Unlike cinema in the rest of the world, songs are integral to our films, often playing to their disadvantage and digressing from their plots. However, this does not undermine the fact that our films have paid a lot of attention to make these songs, often spending more on songs than the rest of the film. This has made songs a melting pot of creativity, where acting, dance, staging, setting, camera, cuts, everything plays a role in telling a story, communicating an emotion, or inducing a certain mood in the audience.
Last month's Bengaluru Review published an essay on the picturisation of ‘Aap ki Yaad’, a song from Muzaffar Ali’s film, Gaman. This month, we have compiled a list of the most visually perfect video songs from Bollywood. This triggered in us a search for finding the masterpieces Bollywood has produced over the past decades. The songs where the visual and the phonic merge, creating a wholesome 4-5 minutes of magic. The list is in no way exhaustive. We might have missed some of your favourites, and even some obvious choices. Let us know your thoughts in the comments.
Jane Kya Tune Kahi : Pyaasa (1957)
Guru Dutt's Pyaasa remains a quintessential classic in Indian cinema. This is the first song in the film, when the main protagonists meet for the first time. Guru Dutt is a poet who receives no support from his family. His brothers have sold his poems in the flea market, and he is out on the streets of Kolkata grieving over his fate. He suddenly hears a woman's voice reciting one of his poems. He calls out, and Waheeda Rehman lights up the screen.
What follows next is magic. Guru Gutt follows her trying to enquire about the poem she's been singing, while Waheeda Rehman, who plays a kind-hearted prostitute, seduces him slowly, and gently into her street. The usage of light and shadows, and the streets of Kolkata are straight out of a Felliniesque universe. Notice how the camera always keeps Waheeda Rehman's dreamy emotive eyes at the center of the frame, and Guru Dutt is reduced to near insignificance as he follows her.
Ye Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye To : Pyaasa (1957)
We couldn't help but include another song from Pyaasa in the list. After all, Pyaasa is one of the earliest films to bravely use the medium of song to unravel pivotal incidents in a film, in this case its catharsis. Guru Dutt, who plays a poet in the film, has been declared dead by the publishers who have made a fortune by selling his poetry. He escapes the mental asylum where he has been forcibly kept, and enters, unbeknownst to him, a memorial service organised by the publishers to commemorate his death in abject poverty. In what is probably one of the greatest pieces of writing by Sahir Ludhianvi, the song is an elegy for the world ( which was later covered by Piyush Mishra ).
The song begins in almost a murmur, with Guru Dutt starting to sing his own poem, while still in the dark. Only the publisher on the stage recognises his voice. As his voice intensifies, we see the reactions of each important character. This is followed by a shot of the poet's Jesus Christ-like resurrection, with all heads turning back to see him. The song is a lesson in staging and camerawork. Notice how the movement on screen intensifies with music. And by the time Guru Dutt yells, "Jala Do Ise Foonk Daalo Ye Duniya" (burn this world down), we are already getting goosebumps.
Pukarta Chala Hoon Main : Mere Sanam (1965)
'Man pursuing woman' is a subject that most Bollywood songs end up completely ruining, often to the degree of showing it as predatory behaviour and sexual harassment. 'Pukarta Chala Hoon Main' from Amar Kumar's 'Mere Sanam' does the exact opposite. It is a lesson on how to deal with the subject with absolute grace, while keeping it quirky and interesting. And why not, when you have the suave of Biswajit Chatterjee, the breathtaking visuals of Kashmir, the playful voice of Md. Rafi, and O. P. Nayyar's swaying melody; you have everything needed to create a masterpiece.
The entire song is shot on a single road, with Biswajit Chatterjee following Asha Parekh and her cyclist friends in a jeep. When the setting itself is so mobile, every gesture, even a single glance or a tinge of smile from Asha Parikh matters. The multitude of girls pedaling their cycles in indifference add groove to Asha Parekh's cold disdain towards her aspirant, while the changing cyclist formations (from driving ahead of the jeep, to trailing behind, to linear patterns on a bridge) make the song dramatic and dynamic visually.
