Balaji Vittal and Anirudha Bhattacharjee won the National Award for best film book in 2012, for RD Burman: The Man, The Music. Their new collaboration, Gaata Rahe Mera Dil: 50 Classic Hindi Film Songs, expands the canvas to look at some of the most iconic songs from the long and varied history of Hindi-film music. The book combines deep-seated knowledge of musical traditions, anecdotes and back-stories, and analysis of what these songs contributed to the form and language of Hindi cinema. Excerpts from an interview.

Your book on RD Burman was one of our most detailed cinema books and clearly a labour of love, but this must have been an even more daunting project. Such a huge treasure trove to choose from, thousands of songs representing many musical forms. What criteria did you use to keep the list down to fifty?
Anirudha Bhattacharjee: The song had to be well known. It had to be very melodious. It should have struck a chord with the listeners when released and also thereafter. Nostalgia value was a must.
Balaji Vittal: We wanted to pay tribute to the composers, lyricists, filmmakers and singers who comprise the hall of fame. Anyone who reads Gaata Rahe… should get a panoramic view of the who’s who of Bollywood playback. But yes, it’s true that even 500 songs wouldn’t have been enough!

Did you go for as much variety as possible? What are the extremes represented here – between, say, Hindustani classical and western-influenced music?
AB: We went mostly by gut feeling. We did think of genres – like the rain song, the qawwali, semi-classical, disco, songs set on modes of transport like the train, the boat and the car, ghost songs, the ghazal, medley, soliloquy, cabaret, Arabic, etc – but in the end it was the heart ruling the head. We found that we had missed the lullaby, but some of the songs chosen are soft and tranquil enough to act as lullabies too.

We tried not to include our personal favourites – else, the list might have been very different. Having said that, we were both born in the 1960s, and most of the songs are from the period 1951 to 1977. We prefer arrangements without clutter, hence we avoided very fast and frivolous songs as well as songs with an overdose of leather.

BV: Variety in genre, instrumentation and mood were key. One can also see from the selection the gradual changes in the landscape in the choice of instruments, recording techniques and arrangement styles, as well as the different sound flavours identified with different singers and composers, and the personal styles of different poets.

You begin with a prologue about Babul Mora (from the 1938 film Street Singer) and then Chale Pawan ki Chaal (from the 1941 Doctor). How did these early songs pave the direction of Hindi-film music?
BV: How could we think of writing a book on Bollywood music history and not pay homage to KL Saigal? Babul Mora was not playback; the song was recorded live while the sequence was being shot. It is a landmark that represents a period before playback singing. This chapter is followed by a rare translated extract about how the idea of playback singing came into being.

Chale Pawan ki Chaal can be technically called the first road-song, set in a fast-paced rhythm that OP Nayyar would patent later. It is very significant for other reasons too, as you will read in the book – not the least being that it features another granddaddy of Indian films, Pankaj Mallick.

AB: I think the best-remembered songs are those that we can hum along to. Babul Mora is such a song, which, despite being from the 1930s, gives the average listener a comfort level. This was a light song with a classical base (Bhairavi / Sindhu Bhairavi), and subsequently defined the type of songs that would flood Hindi films. Most of the other songs before or around that time were rather complicated and mandated a generous level of classical knowledge. Their reach too was relatively low.

When in your view did the defining era for Hindi-film music begin? Who and what were the major catalysts?
AB: Each era came with its own flavour. The 1930s and the 1940s were more in the mould of sombre songs. Raichand Boral, Pankaj Kumar Mallick, Khemchand Prakash, Anil Biswas, brought in lots of folk and classical music. Husnlal Bhagatram were the masters of Punjabi melodies – as was Naushad, who fused UP folk with Indian classical music. C Ramachandra was an instinctive composer, and his melodies were very fresh even when he blended Indian music and western genres. SD Burman came with his repository of Bengali folk and Rabindra Sangeet. He was perhaps the greatest singer among the old masters.

