Delhi folk rock band Indian Ocean may well be wondering why filmmaker Anubhav Sinha didn’t come to them for the soundtrack of Bheed (2023). The film deals with stories of everyday people’s suffering during the Covid-19 lockdown, with a particular focus on the tragic plight of daily-wager labourers who struggled to make their way home to villages. Indian Ocean, whose folk-inspired music has often included socio-political commentary, would have been a neat fit for the score. However, Sinha teamed up with composer Anurag Saikia, who has collaborated with Sinha in the past.
Saikia delivered the brilliant, yet underrated “Piya Samaye”, sung by Shafqat Amanat Ali and Arshad Hussain for Mulk (2018). Sinha and Saikia also worked together again for Article 15 (2019), where the composer established that he is capable of scoring a more straightforward film song like the traditional ballad sung by Armaan Malik. But it was the feisty “Kahab Toh”, sung by Sayani Gupta for the same film, where Saikia seemed to find himself, at home in the rural folk music tradition of Bihar.
Perhaps the most fitting predecessor to “Herail Ba”, from the soundtrack of Bheed, is “Bambai Main Ka Ba,” the Bhojpuri rap song sung by Manoj Bajpayee and released in the middle of the lockdown in 2020. With a video directed by Sinha, the track has music by Saikia and lyrics by Dr. Sagar, who has also written “Herail Ba.” The quirky punchlines and sharp lyricism articulate the anguish faced by workers from Bihar in a big city like Mumbai without sensationalising the hardships.
For “Herail Ba,” Saikia roped in folk music idol, Om Prakash Yadav, whose keening vocals evoke the migrant workers’ sun-scorched journey of crossing state lines by foot. The minimal instrumentation lets the lyrics and vocals shine. The crushing reality of the lyrics — “Khunwa pasina sheheriya main bahiya/ Kaudi ke bhau mein bikail ba/ Chal ud chal suguna gaonwa ke var/ Jahan maati mein sona herail ba (In the city, my sweat and blood/ Are sold for coins/ Let us fly, oh parrot, towards our village/ Where there is gold sprinkled over mud)” — hit as hard as any blues anthem.
In the light of his song having gained such a following, lyricist Sagar made the argument that Bhojpuri should be accepted in Hindi film music just as Punjabi is. Bhojpuri, in fact, has long made a place for itself in Hindi film music. Be it in the Fifties’ classic “Rasik Balma” written by Hasrat Jaipuri for the film Chori Chori (1956), or in the Sixties, for the song “Piya Tose Naina Laage Re,” written by Shailendra for Guide (1965), you find the lyricists have borrowed from Bhojpuri. Both tracks sung by Lata Mangeshkar remain unforgettable. Perhaps Bhojpuri would have been as ubiquitous as Punjabi had it not been relegated to second place by the way native speakers of Bhojpuri are viewed by India's dominant elites. In a paper titled ‘A Marginalized Voice in the History of Hindi’, published in 2013 by Cambridge University Press, research scholar Aishwarj Kumar writes how Bihari languages including Maithili and Bhojpuri were dismissed in favour of Hindi and by early 20th century, Hindi earned the status of a standardised language in the state. The main agenda, was of course, to erase Urdu from courts and classrooms, but Bhojpuri bore the brunt of this language war in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.
Elsewhere in the country and the world, Tamil speakers have the resistance movements against the idea of ‘one nation-one language’ to thank when they listen to “Aga Naga”. The A.R. Rahman track for Ponniyin Selvan - Part 2 (PS-2) has superlative lyrics by Ilango Krishnan, formerly an editor with Tamil news daily Dinakaran. For the scores of both PS-1 and PS-2, Krishnan has written in Manipravalam Tamil, an 18th century script that draws from different languages including Tamil, Malayalam and Sanskrit. Rahman maintains the soundscape of PS-1 and directs a phenomenal string section to drive “Aga Naga”. Vocalist Shakhtishree Gopalan, who previously rendered the soulful love song “Nenjukkule” from Kadal (2013, also scored by Rahman), is a sound choice for “Aga Naga”. Gopalan’s vocals are atypical, straying away from the high-pitched tonality that is associated with film playback singing and move towards the bold-as-brass quality that blues and jazz singers are known for. The Hindi version has Shilpa Rao, yet another peerless vocalist who has the chops to do justice to the track.
Another unusual playback singer — but one that perhaps the world could have done without — has been credited on “Jee Rahe The Hum,” from the Salman Khan starrer, Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan. If you, for a moment, think that the singer sounds unbelievably like Khan, you better believe that Khan has indeed sung the track. The pieces of the puzzle fall into place and you now know what a song sounds like when the singer is yawning through it. You’re yawning by the end of it as well.
If mindless mirth is what you’re in the mood for, then “Tere Pyaar Mein” sung by Arijit Singh and composed by Pritam for Tu Jhoothi Main Makkar (2023) is your new Zumba jam. Much like the film, the music offers a suspension from reality, where you can bury your head in the sand to avoid all conflict, political or otherwise. Tune in, drop out.