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27 September 2011

The Masters: Salil Choudhary

19-11-1922 - 5-9-1995
If September 1923 saw the birth of Devsaab, then another September seven decades plus later saw the death of a Colossus of the Indian music world. Salil Choudhary. His contributions to the world of music (and not just film music) are vast; and his death left a vacuum that will not soon be filled.

If choosing my favourite Dev Anand songs was a monumental task, and sifting through the work of actors such as Dilip Kumar, Meena Kumari, Nutan was synonymous with the labours of Hercules, then this post is probably a Sisyphean endeavour. To choose just *ten* songs from a plethora of songs that have given me immense pleasure over the years is a task in itself; to do so, from  the oeuvre of a master who had the ability to weave magic with melody is beyond audacious. 

Salilda is a man of whom the term 'Renaissance Man' fits to a T. That he was a music director par excellence is beyond doubt; however, he was also writer, dramatist, lyricist, scriptwriter, played multiple instruments, and was possibly one of the few Indian music directors who arranged his compositions himself. He was a very active member of the IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association) as were numerous others with leftist sympathies who became prominent in the film industry. Salilda firmly believed that he wouldn't have become who he was, if it hadn't been for the IPTA. 

Salilda had written a short story called Rickshawala, which was being made in Hindi as Do Bigha Zameen by Bimal Roy. In exchange for the script, Salilda wanted to compose the film's music. (He had composed the music for the original.) And so began his tryst with Hindi filmdom.

My husband had introduced me to a Salilda site a few years ago - www.salilda.com, a site that is a labour of love, and the result of much hard work on Gautam Choudhary's part. A site where every one of Salilda's songs that was ever recorded is available, indexed and cross-indexed to the last note. Cross-indexed, because, Salilda used many of his tunes in different languages at different times. And this is from Gautam's site:

His phenomenal flair for instruments prompted even an expert like Jaikishen to refer to him as a 'The Genius'. Raj Kapoor once said, 'He can play almost any instrument he lays his hands on, from the tabla to the sarod, from the piano to the piccolo'. He was in fact a composer's composer, because unlike his market-driven counterparts, he never really set prose to music. To him the melody was sacrosanct and had to precede the words. The situation could then be adapted.

His music has given me much joy over the years, and it is inevitably to his music that I turn when I need some solace. Many of his songs seem very simple at first listening, and then, when you hear others trying to sing them (no, not me, I can't sing for toffee), you realise how complicated his tunes really were. 

Salilda died sixteen years ago, but he will always remain alive through his music. His compositions will endure, and his legacy will continue as long as music and music lovers remain.

When he heard of Salilda's death, music director Naushad commented: 'He was the composer of composers; with his death, one of the seven notes of music has been lost.' And Lata Mangeshkar who sang some of Salilda's most complicated songs with seemingly little effort, had this to say in an interview: "Over the course of my life I have worked with over a hundred music directors. Of these, perhaps only ten understood both music and cinema. And of these ten, Salilda was the foremost."*

This is a very subjective list and in no way encompasses all my favourites, much less the 'best' of Salil Choudhary's compositions. And these songs that I have chosen need not even necessarily be his best in terms of music. Because unless Salilda was himself choosing what he considered his 'best', I think any such choice would hardly be objective. In any case, even my 'favourite' Salilda songs change continually, because I tend to like different songs at different times. (I could make ten 'My Favourite' lists of Salilda's songs and still have songs left over for more!) However, these ten songs have always been perennial favourites.

Anand (1971)
Singer: Manna Dey
Lyricst: Yogesh
Four songs. Two written by Yogesh (the other was Kahin door jab din dhal jaaye), two by Gulzar (Maine tere liye and Naa, jiya laage na). All of them beautiful. The single Manna Dey solo in the film, which depicted the journey of a man who knew he had a very short time to live and was making the most of the time he had left. This song was originally meant to be used as a background song during the credits. According to IMDB, it was Rajesh Khanna who persuaded director Hrishikesh Mukherjee to use it as a song in the film. And the lyrics are as philosophical as Anand's (Rajesh Khanna in the titular role) attitude, which is as light as the balloons he lets soar into the sky. Juxtaposed with the distress that Dr Bhaskar (a.k.a Babu Moshai / Amitabh Bachchan) and Renu (Sumita Sanyal) are unable to hide, the song made more of an impact than otherwise.

