Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s name is most easily associated with qawwali music. Khan’s singing prowess and improvisational abilities led to qawwali making a splash internationally. His global fame, which reached India as well, also saw him making interesting forays into mainstream music, including film soundtracks.

Apart from providing vocals for films by directors such as Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone, Khan also composed for a handful of Hindi films. These projects reveal a glimpse of the maestro’s widespread musical range as well as the constraints that pop culture placed on the soul of his music.

Khan’s entry into film music happened when his qawwali, Haq Ali Maula Ali, was used in Dilip Naik’s Nakhuda (1981). While the song’s live performances could stretch up to 30 minutes or more, the version in the soundtrack is a little more than five minutes. It begins suddenly and ends abruptly, and is used for a scene where a distraught Kulbhushan Kharbanda finds himself in a dargah listening to a qawwali performance, finding strength by connecting to god.

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Haq Ali, Nakhuda (1981).

It was 13 years later with Shekhar Kapur’s acclaimed Bandit Queen that Khan made his first serious appearance on an Indian film soundtrack. Here, he composed the background score as well as sung a Rajasthani folk song, Choti Si Umar. The score consists of mostly tabla tukdas, strains of folk instruments, and Khan’s alaap. The heart-wrenching Choti Si Umar, which speaks of a little Phoolan Devi’s angst against her father who got her married at a tender age, is where Khan shines as a singer.

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Choti Si Umar, Bandit Queen (1994).

Just months later, the first of many of Khan’s compositions was lifted by a Hindi film composer. Dum Mast Qalandar Mast Mast became Tu Cheez Badi Hai Mast Mast in Rajiv Rai’s Mohra (1994) in the hands of composer Viju Shah. This sparked off a chain reaction of composers like Anu Malik and Nadeem-Shravan lifting Khan’s tunes and repackaging them for Bollywood. This stopped once Khan stepped in as a full-time composer for Indian Hindi films three years later.

In the meantime, Khan was occupied in the West, providing vocals for electronic music producers and fusion artists who were charmed by his raw power. Leading the pack was ex-Genesis member Peter Gabriel. 1985 onwards, Khan had become a regular performer at the World of Music, Arts and Dance Festival created by Gabriel to introduce audiences to international musical genres. Gabriel roped in Khan to record an alaap for a track titled Passion in Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

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Passion, The Last Temptation of Christ (1988).

Passion appears in the film over the stunning visuals of a bloodied Jesus Christ (Willem Dafoe) making his way towards Golgotha, where he will be crucified, through Jerusalem. Following this, Khan’s voice became a somewhat regular fixture in Hollywood films that sometimes drew disapproval from the singer.

For instance, Khan was vocally displeased with how his and Gabriel’s Taboo, a devotional song, was used by director Oliver Stone and music producer Trent Reznor for a “rape scene” (actually, a violent prison riot sequence) in Natural Born Killers (1994). “The Westerners see music as layering, they only understand the rhythm of the music but they do not understand the poetry,” Khan had said in an interview.

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Natural Born Killers (1994).

It was singer-songwriter Eddie Vedder of Pearl Jam who had the courtesy and good sense to use Khan’s singing and poetry in a way that it was entwined with a song’s lyrical meaning. An example is Face of Love, one of two Vedder-Khan collaborations in the soundtrack of Tim Robbins’s Dead Man Walking (1995). The song appears right in the beginning and introduces the audience to the character of Roman Catholic sister Helen Prejean (Susan Sarandon) who will go on to forge an unlikely emotional relationship with Matthew Poncelet (Sean Penn), a man on death row.

The song’s opening verse, sung by Khan, goes “Jeena kaisa pyar bina / Is duniya mein aaye ho to ek duje se pyar karo” (What is life without love?/If you are born in this world, love one another). The song comes full circle in the film’s final scene when Matthew, on his way to be executed by lethal injection, says that he does not want to die with hate in his heart. And Helen asks Matthew to keep looking at her in his final moments: “I want the last face you see in this world to be the face of love, so you look at me when they do this thing. I’ll be the face of love for you.”

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Face Of Love by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Eddie Vedder, Dead Man Walking (1995).

The year 1997 marked Khan’s return to Indian films as a composer. Khan’s first release was Aur Pyar Ho Gaya, a romance starring Bobby Deol and Aishwarya Rai. He died a day after the film’s release. The soundtrack had 10 songs of mostly middling quality with lyrics by Javed Akhtar – one of them was Koi Jaane Koi Na Jaane in whose video Khan made a cameo. Towering above them was the romantic song Meri Saanson Mein, sung by Udit Narayan, which rightfully became a super-hit.

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Meri Saanson Mein, Aur Pyar Ho Gaya (1997).

The soundtracks of Mahesh Bhatt’s action film Kartoos (1999) followed by Milan Luthria’s Kachche Dhaage (1999) featured mostly rehashed versions of Khan’s older compositions. While Kachche Dhaage remains known for being Khan’s last soundtrack as a composer, it is Kartoos that has the better songs. The three best tracks are Ishq Ka Rutba sung by Khan, Teri Yaad sung by Khan and Udit Narayan, and Ghum Hai Ya Khushi Hai Tu sung by Alka Yagnik.

Among these, Ishq Ka Rutba, which is turned into a pop-dance track by arranger Amar Haldipur, is a reworked version of the superior pathos-filled song that first appeared in the Punjabi blockbuster Shaheed-e-Mohabbat Boota Singh (1999). In the Punjabi film, the song speaks of the separation between two lovers, one from India and the other from Pakistan. In Kartoos, Manisha Koirala serenade Sanjay Dutt with the tune.

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Ishq Ka Rutba, Shaheed-e-Mohabbat Boota Singh (1999).
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Ishq Ka Rutba, Kartoos (1999).

Kachche Dhaage had a mostly unmemorable soundtrack. But some songs have become known over time because of frequent telecasts of their videos on television channels, particularly the Kumar Sanu-Alka Yagnik song Pyar Nahin Karna. In the film, the song starts over a quiet but sexually charged moment between Ajay Devgn and Koirala in the desert before the dances begin.

Another key song is Tere Bin Nahin Jeena Mar Jana, which is a remake of Khan’s own classic, Tere Bin Nahi Lagda Dil Mera Dholna. A tasteful remix of this song by British group Partners in Rhyme was featured in the soundtrack of Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham (2002).

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Pyaar Nahin Karna, Kachche Dhaage (1999).

In the 2000s and later, Khan’s voice was sporadically used as background music for a range of big-name Hollywood films such as Blood Diamond (2006), 2012 (2009) and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). But no one could quite use Khan’s once-in-a-lifetime genius for their films like Scorsese/Gabriel or Robbins/Vedder did.

As for his work in Indian cinema, his last-recorded song for a Hindi film, Tanhai, from Sunny Deol’s directorial debut Dillagi (1999), became an overlooked track in the presence of buoyant numbers such as the Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy-composed title track. Tanhai is about heartbreak, and the arrangement and mix was rather ahead of its time and similar to Khan’s remix work in the West, considering it was coming from old hands Anand-Milind.

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Tanhai, Dillagi (1999).