You won’t find the phrase “song picturisation” in the dictionary, but the Indianism accurately describes the art of shooting songs in Indian cinema. The full impact of a film tune can be felt only when the choreography, cinematography, editing, production design, locations and the efforts of the actors cohere into a whole. These skills especially come into play for rain songs. This unique sub-category of film music pops up on the timeline during the May heat and explodes in June and July when the clouds finally shower their munificence on the parched earth.
On the surface, rain songs are easy enough to shoot: drown the actors and extras in enough liquid to quench Marathwada’s thirst, and concentrate especially hard on the drenched female. Yet, rain song shooting is as much as of an art as song shooting itself. In our admittedly short selection of five evocative monsoon numbers, several factors – chance, chutzpah and careful choreography – combine to create memorable montages of India’s most romantic season.
‘O Sajna’ from Bimal Roy’s ‘Parakh’ (1960)
Bimal Roy’s vision for Salil Chowdhury’s best-known song from Parakh (1960) hews close to the director’s famed simplicity and directness. Unlike most movie rain songs, in which men and women jump around like jackrabbits, Sadhana’s character sedately walks around the porch of her house and retreats indoors as the rain does its work outside. Shots of wet trees and puddles are interspersed with close-ups of Sadhana’s radiant face as she speaks of the romance that has found its way from her surroundings to her heart. The power of the song (there’s also a Bengali version “Na Jeo Na”) stems from Lata Mangeshkar’s dulcet rendition and Shailendra’s poetic lyrics. Roy doesn’t interfere with the effect of the melody by resorting to unnecessary cuts or visual gimmickry. One of Hindi cinema’s earliest rain songs is as quiet and seductive as they come.
“… the brilliance of the song is complimented by the manner in which the wait and the longing have been portrayed so beautifully by the director”, writes lyricist Prasoon Joshi in the festschrift The Man Who Spoke in Pictures Bimal Roy, edited by Rinki Roy Bhattacharya. “The whole song has been shot in the rain, and raindrops look like beads of pearl and then the camera reveals a master shot of the village,” writes music director Shantanu Moitra in his contribution to the collection. “Lata Mangeshkar’s sublime voice starts echoing and the camera tilts down to reveal Sadhana singing in a hut drenched in the rain.”
‘Rim Jhim Gire Sawan’ from Basu Chatterjee’s ‘Manzil’ (1979)
Basu Chatterjee is one of the best-known chroniclers of middle class India in the 1970s and ’80s. Chatterjee was adept at plucking characters out of the chawls and apartments where his audience lived and shooting at actual locations. In Manzil (1979), Amitabh Bachchan plays an ambitious young man who falls in love with a woman (played by Moushumi Chatterjee) who is above his station. The movie’s most famous tune, composed by RD Burman and written by Yogesh, is a tribute to the power of the monsoon to both cool down temperatures and raise the heat.
There are two versions of “Rim Jhim Gire Sawan”, of which the light classical track sung by Kishore Kumar, is better known. But Lata Mangeshkar’s up-tempo version is by far the better of the two. Shot in rain-drenched Mumbai and featuring some of the best-known landmarks of the city, the song is a tribute to gifted cinematographer KK Mahajan’s ability to capture life as moviegoers know it.
Bachchan and Chatterjee splash about at Marine Drive and the Oval Maidan in Churchgate and frolic in front of the Victoria Terminus station to the oblivious stares of the public. The rain was real, and it helped that neither actor was too well-known, Chatterjee told Scroll.in. “That year, there had been very little rain in Bombay, and suddenly, it rained for two days,” she said. The usual practice of playing the song in the background when shooting on sets or at controlled locations wasn’t possible in the circumstances, so the actors did whatever they felt was best, lending the song its authenticity. “We had heard the song many times before shooting,” Chatterjee said. “The production crew would tell us where we needed to go, and we would go there. Amitabh was new at the time, and I had done quite a few films by then.” The improvisational nature of the shoot is evident from Chatterjee’s running eye make-up. “We didn’t have waterproof eyeliner, and my face would be black by the end of it,” she said. Her turquoise-patterned sari would also run colour in the rain.
