Composing music for a contemporary Bollywood film has to be high on the list of thankless jobs in the film industry. Music labels strong-arm musicians into signing away the rights to their songs, lyricists have to fight for credit on music streaming platforms, and composers have no guarantee that every song in a film will find a home in the album — which is what happened to Pritam in Anurag Basu’s 29-song musical Jagga Jasoos. But most heartbreaking of all is that if the film tanks, the soundtrack will usually sink right along with it no matter how good it is.
How can that be fair? As connoisseurs of good music, we must be able to discern and celebrate a quality soundtrack even if it’s from a movie that bombed, or simply wasn’t up to scratch. Here then are 19 excellent albums that deserve to be heard even if the films they were in do not deserve to be seen.
1. Kyun! Ho Gaya Na… (2004)
Samir Karnik’s film made all kinds of headlines because it was the first to co-star the then real-life couple of Vivek Oberoi and Aishwarya Rai. It had some wonderful music by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy that was wasted on Oberoi and Rai’s yawn-inducing love story. ‘Pyaar Mein Sau Uljhane Hai’ with its gypsy influences, the relatively conventional ballad ’Aao Na’, and the vibrant ‘Bas Main Hoon’ are all good songs if you shut your eyes to the lukewarm, insincere romance between the film’s leads. Most criminal of all is that a brilliant song called ‘Dheere Dheere’, sung by a mesmerising Shankar Mahadevan, is wasted in the film’s final 20 minutes. Highly unlikely that anyone was even awake to hear it by then.
2. Lakeer: Forbidden Lines (2004)
Choreographer-turned-director Ahmed Khan’s wish was granted when A R Rahman agreed to compose music for his directorial debut. The star-studded cast (well for that time at least) of Sunny Deol, Suniel Shetty, Sohail Khan, John Abraham and Nauheed Cyrusi, and potboiler-ish drama (although a love triangle was very dated in 2004 too) failed to salvage the film at the box office, but Rehman’s music deserves a revisit.
‘Nachley’ was one of Rahman’s earliest forays into leveraging the power of the dhol, and there is a little bit of magic in how the distinct voices of Daler Mehndi and Kunal Ganjanwala come together in the song. Then there is ‘Shehzaade’ which has echoes of the music that Rahman had composed a year ago for Boys (2003) — think expensive race cars and Ganjawala singing, ‘Wassup wassup baby whatcha doing, watch out! Bang bang!’ The film’s two finest songs, however, are ‘Paigham’ and ‘Sadiyaan’. The semi-classical hook of ‘Paigham’ has a very interesting bassline, and both Shaan and Kavita Krishnamurthy sing at the top of their game. ‘Sadiyaan’ sounds like a deceptively easy melody, but changes mood every few lines; another plus is that it features the voices of Hariharan, Madhushree, Karthik, and the always refreshing Udit Narayan.
3. Popcorn Khao! Mast Ho Jao… (2004)
Full points to you if you recognise the name of this movie. It really says something about a film when Kajol’s sister, Tanishaa Mukerji, is the most recognisable person in the cast. But by no means should we underestimate Vishal-Shekhar’s superlative album. Frequent collaborator Sunidhi Chauhan, who was being trusted with a majority of Bollywood’s ‘item numbers’ at this point, always found a way to reinvent the space. And she does exactly that with ‘Dupatta Beimaan Re’. Then there is ‘O Solemiya’ (also sung by Chauhan), a likeable experimentation with Spanish sounds before Vishal-Shekhar went full flamenco with ‘Pyaar Ki Ek Kahani’ in Honeymoon Travels Pvt. Ltd. (2007). The songs ‘Kal Se Koi’ and ‘Le Chale’, performed by Shaan and KK, are pleasant enough, but the album belongs to Richa Sharma’s emotion-packed ‘Dooriyaan’, an exceptional track lost to this listless movie.
4. Karam (2005)
Sanjay F Gupta’s directorial debut looked like a fan-made Sin City tribute to Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino. With its slow-motion rain and black-and-white visuals of John Abraham’s existential angst-ridden face, this film appropriated glumness as its main aesthetic. The only place where all the nihilism got really interesting was in Vishal-Shekhar’s soundtrack. There’s obviously the terrific ‘Tinka Tinka’ (sung brilliantly by Alisha Chinai) that has stood the test of time, and ‘Koi Aisa Alam’ featuring Sonu Nigam and Mahalaxmi Iyer at the peak of their ballad powers. But what is really worth returning to in this album are the other songs — Vishal Dadlani’s superbly morbid vocals in ‘Le Jaa’, Pankaj Awasthi’s ‘Tera Hi Karam’, and a fascinating stab at some ‘authentic’ trance in ‘Ishq Nachaya Kare’.