However, the first defining era I think is the 1950s. Shankar Jaikishan changed the landscape. Their melody was light, and their arrangement trendy. They could also handle large orchestras and could create a big sound without being noisy. They influenced an entire generation of composers.

OP Nayyar had a style which was very different from any other composer of his time or any other time. Madan Mohan tasted little commercial success, but is one of the most revered composers even today, forty years after he left us. His tunes were very intense, and could create a deep feeling of tearful craving.

Salil Chowdhury was the composer’s composer, I don’t think there will ever be another like him. His knowledge of Indian melody and Western Classical-based arrangement is still unparalleled in Indian film music. Roshan fiddled with lots of classical music, but came out with soft, simple, and hummable tunes. Sajjad Hussain’s songs make you feel that he was a thoroughbred perfectionist. Jaidev and Khayyam had a distinctive style, which they could maintain through three decades. Film music evolved during the 1950s.

The next defining time was the coming home of RD Burman. He redefined sound. And AR Rahman, with his electronic sound, could be the catalyst of our times.

BV: It is impossible to pick one, two or even three catalysts. Every era has set a new level. The inconclusiveness is what makes for interesting debates. One more pitcher of beer please

Was Hindi-film music in the 1930s and 1940s limited by primitive technology? You mention that there weren’t proper reverb systems and that mikes needed to be heated and prepared, which complicated the song-recording process. And were there any upsides to this – in the sense that it forced composers and musicians to innovate?
AB: Primitive, yes. Recording facilities were limited. Studios were not equipped in the manner one would have liked them to be. Regarding innovation, I would not be able to comment as I was not there then. One needs to be there to understand what went on. Armchair journalism in film and music is the reason why nobody takes the critic seriously.

BV: Fifty years from now, when someone writes another Gaata Rahe Mera Dil, they will state that the early 2000s were limited by primitive technology! The industry will keep innovating, of course. But it would be sad if technology were to completely replace melody – music should always be about melody first. Everything else later. Our book has emphasised this.

You mostly focus on the songs themselves – the music, instrumentation and lyrics – but there are a few instances (e.g. the grand Awaara dream sequence) where you dwell on the picturisation too. When you think of your favourite Hindi-film songs, are the visuals an essential part of your fondness for them?
BV: Absolutely! In motion pictures, visual appeal is important. It demonstrates the film-maker’s imagination. The split-screen sequence of Ek Pyar ka Naghma Hai (Shor) shows a happy family as well as the calamity that hits them, and the submission to destiny. Each mood is captured so poignantly on the lens by Manoj Kumar. Also check out Raj Kapoor’s passion for the grandiosity in the medley in Awaara. Or how Yash Chopra brings adultery into the flower gardens of the Netherlands. But we also love songs that have been left out of the film altogether.

AB: I love all forms of music. Visuals are secondary. Some songs are BHNS (Better Heard and Not Seen, a piece of jargon in use on social media since the days of Yahoo Groups). For the regular viewer, however, visuals do play a very important role.

You mention that there have been times when a beautiful song had already been composed and the director had to create a situation for it in the film’s narrative – even something as iconic as Waqt Ne Kiya, Kya Haseen Sitam (Kaagaz ke Phool). Any instances of key films that moved away from a director’s or writer’s initial vision because of the demands of the music?
AB: Many. SD Burman was someone who could create or alter song situations. Mora Gora Ang Lai Le (Bandini) is one, where he demanded that Kalyani (Nutan) should sing this song outside her house. Another would be Jaltein Hain Jiske Liye (Sujata), where the phone was brought in as a prop at Burman’s insistence.

BV: The star system sometimes played a role in this too. Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli (Anand) was supposed to be a background song, but Rajesh Khanna found the song so enchanting that he wanted to be part of it. Raza Murad also had reportedly stated that Main Shaayar Badnaam (Namak Haraam) was supposed to be pictured on him. Priya Rajvansh too wanted a piece of Tum Jo Mil Gaye Ho (Hanste Zakhm) and so the Lata Mangeshkar one-liner was added later.