Bachchan’s brother, Ajitabh, would ferry actors from one location to the next in his car. “It was very well done despite being a last-minute decision,” said Chatterjee, who was most recently seen in Piku (2015) as Bachchan’s sister-in-law. “We would be back in the car before people could realise what was happening.”
The actress was new to Mumbai in those years, and she discovered the city’s best-known parts through the shoot. All these years later, “Rim Jhim Gire Sawan” is a tribute to a gentler, less crowded, and truly romantic city before it started going down the drain.
‘Koi Ladki Hai’ from Yash Chopra’s ‘Dil To Pagal Hai’ (1997)
Elaborately choreographed indoor rain songs on controlled sets and supplied by never ending streams of tanker water are common enough. The list includes “Kaate Nahin Kat Te” from Mr India (1987), “Na Jaane Kahaan Se Aayi Hai” from Chaalbaaz (1989), “Dekho Zara Dekho” from Yeh Dillagi (1994) and the earworm “Tip Tip Barsa Paani” from Mohra (1994). One of the better indoor songs is from Yash Chopra’s musical Dil To Pagal Hai (1997). Featuring a love triangle between choreographers played by Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit and Karisma Kapoor, the film introduced the dance routines of Shiamak Davar to Hindi cinema. Davar was best known for his stage shows in the jazz dance style until then, but then he was handed a job he had never planned to apply for.
Davar worked within his comfort zone for all of Uttam Singh’s chart-topping tracks, but it was for the nursery rhyme-like “Koi Ladki Hai” that he pushed himself. “I was a South Bombay guy, completely working in a different realm with different sensibilities, and then there was this Yash Chopra film and a song that was meant to capture the spirit of Mumbai rains on the streets and the joy that comes from first rains, first love and surprises,” Davar said.
The song arrives at a key moment in the plot. Rahul (Khan) and Pooja (Dixit) realise they have fallen in love. Rahul’s best friend Nisha (Karisma Kapoor) is nursing a fractured leg in the hospital when the rains arrive, causing the children and adults to dance with infectious abandon. “Up until this point, rain songs in Bollywood have always been about sensuousness epitomised by Raveena [Tandon] or even Madhuri Dixit in a wet saree,” Davar said. “We wanted to do something completely different.” The only note of sensuality is struck by Dixit, whose sheer chiffon kurta clings to her frame.
The song features a bunch of children who are supposed to be from the slums. “I drew from my experience of growing up with kids from diverse backgrounds, humble homes,” Davar said. “I tried to recreate that rootedness.” The movements are more fun, unorthodox and unstructured even if the dancers are placed in geometric formations.
Davar said he had a blast choreographing the kids. “Some of them eventually joined my academy and a few of them are senior trainers now,” he said. “We had such a fantastic time shooting for the song – it was a breeze working with all those kids. After the song was wrapped up, Shah Rukh and the others hoisted me up and tried to fling me into the puddle!” He considers the film to be a turning point in his career – he went on to choreograph Subhash Ghai’s Taal two years later – and “Koi Ladki Hai” is the one rain song that holds a special place in his heart, like it does in ours.
‘Saawan Barse Tarse Dil’ from Lateef Binny’s ‘Dahek’ (1999)
This song remains the gold standard in Hindi cinema for its ability to portray the experience of trying to reach a destination during a downpour. “Saawan Barse Tarse Dil” from Lateef Binny’s Dahek (1999) sweetens the journey by suggesting that love is at the other end of the schlep through acres of umbrellas, broken-down transport and flooded roads. Aadesh Srivastava’s tune, rendered by Hariharan and Sadhana Sargam, is the movie’s highlight. The inter-faith romance starring Akshye Khanna and Sonali Bendre suffered several production delays, and its most famous song wasn’t exempt. “Saawan Barse” was shot over three years, Binny said: “It took me three years to shoot the song, the film took five years to make, and was released only after two-and-a-half years.”
