A great film music theme lies somewhere between instant familiarity and not being able to put your fingers on it. There are many instances in Hollywood and foreign language films: from Psycho to Cinema Paradiso, from The Godfather to Kill Bill, from Star Wars to The Dark Knight.
Hindi cinema, by virtue of its song-driven musical format, doesn’t have much of a tradition of theme music. But with songs losing their importance in the narrative, with more emphasis on background score, that seems to be changing. Last week, the theme music of Shoojit Sircar’s October, composed by Shantanu Moitra, was the first track from the film to be released.
Here’s a list of memorable themes from Hindi films — a whistle, a hum, a sweep of orchestra — that have stayed long after we’d left the screens.
Sholay (1975) – R.D Burman
The big daddy of all Hindi film music themes. R.D. Burman creates a medley of instruments that showcases his unpredictability — bongo, acoustic guitar strums, saxophone, a tribal string instrument, flute, tabla and dholak — for this “curry western“. The infectiously hummable whistle has the epic-ness of Ennio Morricone The Good, the Bad and the Ugly theme. 40 plus years on, it shines with inventiveness.
Bombay Talkie (1970) – Shankar Jaikishan
I’ll cheat a bit here. This Merchant-Ivory production starring Shashi Kapoor is not a Hindi film in the strict sense. But the theme by Shankar-Jaikishan plays like a tribute to the melody of the Hindi film song: A gentle male tu-du, clean, simple strokes of the sitar, a flute. It would’ve got lost in obscurity if it wasn’t for Wes Anderson, who used the piece, years later, in his India-set The Darjeeling Limited. Who would’ve thought?
Don (1978) – Kalyan-Anand
Knock, knock. “Yes? Who is it?,” says a campy voice. “Don,” comes the baritone response … The funky beats kick in, synths and trumpets join, to create one of Hindi film’s most iconic signature tunes. Kalyan-Anand’s stylish, pulpy theme is Bollywood’s equivalent of the James Bond theme. It has had quite an afterlife: making its way into the perfectly named “Bombay: The Hard Way Guns, Cars and Sitars”, an album by producer Dan the Automator who remixed the duo’s film music from the 70s.
Bombay (1995) – A.R. Rahman
A.R. Rahman’s Bombay Theme had a sense of scale never felt before in Indian film music. It wasn’t just the technology, how large it all sounded. It had a profound universal quality, and it could be the theme in a Hollywood masterpiece. The mournful flute-khanjani is the lull before the storm; it is the big sweep of orchestra that come in the middle that devastates.
Dhoom (2004) – Pritam
Pritam‘s infectious, massy Dhoom theme, used effectively in the film, went beyond it. From the soundtrack of visarjan festivities to mobile ringtones and car horns, it was all the rage when it came out.
Black (2005) – Monty Sharma
A low-key beginning, a floating soprano voice and then the big explosion of the symphony orchestra: Michelle’s theme from Black sounds like the perfect outlet for Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s high-pitched operatic cinema, and it makes you wonder why the hell did Monty Sharma not make more music?
Dev.D (2009) – Amit Trivedi
A ghostly whistle, a lone piano, stray electronic sounds: Amit Trivedi’s phantasmagoric, uncategorizable Dev Chanda theme 2 is one of the lesser appreciated pieces from the National award winning soundtrack. Check out Dev Chanda theme 1 and Trivedi’s meloncholy piano-and-strings theme from Udaan as well.
Barfi (2005) – Pritam
Whimsical and winning, and an unlikely piece coming from the man who created the Dhoom theme. Derivative, yes. Many have pointed at the Amelie-ness, but if anything, it is more “Gardel – Por Una Cabeza”, used famously in the opening sequence of Schindler’s List.
Piku (2015) – Anupam Roy
Made with the shared sensibilities of director Shoojit Sircar and composer Anupam Roy — with Prattyush Banerjee on the sarod — this gorgeous piece sounds like homecoming, Kolkata and all those Satyajit Ray films.