What comes to mind when you hear the words “concept album”? The Who’s Tommy (1969). Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of The Moon (1973) and The Wall (1979). Radiohead’s OK Computer (1997).
A strong case can be made for adding Amit Trivedi’s soundtrack for Anurag Kashyap’s Dev.D (2009) to the list. Such is the power, ambition and execution of the soundtrack by Trivedi and lyricists Amitabh Bhattacharya and Shellee (among others) that in the absence of the film itself, the 18 songs make for a wholly original Hindi concept album. In isolation, each song will elicit different responses. But together, the whole of the Dev.D album is telling a story with music and lyrics, as Jim Cullen wrote of a concept album: “A collection of discrete but thematically unified songs whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
This story that Dev.D’s soundtrack tells draws in and traps the listener into a state of mind for 60 straight minutes. This is the Devdas state of mind. Devdas, over the years, had ceased to become a character, a book, or a film, Kashyap had said in 2009. “It has become an adjective and my movie is about that adjective.” If the film is an elaborate thesis on this adjective, the soundtrack is an incantation woven around it.
The film begins with Dhol Yaara Dhol, the happiest song in the album. When it comes in the film, everything is yet to crash and burn. Hope abounds. The song and the accompanying visuals are a pastiche of imagery (Punjabi wedding scenes, mustard fields) made popular by the Yash Chopra school of cinema. All four happy songs in the film are, in essence, a mockery of what is to come in the story.
Yahin Meri Zindagi, Chanda’s introduction song, is an overdose of cuteness and ironically so. Then comes the lullaby-like Dil Mein Jaagi, which plays over scenes of Dev (Abhay Deol) and Chanda (Kalki Koechlin) momentarily escaping their wounds in life. The song’s saccharine flourishes emphasise the lie that this moment is in the lives of Dev and Chanda.
The film’s last song of hope is Ek Hulchul Si, the kind of light chorus-heavy rock song that has since become child’s play for Trivedi. Its job is to highlight Dev rising like a phoenix in the final reel. But the zing pales in comparison to the trance-inducing force of the album’s 14 other compositions that form the film’s core: the emotional abuse of the self and the other.
Emotional Attyachar is the centrepiece of the film and the soundtrack. The song appears first as a spoof as cheerful bandmasters Rangeela and Raseela (Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Nitin U Chainpuri on film; vocals by Amit Trivedi and Amitabh Bhattacharya) lament Dev’s blistering collapse in style. “Phooken re ghar baar ki duniya ko bole goodbye” – the world rises up in smoke, and he leaves for good.
The next time we see Dev, he is barely functioning in Delhi’s streets while the album’s hardest track, Emotional Attyachar (Rock Version) plays. The song has returned as tragedy. As much as the song teases to erupt into a full-blown metal track at times, and singer Bonnie Chakraborty conjures up a storm screaming into the skies, this song is more about despondency than rage.
Enter Chunni (Dibyendu Bhattacharya), who takes Dev underground into a neon-lit hell. Dev is surrounded in his new world by a haze of booze and pills that flirts with him – “Meetha sa chadha hai bukhar, tere main thara pardesi” (A sweet fever has consumed me, I have become yours, my stranger). The Twilight Players look on, presaging Dev’s undoing.
To what genre does this song belong? Is Mahi Mennu just bhangra? Is Aankh Micholi just trance? How do you categorise Saali Khushi? Pardesi comes with funky breakbeat. There’s yodelling and scatting in the background. There’s a sitar section. Several songs in Dev.D are simply hard to describe in conventional terms.
All 60 minutes of songs in it are featured in the 144-minute movie, since much of the film is wordless. A lot of the film has Dev walking, sitting, staring and brooding. The music fills up the emptiness. Most song sequences employ tonal montage (the editing is by Aarti Bajaj) where moments cutting across space and time are stitched together to create a mood.
While Dev.D is hip and new-age on the surface, Kashyap’s use of songs to build and hold the narrative together reflects the spirit of music-driven Hindi classics such as Vijay Anand’s Guide (1965) and Kamal Amrohi’s Pakeezah (1972).
Take Paayaliya. Shellee’s lyrics anthropomorphise a woman’s anklets. The mukhda goes “Paayaliya chhan chhan, chhan chhan shor kare mohe piya ghar jaaun” (My anklets make noise and wants to go to my beloved). Lyrically, it flows like a courtesan’s song, and the seductive tune first appears over visuals tracing Leni’s transformation into the prostitute Chanda. “Paayaliya” becomes lust here.
The song reappears in a scene where Chanda seems to have fallen for Dev and is battling her emotions after Chunni tells her to concentrate on her trade and not have foolish dreams. “Paayaliya” is now love.
The most heart-wrenching song, Nayan Tarse, turns Dev’s impotent distress over losing his one great love into a gangrenous gash that cannot be healed. The marriage of Bhattacharya’s terse but cruel lyrics with Trivedi’s full-throated singing here is one for the ages. Like Paayaliya, here too, something like “saawan” (rain) gets a life of its own.
“Saawan barasey, saawan barase
tapish ki phuhar, saawan barase”
(It’s raining, it’s raining, it’s raining fire now)
“Saawan barase, saawan barase
chubhan de hazaar, saawan barase”
(It’s raining, leaving behind a thousand scars)
“Gaali si laagey malhar
Saawan barase barase re”
(This song feels like a curse now, it keeps raining)
Nayan Tarse is one of Bhattacharya’s finest moments as a wordsmith, with lines like “gaali si laagey malhar” (Raag Malhar is associated with rains). Right when this verse begins, we see a broken Paro (Mahie Gill) hiding her tears behind sunglasses as she walks away from Dev’s life for good.
The album ends with a coda comprising two short instrumental pieces. Dev-Chanda Theme 1 is a playful jazzy affair that comes in the film when a sober Dev has come to Chanda for the first time. Dev feels awkward, perhaps a bit ashamed, but he hides it behind angry posturing. Chanda is unfazed. The tune moves like a cat playing with a ball of wool. It is a prelude to a romance that may or may not be.
The second Dev-Chanda theme exemplifies Trivedi’s virtuosity at its finest. The strings are mourning. The piano is hesitant. And the whistling on top is brimming with desire for a new beginning. Three different melodies run contrapuntal to each other. In the scene in which it is used, Dev and Chanda are, for the first time, dropping their guard to share their pain.
At a time when Hindi film music is stuck in a bottomless pit, it is safe to say that Dev.D had one of the last great soundtracks. Almost nothing that has come after can measure up to its controlled madness. The Dev.D album is the successor of AR Rahman’s clutter-breaking work in Roja (1992) and Thiruda Thiruda (1993). How long till we get the next watershed moment in Hindi film music?