The soundtrack of our lives?


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THERE is something beautiful about the way a person sings an old Hindi film song. The eyes invariably close, the face recedes to a place far away, and every word is enunciated with expressive nuance, as an intricate melody is retrieved from the words. Thoroughly disliked martinets turn into pictures of liquid soulfulness, complete with quivering chins once they embark on a Hemant Kumar song. Part of the magic lies in the melody, so often deeply melancholic with a sadness that sinks hearts into the floor of one’s self. The intricate nature of the melody, grooved and creviced, makes one sing with fierce concentration, as the fine lines of song are faithfully retraced.

A key aspect of enjoying old songs comes from the words. The fact that the most popular form of music in India has been the film song, which in turn has been part of the playback singing tradition meant that songs needed to have very specific meanings. Songs needed to fit into the worlds of characters on the screen and in doing so, they found a way of sliding effortlessly into the lives of those who watched the films, becoming soundtracks to countless lives. Interestingly, the Hindi film song was a cunning device to inject fineness into a form that very often catered to mainstream tastes, to smuggle in an artistic mode of expression into a larger text that often lacked too much room for subtlety.

Of course, there were many film makers who saw the song as an intrinsic part of the narrative and invested in it deep meaning, but it is also true that in many cases, poetry was insinuated into the song without it being necessarily demanded. Hindi film songs have always communicated more than what the story needs, there has always been an emotional and textural surplus that gets delivered and this surplus has played a key role in shaping the response of the listener. By its very nature, the film song communicates ‘the feeling that there is always more to tell than can be said’. The song is embedded in the narrative and yet stands outside, drawing from the situation in which it appeared but also being a standalone piece, finding a place in the life of the listener-singer.

While some people remain eternally indifferent to the lyric of a favourite song, for many the words grew meanings after a time, as the song dug deeper roots in one’s consciousness. The Hindi film song ensured that some form of art lived in the lives of anyone with access to a pocket transistor. The ability to empathise with other people’s feelings, and do so in terms that one would personally not have been capable of doing, helped impart a sense of emotional depth that might otherwise have been absent. Everyday experiences could be translated into a higher order language provided by a favourite song – the self could be presented with an additional layer of refinement. One was always better in song than in life, and there was no dearth of song in life.

This meant that apart from the songs that are obviously ‘poetic’, even relatively, songs casually evoked a world of gentle graces and quiet yearning. The ‘philosophical’ songs like main zindagi ka saath nibhata, yeh duniya gar mil bhi jaye, wahan kaun hai tera, and oh re taal mile, are obviously ruminations on life that go well beyond the context of the film. But poetic reflection found a place in many songs with less exalted themes. Take a song like tum mujhe bhool bhi jao which expresses a common sentiment, that of anticipated loss of affection from a loved one, has within it zindagi sirf mohabbat nahi kuch aur bhi hain / Zulf-o-rukhsar ki jannat nahi kuch aur bhi hain / bhook aur pyaas ki maari hui is duniya mein / ishq hi ek haqeeqat nahin kuch aur bhi hain.

Or take the masterful Chalo ek baar phir se ajnabi ban jayen hum dono (Sahir again) with the lines ‘Woh afsana jise anjaam tak lana na ho mumkin, use ik khoobsorat mod dekar chhodna accha’, which truly elevates an act of breaking up into a more thoughtful statement about the beauty inherent in accepting a less than ideal situation.


The ability of the film song to simultaneously speak to a very specific situation unfolding on screen while retaining a far larger meaning that it constructed, made it possible for it to be sung meaningfully in a temporal setting far removed from the original. And sung it is, over and over again. Whether professionally, semi-professionally, in talent shows, in house parties, in accompaniment to a song playing somewhere, as an early morning hum to oneself, as part of a group celebratory activity, as a drunken coda to a gathering of old friends or as part of the time-honoured antakshari routine, the Hindi film song is certainly listened to.

The antakshari is an institution that gamifies the film song experience. Here the song is no longer a retrieval of melody or emotion, it is instead a test of memory and quick-wittedness. The quality of singing is irrelevant as is the musical merit of the song. As it happens certain songs become hardy perennials, something heard only during antaksharis – in my case it was na na na na na meri beri ke ber mat todo, and hum kale hain toh kya hua dilwale hain. The antakshari drew upon the fact that the film song as a form of common currency that was capable of unifying the most diverse group of people – old, young, up and down social classes.


