Vishal Bhardwaj is a composer first and a filmmaker later. His career has already spanned more than three decades, starting with a song in Yaar Kasam (1985), when his tune was repurposed by composer Usha Khanna, to the two songs he has composed for Darlings, the new Netflix film starring Alia Bhatt. His body of work, largely with Gulzar as lyricist, is a vital part of recent Hindi film music history, comprising everything from monstrous hits like ‘Beedi Jalaile’ (from Omkara, 2006, which he directed) to left-of-the-field rock numbers like his compositions for Anurag Kashyap’s unreleased Paanch.
On that note and his birthday, here’s a list of five lesser-heard songs composed by Bharadwaj.
1. Baadalon Se, Satya (1998)
As a composer, Bhardwaj has always had a feel for romantic songs, and it’s evident in the way he’d keep things rather simple. Set to scenes of a shy Urmila Matondkar being romanced by an even more shy JD Chakravarthy from Ram Gopal Varma’s gangster film, the song is like an oasis of relief in the harshness of Bombay. For the track Bhardwaj got Bhupinder Singh back to into the public consciousness after a long hiatus, whose classy yet casual distinctive style calls back to a certain sensibility one associates with a number of Gulzar-RD Burman gems (‘Do Deewane Sheher Mein’, ‘Ek Akela Is Sheher Mein’, ‘Dil Dhundta Hai’). While the bluesy, guitar driven arrangement adds to the song’s lightness of touch, it’s Gulzar’s expression—and the way Bhupinder sings it—that sums up the core essence of being hopelessly in love: “Yeh mujhe kya ho gaya (What has happened to me).”
2. Jab Bhi Cigarette, No Smoking (2007)
Composers who also sing have that little edge over those who don’t when it comes to identifying the right singer for the song. They seem to have a third eye— or ear —for the finer aspects of a voice: The grains, the imperfections. Adnan Sami’s casting in this smoke-hazed club number from Anurag Kashyap’s doomed, surrealist film is all that, and more; a potent combination of cool, jazzy smoothness and rough texture. Sami’s voice is thick and heavy, just like a seasoned smoker’s, mouthing those doomed lines (by who else but Gulzar): “Jab bhi cigarette jalti hai, main jalta hoon. (Every time a cigarette burns, I burn).”
3. Ab Mujhe Koi, Ishqiya (2010)
The ghazal of the Eighties, when the genre made a comeback in a modern form, was a big influence on Bhardwaj’s formative years when he was studying in Delhi University. It makes a comeback here too, in Abhishek Chaubey’s directorial debut, on which Bhardwaj was the composer. Rekha Bhardwaj’s singing has an elegance that accentuates the song’s ghazal-like elements. It’s a beautifully arranged song, with warm, rich guitars by Hitesh Sonik and Clinton Cerejo who are credited as the producers. The moody lead interlude is the kind of passage you are more likely to find in a Coke Studio session, with a live musician being allowed to go on his own reverie, rather than in a Hindi film song, where they generally act as fillers between verses.
4. Sapna Re Sapna, Ek Thi Daayan (2013)
One of the unique gifts of the Vishal Bhardwaj-Gulzar collaborations has been their legacy of children’s songs (‘Jungle Jungle Baat Chali Hai’, ‘Chupdi Chachi’, ‘O Papad Wale Panga Na Le’). You loved them as children, you can see the genius as adults. ‘Sapna Re Sapna’ from Ek Thi Daayan (2013) reimagines the lullaby, sung from the perspective of an orphan boy. The song soothes you, like a lullaby should, but it also has a haunting quality that extends the subject of the film: This is a story of a little boy, his younger sister, and their father, whose lives will be destroyed by a witch. Sung with an aching vulnerability by child artiste Padmanabh Gaikwad, who sounds like how Bhardwaj might’ve sounded as a child, the song is full of childlike imagery, with the lyrics at one point talking about turning clouds into a bear (‘Bhoore bhoore baadalon ke bhaalu, Loriyaan sunaaye lara ra ru’).
5. Tippa, Rangoon (2017)
A magical mystery tour from the Bhardwaj-Gulzar universe, it’s an example of how the latter’s words powers the former’s music. This is the central thought of the lyrics: Drown into a drop of water on a blade of grass, and you will see the wonders of the universe. (Tagore wrote something similar for Satyajit Ray when he was a child, and I wonder, given the poet’s influence on Gulzar, if it was a homage). As if following suit, ‘Tippa’ fixates on the sound of one word—‘tap’, and goes onto build a joyous number with a kaleidoscopic sense of awe. Filled with wordplay and phrases that bears Gulzar’s signature (‘Tupur tupur naach re nupur paayi, Googly jhinak jhaayi…’), the song has a rhythmic progression that mimics a train in motion, picturised on a dance troupe on its way to perform in wartime Burma.