5. Dil Jo Bhi Kahey… (2005)
Amitabh Bachchan apparently did this film as a favour for his good friend Romesh Sharma (best known for producing and acting alongside Bachchan in 1991′s Hum). The film was supposed to be a launch vehicle for Sharma’s son, Karan, but it turned out to be a bit of a crash landing. Also starring Bollywood’s default bring-her-to-mother girl of that time, Bhumika Chawla, and British actor Annabelle Wallis, this ‘modern romance’ had an astoundingly ancient love triangle at its core. And I know this because I watched the film after falling head over heels in love with the album by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. It has a title track sung fabulously by Shaan, and serving as an appropriately ‘cool intro’ for the star-kid. Then there’s yet another Holi song by Bachchan called ‘C’est La Vie’, an intriguing combo of reggae and Indian festive folk. There are a couple of competent Shankar Mahadevan songs, namely ‘Kaun Jaane’ and ‘Mere Munna’, but it’s Sonu Nigam’s ‘Kitni Narmi Se’ that is positively doused in young love and what really makes this album memorable even after 15 years.
6. Shabd (2005)
Vishal-Shekhar in their peak edgelord days came up with this intriguing album for yet another Pritish Nandy Communications (PNC) film (after Popcorn Khao! Mast Ho Jao…). Directed by Leena Yadav, Shabd tried a little too hard to be ‘unconventional’, even going so far to use Sanjay Dutt’s voiceover (reciting poetry) as a device in the film’s narrative. The only ones who seemed to be awake during this process were Vishal-Shekhar. There’s the energetic ‘Sholon Si’ (sung by Dadlani and Sunidhi Chauhan), the quirky ‘Khoya Khoya Sa’ featuring a brave melody that plays with the overall metre of the rest of the song, and ‘Bolo Na’, where Sonu Nigam takes control of the proceedings with beautiful results.
7. Mangal Pandey: The Rising (2005)
The long production of this Aamir Khan passion project was the stuff of legend, but it really wasn’t worth the wait. The question on everyone’s lips was, ‘Aamir Khan took three-and-a-half years to make this?’ Unfortunately, the disappointment overshadowed even A R Rahman’s superb music.
While Kailash Kher’s three renditions of ‘Mangal Mangal’ didn’t help the album’s case, there are some shining moments in there, whether it’s the astonishing use of bass in the otherwise standard mujra song ‘Main Vaari Vaari’ (sung superbly by Kavita Krishnamurthi), the bleeding sexuality in ‘Rasiya’ (rendered by Richa Sharma and Bonnie Chakraborty), or Aamir Khan’s own vocals in ‘Holi Re’ (a great encore moment for Khan and Ketan Mehta). The most outstanding song of the album, though, is sung by Rahman himself — ‘Al Madath Maula’. The final flourish in this song is a testament to Rahman’s preternatural vocal range.
8. Salaam-E-Ishq (2007)
Nikhil Advani’s remake of Love Actually had at least a dozen occasions for a breakout song, and Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy met the challenge with near perfection. Whether it’s the title song, or Adnan Sami’s ‘Dil Kya Kare’, or Kailash Kher’s ‘Ya Rabba’ — the album has just-right songs for each of the film’s different moods. In ‘Tenu Leke’, Sonu Nigam showcases his skills as a playback singer who can modulate his voice to fit a character’s mood; indeed, Salman Khan actually looked like a better actor when he was channelling Nigam’s voice. Nihira Joshi’s rendition of the classic ‘Babuji Dheere Chalna’ is another high point.
9. U, Me Aur Hum (2008)
Vishal Bharadwaj generally composes music only for his own films, and the best known ones have been rather dark and Shakespearean. But Ajay Devgn’s soulless adaptation of The Notebook sees Bhardwaj having some of the most fun he’s ever had in his career. There’s the opening salsa number ‘Jee Le’, and the drunk-at-a-nightclub song ‘Dil Dhakada Hai’, both featuring the excellent duo of Adnan Sami and Shreya Ghoshal. Although ‘Phatte’ and ‘Saiyaan’ feel like by-the-numbers compositions to inject life into the film’s second half, the title song is a treat for the ears where Shreya Ghoshal proves why she is called one of the finest playbacks of her generation.
