This is not really a list of the 30 greatest songs in Hindi cinema, is it? This audience is a pretty knowledgeable audience…and if one were to do it using a formal process – voting, scoring and all that – I might find that maybe 10 out of these 30 songs would make it to a final consensus list. Really stretching it, 15, max.
And that’s what I’ve always maintained right from the first – that if most of you agree with half the songs on my list, I’d be more than happy.
In fact, if you ask me to cross my heart and truly list out what I think are the 30 greatest songs, irrespective of any other consideration, only 15 perhaps, would make it to my own greatest songs list.
So what is this list about, then? What are these ‘other considerations’ that I have mentioned from time to time, to the mystification of many?
Right in my first post, Sameer Khedkar made an interesting comment. He said, ‘Just take all the top Madan Mohan songs. And all the top songs in Yaman. There’s your 30, right there.’
I wouldn’t go that far, but he’s got a point. The top 10 songs by Rafi, top 10 by Lata and top 10 across all the rest would be a fairly strong list, probably stronger (song to song) than what I have. Or just run through Top 10 soundtracks (Mughal-e-Azam, Pakeezah, Bandini etc.) and pick 2-3 songs from each. Or take Naushad, SD, Roshan, Salilda etc. and do the same.
You’d get a fabulous list of 30 in each case, and be confident that you have no weak links. In terms of defending your selection, you’d have no worries. Someone else might suggest some other song, but you’d be rock sure that your selection was equally strong.
But would such a list make music?
Great music after all, is not about a succession of great notes. It is the arrangement, the intermingling of soft and hard, light and heavy, low and high, soulful and strong – done with a plan, with an underlying theme, to a particular rhythm, not at random.
I wanted my list to showcase the immense diversity that we have in our musical heritage, and with this end in mind, I arrived quite early at a simple rule – 1 song per film, no matter how tough it appears. I broke that rule only once, as mentioned, and hopefully, with good enough reason.
This allowed me to showcase single great songs from otherwise OK soundtracks (a concern Sumita Kumar had expressed early on in one of her comments). ‘Meri Neendon mein tum’, ‘Ye Raat Ye Chaandni’, ‘Tu Pyar ka Saagar Hai’ etc. would have got buried otherwise. Ditto for singers like Shamshad, Suman Kalyanpur, Bhupinder, Bhupen Hazarika, who may not be as prolific as the giants, but are no less beloved for what they brought.
Then came the question of arrangement. Srivatsa Yajaman asked me what the logic behind the rankings was. ‘Just out of curiosity, what was #31?’ he asked, somewhat testily. At various times, commenters have responded to a song with ‘Yes, agree Top 30, but not so high,’ or something similar. Also, the inevitable ‘Why is X ranked higher than Y?’
Upto a point, there was logic. You will recognize that 1-10 was a higher standard overall than 11-20, which in turn was better than 21-30. But I could just as easily have pushed Suhaani Raat or Ayega Aanewala or Piya Tose or Dil Dhoondta Hai or Mere Saajan Hai Us Paar up 5-10 spots and pushed some others down, with no real complaints. (In fact, that would definitely make the ranking more consistent and logical, for sure)
Actually, ranking the truly great songs (or books, or movies, or sportsmen) is actually a fairly puerile exercise. (Thank you Tanuj Suri, for your early comment – ‘What an absolutely jobless exercise! But one that I fully endorse.’)
After we’ve ranked all the songs, what are we going to do? Will Waqt ne Kiya step up gracefully to the podium and receive a medal, while Man Re and Kuch Dil Ne Kaha standing by her side contrive to look happy (while actually being sad), or worse, raise black power salutes? Will Asha be inconsolable and turn to her parents sobbing (who don’t know what to do, because Lata’s cracked it, and they’re proud of both sisters equally)? Will old and wise Mere Saajan Hai Us Paar maintain a dignified silence, despite knowing he’s surrounded by lesser mortals? Will Waheeda’s mercurial dancer in Piya Tose shake her bangles at me and stalk off in a huff, because that tart Anarkali’s nautanki was judged superior? Will Madan Mohan’s Ghost rise from the battlements at night, and point a quavering finger at me, accusing me of fell deeds? (Though, now that I’ve written this last, I’m a little scared that may actually happen – knowing Madanji’s lifelong disappointment around public awards!). No, rankings beyond a point do nothing more than stir emotions, and all the wrong ones.
