n-roll, if you may, structure, ironic lyrics (Amitabh Bhattacharya) and Suraj Jagan's spoofily grungy vocals. This is great comedy music, that lampoons the whole tradition of wallowing in self-pity.
Breakup songs come in many forms. For some, this might do the trick—as it did for me, back in the November of 2011, around the release of Rockstar: a devotional song, but really, it's about healing. My favourite part is where the harmoniums make way for the guitars, and Javed Ali makes way for Mohit Chauhan…and the lyrics, oh the lyrics ('Jab kahi pe kuchh nahi bhi nahi thha, wahi tha wahi tha'): Irshad Kamil demystifies mystical ideas with the simplest turn of phrases. Rahman's Sufi offerings are the best kind of therapy.
It's 2015, and Bollywood's experimentation with the breakup song is on full swing. Trust this to pop up in an Imtiaz Ali film that has music by Rahman and lyrics by Kamil, and whose previous collaboration with Ranbir Kapoor was a riff on the Heer-Ranjha romance. This has to be the most light-hearted take on a Hindi film heartbreak, a happy bhangra number, uncharacteristically Rahman, that lets Mika Singh do his thing. Kamil is delightful here, throwing up an unexpected line like 'loo mein jaana mushkil hai'—that's preceded by 'na khaati peeti', and rhyming with the Hindi 'loo'—and surprising phrases like 'utter mad hai'.
This was always on the cards: the journey of the Bollywood breakup song had to culminate in the ubiquitous party number. I'm just glad that it's Pritam at his peppiest best and Amitabh Bhattacharya at his wittiest, in a film by a director with a good ear for music—if you were wondering where is Arijit Singh in this list, your wishes are about to be fulfilled, twice over. It might be a while until we get something this danceable that's also creatively satisfying: Bhattacharya's metric precision and choice of words—'jeevit hua hai cupid tera', 'baasi relationship'—and the winky singing by Arijit and Jonita Gandhi that's full of old-fashioned playback expressiveness.
That we have two songs from the same film is testimony to both Pritam's versatility and Ranbir Kapoor's sadboi quotient—and our conflicted hearts: We need "The Break up Song" as much as we need "Channa Mereya". I know some people dismiss the song as being too sentimental, but if you aren't moved by the opening lines, then you either don't love Hindi film songs, or maybe you should wait for that heartbreak. For me, the song has forever got enmeshed with the visuals—it's as much Arijit Singh's ability to emote as Kapoor's ability to sing lines on screen. But the real star is Bhattacharya; 'Dil ki sandookon mein' recalls Gulzar of "Mera Kuchh Samaan", and 'Zubaan pe swaad' leaves an aftertaste that you keep going back to.