Composer-lyricist combinations no longer carry the same weight they used to in the classic Bollywood era. While this is largely owing to the fact that we do not have many such prolific teams active any more, there have of course been some notable exceptions. A lot of those unsurprisingly involve veteran lyricists Gulzar and Javed Akhtar, but one that ranks first in that list, both by way of longevity and consistency, would be that of Vishal Bhardwaj and Gulzar. A partnership that began with a bunch of light-hearted TV show themes in the early 90s has since then grown into a formidable force delivering masterful compositions in pretty much every genre in Bollywood. While Gulzar’s genius in this is unquestionable, the partnership gained equally from Bhardwaj’s musical brilliance. What makes Bhardwaj stand out from the rest of his contemporary composers is the fact that he is equally proficient at his other roles – film direction and screenwriting. In fact, he always seems to make sure that the duo delivers the best songs when he is in charge of those other departments as well. The latest testimony to that fact is the brilliantly realised soundtrack of Pataakha. The movie hits the big screens later this month, and we shall know how VB has fared as writer-director this time. In the meantime, I focus on his musical side with a quick look at some of the man’s underrated compositions – mostly with Gulzar, but also a few others.

“Tum Gaye” (Maachis)

Vishal Bhardwaj’s first big movie project was incidentally one written and directed by Gulzar. While singer Hariharan was involved in the soundtrack’s two biggest hits – “Chappa Chappa” and “Chhod Aaye Hum” – his solo act “Tum Gaye” went relatively unnoticed. The arrangement is beautiful, especially in the interludes. The song has an alternate version sung by Sanjeev Abhyankar and Lata Mangeshkar but it is the gravity in Hariharan’s singing that suits the song better.

 

“Ek Woh Din” (Chachi 420)

The Hindi remake of Kamal Hassan’s Mrs. Doubtfire inspired Tamil flick Avvai Shanmughi was most popular, understandably, for Kamal’s female act. The film’s soundtrack, created by Vishal Bhardwaj-Gulzar, was largely aligned to the movie’s comedic nature. This romantic piece was a delightful exception, and it also marked Rekha Bhardwaj’s singing debut.

 

“Sharadendu” (Daya)

Surprise entry in Vishal Bhardwaj’s portfolio, a Malayalam soundtrack. This was not the first instance however that the movie’s writer, famed author M T Vasudevan Nair, was employing the services of a Bollywood composer. In fact, music director Ravi had quite a following in Malayalam (as Bombay Ravi) due to his long association with MT.  Coming back to Daya, the movie was the adaptation of an Arabian Nights story, so the songs had an Arabic touch to them. Bhardwaj delivered very well, and this song sung by K S Chithra and written by legendary lyricist ONV Kurup happens to be my favourite.

 

“Paka Mat” (Paanch)

Anurag Kashyap’s movies have always featured offbeat music, and long before he discovered people like Amit Trivedi and Sneha Khanwalkar for that purpose, Kashyap partnered with Vishal Bhardwaj. His debut movie Paanch did not release, but the soundtrack (penned by Abbas Tyrewala) did come out, and this stoner song sung by Hariharan and KK was its best.

“Chhatri” (Blue Umbrella)

Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Ruskin Bond’s story gave VB and Gulzar another opportunity to display their prowess with children’s songs. The childish whimsy in the lyrics analogising the umbrella to sky, the arrangement that has the added bonus of the highland flavour, and to top it off, the delightful Himachal visuals – the song is an absolute treat.

“Ashtray” (No Smoking)

Anurag Kashyap’s second and last project with Vishal Bhardwaj (to date) bettered their debut act, with ample help from Gulzar saab. Gulzar’s dark cigarette-based metaphors and Deva Sen Gupta’s soulful rendition to Bhardwaj’s pulsating backdrop make Ashtray a disturbing yet compelling listen.

“Yun Hua” (Striker)

The 2010 movie featured seven different composers for seven songs, at a time when multi-composer soundtracks were yet to catch on as an annoying fad. Bhardwaj himself sang this particular song by VB-Gulzar. Over time, melodic pieces sung by the man would start getting a tad repetitive, but at that point, it still had a fresh charm about it.

“Badal Uthiya” (Matru ki Bijlee Ka Mandola)

Vishal Bhardwaj has given some wonderful classical-flavoured songs to Rekha Bhardwaj over time, one of which (“Badi Dheere Jali”) even won her a National Award. This song has the lady acing a seemingly raag piloo-based melody while in the backdrop the composer employs sitar exponent Niladri Kumar’s skills in a Prem Joshua-evocative setting.

 

“So Jaao” (Haider)

One of the most amazing things about this grave diggers’ song is how it picks up a verse from the intense “Aao Na” and gives it an eerie new colour without even changing its melody. It is perhaps the eeriness that made it a less popular choice from the superlative soundtrack.

 

“Dil Toh Bachcha Hai Ji” (Ishqiya)  

I know that this is not an underrated song, but a Vishal Bhardwaj playlist feels incomplete without a mention of this track which, to me, this is one of the best Bollywood songs ever! Sure, there is that influence from Ravel’s “Bolero” that is often mentioned, but the song is so much more than that. Gulzar’s fabulously written lines describing the feelings of someone who has fallen in love late in his life, and Rahat Fateh Ali Khan’s skills utilised in the most perfect way – what a winner this is!

This is just the tip of the iceberg as they say; the composer’s oeuvre has a lot more gems, underrated or otherwise. And I do hope there are many more to come, in this era of unimaginative classic remixes and multi-composer templates, people like Bhardwaj are among the few capable of providing the occasional respite.

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