10. Striker (2010)
Chandan Arora’s action-drama has an extremely committed central performance by Siddharth, but the rest of it falls apart much like the career of Aditya Pancholi, who plays a crime boss in the movie. The only respite from the underwhelm of this endeavour is the eclectic soundtrack, featuring some really interesting names, including Blaaze, Shailendra Barve, Yuvan Shankar Raja, Amit Trivedi, and Vishal Bhardwaj. Barve’s two songs, ‘Chham Chham’ (sung by Sonu Nigam) and ‘Piya Saanvra’ (Sunidhi Chauhan) start off the album on a high note, while Blaaze’s ‘Aim Laga Ungli Chala’ is a nice desi version of hip-hop at a time when Gully rap was still several years away. Raja’s ‘Haq Se’ and Bhardwaj’s ‘Yun Hua’ are not mind-blowing but are still well worth a listen.
11. Anjaana Anjaani (2010)
Starting from Salaam Namaste (2005), Vishal-Shekhar have been giving a solid boost to Siddharth Anand’s films, and by the time Bachna Ae Haseeno (2008) came around, the pinnacle seemed to have been reached. But it was in Anjaana Anjaani where the duo delivered their best work for Anand. The title song, featuring Nikhil D’Souza and Monali Thakur, brims with a surprisingly fresh energy for a typical battle-of-the-sexes song situation. ‘Hairat’ is one of the best songs that Lucky Ali has ever lent his vocals to, leveraging his distinctive voice quality to the hilt. Mohit Chauhan and Shruti Pathak’s ‘Tujhe Bhula Diya’ became the nation’s heartbreak song for some time, while ‘I Feel Good’, which was filmed in Las Vegas, had Dadlani and Shilpa Rao having rip-roaring fun. Alas, all these songs were wasted in a film that was so awed by landing Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra in the same frame that it forgot about the script.
12. Jhootha Hi Sahi (2010)
This Abbas Tyrewala film is hopelessly derivative and tedious, but the music by A R Rahman is wacky and original. ‘Cry Cry’, sung by Rashid Ali, starts with the words ‘Rote kayko hum’, which certainly isn’t Gulzar-level stuff, but the minimal arrangement featuring bass and simple percussion works a treat. Ali also sings the sweetly melodious ‘Call Me Dil’. Other highlights include Karthik’s ‘Hello Hello’, Shreya Ghoshal’s ‘Pam Pa Ra’, and the fun ‘Maiyya Yashoda’ (Javed Ali and Chinmayi). What really takes the cake (again) is Sonu Nigam’s plaintive ballad ‘Do Nishaaniyaan’. It’s a great album, but it’s a pity it’s main job was to convince us that John Abraham can essay the Clark Kent routine. He cannot.
13. Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey (2010)
Ashutosh Gowariker often teams up with A R Rahman, but in the late 2000s, the composer was far too busy jetting around the world picking up his Grammys and Oscars and signing Hollywood films. Gowarikar’s choice then became Sohail Sen, who did a competent job in 2009’s What’s Your Rashee? and then an even better one in Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, which was set around the 1930 Chittagong uprising. Even though the title of the film is quite an unwieldy mouthful, Sen successfully managed to weave a rousing melody around it by recruiting a chorus from Suresh Wadkar’s music academy. Then there’s ‘Yeh Des Hai Mera’, sung by Sen himself, a Rahman-esque melody that stops short of sounding like a cloning attempt. The mischievous ‘Naiyn Tere’, a song involving two girls teasing each other about their respective crushes, is imbued with the requisite Bengali flavour thanks to the use of folk instruments such as the ektara and flute.
14. Raavan (2010)
It’s well known that A R Rahman saves his best work for Mani Ratnam, the man who gave him his first break in 1993’s Roja. In Ratnam’s retelling of the Ramayana, set around an adivasi leader, Rahman’s score is deeply atmospheric and has a wild energy to it. The dense backing vocals accompanying the percussion in ‘Beera’ add a souldful complexity to the song. The heavy use of drums and xylophones in ‘Behne De’, and the rustic folk elements of ‘Kata Kata’ also lend to the album’s rich flavour. However, it’s ‘Jaa Re Ud Jaa Re’ (sung by Rahman himself) that is the fulcrum of the score. Rahman’s signature mumbling vocals, accompanied by an accordion and some light percussion, make it one of the most haunting melodies of his career.