Ek Chatur Naar : Padosan (1968)
In what can be called Bollywood's fun filled response to Hitchcock's Rear Window, director Jyoti Swaroop's 'Padosan' remains a favourite for many. The film presents a boy-girl comedy, much of which is told through two windows. Sunil Dutt wants to impress his neighbour, Saira Banu, by claiming to be a talented singer. Kishore Kumar, his artist and spoilt friend, helps him fake musical performances from across the window, with their hilarious lip syncing sequences. Mehmood plays their arch-rival, who is a trained classical singer, and is also interested in winning Saira Banu's heart.
What follows next is a comedy of errors, with some of the most outrageous performances in Hindi cinema. While R. D. Burman's music is among his lifetime best, many of these songs remain a lesson in camera work and staging (watch ' Meri Pyari Bindu ', ' Mere Samne Wali Khidki Mein ', ' Kehna Hai ' in sequence to appreciate this). But if we were to pick one song from the film, it has to be 'Ek Chatur Naar'.
This is a complex song in every regard, with all four actors together in a musical duel. Notice how the camera is not hesitant to focus on Kishore Kumar and blur out Sunil Dutt (even when he's in the foreground). It is however, Mehmood, with his brilliant slapstick performance, who wins us in this song (and in spirit - Manna Dey - singing his lines). Saira Banu is a silent character, but notice her physical performance, straight out of the silent era masterpiece.
Chingari Koi Bhadke : Amar Prem (1972)
If 'Aradhana's' ' Roop Tera Mastana ' displays the quintessential Rajesh Khanna-Sharmila Tagore romance (notably shot without a single camera cut), 'Chingari Koi Bhadke' from Shakti Samanta's 'Amar Prem' is where the duo's 'chemistry' is at its best. With an entire song shot on a gently rocking boat in the Hoogly river against the iconic Howrah Bridge in the background, it creates drama with perfect character and camera movements, adding to the already magical Anand Bakshi's lyrics and Kishore Kumar's voice.
Notice how the song begins with the camera moving in one direction displaying the Howrah Bridge's lights at night, cut only by their shimmering reflection on water with camera moving in the opposite direction. Rajesh Khanna's inner torment is visible, as he shifts from one place to another on the boat, as Sharmila Tagore speaks only with her eyes. The camera movement is fluid, as it goes on to block, pan, and zoom in sync with the music and lyrics of the song.
Bade Accha Lagte Hain : Balika Badhu (1976)
Sachin and Rajni Sharma are a newly-wedded young couple, who have just started discovering their love for each other. Now that the girl has to leave her husband to visit her parents, they sit by a river, and Sachin starts singing. With a voice so fresh as Amit Kumar's (Kishore Kumar's son), and a lyric so poetic by Anand Bakshi, 'Bade Acche Lagte Hain' from Tarun Majumdar's Balika Badhu is depicts romance at its innocent best.
Most shots begin with a still frame, then the camera moves a little and stops by the end of line, giving us a glimpse into what they feel individually and as a couple. The Kans grass, the cumulus clouds, and the river are settings of quintessential Bengal right during the arrival of autumn. Notice how little the characters move, while the camera makes transcendent calculated movements merging with the nature that surrounds them.
Rim Jhim Gire Sawan : Manzil (1979)
Mumbai is Bollywood's home ground, with many films paying tribute to the city (notable ones include the melancholic ' Seene Mein Jalan, Aankhon Mein Toofan Sa Kyun Hai ' from Muzaffar Ali's Gaman, and the quirky ' Babu Samjho Ishare ' from Satyen Bose' 'Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi'. But if we were to pick one just one, it would the rain washed mega city in 'Rim Jhim Gire Sawan' from Basu Chatterjee's Manzil.
Amitabh Bachchan and Moushumi Chatterjee play a couple walking through the most iconic roads of rain washed Mumbai. Notice the powerful intimacy created by their clutch hands, and how Amitabh's slight stiffness adds much so much grace to Moushumi Chatterjee's energy. The camera movements are fluid, as it walks with them, and zooms in and out at will.
