Soul music: When Hindi film songs send a prayer to the Almighty

Soul music: When Hindi film songs send a prayer to the Almighty

Heal my sick child, keep our men safe on the battlefield, restore my love to me, show me the way, show yourself, are you the One? Hell, we’re waiting for rain, bring it on already.

The clamour for divine intervention in Hindi film music is omnipresent. Since the array of divinities is long and colourful, the songs are equally eclectic.

The making of film music in India has never been affected by divisiveness and bigotry. Composers and lyricists have created masterful works on all kinds of gods, goddesses and prophets, regardless of their personal faith. And audiences and listeners, for the most part, have accepted this without much wonderment or questioning.

Let us pray, in all earnestness, that it stays that way.

Ishwar Allah, from 1947 Earth, asks why there should be any animosity at all. Part of a soundtrack packed with passion, pathos and exuberance, the song, written by Javed Akhtar and scored by AR Rahman, reflects Partition-era disquiet but seems even more relevant today.

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Ishwar Allah, 1947 Earth (1999).

As inclusive devotion goes, you can’t get more secular than the well-known Allah Tero Naam from Hum Dono. It is more than just a reminder of the commonality of faiths. Composer Jaidev uses raag Gaud Sarang – digressing slightly in a later stanza – and its sa-ga-re-ma-ga essence to produce a tender, wistful effect.

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Allah Tero Naam, Hum Dono (1961).

The desire for ‘darshan’, whereby the act of seeing is fulfilment itself, is a familiar strand in devotional music. An exquisite example is Man Tadpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj from Baiju Bawra, written by Shakeel Badayuni, scored by Naushad and sung by Mohammed Rafi.

Set in raag Malkauns, the bhajan has Baiju yearning for a glimpse of his guru. The invocation meanwhile infuses the ailing guru with energy so that he is able to take tentative steps towards the idol of his beloved Lord Krishna.

The expectation and rapture on the guru’s face finds expression in Mohammed Rafi’s voice, the delicate dha-komal ni-dha-ma glide in “rakhiyo laaj” lending it immense poignancy.

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Man Tadpat Hari Darshan Ko Aaj, Baiju Bawra (1952).

The longing for oneness or union with the divine has been the subject of songs in nearly every genre, from Sufi compositions to the bhajans and abhangs of poet-saints.

Kun Faya Kun, scored by AR Rahman and with lyrics by Irshad Kamil, builds on the Quranic phrase to portray a similar but more abstract yearning. “Without you, this home of your beloved is empty; come and inhabit this emptiness… you are in me and I am in you.”

This many-layered Sufi invocation has Rahman’s customary blending of the old and new. Harmonium and robust dholak/tabla sounds accompany the tune from the start, as in most Sufi renderings in the Indian subcontinent, supplemented by a gentler guitar riff whenever the song moves into an even more interior, contemplative space.

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Kun Faya Kun, Rockstar (2011).

Faith and spirituality have been important drivers of Rahman’s work and this is evident not just in his Sufi compositions but in various other soundtracks. In Sapnay, for example, where a devout young woman desperately seeks herself and her calling, the minimally orchestrated Roshan Hui Raat prayer in praise of Christ, sung by Anuradha Sriram, reflects the woman’s fervour.

Sapnay is a remake of Minsara Kanavu, which has the lyrically smoother version of the above song.

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Anbendra Mazhayile, Minsara Kanavu (1997).

There have been several much loved prayerful songs by several other composers, not directed at any particular deity, but containing pointers to the human condition and the universal plea to a higher power for continued love, protection, and guidance.

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Ae Malik Tere Bande Hum, Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957).

Another popular community prayer is Tu Pyaar Ka Saagar Hai, sung by Manna Dey for the Nutan and Balraj Sahni starrer Seema. A poor, wilful young woman, arrested on false charges, is sent kicking and screaming, to a rehabilitation home. The institution is run by a benevolent man, suffused with goodness and faith in humanity, all of which is echoed in this collective prayer that also reflects the turmoil in the woman’s mind.

A more interesting conversation, with a seemingly uncaring deity, is this petulant song in the same film, set in raag Jaijaivanti, and sung with precision by Lata Mangeshkar. The young woman hums it as she lashes out against a punishment she doesn’t deserve. Her warden recognises an untapped talent. Sit down and sing it properly for us, he tells her.

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Manamohana Bade Jhoothe, Seema (1955).

A particularly poignant song, in which a father pleads for help for an ailing daughter, is Mere Man Mandir Mein from Dard Ka Rishta, scored by RD Burman and sung by Hariharan. The father’s solitary distress – “Mere dukh se tu kaise anjaan rahe” (You must surely know my sorrow) – and his little Ganpati idol are juxtaposed against the crowd’s joyous refrain of “Ganpati Bappa Morya” and the enormous idols that swirl around him as they are taken to be immersed in the sea.

It is the season of celebration of the Mother Goddess, and dozens of paeans have been sung to her many forms.

The garba-dandiya songs, like the one to Ma Sherawali from Suhaag, remain popular to this day. But the goddess as Vaishno Devi is particularly sought out in a crisis.

The journey to her abode is a trial in itself and a metaphor for penance, making the devotee’s prayers especially fervent. In Chalo Bulawa Aaya Hai from Avtaar, a couple travels to the shrine, again for an ailing child, hoping the goddess will save his life. Yes, she does.

‘Life as a stormy ocean’ is a universal trope in devotional music, across faiths. Beqas Pe Karam Kijiye from Mughal-e-Azam has it – “Lillah meri doobti ko kashti ko bacha le” (Rescue my sinking boat”), as do numerous bhajans.

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Beqas Pe Karam Kijiye, Mughal-e-Azam (1960).

The weather is a common complaint too. Notably, drought and the long wait for rain.

A classic, by SD Burman, is Allah Megh De from Guide, originally by Bengali singer and composer Abbasuddin Ahmed. The song is a bare snippet in the film but has a fascinating history: its roots lie in the Bengali folk genre Jaari Gaan, many of whose songs are based on the Islamic legend of the Battle of Karbala. In Guide, SD Burman’s vocals lend the tune the appropriate depth and solemnity.

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Allah Megh De, Guide (1965).

If there is faith, it should ideally be unshakeable. While things might seem dark and unsurmountable, the devotee argues, there is always light at the end. Here is a classic, from Mohammed Rafi again, in Naya Daur, composed by OP Nayyar.

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Aana Hai To Aa, Naya Daur (1957).

You are everything, in the final analysis, who else can I rely on? An entire village appeals for aid in O Palan Hare in Lagaan, while in the prayer Tumhi Ho Mata in Main Chup Rahoongi, scored by Chitragupta, a bunch of adorable kids gather to worship god as a parental figure. Lata Mangeshkar sings for the child in the front row – it is 1962 and her voice does not seem out of place.

No discussion on spiritual songs would be complete without songs in praise of Sai Baba, worshipped ardently by people from all faiths. Shirdi Wale Sai Baba from Amar Akbar Anthony, that still-shining example of Indian secularism in film, is a popular one.

Here is a more contemporary tribute, the rousing yet soothing Aao Sai from 99 Songs, scored by AR Rahman, and rendered by Bela Shende, with a surprise ghatam providing a reassuring rhythm.

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Aao Sai, 99 Songs (2021).

Also read:

Songs of solace: A playlist to take comfort in and words to live by

Behind bars but still free to sing: the songs that perfectly capture the state of confinement

‘Dil Garden Garden’ and other insults to the once-revered heart in Hindi film songs

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