Positioning, on the other hand is a different story. If you think of these numbers not as ranks, but as positions, there’s so much you can do around that concept. They could be delicate links in an exquisite piece of jewellery, strands in a garment, serais on a caravan route across the desert, pit-stops on a mountain climb – each one connected, and dependent on the other, leading upto a final destination or something that is greater than all of them individually.
Rankings are competitive, they divide; positions are collaborative, they unite. And music is all about unity.
These were some of the thumb-rules I followed for positioning the songs (to the extent possible, for I broke most of them at some point):
- Alternating the male voice and the female voice.
- Spacing out the 8 Lata solos.
- Spacing out the duets.
- Following a couple of light romantic numbers, with a song of sorrow, or of prayer or of existential thought.
- Ensuring the audience didn’t have to wait too long before the first Rafi came up (at #19, I was seriously pushing it!), otherwise (unfounded) accusations of bias would follow.
- Ensuring I didn’t have too many Burmandada songs back to back. All through, I was rock firm about my #1 to #4, and pretty certain of #5 – #8. I was clear about the broad positioning of the rest, but I kept shuffling as I went along. At one point, Surya Mantha said my Burmandada bias was showing through (this was at #16 – Teri Bindiya, which was the 4th SD song I had presented out of 15). My next song was supposed to be the Jaal song. So I shuffled it and went with the Madan Mohan double-bill, then the song from Seema, before I brought in Jaal. And when I did show Jaal, I made it all about Sahir, just to push Burmandada into the background. (I’d planned my Sahir piece for Hum Dono, originally). I was quite okay with not sticking to a definitive ranking for the others, because I was confident that these are all great songs anyway, so any up or down within limits wouldn’t cause major damage.
- Having elements of surprise, so as to keep it from becoming too predictable. For instance, just when we’d gone past a bit of trouble with Chingari and the Parveen Sultana song to safer (and serious) waters in Aayega Aanewala, Dil Dhoondta Hai and Suhaani Raat, I tossed in the light and popular Na Tum Hame Jaano, then decided it was time to test your acceptance with a philosophical Mukesh song. Same with the Shamshad number, which came out of the blue in the midst of other popular, well-known and readily accepted classics.
- Even the pieces I wrote were varied. Some were short, purely factual descriptive pieces. Some were long essays. Sometimes I focused on the raga, sometimes on the singer, on the lyricist, on the composer. If I’d done 2-3 long pieces in a row, I slipped in a short descriptive piece. I threw in a few personal anecdotes. I also found one opportunity to use a poetic device – a refrain – at one place: in the descriptions of Ye Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaaye and Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya (don’t know how many of you noticed it.)
The concept of ranking was not entirely irrelevant though. I used it for two purposes:
One was based on the simple observation that whether we like it or not, rankings and countdowns pull crowds. If I had announced at the beginning that this was just a series of great songs, without that competitive element, I doubt it would have gathered as much interest. That whole element of ‘fighting for your favorite to be included in the list’ would be been lost. So you see, the Devil can quote Scripture for his own ends. The ranking concept served a more important purpose than mere marketing, for the theme in the music was one of a wave gathering itself towards a crest. Incrementally the songs kept getting better, the notes of dissent kept getting fewer. The songs also got a bit more reflective (and in one case outright devotional), tackled the more serious issues, amidst the base romantic ones. Regardless of quality, if I’d thrown Seema in say #25, people would have howled. I held Seema back for an appropriate moment, willing to ignore those who were pressing me for Manna Dey (or thought I didn’t appreciate Manna Dey). By the time we reached Seema at #13, you my audience, were willing to give me the leeway for some whimsy.
