Mapping India with film songs


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THE soundtrack of my life, especially in the crucial teen growing up years, contained pop and rock music and Hindi film songs of the period. The former was available only in bits, on special radio programmes at night and also on LPs borrowed from friends or, very occasionally, bought from Rhythm House in Bombay.

But Hindi songs were on the radio all the time, and seeped through both at home and outside it – at the neighbourhood paanwalla’s, at a shop in the market or, if someone was humming it around you.

Nor were these only the latest songs – even those from a decade before or even earlier, were very much alive, with radio programmes – on Vividh Bharati or Radio Ceylon – dedicated to them. So while Binaca Geetmala brought the latest hits to us, the two radio stations played the new and the old. As a teenager, I did not particularly care for K.L. Saigal, someone who my parents admired a lot – but at 7:55 a.m., the last song of Radio Ceylon in their morning broadcast, was always a Saigal song, and it became a kind of reminder that I had to run to catch the bus. Today of course I find myself searching out his songs on YouTube, not just to re-live those days, but also because now I love his singing.

Gradually, I discovered that many from my age group, from disparate backgrounds, had also heard the same songs, also felt similar emotions, and also – as time wore on – had a similar nostalgia for them. Even those who had claimed they ‘never watched Hindi films’ – often spoken with just a hint of disdain – had not been able to escape the songs. They were embedded in the DNA of every Indian – they were the soundtracks of the nation.

The film song is an Indian invention, a genuine new art form of the 20th century. Though it has a legacy and provenance behind it – the nautanki tradition, Parsi theatre of Bombay – it was refined and integrated with Indian cinema, whether Hindi, Bengali, Marathi, Tamil or Telugu. Every film had to have one, otherwise it was not a complete, paisa vasool experience for the audience. The songs punctuated the story, sometimes taking it forward, other times saying in verse what couldn’t be said in simple words, and often, also just added to the story as an appendage to please the crowds.


If the song was dull, or even good but poorly picturized, the punters would simply step out of the dark auditorium for a smoke and toilet break. They knew they would miss nothing. And if it was really good, and also robust and rambunctious, the frontbenchers would show their appreciation by whistling, throwing coins on the screen and dancing in the aisles. Watching the songs was a community experience – they had a life outside the film, a longer life which lasted till much after the film had been forgotten.

Of course, the film song was not appreciated by everybody. ‘For a large part of its history, the presence of song sequences has been one of the aspects of Hindi films that western audiences have found most difficult, and it has been at the root of the criticism of Hindi cinema as bad cinema by the West and westernised Indian elite, something which has only recently started to change’, writes American scholar Anna Morcom in her book Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema.

Indian films with songs cannot be compared to Hollywood musicals, which is a separate genre. The western musical revolves around the song and dance which is not just part of but is the theme, whether the MGM type of blockbusters or the Sound of Music. In a typical Indian film, the song is used to illustrate for the viewer, musically, what the story is saying at that moment. Often, there is a particular arc that the story and therefore the songs follow – discovery of love; declaration of love, coyly, shyly, openly or extravagantly; a misunderstanding, which opens the way for one ‘sad’ song on the part of either of the protagonists, and another where one of them expresses disappointment at the betrayal – all this in public, such as a birthday party; and then reconciliation, often in dramatic circumstances.

This template was in fashion all through the 1950s to the 1970s, till newer tropes emerged, but it remained a durable idea, which emerged, in updated forms, even in the early 2000s. The path of true love is never without its thorny bits – that has been the abiding theme of the Hindi film and presumably elsewhere too, almost forever.


An early love story, but with a criminal element, was Kismet. It was one of the earliest instances of the hero being a ‘negative’ character, a crook and a thief, who wins the heart of a physically handicapped girl. It was a seminal film in many ways. Till then, the lead male was a model of purity, as was the heroine, who was chaste and virgin. Another character in the film gets pregnant out of wedlock – quite radical for its time.

Ashok Kumar played a double role, a first in Hindi cinema which then became a staple trope. Mumtaz Shanti was shown as separated from her father as a child, and who now lived in a grand house owned by a former employee of her once rich father, who is now poor. The story is a complicated one, with many coincidences thrown in and finally, all ends well. The film ran and ran and completed over three and a half years in a Calcutta theatre.

The novel story and the big stars, especially Ashok Kumar, were a draw, but viewers kept coming back to the cinema to see them over and over again – in fact, to see one particular song, which often had to be screened at the end of the show.


The audiences drawn repeatedly to see the handicapped heroine singing – defiantly, and with great gusto – ‘Door hato ae duniya waalon, Hindustan hamara hai’. The public used to join in and sing along. It was more than just a song, it was an anthem. India then was under colonial rule with its troops fighting in distant lands in World War II. Singing Vande Matram or any other ‘nationalist’ song in public was forbidden; the police could arrest and whisk you away. But this could be sung without any fear of retribution.

