Every Hindi film music composer is associated with a particular sound. With Laxmikant-Pyarelal, it’s the dholak; RD Burman equals zaniness; SD Burman represents the melodiousness of everyday sounds; Bappi Lahiri is all about the disco beat. But when it comes to Nadeem-Shravan, no signature timbre comes to mind. One of the most successful Hindi film composers of all time, Nadeem Saifi and Shravan Rathod were the first of the new-generation music directors who went on to define the 1990s Hindi film sound.

Nadeem and Shravan struggled for a decade before hitting the jackpot with Aashiqui (1990). Unlike Shankar-Jaikishan, Laxmikant-Pyarelal and Kalyanji-Anandji, Nadeem-Shravan’s golden phase lasted for only about 10 years, but their collective impact on Hindi film music has been enduring. Everything they touched turned to gold right, including Saajan (1991), Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin (1991), Saathi (1991), Phool Aur Kaante (1991), Sadak (1991), Deewana (1992), Hum Hai Rahi Pyar Ke (1993), Dilwale (1994) and Raja Hindustani (1996). Even movies that might not have otherwise stood a chance, such as Jaan Tere Naam (1992), Panaah (1992), Rang (1993) and Salaami (1994) became hits because of their music. Until they slipped into obscurity due to changing music tastes and Saifi’s alleged involvement in the murder of Gulshan Kumar in 1997, they were undisputed chart-toppers.

‘Ghoongat Ke Aad Se’ from ‘Hum Hain Rahi Pyar Ke’.

Unlike other composers, Nadeem-Shravan asserted their dominance over singers and lyricists. Hindi film music is known to place the tune above the words, and it’s rare for a song to be composed to already written lyrics. Yet, music composers were secondary to star singers and lyricists. By the time Nadeem-Shravan came into their own, this phase had passed.

Aashiqui featured Kumar Sanu and Anuradha Paudwal, singers seen as a Kishore Kumar clone and a poor man’s Lata Mangeshkar respectively. The soundtrack was more ghazal-oriented than expected, considering that the 1990 film was a romance between a night club singer and a fashion model. With Gulshan Kumar as producer and Mahesh Bhatt as director, Aashiqui was a strange mix of two distinctive kinds of tastes. Produced by T-Series founder and music industry baron Gulshan Kumar, the label was closely associated with tunes that would resonate with average listeners. Mahesh Bhatt, on the other hand, catered to the thinking classes with cultured scores such as in Arth (1982).

‘Nazar Ke Saamne’ from ‘Aashiqui’.

Nadeem Shravan’s arrangement in Aashiqui was a mix of the traditional sounds of Shankar-Jaikishan and Laxmikant-Pyarelal and the melody of RD Burman with a dash of Bappi Lahiri and Anand-Milind. It’s not as though the composers were free from allegations of plagiarism. “Jaane Jigar Jaan-e-mann” from Aashiqui sounds eerily similar to Bappi Lahiri’s “Duniya Mein Tere Siva” from Aandhiyaan (1990), while “Mera Dil Tere Liye” is a copy of “You’re the Voice” by John Farnam.

Yet, Aashiqui sealed the pair’s fate. They delivered one hit after another in 1991, including Saajan, Saathi, Phool Aur Kaante), Dil Hai Ki Maanta Nahin), Pyaar Ka Saaya and Sadak. Besides Sameer, they collaborated with relatively lesser-known lyricists such as Rani Malik, Surendra Sathi, Anwar Sagar, Madan Pal, Nawab Arzoo, Aziz Khan and Vishweshwar Sharma. At times, Nadeem-Shravan went beyond Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan and used singers such as Vipin Sachdeva.

Through the rest of the 1990s, the duo had a couple of big hits every year with major labels, including T-Series, Venus and Tips. Movies were sold on their name, such as Jaan Tere Naam (1992), Dil Ka Kya Kasoor (1992), Deewana (1992), Panaah (1992), Rang (1993), Dilwale (1994), Raja (1995), Jeet (1996), and Sirf Tum (1999). Their names and photographs were added to posters and cassette jackets. Rumours swirled around them, adding to their public image – they had a music bank with a thousand ready tunes; they would get their suits for annual Filmfare Awards tailored months in advance.

‘Tujhe Na Dekhoon To Chain’ from ‘Rang’.

By 1993, Nadeem-Shravan were at the top of their game. Their only real contender was AR Rahman, whose music for Mani Ratnam’s Tamil movie Roja (1992) crossed borders after it was dubbed in Hindi along with its music. With Rangeela (1995), Rahman had delivered his first official Hindi film score. The sophistication of Rahman’s music was missing from Nadeem-Shravan’s soundtracks. The more Rahman worked in Hindi cinema, the further leading producers moved away from Nadeem-Shravan.

Every time Nadeem-Sharavan tried to change or even slightly deviate from their signature style, they fell short. Even when they worked with filmmakers known for their exceptional music, they ended up being the weakest link, such as Subhash Ghai’s Pardes (1997), Indra Kumar’s Raja and Rishi Kapoor’s Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999). Nadeem-Shravan remained the best at what they did even with later hits such as Dhadkan (2000) and Raaz (2002), but the definition of what they excelled at had changed and left them behind.

‘Tum Dil Ki Dhadkan Mein’ from ‘Dhadkan’.

The biggest factor to topple Nadeem-Shravan wasn’t changing tastes in Hindi film music, the ascent of AR Rahman, or the strong competition from Jatin-Lalit. It was the shocking allegation of Nadeem Saifi’s involvement in Gulshan Kumar’s murder on August 12, 1997, in Mumbai. The killing came at the height of gang warfare in the city, and it was suspected that the underworld was responsible. However, the Mumbai Police accused Saifi of ordering the hit on Kumar because the composer allegedly felt that the music company head was trying to finish off his career. Saifi was in London at the time of this revelation, and he has never returned to India. A Mumbai sessions court in 2002 convicted only one man out of 19 suspects and disregarded the prosecution’s suggestion of a wider conspiracy, but Saifi stills needs to appear before an Indian court if the warrant against him is to be dropped.

The enforced distance between the collaborators deeply affected their working style. Nadeem would compose tunes over the phone or the internet from London, while Shravan would arrange and record them in India. Some of their most popular tunes came after the Kumar murder, such as Sirf Tum (1999), Dhadkan (2000), Kasoor (2001) and Raaz (2002). Their final film score was, strangely enough, for Dosti: Friends Forever (2005).

Today, Anu Malik, who composed the music for Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015), is more readily associated with the sound of the 1990s. However, Nadeem-Shravan’s 1990s hits continue to play on in the remote corners of India. Their music means different things to different people in different places, almost mirroring what writer Graham Greene said about a good story – one that has no beginning or end, and in which the reader arbitrarily chooses the moment of experience from which to look back or ahead.

‘Haan Mujhe Pyar Huaa Allah Miya’ from ‘Judaai’.