India’s story since Independence has been told countless times. There have been books of history and politics, memoirs, biographies, not to forget literary fiction, each of which sheds light on India in its own way. Note by Note written by journalists Ankur Bhardwaj, Seema Chishti and Sushant Singh is a unique addition to the shelf. It chronologically retells the story of the country, while also attempting something that has not been done before – pegging each year to Hindi film songs that define that age and era.

Why songs?

The 70 years of India’s independent journey are segmented into decades. Each chapter starts with a paragraph of song lyrics that introduce the year, and is in some way connected to it, before going on to narrate the significant events that took place on the national front. What is astonishing is the sheer amount of information, condensed and fit within the pages, while pegged to songs that reverberated as “India’s background score” that year.

But why film songs over any other medium? The authors explain this (and much more) in the Introduction, which frames the book, noting: “...what stayed and touched all lives was the Hindi film song. It reflected and absorbed what it was to be India and Indian, in its various dimensions. Political and social turmoil, love, separation, the impossibility of love, India’s poverty, injustices, struggles and its other stark realities found a voice, literally, in the Hindi film song.

A striking aspect of this book is the choice of songs and how they have been used by the authors to move beyond the ambit of the films or characters to which they belong. The book does great service to Hindi film songs by pushing them outside the realm of entertainment and revealing them to be more thoughtful than often assumed.

Over the decades

Take for example the chapter on the year 1953, which starts with the lyrics of the song Mausam Beeta Jaaye from the film Do Bigha Zameen. The movie is about “ordinary lives made even more ordinary by their tragic circumstances” and the song captures the mood of a population fighting the zamindaari system. The year 1982 starts with Tum Itna Jo Muskura Rahe Ho from the layered movie Arth, released the same year as the flamboyant Disco Dancer. The contrast of these films reflects the larger contrasts between the events and the politics of that year.

By the year 1996, India had changed gears and saw many shifts in a post-liberalisation economy, and the song Chod Aaye Hum from Maachis serves as an ideal background score. The song chosen for 2017 is Safar from the film When Harry Met Sejal, about meandering protagonists finding themselves while on an ever changing journey. This was the year India saw itself grappling with the implications of policy and national security decisions, and often the savage face of majoritarianism. The song serves as a hopeful end – the journey of the Indian Republic is far from over.

Sometimes the songs (especially in the first four decades) effortlessly mesh with the social and political events of their time. They make an easy connection with the growing years of the nation. But sometimes, despite being popular songs, they reflect a mood or a feeling, rather than displaying a pointed connection to an event or a movement. While it is impossible to construct similar parallels across years and lyrics, this inconsistency perhaps is also a reflection on Hindi films. Their focus has inadvertently shifted over time from broader societal discourse to the individual, private life, and internal emotions. All the songs however succeed in magnifying one thing, which the Introduction mentions, “Something intangible and tough to capture, but something very much present, constitutes the stuff that binds India and makes it tick.”

Merging genres

If the reader is an absolutist of genres and styles, she may be disappointed in Note by Note because this is not a book only about Hindi film songs or the industry. Nor is it an analytical tome attempting to answer the many questions which plague India. But if a reader is a Hindi film aficionado with a broader interest in Indian society, she will find each song and its contextualisation, riveting. If a reader is a history and politics buff with an interest in all the layers and influences which make a nation, she will find the songs, observations, and nuggets of information fascinating. The authors serve precisely what they intend the book to be: a “travelogue of India’s journey since Independence, where Hindi film music is a constant accompaniment as you move from one milestone to another.”

It has become fashionable to ask “What even happened in India over the last 70 years?”, taking for granted the evolution of this complex nation, and reducing it to the narrow window of the present. This book lays down context and retells all that happened through the years – the historical elections that strengthened a democracy, the conflicts and tragedies that dented a nation without threatening its survival, the institutions built with long-term goals, a progressive Constitution and the subsequent laws created, and the vision and fight of the people who helped shape India’s destiny. Much has happened in India over the last 70 years, and this book is a succinct, musical, and a hopeful reminder of it all.

Note by Note: The India Story 1947-2017, Ankur Bhardwaj, Seema Chishti, Sushant Singh, HarperCollins India.