Vishal-Shekhar have had a stellar year with three original soundtracks: Student of the Year 2, Bharat and War. They produced hits (Fakira, Slow Motion, Ghungroo) at a time when Bollywood chart-toppers are either unimaginative trend chasers or Tanishk Bagchi recreations. This year also marks the duo’s twentieth anniversary in Bollywood. Their first soundtrack, for Raj Kaushal’s Pyaar Mein Kabhi Kabhi, was out in 1999.
The songs in Pyaar Mein Kabhi Kabhi were credited to Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani. They became the entity known as Vishal-Shekhar in Sujoy Ghosh’s Jhankaar Beats (2003). Made as a tribute to RD Burman, the film wasn’t as popular (or great) as the superhit soundtrack that earned Vishal-Shekhar their only Filmfare Award till date: the RD Burman Award for New Music Talent, appropriately enough.
Sixteen years later, the film can be regarded as one of the many Burman homages that popped up after the super-success of Bally Sagoo’s Chura Liya remix. However, the most memorable moments of the soundtrack don’t have much to do with Burman. The 10-song album looks back when it has to while providing traces of the best work Vishal-Shekhar had to offer in subsequent years.
The Jhankaar Beats theme, a throwback to Burman’s style of Bollywood funk in which Sudesh Bhosle apes Burman’s gruff voice, is a showcase of how the duo sharply replicate older styles of music without getting bogged down by legacy. The proof: Aagey Peeche (Golmaal, 2006), Dhoom Tana (Om Shanti Om, 2007) or Ooh La La (The Dirty Picture, 2011).
While Jhankaar Beats is designed as a tribute to Burman, the music has its own individuality. The main theme gets down pat the rough texture of Burman’s voice, his asthmatic pants and the horns and the bongos, but the melody of the enduring hook and whistled section are unmistakably by Vishal-Shekhar.
Similarly, the Burman-isms aside, Ruk Ruk also has a snazzy guitar solo, a cool electro-pop interlude, and enough breaks in the rhythm to sound interesting and not just feel like a cover of a Burman song.
This soundtrack has, in fact, only one cover: Humein Tumse Pyaar Kitna. Amit Kumar, whose voice sounds as eerily robust as Kishore Kumar’s, takes a stab at his father’s hit song from Kudrat (1981), which was composed by RD Burman. The song is punctuated by KK singing portions from Tu Aashiqui Hai, his superhit track from the album. The audacity of turning a semi-classical track into an electro-pop song without sticking to the original composition was new at the time in Hindi films – and a forerunner to how Vishal-Shekhar created the template for the modern Bollywood recreation with the Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) title track.
A contrast between Jhankaar Beats and the other RD Burman homage from the period, Dil Vil Pyar Vyar (2002), reveals the extent of experimentation by Vishal-Shekhar. While Dil Vil Pyar Vyar is a collection of reverential covers of Burman compositions, Boss Kaun Hai in Jhankaar Beats flows like a conversational biography of RD Burman set to blues rock.
The song is used in the film by the two Burman fanatics (Rahul Bose and Sanjay Suri) to introduce the “boss” to their new friend (Shayan Munshi). When one of them says that he knows everything about Burman and is challenged to sing one of his tunes, he breaks into Roop Tera Mastana (Aradhana, 1969). He is immediately corrected with, “Donkey, this is SD Burman, the super boss’s song.” The fun lyrics are by Vishal Dadlani.
The connection to RD Burman stops here. Around this time, Dadlani’s band Pentagram had evolved into an electronic rock outfit. The influence of electronica is heavily evident in Vishal-Shekhar’s early work. It made their sound distinctive from that their peers and is easily recognisable in Jo Gaya Vo Gaya and Tera Muskurana.
The infusion of electronica makes the syrupy sweet composition Suno Na stand out from other romantic songs in the early 2000s. Shaan, who had previously sung for Vishal-Shekhar’s Pyaar Mein Kabhi Kabhi (Musu Musu, Woh Pehli Baar), forged a formidable partnership with the duo in the 2000s. Shaan is in fine form in Suno Na, a melodious downtempo ballad. Dadlani’s simple lyrics are reminiscent of a time when catchy tunes were complemented by words that didn’t require you to reach for a Hindi dictionary.
Consider the first few seconds of Jab Kabhi before KK’s vocals make an entry. The synth sample that begins the tune and is present throughout adds to the romantic atmosphere. It’s a trademark Vishal-Shekhar embellishment. Their inspired use of electronic loops and samples are a feature both of their dance tracks as well as their mellow compositions, such as Koi Aisa Alam (Karam, 2005), Jaaniya Ve (Dus, 2005) and Sach Hui (I See You, 2006).
Jab Kabhi is powered by KK, who is also the star singer in the soundtrack. His honey-dipped voice is just as good with the low notes as they are with the high ones. His effortless crooning in the fizzy pop of Tu Aashiqui Hai remains timeless. The song has a superb melody, its use of choir sections is beautiful, and the production is minimalist.
Tu Aashiqui Hai, along with Suno Na, set the music charts on fire and heralded the arrival of a young, daring and innovative musical voice. Bollywood music was witnessing a change, with such seasoned composers as Anand-Milind and Nadeem-Shravan being unable to keep up with the times. In Jhankaar Beats, Vishal-Shekhar bridged two eras by combining the best of older Hindi film music with contemporary sounds. Strong on melody and lyrics, and brimming with experimental energy and irreverence, the Vishal-Shekhar sensibility forged in Jhankaar Beats would later produce such top-notch soundtracks as Dus (2005), Om Shanti Om (2007), Tashan (2008) and Anjaana Anjaani (2011).