A couple of months back, blog reader Shalini alerted me to the fact that this year was Asha Bhonsle’s 80th birthday. Would I be doing a special post to mark the occasion? I hadn’t known that it was such a landmark birthday for Asha, but I couldn’t miss this opportunity, because—at the risk of being labeled an iconoclast and inviting censure (and possible debates?)—I have to admit that I tend to prefer Asha to her sister Lata.
Unfortunately, most people tend to associate Asha Bhonsle only with the sultry, ‘cabaret’ songs that she sang for umpteen songs picturised on vamps, all the way from Helen to Parveen Babi. Few remember that Asha’s was also the voice of the hauntingly beautiful Yehi woh jagah hai, or the bhajan Tora man darpan kehlaaye.
To compile a list of my ten favourite Asha Bhonsle songs would be impossible; there are far too many Asha songs that are simply out of this world as far as I’m concerned. So I decided to celebrate Asha’s birthday with this list: ten Asha solos, from pre-70s films, all in different moods. Not merely seductive, not merely cheerful or come-hither, but songs that are proof of Asha’s superb versatility. As always, these are from films I’ve seen.
Madcap: Daiyya yeh main kahaan aa phansi (Caravan, 1971): This song has to be one of the most ‘unlikely to be filmed on a heroine’ songs made in Hindi films back in the good old days—because the heroine is neither being romantic nor come-hither, neither maternal nor sad, but an utter clown. Asha Bhonsle, singing to RD Burman’s music, called Daiyya yeh main kahaan aa phansi the most difficult song she ever sang. And I can well imagine it: this is a tough song to sing, very fast-paced, the notes going low, high, and through the roof, while the lyrics are mostly nonsensical enough to make it even more difficult to sing them correctly.
Yet, Asha is flawless. She sings this with a panache and a nuttiness that does not, however, detract from the sheer skill of her performance. Superb, and funny.
Seductive: Aaiye meherbaan baithiye jaan-e-jaan (Howrah Bridge, 1958): Asha did seductive very, very well: she could infuse her voice with a deliciously smoky sultriness that was perfect for everything from a come-hither Yeh hai reshmi zulfon ka andhera, to a part-seductive, part-playful Raat akeli hai.
While I love both those songs—and a host of others, in a similar vein—for me the ultimate Asha-in-seductive-mode song is this one. Her voice, while sweet, doesn’t ascend into the shrill even when she’s singing at a high note, and Asha brings into her tone the same self-assurance in her own attractiveness that Madhubala portrays onscreen. Not just a very seductive song, but also a good example of a singer ‘acting’ through her voice.
Lonely: Jab chali thandi hawa (Do Badan, 1966): Most people tend to associate Asha’s voice with either OP Nayyar or RD Burman, both of whom gave her some of her biggest hits.
Ravi, I think, should be added to that list—and this song is a fine example of what magic Ravi’s composition and Asha’s voice could work. The music is melodious, rippling and fluid, with an interesting combination of very Indian sounds (the rhythmic clapping, and the tabla) with distinctly Western touches, too—and Asha’s rendition follows the same pattern. It has all the sweetness one expects of a female voice in a Hindi song, but without the shrillness most Western-attuned ears find jarring. A beautiful song of loneliness and yearning for a beloved.
Philosophical: Aage bhi jaane na tu (Waqt, 1965): Asha sings for Ravi, again—and a song that is one of my favourites, ever—because of its sheer all-round perfection: lyrics, music, rendition, picturisation (and the fact that it is a rare instance of a Hindi film song in which the story actually progresses a lot in the course of the song).
If you only watch Aage bhi jaane na tu, or listen to it without paying attention to the lyrics, you may well think of it as just another fabulous crooner song. What it is, though, is a song about a ‘this is the moment’ philosophy. The past is gone; who knows what the future holds—so grab this moment before it too is gone.
I cannot help but admire the way Asha sings this. It’s a difficult song to sing, yet she does it seemingly effortlessly, bringing in a sort of lazy sultriness into her voice that conveys the emotion of the song—and very effectively portrays, too, the quintessential ‘club crooner’ of the 60s.
Patriotic: Saare jahaan se achcha (Bhai-Bahen, 1959): As a school girl, I sang this song umpteen times—it was a staple in our school assembly, and after I’d sung it a few years to the tune, I was heartily sick of it. But this version (with lyrics by Jaan Nisar Akhtar) is a different kettle of fish altogether. While it uses the first two lines of Iqbal’s original poem, it goes a completely different way after that. And the music (by N Dutta) is more melodious, making it less of a ‘marching song’ than the way we used to sing it in school.