All songs, composed by Anil Biswas, were popular, but this one most of all. The way the scene was shot left little doubt about the message the song wanted to convey: Mumtaz Shanti, on crutches and accompanied by men dressed as soldiers and carrying swords and rifles, sang it against a backdrop with landmarks such as the Taj Mahal and Qutub Minar and symbols of Indian secularism and harmony – temples, mosques and gurdwaras. Then the backdrop changed to a large map of undivided India with a fiery torch carrying goddess. The audience on screen joined in the chorus. Off screen, Indians sang it as a song of defiance against the colonial rulers.

At a time when film censors kept an eagle eye out for any nationalistic reference, how did such a song pass? The legend goes that the producers convinced them that the song was against Germany and Japan which had their eye on this fair and prosperous land.

It was a cry for freedom and self-rule, a warning to outsiders to be gone, because Hindustan belonged to Indians.

Hindi films – and songs – have for long broadly reflected social attitudes, values and concerns of the time, catching the zeitgeist in novel ways. In a general sense, the films of a particular decade reflect the moods and attitudes of the time; a scholar looking back can gauge the debates, discussions, attitudes, values and even fashions by studying the films of a particular decade – here, ‘decade’ is a fluid term, because trends don’t change suddenly, at the stroke of midnight, as it were, they slide into each other, constantly changing and evolving.

Thus, if the 1940s were about reformist ideas, when progressive films were made, the 1950s is often termed as the decade when films about ‘nation building’ were produced.


The new nation had hopes and dreams, but some endemic problems – poverty, shortages, unemployment – remained. Pyaasa (1957) is often pointed out as the quintessential 1950s ‘end of innocence’ film, but that claim doesn’t hold up. Guru Dutt wrote the film in the 1940s, and it remains a story of personal betrayal and a poet’s disillusionment. Sahir Ludhianvi’s song that somehow came to exemplify the generational angst and despair – ‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind par kahan hai’ – was modified from a poem he wrote in 1944, hardly an expression of disillusionment with independent India. Yet, it has become an anthem of sorts, used often at various times since.

If anything, another Sahir song from Phir Subah Hogi (1958) is a more authentic articulation of his sentiments about Nehruvian India – one with problems, no doubt, and one where capitalists have appropriated everything, but also a nation with determination and courage.

Several tropes emerged that mapped the newly formed nation – the abiding ones were doing away with parochialism and developing national harmony. In New Delhi (1956), Kishore Kumar sang to the residents of a guest house, ‘are bhai nikal ke aa ghar se, duniya ki raunaq dekhi phir se.’


The other was changing lifestyles of an emergent westernized class, confident in its Indian skin but happy to fall in with international fashions and mores – the countless ‘club songs’ where girls with names like Lilly, Katie, Edna and Susie sang and danced on the floor of restaurants and clubs while the audience, in their white dinner jackets and pomaded hair, watched. These films were always set in cities, and some reassurance was provided to conservative Indian audiences that this was not necessary ‘Indian culture’ and that often these clubs were fronts for crime bosses.

The most significant theme of the decade was migration, mostly one way, from the village to the city. The city was big and bad, full of hustlers and racketeers, but it was also a place of opportunities, of employment, income and perhaps even love. Four very significant films exemplify those ideas, even if the fundamental premise and treatment are different – Do Bigha Zameen (1953), Taxi Driver (1954) and, in the same year, Aar Paar, and Shri 420 (1955). Not all examine migration the same away – in two of them the actual act of moving from the village to the city is not even referenced – but they are all about the lives of those who are invisible and on the margins, even if they get small opportunities to taste the neon glamour of the upper crust.

Do Bigha Zameen is a stand out – the migrant, Balraj Sahni, is forced to leave his idyllic village because his land is now mortgaged to the local zamindar for a debt that keeps mounting. As he begins his long trek away from the village to the nearest big city, Calcutta, he passes fields where working farmers bid him goodbye – ‘apni kahani chhod ja, kuch to nishani chhod ja, kaun kahe is aur, tu phir aaye na aaye.’

For the Bengali Bimal Roy, the attachment to the pastoral was visceral. He saw the village in romantic terms, though he acknowledged the cruelties inherent in a small, highly structured and brutally hierarchical society. Sure enough, Sahni, who becomes a hand-rickshaw puller, encounters only insensitivity in the city.


The Punjabis and others who came to Bombay to work had no such nostalgia. The Anand brothers were both highly educated and soon melded with the urbane life of Bombay, Raj Kapoor, who came from an itinerant family of theatre performers, had not known much of any rural life, and had effortlessly become part of the city. As for Guru Dutt, originally from Madras state (now Karnataka), he had studied dance in Uday Shankar’s school in Almora with Uday Shankar, had begun work in Pune, and become part of Bombay. None of them was provincial; none of them had any longing for their ‘origins’.

