Well, enough avoiding, time to do songs. Music is NOT my area. I have never studied music history seriously at all, and more importantly, I am next door to tone deaf. I can enjoy music. But on a very very very superficial level. Like someone who looks at a beautiful sunset and sees it as 3 simple stripes of red orange and yellow. That’s me! So, treat me gently and kindly as I attempt to put together this post based on my knowledge of film history and what people have told me is beautiful.
1.1. “Balam Aay Baso Morey Man” from Devdas 1936
This isn’t the best song to represent the early years, it’s the only song. The very early years of film don’t have much trace left of them. But this one is an okay example, for one thing you can see how simple they were. The actors did their own singing because sound was still filmed simultaneously. And because of that, the filming was fairly straight forward, long takes and simple movements of actors
There were also big dance songs during this time, but I couldn’t find any videos of them. They were done by professional dance troupes, the kinds who could do long stage shows without mistakes. And they were filmed like stage shows, the chorus would line up and go through all their movies while a classical musician played and sang. But you have to take my word for it, because I can’t find any visuals (phooey!)
2. “Tere Bina Aag Yeh Chandni” Awara 1951
The first great fantasy song. Amazing visuals, massive sets and costumes and concept, but all in support of investigating the mental state of the hero, not pure spectacle. Raj Kapoor set the standard, and everyone else had to struggle to live up to it. Non-synch sound technology was now available, so it was no longer about simple songs sung by stars, but instead about the perfect combination of sound and visual.
It was also about new artists, born of film. Shankar-Jaikishan were two musicians from different backgrounds who found each other through film and created an intoxicating collaboration. And this song was sung by Manna Dey and Lata Mangeshkar, two singers who worked only as playback singers, not as actors who sang, or classical performers who also worked in film, but only as film artists.
3. “Pyar Hua Ikrar Hua” Shree 420 1955
The complete opposite of the song above. No big fancy visuals, and no fantasy, this is a real couple really having this conversation. And yet, it was a constructed image. The editing, the backdrops, the performances, all calculated to support the message.
And the same artists as above. Which is another new tradition, the artistic bonding between director, composer, and singers. The songs may be split into more parts now than when the actor was also the singer, but there was still an effort made to keep them as a cohesive whole.
3. “Mere Naam Chin Chin Choo” Howrah Bridge 1958
There were already professional singers behind the scenes, now there were professional dancers in front. Helen being the most foremost of them all, and this was her big break role. Picking up on her non-Indian looks with a non-Indian sounding song.
It’s not just that this song didn’t feature an actor as the lead performer, the entire song wasn’t much related to the characters being played by the lead actors. It was a nightclub act, joyful and silly and catchy, but nothing to do with the plot at all. A song for the pure spectacle of it.
4. “Aaja Aaja Main Hoon Pyar Tera” Teesri Manzil 1966
In the 50s, Helen was the face of the cool modern dance, by the 1960s the stars were now the ones who could do these crazy modern style dances. To these crazy fun songs that were unrelated to the plot, and had a distinctly western sound.
This is also one of the early hits by RD Burman who would go on to rule the industry until, well, now! He is still considered the greatest composer of Indian film. A second generation film composer, he was raised on film sets and thinks entirely in terms of film songs, not classical music turned to be used in film. And as a film composer, he didn’t limit his influences to classical Indian music, he brought in rock-and-roll and electronic instruments from the West, and created a sound perfect for a new bright colorized film industry of dancing stars and rock and roll parties.
5. “Aap Ke Kamre Main” Yaadon Ki Baarat 1973
RD kept going without a break into the 70s. His songs increasingly became the centerpiece of the film, the actors dressed in costumes to complement the modern sound, lipsynching to cheering crowds within the film, as there were cheering crowds outside the film.
RD also kept experimenting, putting in spoken sounds, weaving refrains in and out of the song, the classical kind of experimentation and invention, but done with an electronic sound. And RD brought his own collaborators with him, it was no longer about the director taking the lead in putting together the team, RD brought along his frequent collaborator (later wife) Asha Bhosle. And his own sound and ideas, that the directors would work around, instead of the composer working around the director. Notice how this song came right after the opening credits, the main reason we were all seeing the film was for RD’s music.
6. “Jimmy Jimmy Aaja Aaja” Disco Dancer 1982
RD Burman was king of the 70s, but the 80s saw the rise of Bappi Lahiri. While RD wove together rock and roll and classical, Bappi brought Disco to India. His catchy hits fit perfectly in the lightweight entertainment based hits of the decade.
Bappi’s songs began to be the main reason people saw films. The drive for a hit song in order to get people into the theater was increasing, cassette tape technology had arrived, and songs like this one traveled the globe in advance of the film, paving the way to make the film itself a hit. This is not a good movie, but the songs made it seem better than it is.
7. “Pehla Nasha” Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander 1992
By the 90s, the actual music in films had become a little predictable. But there were advancements in how songs were filmed. MTV had arrived in India, and music videos were being played on TV separately from the rest of the film. New choreographers like Farah Khan were experimenting with ways of making the songs stand out from the film as a special moment unrelated to the rest of it.