Picking a single representative song from a soundtrack as brilliant and varied as Guide (SD Burman) must have been very difficult. Why did you go for Mose Chhal Kiye Jaaye / Kya se Kya ho Gaya?
AB: To be very frank, it gave us the opportunity to showcase two songs instead of one within the same story. It also sums up the dilemma of the lead pair, of having loved and lost.

BV: This twin song – Mose Chhal Kiye Jaaye / Kya se Kya ho Gaye – was the climax of the saga, when Raju and Rosie, the estranged lovers, confront each other. Their estrangement had to go through that one final public catharsis where each accuses the other. The twin song sums up their ornate tragedy. S.D. Burman had composed two very different-sounding songs with the same tune, which was incredible. And Fali Mistry’s cinematography painted the tears of Raju and Rosie in motley colors.

The use of the song in Hindi cinema has undergone a change. In the earlier sort of sequence, actors lip-synched and the narrative entered a new, “non-realistic” space when a song began. Now songs tend to be used more as background, running through a film in snatches rather than occupying a separate five-six-minute space. Has this in your view affected their charm or durability?
BV: You think so? I observe nowadays a number of song sequences force-fitted just to capture the music-channel space and for DJs to add to their playlists. In fact, many of them feature in the closing credit rolls. So technically they are not part of the storyline at all! Film producers are trying to cover some of their investments beforehand – all you need to do is throw in a Bhangra mix or a tapori number. That is why many of the songs today are quickly forgotten and replaced by new ones. Many of them sound similar anyway – synthetic voices, same rhythm.

AB: How many songs, say from the last ten years, can you sing in full? I bet you would not be able to name ten. Previously, people used to remember songs with the full set of music – preludes, interludes and coda. Hemant Kumar said even snake charmers would use his been music. The connect then was both aural and visual; the common man become the character while crooning the songs. That art is almost extinct.

Actors like Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor and Nutan gave us so many outstanding performances within song sequences. Do you get the impression that the young actors of today are more self-conscious about doing old-style musical scenes?
AB: The running-around-trees business was invented as an escape mechanism; it never happens in real life. Singing while running around trees or in rocking boats is an exercise best avoided! And singing while biking or driving could be life-threatening as well. The new-age filmmakers and actors are perhaps more conscious about this, as is the metro audience. Obviously, the language of Hindi cinema has been affected.

What we really lost in this transition is the “sad song”. I went to a corporate fest in Gurgaon as a judge and found that there were at least five entries where the song was Abhi Mujh Mein Kaheen (Agneepath, 2012), one of the best songs of recent times. This shows that people still love melody and are sold on sad songs too. But today we seldom create nice, lovable sad melodies, something like Main Shaayar Badnaam (Namak Haraam) or Sada Khush Rahe Tu (Pyar ka Sagar).

Also, the new heroes do not have innately romantic voices. Imagine Hemant Kumar or Talat Mahmood singing for, say, a Shah Rukh Khan or a Sanjay Dutt. It is almost nightmarish! How many leading stars would be able to pull off a Kuch Toh Log Kahenge, I wonder? Or a Saranga Teri Yaad Mein?

Related to this: most of the major directors from the 1950s and 1960s had a degree of training in music, and they took the shooting of song sequences seriously. V Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, and, later, Vijay Anand, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Nasir Hussain. Have we in some ways moved away from that culture to one where directors are not as entrenched in music?
AB: Technology often comes with a price tag. I do not know how much the present-day directors know music. However, the directors you named were all musically very creative. Shantaram is supposed to have helped his composers with the creation of tunes. Raj Kapoor could play more than one instrument (he in fact played the tabla with Kishore Kumar during the latter’s audition at a radio station) and at times used to play secondary percussion during the recording of background scores of his films. Guru Dutt brought with him the teachings of Uday Shankar’s school. Vijay Anand supposedly learnt music, and the Anands as a family were known for their musical sense. Hrishikesh Mukherjee was a sitarist himself. Nasir Husain understood what works and what does not, and, as per Pancham, could inspire composers to give their best.