Chaiyya Chaiyya : Dil Se (1998)
If Bollywood is known for its larger than life dance sequences, Mani Ratnam's direction and Santosh Sivan's cinematography has revolutionised it over the past decades. Shot on top of a running metre gauge train in the Nilgiri mountains of Tamil Nadu, 'Chhaiya Chhaiya' is their magnum opus. From Gulzar's lyrics, A. R. Rehman's music (which recreates the excitement of the moving train), to the brilliant dance performances by Shahrukh Khan and Malaika Arora Khan; this is one song Bollywood will take pride in for decades to come.
Notice how the camera cuts from closeups and mid shots to long shots, showing the entire train. The cuts are during motion and the matches are perfect. Kudos to the entire dance crew. With the train going into narrow trenches, over tall bridges, and inside dark tunnels, the setting adds mysticism. There is perfect chemistry between the two actors, but also a sense of carefree fun. If item numbers have given us a lot of bad songs, this is one song which our future generations will be thankful for.
Mera Jahan : Taare Zameen Par (2007)
Of course there are many songs with great performances from children, from this classic shot in a train in Nitin Bose's 'Hum Kahan Ja Rahe Hain', to ' Dadi amma dadi amma maan jao ' from SS Vasan's Gharana. However, there something special about Aamir Khan's 'Taare Zameen Par', which tells the story of an an eight year-old dyslexic child, played by Darsheel Safary. Add to it Adnan Sami's meditative voice and Prasoon Joshi's lyrics set to Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's composition, and it becomes a recipe for greatness.
What happens when Darsheel runs away from school and is lost in the city of Mumbai? Nothing. He just observes the city in action, and goes back home at the end of the day. In a sequence of near-poetic montages, we see Darsheel's world closely. It is not just a silent ode to the burgeoning city, but turns out to be much more. A poor labourer man buys an ice gola for his son, then lifts him up on his shoulders and walks away. As Darsheel watches them intently, we empathise with him who is much better off, but lacks a father who would believe in him, a void which is later filled Aamir Khan, his teacher. An event that could have been overly dramatic or transformational, is used just to develop the character of the film's main protagonist, and in such a brilliant way.
Lahu Munh Lag Gaya : Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-leela (2013)
If Mughal-e-Azam started big set dramas with elaborate choreographed dance sequences , Sanjay Leela Bhansali is one modern director who has really taken this to its limits, may it be 'Devdas' or 'Bajirao Mastani'. It all started with 'Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam', which begins with a brilliant character introduction to Aishwarya Rai, who dances her way to defeating a group of men in the game of lagori (also known as pitto). But if you thought 'Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam' had the best Garba sequences, wait till you see 'Lahu Munh Lag Gaya' from his 2013 film 'Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-leela'.
In his telling of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the boy and girl meet for the first time as this song unfolds. But unlike in Pyaasa, their chemistry is not subtle. It is loud and flared up with romantic exchanges between the two, followed by one of the best choreographed dance sequences in recent cinema. From initial flirting between the two, to a beautifully synced dance sequence. The fluid camera movements capture the swaying garba movements to perfection, and the acting and dance efforts from both Deepika Padukone and Ranveer Singh are commendable. There is a part where Ranveer stops dancing to watch Deepika, and she bumps into him just in time of the clap, which has the potential for giving us goosebumps every time we watch it.
Badra Bahaar : Queen (2014)
Enough with love songs for cities. How does one show the opposite? A woman who has just been rejected by her fiancee right before their marriage, decides to visit Paris alone for her honeymoon. She does this to take control of her life, but feels lost, betrayed, and insecure in the mega city. How do you depict it in a song? Well, Vikas Bahl does this to perfection in Queen.
Worded by Anvita Dutt and composed by Amit Trivedi, the first half of the song is picturised as a montage of events, ranging from failing to cross the street to witnessing happy couples around her. The second half turns this insecurity into a phallic symbol, when she suddenly discovers the Eiffel Tower imposing over her, and tries to run away from it. Suddenly a slow song has jumpy and paced-up running sequences - a perfect manifestation of her feelings towards an unknown city.