2. Raaton ke saaye ghane 
Annadata (1972)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics: Yogesh
Jaya Bhaduri once said that heroines felt successful only when Lata Mangeshkar sung for them on-screen. She should know. Raaton ke saaye ghane is one of her best numbers, a very complicated tune that only Lata (amongst the female vocalists in Hindi films) could have done justice to. Lata Mangeshkar, in her heyday, could never have gone besur if they had paid her to do so, but the Malayalam version of this song by Yesudas is, in my opinion, equally good. My husband veers towards the opinion that the Yesudas version is a tad better. One of the other songs in this film (Guzar jaye din din din) saw Kishore Kumar need multiple takes before he could get it right. He is reputed to have had nightmares about the tune.

3. Ae mere pyaare watan 
Kabuliwala (1966)
Singer: Manna Dey
Lyrics: Prem Dhawan
What can I say? My choice of songs varies from day to day, from time to time, and I rarely say that a particular song is my favourite Hindi song ever. But I have noticed that this song is always there amongst my favourites - in the background, it's soft melody, and evocative lyrics calling to something deep within me. In a film that boasted of the heavy-with-pathos Ganga aaye kahaan se in Hemant Kumar's voice (Salilda once said of Hemant Kumar that if God could sing, it would be in Hemant Kumar's voice.) and Mohammed Rafi's Ho ya qurbaan... o saaba kehna mere dildaar ko,  Mannada's mellifluous number stood out, both for its simple yet meaningful lyrics and the minimal instrumentation which allowed Mannada's voice to soar with an immigrant's yearning for the motherland. Salilda used the rabab to great effect.

4. Na jaane kyun 
Chhoti Si Baat  (1975) 
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics: Yogesh
 A young woman, Prabha (Vidya Sinha), who is unsure of her feelings for her shy suitor, Arun (Amol Palekar). He is always tongue-tied in her presence, and it doesn't help that she has a very streetsmart colleague. She is friendly, but is she in love? She doesn't know herself, and Nagesh (Asrani) is so much the better suitor. Until Arun, disillusioned in his inability to say  something, anything to Prabha, leaves to get some much-needed help. And absence does make the heart grow fonder. Prabha is beginning to miss Arun, and to think about him at inconvenient times. Yogesh's lyrics were so apt to the situation, and Lata's voice ebbed and soared with effortless ease.   

5. Woh ik nigaah kya mili 
Half-Ticket (1962)
Singers: Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics:  Shailendra
 Based on the Hollywood film 'You Are Never Too Young' Half Ticket had Kishore Kumar at his nonsensical best (or worst, depending on which way you look at it), and Salilda's musical score reflected the film's zaniness. This was the film that had Cheel cheel chillaake, Aankh seedhi lagi (which had Kishore sing both male and female parts), the romantic Chand raat tum ho saath amongst others. Vijay urf Munna (Kishore Kumar) is running away from home but has no money to buy a ticket. So, of course, he dresses himself up as a child, so he can buy a half-ticket (so obvious, no?). On the way, he runs into Raja Babu (Pran), who, on the run from the police, plants a diamond in Munna's pocket. Now, he is on the run from Raja who is on the run from the police, but wants his diamond back. In one of the many episodes of escaping Raja's clutches, he tumbles into a stage show - and begs the dancer (Helen in a special appearance) to help him - in verse. She responds, also in verse, and they have an impromptu jugalbandi. Salilda, confident as he was in Lata's ability to climb the notes made her sound almost operatic in this song - touching the impossible high notes with ease. It is difficult to make out where the instrumentation stops and her voice begins - her voice is that true and clear. 

Chhaya (1961)
Singers: Lata Mangeshkar, Talat Mahmood
Lyrics: Rajinder Krishan
A simple love story by Hrishikesh Mukherjee between a rich girl Sarita (Asha Parekh) and a poor(er) boy Arun (Sunil Dutt); she adores his alter-ego ('Raahee'), a poet, without knowing anything else about him; he is the tutor who is teaching her to write better. And they fall in love. A relationship that her wealthy father denounces. Add an aunt who wants Sarita to marry *her* nephew, and you have crisis no.1. Arun retreats in no good order, and the lovers are parted until the circumstances of Sarita's birth is raised - she is illegitimate. So, who is she? Salilda was inspired by Mozart's 40th symphony, but it truly was 'inspired' as opposed to copied. The slower (sad) solo version by Talat is beautiful too.  