Add the fact that their stories were “socials” and mostly woven around the theme of romance. Today there is lot of aggression in stories. It certainly does not lead to musical output.

BV: Even today’s filmmakers, we are sure, understand music. But when a producer has invested Rs 200 crore, the director is left with very little room. Forget music, the director would not even have much of a say in the screenplay. The music often has to match the hero’s persona and the lowest denominator of public tastes.

I noticed that post-1982, you only have one other song from the 1980s (from Qayamat se Qayamat Tak). Was that a particularly dry decade for Hindi-film music? And if so, why?
AB: Well, you’ll agree that the 1980s were not what you call very musical. The best singers were past their prime. Some were no more. Creative composers got less work. I feel that the mass-scale migration from villages and small towns to cities created a culture which was not conducive for cerebral consumption. Also, a film named Deedar-e-Yaar failed in 1982. The producer, who was also the hero, went south to recover losses and played the leading role there in a few films….. Whatever happened next is history, and better not discussed here!

BV: The Bappi Lahiri brand of music in the period between 1982 and 1988 was all nonsense. Even today when I hear Oo La La from Dirty Picture, it brings back bad memories of Ui Amma from Mawaali. Kudos to Jagjit Singh for having creating global space for the non-film ghazal. Thirty-year industry veteran Khayyam came up with a stunning album in Bazaar. And RD Burman too delivered the oceanic Saagar. But by and large, 1983-1988 was musically very bad.

The music matched the quality of the films. We have had badly made films earlier too, but in these, the intent itself was shallow – Sridevi’s vulgar pelvic grinding, or the imitation disco stories, were made solely to cater to the front-bench audience. These could not be viewed with the family.

And then came the revival in QSQT.

The last song included in the list is Roja’s Dil hai chhota sa, chhoti si asha. Why end in 1993?
AB: We kept a threshold of twenty years for a song to be in public memory before including it. And we finished writing the book in 2013.

BV: A song has to stand the test of time for at least (we guess) two decades for it to be considered a classic. We have included Dil Se in the “new age” tributes. Albums like Dil Chahta Hai, Don, Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi and select tracks from Omkara, Tashn, 3 Idiots, Badmash Company, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Chak de India, Ye Jawani Hai Diwani will make for enjoyable listening years later too.

This is the sort of project that can easily move beyond the confines of a one-time printed book. Have you considered expanding it into a website with essays on other songs, as well as multimedia and space for discussion? Or a regularly updated e-book?
AB: Never thought of it, but now, as you have mentioned it, we are thinking! A friend who works out of Kuala Lumpur had actually suggested this.

BV: In the countdown to the launch, we have already published posts on the songs that could not be included in the 50 Classics list. The Facebook page on the book invites discussions and debates. The back cover of the book urges everyone to write their own stories on 50 or 100 songs! We would love to see Gaate Rahe Mera Dil start a trend of more music fans crafting their own list of songs.

Two people writing a book together: how does that work? Does one of you handle research while the other does the actual writing, or is it more integrated than that?
AB: We share the workload. Both of us do the running around and writing, and exchange chapters to review/add/edit material. For this particular book, Balaji did a lot of travelling though. You will find many firsthand interviews which he managed via extensive travel.

BV: We have participated in college quizzes and Antakshari contest together, and hence always enjoyed a deep understanding. We research independently so that we get more “masala”. While drafting the manuscript, we alternate between one of us writing the first draft and the other adding to it. Sometimes an insightful interview with a luminary itself provides the core of the story script e.g. in the case of Woh Shaam Kuch Ajeeb Thi (Khamoshi). It starts with composer Hemant Kumar stretching out his long legs and telling Gulzar something... and, in a snap, Gulzar gets the first two lines of the song.

There are more cinema books in India now than there were a few years ago. But when it comes to something like popular cinema (or in this case, popular film music), do we have enough people willing to read thoughtful literature about it? Or is there still the attitude “Watch the film/listen to the music and that’s enough. No need to analyse”?
AB: Rightly said. Film magazines are seen and not read. Most film books read either like a PhD thesis / seminar paper, or something like a cheap bestseller. Film music books are worse. Serious writers are very few, and what we get is mostly gossip or 30 superlatives spread in many forms over 200-250 pages. Forget research, there is not even basic sincerity.

