It is good that Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy let go of the period epic Thugs of Hindostan (2018), which ultimately got four average songs from Ajay-Atul, and found a similar project in Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. The eight-song soundtrack for the Rani Laxmibai biopic gives the trio enough room to explore a range of moods within the patriotic period film template. Co-directed by Krish and Kangana Ranaut, who also plays the warrior queen Manikarnika will be released on January 25.
There is only so much fun to be had with the music of a patriotic Indian period drama – the songs cannot be too adventurous and the soundtrack runs the risk of quickly losing steam. Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, however, come up with a good album within these constraints. The songs come with sweeping string arrangements along with flutes, dhols and dholaks and no electronic razzmatazz. This is Ajay-Atul territory in which Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy triumph. The lyrics are by Prasoon Joshi, in his eighth collaboration with the trio.
Singer Pratibha Singh Baghel, who has been active in Bollywood for a while but had not managed to shine so far, is the star of the soundtrack. She gets a playful duet, Rajaji, which underscores the romance between the Queen of Jhansi, Laxmibai (Ranaut), and her husband Gangadhar Rao (Jisshu Sengupta). Notable is Joshi’s pairing of the quaint word “naina” (eyes) with the flippant “chugalkhor” (telltale) to communicate how the eyes are giving away the restlessness of the heart.
Baghel also gets the album’s best track, Tak Taki. The song flows like a lullaby, embellished with cinematic instrumentation, and captures the restlessness of losing a loved one. Baghel has the sweetness of Shreya Ghoshal’s voice. She carries the entire song on her shoulder just like Shankar Mahadevan does with Bharat, the album’s other great song.
Much of the film involves Rani Laxmibai and her army going mano a mano with British forces on the battlefield. So, there are a bunch of songs with spirited dhols urging the listener to get up and fight.
Sukhwinder Singh and Mahadevan form a swell team for Bolo Kab Pratikar Karoge, which kicks off with a tutari, signalling the battle call. A storm of percussion enters and the song charges along like a freight train. The Sanskrit stotra Shiv Tandav finds itself in the album, with vocals by Mahadevan accompanied by a chorus. There’s also Dankila, an unremarkable dance number.
Vijayi Bhava stands out from the lot. Sung by Mahadevan, the call-to-arms song begins, interestingly, with the piano, even as the film is about fighting off Western invaders. Mahadevan is fantastic and credit also goes to percussionist and arranger, Taufiq Qureshi-trained Dipesh Verma, for the song’s lovely rhythm section. Vijayi Bhava has the earnestness heard in jingles for State-sponsored policies, but Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s deft touch does not let it become boring.
Which brings us to Bharat, the two versions of which bookend the album. Mahadevan sings one, superbly as always. Joshi recites the other as a poem, whose lyrics sometimes sound like wartime sloganeering: “Desh se hain pyaar toh, har pal ye kehna chahiye / Main rahoon ya na rahoon, bharat yeh rehna chahiye.”
Nonetheless, Joshi’s recital, atop some light music, is solid. The lyrics also take a superb turn in the line which goes, “Meri nas nas tar kar do, aur bana do ek sitar / raag bharat mujhpe chedo, jhan jhanao baar baar.” (Cut my veins and make them the strings of a sitar / Play raag bharat with it, play it again and again). With this stellar form writing paeans for nationalism, Joshi could perhaps be making a strong case for being re-hired to churn out catchy election slogans for 2019.