Taxi Driver and Aar Paar both have a cabbie as the protagonist. A taxi driver is the most mobile of working class professions, as he moves around every part of the city, seeing, observing, and has all kinds of people in his cab. Both – Dev Anand and Guru Dutt – have a mix of friends; Dutt’s character is from Bhopal, he loves a Punjabi girl, whose father, a refugee, runs a garage and plays chess with a Muslim, is a transporter for a gang of criminals where he is best friends with a Parsi (Johnny Walker) who is wooing a Catholic girl. Very Bombay.

Nothing is known of Dev Anand’s provenance, but his friends are a cosmopolitan bunch too. No one makes a big deal about where they hail from. Now they are city slickers. ‘Jayen to jayen kahan’, sings Talat for Dev Anand; there is no place to go back to.


Shri 420’s Raju proudly marches to Bombay, a graduate from Allahabad with a letter showing he is a honest man. ‘Mera Joota hai Japani, yeh Patloon Inglistaani, sar pe lal topi Rusi, phir bhi dil hai Hindustani,’ he sings while riding an elephant; it became the song of a newly independent India. He gets a salutary lesson from a beggar who tells him his honesty will not get him very far in Bombay, home to thieves and racketeers. Those are the people he joins, as his skill at manipulating cards is spotted by the socialite Nadira, who dresses him up in a white jacket and takes him to a party where the elite has gathered to gamble. Raju impresses everyone and is soon sucked into a fraudulent investment scheme; he has left his sincere, teacher girlfriend Nargis to rake in the riches.

By Indian standards, this was a ‘lefty’ film with socialist ideas – with K.A. Abbas as the writer, this was hardly surprising. But, in the hands of Raj Kapoor, it became a deft social satire. Happily, it was the least maudlin and sentimental of his films.

The 1950s were left behind in the next decade, which was a burst of colour, with the young getting more freedom than ever, falling in love, cavorting in the snow-capped hills of Kashmir or even travelling to Paris, London and Japan. ‘Yahoo’ shouted Shammi Kapoor at the top of his voice – this was the post-independence generation, wanting to break free from their parents’ inhibitions. Some years later, Kapoor was in Europe – ‘Aao tumko dikhlaata hoon, Paris ki ik Rangeen Shaam, dekho, dekho, dekho, an Evening in Paris.’

Foreign exchange was scarce, but the film makers found a way. They wanted to take their viewers to places they could only dream about. When LTA (leave travel allowance) finally came, the middle classes felt confident about spending money and going en famille to Naini Tal and Kanyakumari and Jaipur, the very locations they had seen on the screen. For someone from another part of India to go Kashmir and play around in the snow was a new experience.


The 1970s were about rebellion, the Angry Young Man wanting revenge, even if it was for personal reasons. The villains, who had murdered the hero’s parents and also indulged in criminal activities such as smuggling, represented an unfair system that made fat cats – black marketers, politicians, and criminal dons, all pillars of society – rich at the expense of the people. Some took to drugs – Dum Maaro Dum, crooned Zeenat Aman through a smoky haze, ushering in a new, daring look for the so-far conservative heroine, but also reflecting disillusionment and angst.

For me though, the film – and the song – that typified the late 1970s, was Amar Akbar Anthony, a tribute to inclusiveness and India’s vibrant secularism. The three eponymous heroes were of different religions, but were in fact brothers, separated when they were children. Manmohan Desai took care to ensure that when they finally united, they did not change back their names – their girlfriends too belonged to the corresponding religion and everyone, the parents included, were comfortable with it. Without preaching or moralizing, Desai had made his point.

Things took an ugly turn when the 1980s arrived, with vigilante heroes and garish filmsets. The 1980s are generally considered a hopeless decade, full of low-grade films with loud, bombastic dialogues. A decade to forget.

The post reforms 1990s saw foreign locations, and young lovers traipsing through Europe, but wherever they went, they ran into other Indians. The whites were inevitably ignorant and had to be told about how great India was. Non-resident Indians, settled abroad for years, were a new market and films were tailored to their expectations and values – ‘I love my India’, sang Amrish Puri in Pardes (1997) dismissing London and Japan as nothing compared to Hindustan.

Not surprisingly, to connect with them, the film makers had to soothe their cultural anxieties of being in a minority in predominantly white societies. The films promoted conservative values, in keeping with the sensibilities of those who had left India decades ago but retained a sense of belonging through culture, religion and attitudes long out of date in the mother country.


In Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), which came out of the Yashraj film studios, Rani Mukherji, a recently arrived Indian from abroad joins the college where her father is the new principal. She is shunned, mocked by the cool crowd, dressed in the hippest clothes of the time, till one day she stuns them by singing Om Jai Jagdeesh Hare, demonstrating that it is they who have lost touch with their culture while she, an NRI, has preserved it. Not surprisingly, Shah Rukh Khan, the lead stars, marries her rather than the tomboyish Kajol, his best friend who loves him.

Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) remains the quintessential ’90s film and the reasons are obvious – for all the dancing and wooing in European locations, it harps on family values and love for the ‘motherland’, i.e. the yellow mustard fields of Punjab, from where Kajol’s father and the strict patriarch, hails. In his family, women speak only when spoken to. India is the best, and Indian traditional values are noble and therefore inviolate.


At a time Indians wanted to globalize, they were turning more conservative and filmmakers instinctively understood it well. Indian film makers know the pulse of their audiences; they don’t need to spend money on market research or audience surveys. Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar and many others recognized the changes that were taking place across Indian society after liberalization, when the sheltered domestic market was opened up to foreign products, both in the mass and the luxury market. But they also realized that at the more grassroots level, new classes that were emerging were feeling their way uncertainly around this fast-changing world and would like to cling on to something familiar. Tradition, culture, old fashioned values were the stable pillars that they would reach out to. The joint family was one; rituals, such as karva chauth, was another one.

These came together in Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, with an ensemble cast of stars and superstars including Amitabh Bachchan, Shah Rukh Khan, Jaya Bachchan, Kajol and many others. In a scene set on karva chauth night, the younger stars in shiny new designer clothes, accompanied by anonymous dancers, twirl to Bole Choodiyan, Bole Kangana, and when the moon shows its face, the women show their love for their men folk by singing to them and bending to touch their feet. It is no surprise that the tradition, firmly rooted in parts of North India, rapidly spread to other parts of the country.

Indian film makers had a canny eye on the market, especially the diaspora, which was now comfortably settled and wanted to reconnect with the India they had left behind. The attitudes of the 1960s and ’70s, when many of them had left, stayed with them and they wanted to hold on to those memories; they did not want to know about the new, 1990s India where young boys and girls were culturally more American than Indian in some respects; they had their own growing children to deal with, children who were ‘losing touch’ with those values. Chopra and Johar’s films provided a sanctuary and reassurance.

But this trend could not last. Soon, Johar film confections, with their combination of gloss, fashionable clothes, good-looking stars in good-looking interiors, and high-end consumer goods, were looking jaded.


Younger film makers were moving in, bringing new ideas to a generation which was looking for something fresh. Crime, quirkiness and fast-moving action, and films that spoke in their lingo. Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2006), Delhi Belly (2011), were films that had heroes who flirted with petty crime and songs that had a unique, never heard before sound with language that bordered on the risqué – Bhaag D.K. Bose, from the latter film – that thrilled the multiplex audiences.

Films like Gangs of Wasseypur and its sequel (2012), went one step further, shifting from suggestive language to crassness. The locations also moved to small towns (mainly Delhi) and the mofussil, bringing new stories to the urban, multiplex audiences. This was not family fare, for sure. O Womaniya, from the Gangs, part I, was the language of the hinterland streets, a completely novel experience for city crowds, who soon got into the groove.

These were vastly different from old style film songs, but perhaps they too reflected an India which was breaking from the past.

A more significant marker of new India’s sensibilities were films about sports heroes – Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Mary Kom – where Indians triumphed over tremendous odds, even if Milkha Singh came 4th in a race in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. The triumphalist of these and the films that were to follow made it clear that this was not an India that accepted defeat, even if history had to be distorted a bit to achieve that outcome.


From sports to the military was a natural extension. From 2014 onwards, as a surge of nationalism rose all over India, the film industry dutifully provided narratives of 20th century battles where Indian soldiers performed with valour and historical accounts which transformed themselves into sagas of soldiers carrying saffron flags fought with and ousted Muslim invaders. Some historical adjustments had to be made – in Panipat (2019), about the eponymous battle in 1761 where the Marathas battled and lost to the Afghan king Ahmed Shah Abdali (here shown as an Arab), their loss is glossed over. In Padmavat (2018), the sati of the Rajput queen is celebrated, and the Afghan invader Allauddin Khilji shown as an uncultured brute. The music and songs were rousing, and the lyrics really did not matter. It was all about building up a mood, of pride and nationalism.

More followed – Uri: The Surgical Strike (2019), about Indian soldiers fighting terrorists had songs like Jagga Jiteya and Jigar, which were meant to arouse feelings of patriotism. Indians would not take it lying down; they would hit back. Angst and self-doubt vanished from the films, as in real life.

Since the growth of online film platforms, the song has been further downgraded. The indie films and serials, about the dark recesses of India, where crime, politics and the police intersect, there is no space for songs. The Hindi film song is facing an existential threat. The audiences don’t seem to care. Is India’s love affair with the film song over?