The song begins with Sameer (Khanna) sending Neelima (Bendre) a letter summoning her for a date. It’s pouring, but Neelima, like the true Mumbaiite that she is, sets out to meet Sameer. His bright red shirt is as handy in marking him out in a sea of umbrellas as Neelima’s peppermint yellow dress is in distinguishing her from the hordes. Sameer switches transport several times, and even hitches a ride on a roadroller, to finally reach his beloved.
“Seventy per cent of the song was shot in the real monsoon, while artificial rain was used for the rest of the song,” Binny said. “We shot the song in portions over the years whenever we could.”
Binny had started writing the screenplay of Dahek when he was assisting director Raj Kumar Santoshi. “The song was always a part of the story, it takes the story ahead,” he said. “I have seen the Mumbai rains, and I know what it is like to meet your girlfriend during the monsoon. When you think of romance, you think of rain.”
The song was shot all over Mumbai, in Goregaon, Andheri and south Mumbai. “It was a long song, and we shot seven to eight minutes,” Binny said. Rajen Kothari, the Film and Television Institute of India-trained cinematographer who died in 2012, was crucial to ensuring that the shoot went off smoothly. “Nothing was possible without Rajen, he was also a great friend,” Binny said.
One reluctant participant in the exercise was Akshaye Khanna. “If you have newcomers for a song like this, you can do wonders, but when you have recognised faces, it can be a problem, it limits your shots and you may need to compromise here and there,” Binny observed. Bendre enthusiastically threw herself into the shoot, but Khanna was uncomfortable in the rains. “I forced Akshaye to do many things and he was not happy during the shoot, but when he saw the final song, he loved it,” Binny said.
‘Barso Re’ from Mani Ratnam’s ‘Guru’ (2007)
Mani Ratnam has created some of the best-known monsoon moments in his Tamil and Hindi films, whether it’s the Singin’ in the Rain-inspired “Oho Megam Vandado” song from Mouna Ragam (1986) or the aftermath in “Uyire” from Bambai (released as Bombay in Hindi in 1995).
Ratnam is one of the few filmmakers who can weave a story around the moods of the monsoon, as he does in “Evano Oruvan” in Alaipayuthey (2000), which was remade as Saathiya two years later. The biggest challenge of shooting a rain song in a Mani Ratnam movie, then, is to guard again repetition. So if “Barso Re” from Guru (2007) differs from the rest, credit goes to the team that worked on AR Rahman’s foot-tapping composition.
Gulzar’s lyrics celebrate the sweet kiss of the rains as Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s character celebrates the bounty of the clouds and nature. She is in love and is going to meet her lover soon, and she wants to announce it to the men, the trees, the fields, the monuments and the ducks around her.
Rajiv Menon, the acclaimed cinematographer and director who had previously shot Bambai for Ratnam, was mindful of the mythology surrounding the mating dance of peacocks. “The song had to give the idea of fertility and beauty,” Menon said. “We were looking at expressing the feminine calling for a union of souls.”
Although Guru is set in Gujarat, cinematic liberties were taken for the song, which was shot in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Among the locations are the ruins at Melkote, which serve as a stunning stage for Rai Bachchan’s uninhibited dance. Artificial rain had to be created when nature refused to comply with the production schedule. “We were exposed to the sun throughout and suddenly, we had a bit of light-giving rain,” Menon said. “At Melkote, we got a bit of cloud cover, and we had to create artificial rain. In the middle of all this granite, Mani had the idea of ducks and the woman. I decided to shoot the song a bit like a hip-hop video.”
Since the rain at Melokte wasn’t enough, the crew drove out to Kerala’s Chalakudy town, which has featured in several Mani Ratnam films. “We had the forest and the ruins, but since the song was supposed to be happening in Gujarat, we needed open fields without coconut fields,” Menon said. Another trip was made, this time to Pollachi in Tamil Nadu. “By the time the shoot finished, we were ready to faint,” Menon said.
It’s easier said than done to shoot during an actual downpour, the veteran cinematographer pointed out. “It is very difficult to shoot in real rain – water should not go into the mouth, the light has to be right, and if there is too much foreground rain, the images get crowded out.” To create the effect of a real monsoon, filmmakers need to truly move heaven and earth.