However, film criticism is now acknowledged as a subject. The awareness level of the audience is now higher. The Internet, now a household commodity, has been a major catalyst in the change – hence we do have a serious readership for cinema. Though after a certain point, most readers tend to get restive.

Somehow, our DNA is attuned to stories and gossip, and not appreciating the technicalities of cinema. I am told that film-based books, apart from autobiographies by stars, do not sell. Coffee-table books sell because of their novelty value and celeb tags.

Given the state of things, we thought that there is a world to be explored in dissecting popular film music. Hence we did get into analyses. It also helps us appreciate music better. I always ask myself – why do I like this? And then try and put my mind into it. I call up my friend Ranjan Biswas too – he is a brilliant Western classical musician – to discuss progressions and chords.

BV: Things will change, we hope. Wanting to read about your favourite music or film is a natural progression. The success of Anupama Chopra’s book on Sholay or yours on Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro bear testimony to this. But writers must make sure that the research is original and that the stories are interestingly told, keeping the general audience in mind. 

A technical discourse will not sell. Also, e-book versions present easier procurement and storage options. These would help. I get the sense that the publishers have that 3,000 copies number in mind when launching a film book title. The traditional channels will work in a limited way only. Publishers must invest in film- and music-based books with newer and more innovative channels of distribution. They must leverage social media to create those affinity groups, forums etc.

You stress in the introduction that there could be dozens more books like this, with completely different lists of classic songs. Could you name just five songs that you seriously regret not being able to include here? (I know that will be another torturous exercise in list-paring!)
AB: Five is too small a number. I can easily name a hundred. If you notice, we have kept the selection to one song per film. Say for example, in a film like Amar Prem, any of three Kishore songs or the two Lata solos could have been there. Hence, we used the chapter to talk about all the five. Using this principle, the number of songs actually discussed in the book could be 200. However, to name just five (and this list will be entirely personal, and I am not considering the films which are already there in the book), in no particular order:

Mujhe Le Chalo (Sharaabi, 1964): The ultimate sad song in my opinion. There was a time when I used to get up early in the morning and sing this song at a stretch.

Lau Lagati (Bhabhi ki Choodiyan, 1961): My favourite Yaman from films. There is a Marathi / Konkani touch which makes it sound so honeyed.

Na Tum Bewafa Ho (Ek Kali Muskayee, 1969): This is my dearest Lata-Madan Mohan song. Even today I call up my friend Pathasarathi Bhattacharyya Ekalavya any time of the day and ask him to sing this song. He knows my fixation and never says no. He is, of course, easily one of the best singers today in Bengal – just that he is an oncologist by profession.

Aaja Piya Tohe Pyaar Doon (Baharon ke Sapne, 1967) / Baahon Mein Chale Aao (Anamika, 1973): Two songs which made me take note of a composer named Rahul Dev Burman. The reason why I could write the previous book. And this one too.

Ankhon Ankhon Mein Hum Tum (Mahal, 1969): My favourite romantic song. There are very few days when I do not sing this. Connects me to my childhood, the rains, and one very cold night in 1989 when this song was playing on someone’s tape, softly cutting through the pin-drop silence of the fog, taking me back in time. Very nostalgic.

BV: O Sajna Barkha Bahaar Aayee (Salil Chowdhury, Parakh); Mere Sapno ki Rani Kab Ayegi Tu (S.D. Burman, Aradhana); Na Tum Bewafa Ho (Madan Mohan, Ek Kali Muskayee); Aapki Yaad Ati Rahi Raat Bhar (Jaidev, Gaman); Sajanwa Bairi Ho Gaye Hamaar (Shankar-Jaikishen – Teesri Kasam).

Balaji Vittal (left) and Anirudha Bhattacharjee.