The Gulabo Sitabo soundtrack is unlike anything you have heard in the Hindi movies this year.

That’s not just because all its tracks are original compositions, but also because it works as a standalone concept album, wherein a specific musical vocabulary and thematic concerns in the lyrics are to be found across all the songs. You can’t pluck any one track and put it in any stock situation.

The last Bollywood album of this sort was Kabir Singh, where each song not only communicated the overall emotion of crazy love but was also a sonic cousin of the other. But unlike that album, whose assembly-line conventionality was a drag, the 10 tracks in Shoojit Sircar’s Gulabo Sitabo are as un-Bollywood as they can get.

Composers Anuj Garg, Shantanu Moitra, and Abhishek Arora fuse Indian folk forms, predominantly baul, into bhajan and Rajasthani folk with rock and even country music thrown in. Since there’s so much folk here, the songs have an improvisational quality.

Holding them together are lyrics (Dinesh Pant, Vinod Dubey, Puneet Sharma), whose focus is describing the world as one giant illusion, where fortunes change without rhyme or reason, and all you can do is tolerate the whims of destiny.

Jootam Phenk, Gulabo Sitabo (2020).

For instance, when Vinod Dubey writes, “Kya leke aayo jag mein kya leke jayega” (What did you come into the world with, and what will you leave with?), Dinesh Pant responds with Kabir-esque thoughts, “Do din ka ye mela hai, khela phir uth jaana hai... Maati ka bartan hai pyare, maati mein mil jaana hai” (Life is fleeting, enjoy it while it lasts, we will return to the soil from which we have emerged).

As for the place of humans in this unreliable world, Pant writes, “Banke madari ka bandar, dugdugi pe nache sikandar” (Even a winner can’t help but dance to life’s vicissitudes).

Meanwhile, Puneet Sharma’s “Upar wale ne banwaayi har ek choohe ki billi ek” (The almighty has made a cat for each mouse) not only alludes to a higher power, but also ties in with the film’s story about a protracted battle between a landlord and his tenant.

It’s an excellent decision to have most of the songs infused with baul, since worldly life as an illusion is a key tenet of baul mysticism. Rathijit Bhattacharjee has played the khomok, dotara, and kanjira for a bunch of tunes. Ankur Mukharjee’s contributions on the acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and other string instruments play a prominent role in several compositions.

The choice of singers is also congruent with the album’s musicality.

Piyush Mishra’s droll voice aptly holds forth on the game of oneupmanship played by humans in Jootam Phenk. Bobby Cash is an inspired pick for Budhau, which outlines the personality of an eccentric old man. The laid-back and observational vibe is typical of country music, which is Cash’s domain.

Another version features Rajasthani folk performer Bhanwari Devi, whose voice lends the song a mythic quality, as if the “budhau” were an ageless local legend.

Gulabo Sitabo jukebox.

While there isn’t a single weak track in the album, there’s also isn’t any instant-hit tune, possibly because the idea isn’t to grab you by the collar and demand attention.

Among the other elements that stand out: Abhishek Arora’s wonderful use of swing in Jootam Phenk; Puneet Sharma’s description of a miser in Kanjoos, which goes “Ok wale text ko bhi k mein hi niptaye”; Mukharjee and Daksh Jain’s electric guitars in Do Din Ka Ye Mela, and Shantanu Moitra’s Gulabo Sitaabo themes, which by themselves provide a neat summary of the album’s sonic universe.

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