They didn’t do this through dance, but through a combination of elements. Edits became more rhythmic, there was experimentation with camera movements, actors didn’t just lipsynch but emote. And this song in particular, Farah’s first song, was famous for how it was filmed in slow motion, but matched the music. Which she did by speeding the song up while the actors danced and sang to it, and then slowing the song down to regular speed and the film to halfspeed to match.
8. “Chaiyya Chaiyya” Dil Se 1998
And here comes AR Rahman!!!! This is not his biggest hit album in India (that’s still Bombay), but it is the album that brought him and Indian film music to global attention. And this particular song sequence is still considered one of the most popular in Hindi film.
It brought together the new style of heavily edited and filmic song sequences, with a brilliant new song, and the character based meaning of the older songs, combined with the idea of bringing in fabulous outside dancers (Malaika Arora) to help sell it. And it’s a folk song/religious song that had been repurposed. It’s just the perfect combination of old and new, along with the perfect combination of visuals and sound.
9. “Kaho Na Kaho” Murder 2004
I debated what song to use here, but I really think this is the best. Not written by a film composer, but by a Pakistani band that had their song lifted for this film. Incredibly catchy and popular to this day, but from a film that has been all but forgotten.
This is the new kind of film song, from musicians who don’t care about the film it is in or the actors performing it, they just write the song on its own and then it’s up to the directors to shove it in any old way, and the actors to sell it based on the mood of the song more than the mood of their characters.
who knows where we go from here! There are dozens of new young composers on their way up and innovative styles of songs. The over edited and overlit version of songs has a lot of popularity, but there is also plenty of experimentation going on along the sidelines. Everything from the intense focus on the actors face in the title song of Ae Dil Hai Mushkil to the dancing explosions in ABCD 2.
Okay, there are SO MANY important songs that I couldn’t squeeze in! I did my best to find the most important/most representative one for every decade, but there are a lot of films that had a huge effect on Indian film which I couldn’t include. Here they are, in no particular order.
“Tu Hi Re” Bombay 1994
This is the most successful album in Indian history. And, by a very very small margin, this is the most popular song from it. AR Rahman’s timeless song of love and longing. The visuals are simple, because the music and the actors’ faces carry the weight of it.
“Tu Aashiqui Hai” Jhankaar Beats 2003
Vishal and Shekhar were a very different kind of composer pair. They started as club performers and their music still has that loose club vibe. Minimal classical grounding, just here for a good time. This was their big break out hit song in a film about club performers who need to perform a song appropriate for a church.
“Aap Jaise Koi” Qurbani 1980
A very different song. Sung by a teenager from Pakistan who went on to become a pop star and a sensation in Pakistan. It sounds completely different from anything else in the film, disco but lighter disco, sweeter disco. It’s still one of the all time most popular songs in Hindi film history, constantly reused and remixed and referenced.
“Bombay Meri Jaan” CID 1956
A simple and simply beautiful song. Not picturized on a lead of the film, but on comedian Johnny Walker, just walking down a Bombay street. Easy to sing and hard to forget, it recently inspired the title of the movie Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.
“Brown Rang” Yo Yo Honey Singh 2011
From the album International Villager, this was a trending video on youtube in 2012, and made it to the top of the Asian charts. The first non-film music major hit. Of course, shortly afterwards Yo Yo was safely adopted into the film industry. But it was still a sign of changing times, a growing music scene that was separate from the film industry. And it was a sign of the beginning of the rap/hip-hop influenced songs arriving in Hindi film.
“Chalte Chalte” Pakeezah 1970
While film musicians of the 70s were separated from their classical roots, that doesn’t mean they couldn’t call on them. Occasionally a story would challenge the composer, the lyricist, the singer, to achieve classical perfection. Like this one, for which Lata learned Urdu in order to perfect her pronunciation and an Urdu poet was brought in to do the lyrics.
“In Aankhon Ki Masti” Umrao Jaan 1981
For this album, Lata’s little sister Asha lowered her voice an active to give it a new sound. And the star, Rekha, learned Urdu herself in order to better lipsynch and convey the meaning of the lyrics.
“Didi Tera Deewar Deewana” Hum Aapke Hain Koun 1994
Written by a composer who mostly worked in Marathi language industry, not Hindi, it has a kind of old-fashioned folk sound. But more importantly, it is a song sequence that fully uses the cast of characters, manages a massive crowd and gives each of them their own moment in the sun, and moves the plot along with it.
“Right Here Right Now” (Remix) Bluffmaster 2005
The arrival of a new kind of song! The end credits remix promo song. It has nothing to do with the rest of the film, wasn’t even really in the film, but it was used to promote it everywhere.
“Wo Ladki Hai Kahan” Dil Chahta Hai 2001
Dil Chahta Hai gave us a new kind of song, the song that looked back over the whole history of film songs in India. There have been many imitators since, but this was the first. Bringing us from the fantasy dancing era of the 50s, to the happy teenage rock and roll of the 60s, to the slow motion love songs of the 90s, to today.