The placement of the Shamshad song was, in my mind, absolutely critical. (Standalone, it was better placed a bit lower; because by the time Shamshad played, expectations were sky high, and many who wanted their personal favorites to be included grudged the loss of a valuable top-10 spot). But without Shamshad, the jump from the sweety-sweety Ye Raat Ye Chandni and Abhi na jao to the black despair of Pyaasa would have been too abrupt. I used the raw intensity of Meri Neendon me Tum as a bridge to smoothen that transition. (I’ve always found that song to be very intense, my write up was on those terms, I planned it on that basis; the fact that people reacted somewhat differently – syrupy, really?!! – couldn’t be anticipated.)
The climax really, was with the Pyaasa/Mughal-e-Azam/Baiju Bawra trio – the pinnacle of Hindi film music. What more can you have after Mohe Bhool Gaye Saawariya and O Duniya ke Rakhwaale, in terms of music and singing, and what more can you have after Pyaasa and Mughal-e-Azam in terms of histrionics, backed with the musical perfection of two extreme positions – one minimalist, the other with all the grandeur of the Mughal court?
One thing I’ve learnt from listening to Hindustani classical concerts, Western Classical music and from studying great literature is that the climax should not really be the end. I am sure great filmmaking will have the same precept, but I am not really a movie person, so others can validate this.
After the smoke and gunfire and the clash of cymbals, you need to come back gently to the ground, reflecting on what you’ve done or gone through. If you hear any great Mozart or Beethoven symphony, study the final fourth movement closely. (I don’t know about modern stuff – Som Bakshi is the go to man for Stravinsky and the like). The music finally turns introspective, lands you softly on the grass where you can rest and look at the sky.
I tried to do that with my #4 to #1.
We first had a light moment, with the contest and all the guesswork, a pause that helped us recover from the seriousness of what had just passed.
Then in Poocho na Kaise, Kuch Dil Ne Kaha and Man Re tu Kahe na Dhir Dhare, the music soothed and the mind turned inwards – it was still poignant, incredibly melodious, but the storm was over; each one of these songs was chosen for its place, not merely because each one standalone was one of the greatest solos ever sung by that singer (which I believe to be true), but equally because of the nature, theme and mood of those songs.
And I kept absolutely quiet, still, not wanting to disturb the music with unwanted commentary.
It finally ended with the brilliant question mark of Waqt ne Kiya.
In a comment to Sripriya Ranganathan, I’d said that I’d seriously considered ranking Tu Pyaar Ka Sagar Hai #1, and I was dead serious, for that was the only other possible ending in my mind. In the end, I went with my heart, because I absolutely adore Waqt ne Kiya. She said I was in love with Tu Pyaar Ka Sagar: true, but not to the degree I am in love with Waqt ne Kiya.
Surya Mantha commented in my Baiju Bawra post that I should have ended with Man Tarpat, and I thought at that point that he kind of understood what I was doing all along (which was wonderful to see). Yes, Man Tarpat could have been a #1, exactly like Tu Pyaar Ka Saagar Hai could have.
Muhajid Ali Khan suggested that knowing me, he thought I might have ranked ‘Ye Duniya agar Mil be jaaye’ as #1. He’s got a point. A couple of years ago (and even now, in one of my darker moods), I might have chosen that equally brilliant ending, giving the world the bird. I suppose I should consider myself fortunate that I didn’t happen to think of it at all!
I drew up my list of 80-odd and the final 30 in a 2-hr frenzy one evening. Then I immediately posted my very first post, announcing what I was planning to do. The actual final list differed from the original at exactly 3 points.