7. Zindagi khwaab hai 
Jagte Raho (1956)
Singer: Mukesh
Lyrics: Shailendra
The film was a masterpiece and a tribute to the sort of producer that Raj Kapoor was. Remade from its original Bengali by directors Amit and Shombhu Mitra, Raj Kapoor acted as the villager who comes to the city in search of employment. Thirsty, unacquainted with anyone, the man begins a search for some water. His experiences overnight as he looks to quench his thirst make for an entrancing allegorical fable. Salil Choudhary's music takes the narrative forward; one of the films' best scenes has Raj Kapoor sharing his food with a street dog just as a very drunk Motilal appears on the scene. Being drunk has obviously not taken his ability to sing away, even though he can hardly walk. So comes an outpouring of very cynical philosophy, which probably also stands in for the philosophy of city life: Life's a dream; and in a dream, what is truth or lies.  Jagte Raho was famous for two other things: it was the last film which Nargis would do for the RK banner; a short version of this film won the first prize at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Parakh (1960)
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics: Shailendra
The soft Mere man ke diyethe frothy, happy Mila hai kisi ka jhumka were all part of a score that added to the charm of Bimal Roy's vignettes of village life. It's idyllic, but there is life, and covert vices and hidden virtues all the same, and a bequest brings it all roiling to the surface. Suddenly, every influential man in the village is turning over a new leaf - the moneylender forgoes his interest, the doctor treats his poorer patients without charging fees, and the village postmaster watches bemusedly from the sidelines. And the Zamindar wishes to marry the young and beautiful daughter (Sadhana) of the postmaster; only, she is in love with the village schoolmaster, and is enjoying the rain, it's cheery pitter-patter echoing the beating of her heart. 

9. Koi hota jisko apna 
Mere Apne (1971)
Singer: Kishore Kumar
Lyrics: Gulzar
Meena Kumari's last film, though Pakeezah was considered her swansong. This Gulzar-directed film had Meena Kumari in one of the strongest roles of her career - as the widowed Anandi, who is brought to the city by her nephew so she can serve as an unpaid ayah. As she comes to a realisation of the truth, she finds that her nephew has no place for her either in his home or hearth. Self-respect intact, she moves out and fends for herself in a broken-down old shanty in a neighbourhood where two rival street gangs of unemployed youth are staking claim to their turf. Shyam (Vinod Khanna) later confides in her that he had lost the woman he loved (Yogita Bali). Everyone is waiting for someone to call their own. Will they find that love and companionship?

Madhumati (1958)
Singer: Mohammed Rafi
Lyrics: Shailendra
Another Bimal Roy film where the master auteur digresses from his usual scripts. It's a whimsical fable, an ancient tale of reincarnation with a vengeful ghost, and a love that transcends death. Set amongst the misty mountains, Madhumati narrates the tale of Madhumati (Vyjayanthimala) and Anand (Dilip Kumar), two lovers who cut through the barriers of class and caste and are happy together. Enter a villain in the form of the local zamindar, Ugranarain (Pran), who is Anand's employer and has an eye for a pretty face. And now his gaze has fallen on Madhumati. A concocted errand, a treacherous drunk, a concerned girl and a lecherous villain all combine to bring Madhumati to a summary end. Only, this is just the beginning. Bimalda used the shadows and light to accentuate the suspense, and Shailendra wrote some really evocative lyrics to set the mood. But the tour de force was Salilda's magical score which moved between the haunting Aaja re pardesi to the foot-tapping Chad gayo paapi bichchua; from the happy-to-be-alive-ness of Suhana safar to the drunken Jungal mein mor naacha; from the vibrant Zulmi sang aankh ladi to the gravely portentous Hum haale-e-dil sunaayenge; from the eagerness of Ghadi ghadi mora dil dhadke to the sweetly romantic Dil tadap tadap. What melodies!

I have barely scraped the tip of the iceberg with this post. These are just a handful of his songs from Hindi films. Apart from his vast output for Hindi films, there is a whole treasure trove that he composed in Malayalam, using the voices of the incomparable Yesudas and S. Janaki amongst many others including Talat Mahmood and Mannadey. Not to mention the many other languages he composed in - Bengali, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Assamese, Marathi and Oriya. He was also very good at composing background music. Very few people know that while Bimal Roy's Devdas was scored by Sachin Dev Burman, Salilda composed its background music. Uncredited, because that was the relationship between peers in those days. 

This month, is his sixteenth death anniversary. To the man whose melodies have given me, is giving me, countless hours of listening pleasure, may you continue to compose many more melodies wherever you are. 

