Those of us who were born towards the end of the twentieth century and were raised on a steady diet of the wonderful music from the black-and-white era of Hindustani cinema are an extremely annoying lot. At even the most fleeting mention of a new song, you’ll hear one of our kind going, “Oh, I don’t know anything about the music these days, I’m afraid.” The ‘I’m afraid’ is out of feigned politeness. The truth is that we take great pride in our taste, which we consider entirely superior to that of the people who have travelled with the times. But the flipside to this is that we hardly have any new music to go gaga over, to gush about to friends, to play 55 times a day in the intoxication of new love. Luckily for us, a few twenty-first century composers have been producing 1950s-style music for their films. These new songs are so imbued with that familiar old-world charm that makes us go back to the era of SD Burman and Hemant Kumar. This article, then, is a celebration of these songs that give us the black-and-white feel in digital clarity, and a playlist recommendation for the many obstinate old souls like me.
‘Ik Bagal’ – Gangs of Wasseypur – Part 1 (2012) (Music, Lyrics and Rendition: Piyush Mishra)
For me, this is the song that stood out from the rest in the electric soundtrack of the two Gangs of Wasseypur movies. This song plays at the beginning of the film, when the era being depicted is the 1940s, the time when KL Saigal ruled the charts in real life. And this song does gently remind one of his ‘So Jaa Rajkumari’, in that particular way of being a hauntingly melodic lullaby.
‘Shauq’ – Qala, 2022 (Music: Amit Trivedi; Lyrics: Varun Grover; Rendition: Swanand Kirkire, Shahid Mallya & Sireesha Bhagavatula)
From Bandini’s (1963) ‘O Mere Majhi’ to ‘Chingari Koi Bhadke’ from Amar Prem (1972), the boat songs of Hindi movies set in Bengal have always been captivating from the first note, transporting the listener to a dreamland where they find themselves rocking back and forth in a gentle rhythm, as one would in a boat oared by a steady hand. And ‘Shauq’ stays completely true to this genre. Swanand Kirkire’s deep vocals may not be a typical hero’s voice, but it has something of that SD Burman-esque folk quality that makes it perfect for this song.
‘Ghodey Pe Sawaar’ – Qala, 2022 (Music: Amit Trivedi; Lyrics: Amitabh Bhattacharya; Rendition: Sireesha Bhagavatula)
Qala is a film about musicians that is set in the 1930s and 1940s, meaning that its music necessarily had to follow certain patterns. And its admirable how its songwriters have woven intricacies from that era into the six tracks. Though different in content and tone, ‘Ghodey Pe Sawaar’ reminds me of Geeta Dutt’s 1947 song, ‘Mera Sundar Sapna Beet Gaya’, because of the language used in the lyrics. The latter uses Hindi words like ‘sundar’ and ‘jeevan’ instead of the Urdu ‘khoobsurat’ and ‘zindagi’ that would become more popular in the following decades. Likewise, ‘Ghodey Pe Sawaar’ has the lyric ‘hriday ke dwaar’ (the door to the heart), which sounds so unnatural today, but would probably not have raised a single radio listener’s eyebrow back in the day.
‘Ab Kya Bataun’ – Manto, 2018 (Music: Sneha Khanwalkar; Lyrics: Seemab Akbarabadi; Rendition: Shubha Joshi)
Manto was a revelation in more ways than one—that stories could be told in such a way; that Rasika Dugal can make you feel things for a person whose existence you’ve just been made aware of; that the film industry is not using the musical genius of Sneha Khanwalkar the way it should. In the film, ‘Ab Kya Bataun’ is performed by Jaddanbai (played by Ila Arun), who was one of the first female music composers in the industry, with a live orchestra. The ghazal is evocative of the kind of parties shown in old movies, where the crème de la crème of Bombay high society clinked their glasses to toast the latest marital or business alliance, all of them the embodiments of the kind of opulence that necessarily coexists with loneliness. Phrases like ‘irfan-e-gham’ and ‘naqsh-e-pah’ is an immediate draw—so much so that I never seem able to skip this track when it pops up on my shuffle playlist.
‘Farsh Pe Khade’ is different from the other songs in this list because, unlike the others, it is from a film set in the twenty-first century, although the film was crafted with a deliberate twentieth-century sensibility. Even so, while its other songs like ‘Yeh Ek Zindagi’ and ‘Love You So Much’ have a 1970s and 1980s disco pop, glitzy technicolour appeal, ‘Farsh Pe Khade’ brings the tempo down to an early 1960s Hemant Kumar feel, reminiscent of ‘Yeh Nayan Dare Dare’ from Kohraa (1964) (as pointed out by a cinephile friend). It is not just the music and the singer’s voice, but the lyrics too, that make the listener nostalgic for what we assume was a simpler time—one that lives, in our distorted imaginations of the past, as ‘thodi si dilkashi, zyada fantasy’.
These films are not, by any means, the only ones set in the bygone era. Many films from Khoya Khoya Chand (2007) to Lootera (2013) have been set in the 1950s, and even boast of wonderful music—it’s just not music of the yesteryear style in the way that the songs mentioned in this article are. These songs were meticulously designed to remind us of the musical masterpieces of our cinema’s past, to make us nostalgic for a time that we—or, for that matter, the songwriters themselves—never knew, that we cannot know and can only guess at. It is the old wine of beautiful music, soulful lyrics and soothing vocals encased in the new bottle that is crystal-clear digital technology. And it is also a welcome slap in the faces of people like me who have little to no regard for ‘the music these days’.