- I replaced Tu Ganga ki Mauj with O Duniya ke Rakhwale (more fitting for a climax), and this is why Man Tarpat would not have worked. It would have been a fitting #1, but not a #5. (In retrospect, I made a mistake here and Nidhi Kumar was quick to react. In going with the absolute-best song from that film from a musical perspective, I lost sight of the overall objective. The relatively cheerful tone of Tu Ganga ki Mauj would have been better, given that Mohe Bhool Gaye Saawariya was a song of lament, and the last 4 songs weren’t exactly disco numbers or even light romantic songs. The overall tone of the last 7-8 songs became somewhat sad and serious in consequence. But as I mentioned, the Rafi song choice was the one that confused me the most. I should have gone with my first instinct.)
- I replaced my original Kishore choice (Koi Humdum Na Raha) with Chingari, purely in order to have at least one Kishore-RD number in the mix. Perhaps my original instinct might again actually have been better – I don’t know.
- I replaced my original choice of song in SD Burman’s own voice (Doli Mein Bithai Ke) with the song from Bandini (Mere Saajan Hai Us Paar). When I started, I thought people would react only to the music; it soon became apparent that this was an inadequate view, hence the choice of a song that was every bit as good, and far more meaningful. I had never seen the video of Saawan Ka Mahina before, nor seen the movie, so the country bumpkin came as a bit of a nasty jar. My inclusion of the song was based purely on its sound. (Thank you Sumita Pathak for your encouragement, ‘You go ahead and do what you set out to do, don’t worry about folks who’re commenting on dresses’, at that critical stage when I was a bit rattled.) My own original purist position, however, does get reflected in the fact that I consider Baiju Bawra a greater soundtrack than Pyaasa or Mughal-e-Azam (I mean Bharat Bhushan, seriously? Meenakumari does salvage things a bit, but she’s a lone bird against the ranks of Guru Dutt / Waheeda and Dilip Kumar / Madhubala). It was not only me who felt the conflict throughout. See your own response to Pyar Kiya to Darna Kya – the audience was split midway between the purists, who said ‘classic, yes, but I never liked listening to it’, (and certainly there are other songs in Mughal-e-Azam which are better, musically), and the song-in-contexters, who had no such reservations.
Given that I did it in such a rush (and without looking up the Net for the long list, if you remember from my original post), naturally, I made mistakes. Here are my regrets / misses:
- Talat Mahmood (I don’t regret not including KL Saigal and Pankaj Mullick, because this list was always meant for an audience, and I honestly didn’t know what the level of that audience would be. I didn’t want it to end up being somewhat elitist, where 5 guys would nod sagely and say Wow, while the rest would leave the hall before the interval. The mistake was in clubbing Talat alongside – because I always felt he was an acquired taste. I am actually thrilled to learn how popular he is amongst those with a keen ear.)
- Salil Chowdary (I love Madhumati, Rajnigandha, O Sajna, Barkha Bahaar Aayi etc. Problem was Lata. How do you have diversity in the female voice, when you have the entire body of Lata’s work in front of you? I already had 8 Lata solos and 2-3 duets. Which of the 8 Latas could I give up for Madhumati? I thought of Mukesh from Madhumati, but then there might be too many Mukeshs. Ae Mere Pyare Watan would have worked well but I didn’t think of it.)
- I was very careful to showcase diversity across films, singers, composers, moods etc. What I missed was genres – qawwali and cabaret / equivalents. Certainly ‘Na to Karavaan Ki Talaash’ should go in straightaway and maybe the best of the cabarets or gangster-moll songs (Aaiye Meherbaan, Babuji Dheere Chalna, Aa Jaane Ja, Piya Tu, O Haseena Zulfowaali, Kahin pe Nigaahen, or a koli dance type like Shola jo Bhadke) should be in. In retrospect, this was a serious loss for the overall music, for it would have immediately provided light, cheerful moments in what is otherwise overall a somewhat serious tone. Qawwali and cabaret are both essential Hindi film music forms and they should have been present.