*Sourced from www.salilda.com


  1. Hi Anu,
    The very fact that 16 years on, you are still struggling to find a 'definitive' list of Salilda in itself proves his genius. Though his genius remains unquestionable, I am always a bit cross at him for his repurposing his tunes for Malayalam, when he always had the time to compose originals. Of the 'fleeting list of 10 favorites ' :) you mentioned, 6 are mine too .. so there, a reasonable consensus. And ofcourse, I could give you my favorite 10. Again and again. Thanks..cinematters

  2. Fantastic post, Anu (and I see we're at it again, with our coincidences... you mentioned Kishore's single-handed 'duet' from Half Ticket, just a few hours after I'd posted it as a question in my aborted quiz!). Salil Choudhary is definitely among my top favourite MDs, and my list of favourite songs of Salil da's could just go on and on and on. Truly a genius, like you said. Among the songs you've listed, O sajna barkha bahar aayi, Zindagi khwab hai, Zindagi kaisi hai paheli haai, Itna na mujhse tu pyaar badha, Ae mere pyaare watan and Na jaane kyon are particular favourites.

    Oh, and of the ones I also like a lot: Jangal mein mor naacha (I LOVE that hiccupy music!), Rimjhim ke yeh pyaare-pyaare geet liye, Jaa re jaa re ud jaa re panchhi, Hariyala saawan dhol bajaata aaya, and Mere khwabon mein khayalon mein... whew. There is really no end to the number of superb Salil tunes out there.

  3. Oh, by the way... I hadn't known Half Ticket was a remake of You're Never Too Young (frankly, I can't bear Jerry Lewis, so though I've seen a couple of Lewis-Martin films, they were watched mainly for Dean Martin). Instead, I always thought of Half Ticket as a remake of the Ginger Rogers-Ray Milland starrer The Major and The Minor. (Which, it turns out, was what inspired You're Never Too Young. I'm glad I learnt something, there). :-)

  4. Thanks for visiting. :) The more I listen to Salilda, the more I keep finding new things to listen to. About re-purposing tunes? That used to be my crib, too, but I'm beginning to see slight differences now, and I just sit back to enjoy the songs. :) Besides, he did the same in reverse too. And from / into Bengali as well. If you go to Gautam's site, you will see the genesis of each song - he has cross-indexed it, so you will see its equivalent in other languages, if any.

    And I totally agree with you about there being *many* top-ten lists.

  5. Thanks, Madhu. I was quite zapped to see that question on your blog, actually. But I've stopped shaking my head at our coincidences. :) I agree with you about our favourite tunes going on and on - it's so hard to make a definitive list of his song, no? Jangal mein is a personal favourite too. :) And I like it in its totality. I think the Rafi - Johnny Walker combination just added lustre to Salilda's music.

  6. I knew it only because I'd a father who was totally into films. :) I was a teenager then, and we were discussing films which is quite usual with us, and I filed this away in some part of my brain. I'm not a great fan of Jerry Lewis myself, so I haven't seen the original.

  7. Aaah, what a nice way to end the day. My favourites from among your list are Ae mere pyare watan, Na jaane kyun, Zindagi khwab hai, Koi hota, and Zindagi kaisi hai paheli. Others that I really like are Kai baar yunhi dekha hai (Rajnigandha), Saathi re (Poonam ki Raat),Rhimjhim rhimjhim badarwa barse (Tangewali); Shravanam vannu (Anthiveyilile Ponnu), Oru mukham maathram (Etho Oru Swapnam), and Vrishchika Penne (Thomasleeha) - these are all songs I have grown up hearing. He has some fantastic numbers in Tamil as well. Did you know that Rehman's father R Shekhar used to be his assistant?

  8. Actually, Poomaanam from Etho Oru Swapna made a reappearance in Azhiyatha Kolangal, and later in a vague Hindi film called Aakhri Badla. The Hindi song was not a patch on the Malayalam original even though the tune remained more or less faithful.

  9. Sridhar, thanks. :) Yes, I did know that Salilda composed in Tamil, but for hardly a handful of films. In fact, the score of Thooratthu Idi muzhakkam was always a favourite. I first heard the songs when I was in college, though the film had come out years before. I didn't even know the music director was Salilda. I just thought the songs had a very familiar 'feel' to them. So, are you a Tamilian or a Mally? :)

  10. 10 fav songs of Salilda!
    diffi, diffi, diffi, difficult task!
    well nearly impossible, but you don't shirk away from challenges do you?

    All your songs are just simply good!

    one song which always comes to my mind when I say salil choudhary is

    I just adore the flute prelude

    And I love:

    And one of my favourite lullabies:
    This one shares the first place for lullaby with chadni re jhoom from naukar and chanda o chanda from lakhon me Ek!