The icing on the cake is Asha’s rendition of Saare jahaan se achcha. While older sister Lata may be credited with the more well-known patriotic songs—like Vande mataram or Ae mere watan ke logon, this one works just as well (if not better) than those. Her voice is very sweet and handles the twists and turns of the music perfectly. Very stirring, actually; enough to make this one of my favourite patriotic songs.
(Interestingly, this same song, in the form of a duet sung by Asha and Rafi, was also part of Dharmputra, 1961).
Heartbroken: Pyaar par bas toh nahin (Sone ki Chidiya, 1958): I’m taking a minor liberty with this particular song, because while Asha did record Pyaar par bas toh nahin, it was not included in the film—or was later removed, I’ve not been able to discover which. The Talat Mahmood version of the song is still part of the film, and is one of my favourite songs.
This song, even though I hadn’t heard of it till a couple of months back (and so was a little—illogically, I admit—biased in favour of Talat’s version), ended up being as much a hit with me as was the Talat version.
Pyaar par bas toh nahin, in its female avatar, is a song not of a budding romance, but of a broken romance. Jilted by the man she loved—and who perhaps once loved her in his own selfish way—the heroine sings of her despair, of how he has shattered her world…
I love the way Asha sings this: she’s very restrained, not wailing her sorrow or letting her voice throb in a travesty of tragedy. Instead, the heartbreak is controlled, and is more poignant for that.
Romantic: Saba se yeh keh do (Bank Manager, 1959): Until I watched Bank Manager, I’d thought this song was one of the most beautifully romantic I’d ever come across. A woman letting a man know, in no uncertain terms—and in full view of the public—how she feels about him.
After watching Bank Manager, I realized how farcical this actually was, because Minoo Mumtaz’s character, far from being in love with Shekhar’s character, is merely trying to entrap this man (who’s actually happily married). That, however, does not change my opinion about the almost lyrical beauty of Saba se yeh keh do. Madan Mohan, one of my favourites, here allows Asha’s voice to shine forth in all its sweetness, undistracted by much orchestration.
Despite the scenario, still a gloriously romantic song.
Teasing: Dekhne mein bhola hai (Bombai ka Babu, 1960): A young woman, meeting—after many, many years (so long, in fact, that nobody even recognizes him)—her long-lost brother, introduces him to her sahelis. She warns him; this is a village of fairies: he should guard his heart. And she warns them: do not make fun of him, for he is the prince of handsome men.
What makes this song especially likeable for me is the way Asha sings it, the little bits of emotion that show in her voice at different stages. Besides the generally teasing air of the song, there’s the momentary soulfulness of when she sings “Gali-gali gaon ki re jaagi hai sote-sote”, as if ruing the past loneliness; there’s the sudden, almost sultry twist to “Gaon hai yeh pariyon ka, dil ko bachaana”, and there is the almost flirtatious playfulness of “Haseenon ka shahzada hai, hansi na udaana ji”.
Nostalgic: Main jab bhi akeli hoti hoon (Dharmputra, 1961): This is a somewhat hard-to-pinpoint song as far as emotion or mood is concerned, because there can be several interpretations to this song. Firstly, since it’s not actually sung onscreen by the very sad heroine, but is played on a gramophone, it can—if one goes only by the words—be interpreted as a romantic song. It, does, in fact, evoke in the mind of the pregnant but unmarried Husn Bano (Mala Sinha) memories of her romance with the man she loved so much.
Secondly, the song reflects Husn Bano’s sorrow; her father refused the match, and threw her lover out. Where he is, Husn Bano does not know. Whether she will see him again, she does not know. All that is left to her are her memories.
A beautiful song that looks back on past loves, present sorrow, and perhaps future despair—and all of those emotions are perfectly rendered by Asha as she proceeds through the stanzas. Just listen to the difference in her tone between the second and the last verses, and you’ll know what I mean.
Here, Sharmila Tagore does a blast from the past: as a woman who claims to be an ancient dancer, now urging her long-lost reincarnated lover to come back to her. This song consists mainly of reminding the man (a spooked-out Biswajit) of all his long-ago promises, of all that he has forgotten. The misty atmosphere, the lyrics, the relatively subdued music (which swells only in the interludes)—all contribute. But most of all, there’s Asha’s voice: serene, melodious, and hauntingly beautiful. Yehi woh jagah hai gives me gooseflesh like few other songs can.
Readers: Let’s make it a celebration, shall we? Tell me what songs you’d have added to this list!