- The Jagjit Singh ghazal. Given the number of Ghazals I’ve heard, I could have picked a stronger one easily, across singers. That was an error of judgment. The sleazy Raj Babbar in a white suit and a polka-dot shirt didn’t help.
- Some of my most favorite soundtracks – Pakeezah, Madhumati (Zulmi sang aankh ladi would have been a fantastic inclusion!), Udan Khatola – didn’t get a place. Again some brilliant songs (esp. Rafisaab’s) such as ‘Hum Bekhudi me Tum ko Pukare’, ‘Tere Bin Soone’ I had to keep aside, with regret. Same with some brilliant Lata songs (O Sajna, Barkha Bahar Aaiyi, Chand Phir Nikla).
- I have no regrets about the Shamshad song, or the Parveen Sultana version, or Bhupen Hazarika or the first Geeta song – Ae Dil Mujhe Bata De, even if many of you didn’t agree they belonged to this list. I stand by those choices. Of course if we edit the list to include at least 1 Talat, 1 Salilda (from Madhumati surely), Na To Karavan and 1 cabaret, we’ll have to take a hard look at what to drop, and the question of having a 9th Lata song vs 1 from Shamshad will have to be addressed.
For the record here was the final distribution (I would be a poor Engg-MBA indeed without using at least some numbers, somewhere):
25 solos (13 Male, 12 female) and 5 duets.
8 Lata solos, 2 Geeta Dutt, 1 Asha, 1 Parveen Sultana.
4 Rafi solos, 2 Manna Dey, 1 each from Mukesh, Kishore, Burmanda, Hemantda, Jagjit, Bhupinder and Bhupen Hazarika
8 SD Burmans, 4 each from Naushad and Madan Mohan, 2 from Roshan and RD, 1 each from 10 other composers.
Kishore, Mukesh, Hemantda, Shamshad, Asha, Suman Kalyanpur in the duets. I tried to avoid Rafi and Lata in the duets where possible, as they were already well represented in the solos. A word about my own biases, which should be pretty obvious by now. Mostly, I didn’t speak openly about my negative biases, preferring to let you discover it through revealed preference. I was happy to extoll those that I adored, and my silence about others spoke in some way. On one occasion, Krishnan Swamy asked me specifically why I’d kept silent about S-J (in the Mukesh post), then I let rip in the comments.
8 SD Burmans appropriately reflect my positive bias.
Only 4 Rafi solos, on the other hand, under-reflect my positive bias.
The low number of Kishore and RDs appropriately reflects my negative bias.
The 8 Lata solos are DESPITE my negative bias.
When I hear Lata, I’m always torn between my love for the beauty of her voice and undoubted musical genius and my indifferent feelings for her as a person. So I’m not a dyed-in-the-wool Lata fan, the way I am of Rafisaab. This also affected my song choices. When I knew I had to pick 4 Rafis solos (OMG Only 4!), and Man Re, Baiju Bawra and Pyaasa were automatic picks, I unerringly flew back across all his great work in the 50s and 60s to land on ‘Suhaani Raat’ in 1949. My heart told me that was the right pick. My heart was not of much use with Lata, so the 8 Lata solos were largely a brain exercise. Those that are hardcore Lata fans will do a far better job.
So that’s pretty much it. You could do a different list of 30 that factors in your own preferences in songs, singers, composers etc. and it would work equally well. Someone who’s a mega RD – Kishore – Asha – OP Nayyar fan for instance, would arrive at a totally different mix.
But it would be a different Raga. This one is mine.
This has been an absolute pleasure and joy to do. I have made so many new friends, rediscovered old ones. Now I have the post-party housekeeping to do, which in this case is a happy job, consisting as it does of looking through the hundreds of clips you’ve all posted to rediscover forgotten classics and discover stuff I’d never heard (or heard of) before.