15. Aiyaa (2012)
This Rani Mukerji starrer tried to be experimental but was let down by its one-line plot about a girl who becomes obsessed with a man’s heady fragrance. Amit Trivedi’s score is as outlandish and compelling as the movie probably hoped (and failed) to be. The tongue-in-cheek ‘Dreamum Wakeupum’ is a delightful homage to 80s’ hits from Tamil cinema; ‘Aga Bai’ and ‘Sava Dollar’ also have a nudge-nudge-wink-wink feel to them in how Trivedi seems to be riffing on item song culture. It’s all ironically over-the-top, which is why Shreya Ghoshal’s ‘Mehak Bhi’—where the shehnai seems to communicate the protagonist’s yearning — is such an important component of the album, and serves to ground the entire soundtrack.
16. Ghanchakkar (2013)
Amit Trivedi’s unapologetically eccentric score for Rajkumar Gupta’s overcooked and underwhelming heist movie is perhaps it’s only redeeming feature. In this album, Trivedi brings back the former pop sensation Altaf Raja in ‘Jholu Ram’, featuring just the sort of kitschy melody that made the singer a household name in the ’90s. Then there’s Divya Kumar’s ‘Allah Meherbaan’, where Trivedi uses the banjo to supreme effect in an interlude. The quirky title song, sung by Trivedi himself, features untranslatable yet funny lines such as ‘hua bheja talke sabudana re’. And if this wasn’t enough, there’s a Richa Sharma song called ‘Lazy Lad Saiyaan’ to top things off in this weird and beautiful album.
17. Fitoor (2016)
Abhishek Kapoor’s modern-day interpretation of Great Expectations was a visual treat, but ultimately hollow — which really shouldn’t have been a surprise with Aditya Roy Kapur and Katrina Kaif in the lead roles. Amit Trivedi’s music, though, is first-rate through and through, and it’s tough to pick favourites between Arijit Singh’s brimming-with-obsession vocals in the title track, Trivedi in ‘Pashmina’, or Zeb Bangash’s balmy vocals in ‘Haminastu’ and ‘Hone Do Batiyaan’. Sunidhi Chauhan too is in magnificent form in ‘Tere Liye’ and ‘Ranga Re’. It’s a shame that the layered and wide-ranging music of Fitoor ended up being overlooked because of the limitations of the film.
18. Baar Baar Dekho (2016)
Nitya Mehra’s directorial debut was much talked about for what many described as Katrina Kaif’s “revenge bod”. But even Kaif’s hypnotic dancing during ‘Kaala Chashma’ couldn’t distract the audience from Sidharth Malhotra’s general cluelessness throughout the film. The remix aside, Baar Baar Dekho had a nice assortment of songs, which really held up the film’s pre-release buzz as a ‘pleasant’ film. Jasleen Royal’s ‘Kho Gaye Hum Kahaan’, also featuring Prateek Kuhad, is whimsical, and dream-like and evocative of childhood romances. Royal is also behind the peppy Sangeet ceremony song, ‘Nachde Ne Saare’, where her vocals with Siddharth Mahadevan’s high-pitched voice create a nice dissonance. Amaal Malik’s ‘Sau Aasman’ and Arko’s ‘Dariya’, are run-of-the-mill songs, but melodious. The icing on the cake is Bilal Saeed’s ‘Teri Khair Mangdi’, a classic break-up song, which is wasted on Malhotra’s weird hair extensions. Now only if the film’s two leads were as clued in as the various music directors.
19. Love Aaj Kal (2020)
Does Imtiaz Ali keep making the same movie over and over again? Or is he trying to build upon the meaning of his earlier films? Whatever it may be, the 2020 version of Love Aaj Kal featured one of the worst performances of the year by Sara Ali Khan, surpassing even her co-star Kartik Aaryan — which is quite a feat. It’s a film that is so ‘old school’ and so ladka-aur-ladki-kabhi-dost-nahi-ban-sakte that one cannot blame the audience for tuning out of Pritam’s music as well. Except that the score is arguably even better than the original Love Aaj Kal (2009), which was also pretty good. Pritam’s compositions have matured and deepened in recent years, which is evident in tracks such as ‘Shayad’, ‘Aur Tanha’, and ‘Haan Tum Ho’. Irshad Kamil’s lyrics are also evocative, such as this line from ‘Aur Tanha’: ‘Ab chhoda hai toh sach mein chhod de mujhko, kyun har pal ki mehmaan ho gayi’. To skip this album is to miss the chance to enjoy a composer at his peak.