Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, like most Hindi films these days, does not have any place or need for songs in its narrative. It is a Guy Ritchie-style crime caper that follows the events of one day at breakneck speed. And yet, unlike most Hindi films that do not need songs these days, it has a stellar soundtrack.

Not all of these tunes are done justice to visually by Bhardwaj. Two songs are lip-synced to in sequences forced into the narrative, two are chopped up and used as background score, and a solid romantic ballad is wasted in the end credits. Bhardwaj has composed for all his films so far. Usually, these songs are fantastic, but Bhardwaj’s filmmaking style seldom allow them to visually bloom on the screen.

Being a densely plotted film featuring several prominent characters, Kaminey is all the more unsuitable to have space for a song sequence. The soundtrack has, however, found a life beyond the film. Dhan Te Nan, an instant chartbuster at the time, as well as the lush Pehli Baar Mohabbat, are modern classics.

But the best song is the title track sung by Bhardwaj. Kaminey is named so because the crooks, gangsters and cops in the film are all morally bent, and even the most innocent characters are pushed to embrace their mean side to survive. Bhardwaj’s film doesn’t develop inner lives for this bunch of riff-raffs, but this poignant song, which sounds like it exists outside this film, suggests a lifetime of pain and angst behind the making of a cruel personality.

Kaminey (2009) title track.

Gulzar’s lyrics paint a picture of an hopeless exhausting life (“Kya kare zindagi isko hum jo mile/Iski kaan kha gaye raat din ke gile” – What do I do with this life now that I have it?/Complaints of a lifetime has devoured it). He writes everything has thus turned down and dastardly (“Meri aarzoo kaminey/mere khwaab bhi kaminey”). At a part where Gulzar’s writing about shock at life’s vicissitudes, he even makes a peacock sinister: “Jiska bhi chehra chheela/Andar se aur nikla, Masoom sa kabootar/Naacha to mor nikla”.

Bhardwaj’s wispy voice, which is apt for such compositions, along with the string and horn arrangements makes this a really pathos-filled song. However, there’s no plot point in the film with enough emotional weight to carry the composition. The movie follows the twins, the cunning gangster Charlie and the upright social worker Guddu, played by Shahid Kapoor, who went down their respective paths at an early age when their father died of suicide. The song only pops up like a sound bite when this memory is recalled briefly. Its scope and vision are too expansive to be contained within and tied to the film itself.

Moving away from one of the best products of the Gulzar-Bhardwaj combo, we come to the soundtrack’s pop pleasures. Dhan Te Nan is a club track from a time when club tracks were yet to find the present Bollywood template of Punjabi-hook-with-a-rap-section. The song is a winner for its earworm of a hook, a simple kinetic beat, the different yet complementary vocal textures of Sukhwinder Singh and Vishal Dadlani, and unique elements such as the surf rock guitar, which is presumably a throwback to Misirlou’s use in Pulp Fiction, definitely one of the film’s inspirations.

Dhan Te Nan, Kaminey (2009).

Bhardwaj and Gulzar almost always bring their A game when it comes to slow romantic songs. Pehli Baar Mohabbat is no different. Mohit Chauhan’s crooning is reminiscent of a pleasant period in Bollywood music when the Arijit Singh/T-Series template was yet to happen to romantic tracks. The hook goes, I have loved for the first time/I have loved for the last time. Chauhan’s passionate voice really sells the lines, but again, like the title track, there’s no meat in the film’s romantic subplot to support the song. As a result, it is relegated to the end credits.

Pehli Baar Mohabbat, Kaminey (2009).

Raat Ke Dhai Baje is a rollicking fun track woven around the wedding night of Guddu and Sweety (Priyanka Chopra). Sweety is over the moon but Guddu isn’t. The marriage, a result of an unplanned pregnancy, wasn’t what he wanted. Moreover, Sweety is the sister of a thuggish politician. Gulzar’s lyrics underline the dichotomy between Sweety and Guddu’s feelings. While the parts sung by Sunidhi Chauhan and Rekha Bhardwaj express happiness, Suresh Wadkar and Kunal Ganjawala sing, “Ishq mein jalte hue saans tezaabi lage” (My breath feels acidic while I burn in love).

Raat Ke Dhai Baje, Kaminey (2009).

Could a song about AIDS awareness be fun and not preachy? Yes. In Fatak, Gulzar accords the virus the status of a malicious bee that can sting you anytime. Fatak exists as an introductory song for Guddu, who performs it in a red-light area to make sex workers aware about the use of condoms. Ironically, soon enough, he gets to know he has made his girlfriend pregnant because he did not use one – which sets up one half of the wild chain of events in Kaminey. Situational filler tracks usually come with unmemorable tunes, but Fatak has enough energy and lyrical flavour to never be uninteresting.

Fatak, Kaminey (2009).

The Kaminey album is a textbook example of how original tunes can spruce up a film with no need or place of music in its narrative, and even add to its memorability for posterity. Today, it can be enjoyed as a listening experience independent of the film’s context, but this experience becomes better if the soundtrack is seen as something that is filling the emotional gaps in the narrative and shading its characters.

The film’s 130-minute runtime does not let Bhardwaj dwell on the angst shared by the estranged brothers who are now caught up in a dirty mess that has roots in their individual choices. The Kaminey title track underscores this mood, just as Pehli Baar Mohabbat says a lot about Guddu and Sweety’s warm relationship outside of the specific events. In a film that is all surface, the music brings out the depth.

Also read:

Audio master: Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Maachis’ score finds tenderness amidst insurgents and guns

Audio master: Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Maqbool’ creates the perfect mood for crime and passion