The fact that film songs are a form of currency of memory has another interesting by-product. Witness the number of new film titles that are nothing but old film songs. Hum hain Rahi Pyar Ke, Om Shanti Om, Bachna Ae Hasino, Khoya Khoya Chand, Yeh Jawaani Hai Diwani, Baar Baar Dekho, Chalte Chalte to name just a few.

Some songs get into our memory pool and once they make their way there, they are difficult to dislodge. They become part of our arsenal of memories that serve to define us. We are in part, known by the songs we like. For they tell us what shade of expression we respond to, what colour of emotion connects with us. There are songs that we actively remember and a whole host of others that we are able to recall sometimes with astonishing detail once we are reminded of them.

Songs might be rooted in a specific context on screen, but when heard or sung later, no longer carry the residue of the original meaning. One might remember, a gesture here and an ada there, but otherwise the song is remembered primarily through the emotion it evokes. What is interesting about a film song is that unlike the emotion evoked by a character in a book, which are always bound by the context of the book, the song’s longevity and memorability makes it shed any vestige of context, and what one recalls is emotion alone. If anything, it moulds itself according to the context in which it is recalled rather than the one in which it was created. The interplay of words and melody is by itself sufficient to evoke the full textural richness of the song.

Take a song like Abhi na jao chhod kar. Whatever the setting in the film, the song today is no longer about Dev Anand imploring Sadhana not to leave. It evokes a more universal sense of romantic yearning, as well as a larger, more generic nostalgia about the gentleness of a bygone era. It is the specific unfolding of the song as it manoeuvres its way from the words and melody that makes it a rewarding experience.


The idea of wanting moments with a loved one to linger longer, for the exquisiteness of romance to extend that bit more is a feeling that can be cherished universally. The melody entwines itself around the words, twisting and turning and not letting go. Abhi abhi to aai ho, bahar ban ke chhayi ho, giving way to the more languid and fragrant hawaa zara mehak toh le, and the voice sliding down the vine with ye dil zara behak to le, ye shyam dhal to le zaraaa, ye dil sambhal to le zara, main thodi der jee to loon, nashi ke ghoont pi to loon, extending twistily into the final plea abhi to kuchh kaha nahin, abhi to kuch suna nahin. The true beauty of the song is experienced best when one attempts to sing for then one truly appreciates how the words and the melody multiply meaning.

To sing a song of one’s choice, no matter how badly, is to give voice to a nameless yearning that goes beyond the words, deeper than the melody. The lay singer retrieves a part of themselves that has seldom been accessed before, trying to express the inexpressible. Eyes closed, lips aquiver, an experience of finding a lyrical island within the self. When you hum to yourself, you think you are the world’s greatest singer. There are those that like more upbeat songs and those that love melancholy. The more lively songs have a communal quality for they invite participation. The qawwali of course is a genre meant to be sung in groups, but several other ‘happy’ songs have a way of inviting brisk communal participation, tunefulness not being a pre-requisite.


One of the advantages of the constraint of having to ‘fit’ songs with larger universal themes on to extremely specific cinematic contexts was that a diverse range of emotional nuances could be captured while talking about the same broad theme. For instance if abhi na jao chhod kar is one expression of a lover imploring a loved one not to leave, Jata kahan hai diwane explores the same emotion as a form of sensual challenge, Jaiyee aap kahan jayenge trembles between a cocky confidence and hesitant tentativeness, Ruk jaa O jaanewali ruk ja is sung in a completely different register, full of breezy bravado, na jao saiyaan is a pain-drenched plea of a woman who cannot be what her husband needs and aaj jaane ki zid na karo (though used in films, not really a film song) is the signature emotion of the ‘other’ woman.

With time and changing technology, the relationship with the Hindi film song has evolved. When the radio became the transistor, things changed. The use of a personal device saw the song entering the crevices of our lives, acting as a moving map of our moods, the articulator of the unsaid, and an enabler of the extrapolation of the mundane into the sublime. The transistor located the Hindi film deep into the folds of our life, as we hugged it, carried it in the basket of our bicycle and lost ourselves in the world of imagined joy and deep emotional pain. The acting of humming a song to oneself had always rendered a public good private, for no one else could reproduce what a particular song meant to an individual at a given point in time.


Humming a song was to take ownership of it, to feel its caressing comfort in a very personal way. But the transistor made this personal ownership official. The device of the ‘farmaish’ created some sort of common currency of the popular without surrendering entirely to it. Radio at that time played a very diverse range of songs, which is why so many people who grew up between the ’50s and the ’80s know the words to songs they cannot remember having heard too often or liked. Songs became personal documents, secret friends that saw a part of us that no one else ever did.

