A memorable song, especially a film song, has a magical quality. Like a successful advertisement, it lingers in one's mind for years and even decades subliminally; so when we listen to it after what seems like an eternity, we are instantly reminded of every possible memory associated with it. Like a photograph evolving into coherence when submerged in fluid in the dark room, the memory of a song soon develops into a fully realised image of not only a specific incident or situation but also a sense of time and place vividly restored in a flash.
The time was 2009, the place, inevitably, was my own Bombay, the city where I had been born and brought up and the situation, inevitably, was one of our momentous family trips on weekends from Andheri, where we have lived for the last three decades, to the Bombay of the past, the part that we call South Bombay and a far cry, with its majestic Art Deco buildings, pavement bookshops, rope walkers, old restaurants and the glittering lights of the Marine Drive at dusk, from the concrete jungle of the suburbs. The Sea Link, bridging the disparate islands of Bandra and Worli, had been just opened to commuters but to my inexperienced eyes, it was as if like a new monument that our city could boast about. Being the month of July, when it rains without respite, the grey, grim clouds swarmed over the skyline of the looming buildings cloaked in the haze but nothing could dampen our spirit of enthusiasm. As our family car, then a silver Santro washed clean of its grime and dust, cruised smoothly on this new bridge, the song that played inside the car from the sputtering radio was one that fitted the occasion perfectly – a fast, foot-tapping song with words, immortal words about walking on bridges of seas and having a whole city beneath one's knees.
It is not every day that one hears a dance song as profound and poetic as 'Dhan Te Nan', a song that altered, forever, our conception of what a dance song should be with its sensational arrival in our music charts. I still remember the day when I first heard its opening tune, a repeated four-note introduction that seemed to be crammed with danger and menace and yet carried a seductive promise of stolen glory, something irresistible and possibly illegal. As that tune then blends with a swirling riff that rotates in circles, spinning like a roulette wheel, we are instantly hooked and we have not even heard the words that make this song even more special.
Popular music, especially dance music, has no need to be this particularly "deep" or even "ingeniously composed". Of late, most of our dance songs ruling the charts have been, regrettably, lazy remakes of the songs that had worked so well in the past few decades. Ideally, for long, the best kind of dance music in films would be a hummable enough melody that would make the listener bop his or her head along to its rhythm; lyric or musical skill hardly ever mattered. And we would also be content with these things even if it would be recycled out of some song that was on the charts back in England or America, or, as evidenced largely in the last decade, some chartbuster in Korea or some other Asian market. Dhan Te Nan burst in with a bang, true to its title, and proved that dance music could be unforgettable music too.
Of course, it is hardly worth wondering; this was after all a song composed by Vishal Bhardwaj, one of our most accomplished film directors who also composes his own music with equal skill and versatility and, of course, Gulzar, arguably the greatest living Indian poet that we can claim for our own and also the most prolific and inventive lyricist in an industry teeming with mediocrity. They have both worked in tandem before and after Kaminey, a film which also boasts of, apart from its uniquely thrilling style of broad comedy and brutality and its realism in acting and storytelling, of music that matches the authenticity without losing its melodic grace. But on other occasions, the result has always been something like a higher form of musical art. With Dhan Te Nan, the director and the poet have achieved something with a poetic sensibility that would resonate with the gritty life of the underside of Bombay without ever losing its artistic finesse. It should be remembered here that instead of Dick Dale's Misirlou which is often cited, the real inspiration for Dhan Te Nan would be more appropriately the haunting flanging riff of R.D Burman's overlooked classic Dhanno Ki Aankhon Mein, a song which too was written by Gulzar himself.
As in that song, an audacious blend of an experimental, never-heard-before technique inspired by Western music and a realistic perspective in the lyric come together seamlessly to tell a story, to evoke a resonant feeling of emotions and desires that are all too commonplace and plausible. One even remembers how Gulzar, also directing the film Kitaab, complimented the interwoven perfection of sophistication and simplicity. The scene of the song follows the journey of its knee-high protagonist sitting on the top of the coal-guzzling train that chugs to its destination and skilfully fuses a parallel story of a coal stoker singing about the woman whom he loves and about her beauty which is in his eyes something to be treasured and remembered like that of Layla and Heer. In the relentless loop of its flanging sound, the song creates an aural rhythm of a train jangling on tracks; in Burman's operatic crooning, we hear a heartfelt sound of romantic yearning, a truer, if possible, sense of longing that what is normally to be found in the conventional and aesthetically pleasing idea of romance in our films.
Coming back to the newer song, one is astonished even now to find just how masterfully it accomplishes this purpose of conveying emotions and feelings without ever making them sound a mouthful, Gulzar's words – about the best-laid plans that can break vaults of good luck, plans that are crammed with danger and death – lend Bhardwaj's sinister melody not only a poetic weight but also a sly sense of wit. And even with such profound depth, this is still, twelve years after it first played inside a speeding car in the rain in Bombay, a dance song unlike any other.