  11. Harvey, LOL Pot, meet Kettle. :) With Salilda, it's that I'm spoilt for choice. With your themes, it's well nigh impossible to find them, and yet you manage one list after another!

    I love the lori from Do Bigha Zameen. And the other two are stupendously fabulous. Dustedoff had that in her 'likes' as well. If I added all the Salilda songs I like then I may as well have made a post saying salilda.com :)) So many, many, many wonderful numbers. Not enough time to listen to all of them.

  12. Ah, bliss. I had heard but a few of these songs that you listed, a fact that Rishi (totally aghast) intends to remedy in the next few days - I think I'm going to get a crash course in Salil Choudhary's music! Oh, by the way, he was so enamored of the links you posted to the Malayalam songs that he has been frantically trawling YouTube for more. And he wanted to know where he could get Malayalam CDs in India (he's from UP).

  13. I can just see that happening! Salilda's music going on and on until you scream for mercy! Tell Rishi there is something called 'too much of a good thing'. :) I don't know where he can get it in UP, if that's what you're asking, but he should be able to order it online. It's a HMV compilation.

  14. awesome write up.Salilda is one of my favs too .I just love all his songs and i personally think his bangla songs are even better than the hindi ones.

    Note-This one is just for correct information.Shambu mitra & Amit moitra never considered Raj Kapoor to direct 'Jagte Raho'.Raj Kapoor was only the producer and the hero in the film.In fact Rajsaab himself never offered to direct Jagte Raho.Even if he had wanted to direct Jagte Raho,it was not possible for him to Propose so To Shambu Mitra,as Rajsaab himself was a big fan Of Shambhuda.You might know that the Kapoor family,including Rajsaab were first and foremost into Theatre and Shambhu Mitra was and remains a legend in Indian Theatre.Get this,Shambhu Mitra is no mean man.Infact he is Padma Bhushan and Magsaysay award winner for his pioneering contributions to Indian theatre.
    Sorry that my comment went more into Rajsaab & Shambhu mitra more than Salilda,about whom you have written about in this post,,but i just wanted to get the facts right.

  15. Raunak, thanks for dropping in. I know that Shambhu Mitra was a theatre doyen; I also know that he was very well-respected in his field. He was very well-known in the Bengal film industry as well. The version I wrote about was what I'd read elsewhere (oh, a long time ago) and I'm perfectly willing to admit that it might be wrong. :)

    Don't worry about the discussion veering away from the post - as long as it is to do with films and music, it's all good.

  16. Well, surely what you read was wrong. Anyways, it’s not your
    fault, it’s the writer’s fault. Jagte Raho was based on the Bengali play ‘Ek
    Din Raatre’-written and directed by Shombhu Mitra & Amit Maitra with
    Shombhu Mitra himself performing in the lead role i.e. Raj Kapoor’s role. The
    play was an IPTA production and was a huge success. Rajsaab saw the play and
    asked Shambhuda and Amitda to make a film based on this play which he would
    produce and act in. It’s because of the difference in the director and writer
    that this film, although an R.K. banner film, does not have certain trademarks
    that a Raj Kapoor directed film always had. Yes, it does carry the socialist
    element found in other R.K  movies, but
    then most of the films made by  Bengalis
    or by people  with strong Kolkata
    connect  back then, tended to have
    socialist ideologies and themes. And Rajsaab too had a strong Kolkata connect
    as he had spent a lot of his formative years in Kolkata and could speak fluent
    Bangla. In fact, Raj Kapoor also acted and produced the bangla version of Jagte
    Raho-Ek Din Raatre, which was shorter and if you ask me, a little better than
    the Hindi version. It was the bangla version that won the prize at Karlovy film
    festival, not the hindi one.

  17. I knew that it was a shorter version of Jagte Raho that won at the Karlovy Vary film festival; I didn't know the shorter version was Bengali. Thank you for that bit of information.

    I stand corrected on the other point, too. :)

    Thanks, Raunak, truly. It's always interesting to get the true picture.

  18. My pleasure.And yes,you are a wonderful writer.

  19. Thank you for brightening my day, Raunak. :)

  20. Anu,

    Have you seen this?  Salil C. interviewing Asha B!  Even though much of the interview is in Hindi, I wish I understood Bengali


  21.  No, I haven't! Thank you so much, Shalini, it looks interesting. I listened to the introduction and have bookmarked it for when I have the time, but, like you, I was wishing I understood Bengali!!


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