The nature of the film song changed with the arrival of the cassette player. For one, it made it possible for people to listen to songs when they wanted to. It also democratised music, particularly after the entry of players like T-series. Cassettes screeched everywhere from homes, neighbourhood markets and long-distance buses. The cassette itself was cheap and the quality of the machines used to play even cheaper, and the result was often an industrial level of discordance. However, it placed the idea of the popular at the heart of our musical choices.

Unlike radio where songs stayed in circulation for a very long time, in the cassette era, musical choice became much more concentrated and transient. The cassettes themselves, particularly those in vogue because of their affordable price point, had a short life and were well suited for the use that they were put to. Heard intensely for a while and then discarded. Songs still did become classics, but at a much slower rate. Listeners aligned their choice of music even more to the times; the other elements in film music, the words and the moods evoked became a little less salient.

The arrival of the CD made sound quality much more of a factor in the way film songs were made and listened to. It is difficult to think of A.R. Rahman’s music without having the technology to be able to play it back in a way that did justice to the lush and layered orchestration. The CD also made the focus on individual songs easier; one did not have to navigate through a soundtrack to get to the song one felt like listening to. Targeted listening favours songs that are able to create an instant appeal rather than those that took time to grow on one.


The arrival of digital technology has transformed the landscape beyond recognition. The idea of scarcity in music, in listening only to that which is readily at hand has disappeared. Digital streaming and the smartphone make it possible for any music to be listened to at will. At one level, this dilutes the dominance of the current, as sheer temporality is no longer enough to make a song popular. Digital access allows for multiple streams of music to exist simultaneously, and old Hindi film songs flourish in many communities that share this common interest.

The change in the modes of listening to film music was accompanied by changes in the nature of films themselves. The nature of the movie and the role of the song – music to listen to, set in the context of a specific life-situation to music to dance set in a more generic life-situation where songs did not speak as much for the character as for the situation to the song as dressing, a visual and aural garnish that hung loosely on the body of the film without belonging to it. The element of everyday poetry is less visible in today’s songs partly because the song is no longer expected to act as an active agent in the primary task of storytelling.


Recording technology also changed preferences. Till 1970, all film music was recorded in mono. As more recordings took place in stereophonic sound, the nature of the song began to change. Voices more amenable to stereo like Kishore Kumar became more popular, and soundtracks like Sholay and later Karz exploited the aural depth that stereo allowed for. Bass-heavy, rhythm infused music became more popular, and even on screen, songs became much more about allowing the lead pair to dance than to express the nuances of emotion. Digitally recorded music is assembled out of little fragments of performances rather than performed as a whole and this changes the timbre of the emotion that is delivered. The musician performs a task in limbo; it is only on the editing console that the song comes together.

Some wonderful exceptions aside, the Hindi film song no longer is steeped in the tradition of poetry as it once was. Its role in the lives of people is changing – its primary role is now to serve as a backdrop to dancing rather than feeling, or as background amplification of a particular mood. Even the way they are used in films is now no longer as part of the narrative, they are airdropped abruptly, often to enable an item number. The more realistic film makers have taken to using music as they do in the West – as part of the soundtrack, without any lip synch.

At one level, this represents the gradual growing up of cinema in India as the fantasy element begins to wind down, but it also means that a rich source of meaning is gradually drying up as the Hindi film song loses its ability to reach places in the heart that nothing else could or to express emotions that no other medium could possibly allow. It is true that a lot of Hindi film poetry was a romanticised form of self-pity, an emotional strand that may not strike the resonance it once did. So many assumptions that formed the basis of lyrics have changed as has the vocabulary in which we express ourselves. The stylised cadences of the past sound was overblown and pretentious, and far too much was said in cloying metaphors. There is a new kind of poetry that can be found in some of the film music today, one that is rooted in the argot of everyday life today.


What happens when this source of everyday poetry begins to dry up? What happens when the prosaic becomes transparently functional, when what is celebrated is not the artifice of an imagined better self, lost in a haze of dreamy intention, but the aggressive currency of action focused on getting what one wants? The song of an earlier era was in part an ode to all that remained unclaimed in the world, it evoked a sense of the possible even as it was resigned to the fact that the best possible version of life lay in the poetic imaginary. The song of today is an accompaniment to an action – only that which can be acted upon has meaning, the poetic surplus has no value.

It would be far too simplistic to connect the change in Hindi film songs to the harsher angrier discourse that we see in our public conversations, but surely the inability to find little islands of gentleness into which we can periodically retreat must take its toll. With no better self to find refuge in, no song to hum with eyes closed in melancholic bliss, the world is a harsher place full of people resigned to their hardness.