Ten of my favourite male duets

Several years back, to mark International Women’s Day, I’d compiled a list of ten female duets: songs celebrating the friendship between women, women teasing friends, women performers dancing and singing together, women singing a devotional song together… a range of emotions and situations, but all featuring two women singing one song.

Sometime back, blog reader Naghma happened to come upon that post, and suggested I do a list of male duets. A great idea (and one I wondered why I hadn’t thought of). After all, there are plenty of instances of two men singing together: sometimes as friends, more often, it seems, in a competition of sorts. And more. Here, therefore, are ten songs I really like, all from pre-1970s Hindi films that I’ve seen, which feature two men singing: two actors (at least) onscreen, two playback singers contributing their voices to the song. An important caveat: these songs do not include trios, quartets or more singers; they’re only all duets.

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Ten of my favourite ‘Impossible Duets’

Hindi film songs, in the context of being part of films, have always struck me as rather unreal. Of course it’s a miracle that people in cinema (and that’s not just Hindi cinema, but almost any cinema that produces musicals) break into song at the drop of a hat. How do they think up lyrics on the fly? How do they think up a tune as they go along? How can they dance and jump around and not run out of breath while singing?

Let’s say that’s all artistic license, and that we need to accept it (we do). But what happens when there’s no way a song could be possible? A duet, for instance, sung perfectly in tandem—the tune the same, one verse completely responding to the previous one, even the voices sometimes blending together? —when the two people supposedly singing the song are nowhere close to each other? One is one part of town, the other in another. Or even, in some cases, not even in the same town. Impossible, that’s what I call such duets.

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Dilip Kumar in Ten Moods

RIP, Dilip Kumar.

A living legend has gone. Yusuf Khan, aka Dilip Kumar, one of the greatest actors (many would say the greatest) of Hindi cinema, a man who could seemingly effortlessly enact any role. A man who could convincingly be the maudlin drunk, the happy-go-lucky joker, the broken-hearted lover, the cynic who looks on with contempt at a world gone awry. Unlike several of his most successful contemporaries, who let their stardom get to their heads until what you saw onscreen was always the star, never the character—Yusuf Sahib managed always, unerringly, to bring the character to life. He was Devdas, he was Noshu. Amar, Azaad, Saleem. And every other character he has played.

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Ten of my favourite English-language songs—not from musicals

Over the years I’ve been blogging, I’ve compiled dozens of song lists, focusing on specific people (actors and actresses, singers, music directors, lyricists), themes, and more. There have been songs from many, many Hindi films, all the way from the 1930s to the first couple of years of the 1970s. One thing there hasn’t been – and quite an omission, too – are songs from Hollywood (or from English language films made outside Hollywood, too). Considering that I watch and review a lot of English language films, including musicals (Oklahoma!, Fiddler on the Roof, South Pacific, Alexander’s Ragtime Band, Flower Drum Song and Oliver! among them), I figured it was about time I made a ‘ten favourites’ list of English language songs that I really like.

While–unlike Hindi cinema–Hollywood cannot boast of just about every film it makes being a musical, there has been no dearth of musicals. And that’s where I ran up against an obstacle: where would I stop? There are dozens of songs from films made both in the US and in England which I could listen to (and watch) over and over again. Should I do a theme? Should I choose one actor or actress (Gene Kelly? Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers? Julie Andrews?)

Too much work, I thought. And too much sifting. So I chose this: songs from films which weren’t musicals. Each of the ten songs in this list is from films which were definitely not musicals. Westerns, war films, drama, comedy: but not the sort of film that had one song after another. In most cases, this particular song was the only song in the film. As always, these are all songs from films I’ve seen, all pre-70s, and in no particular order.

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Composers sing for themselves: Ten songs

No, I don’t mean all those many renditions of Mae ri or Naina barse that one comes across, sung by Madan Mohan himself. I mean instances where a composer actually recorded—and it was included in the film in question—a song in his/her own voice.

This idea popped into my head one day when I was watching Baradari and came across a song that Nashad (the composer of the film’s score) sang in his own voice. It made me wonder: were there other composers, too, who had sung songs for their own films (I cannot, offhand, think of any composers—not also major playback singers—who have sung for other composers. SD Burman singing for RD Burman’s music is perhaps one of the exceptions). Of course, some names immediately came to mind: SD Burman, naturally, since I love his voice so much. RD Burman, who was also a good singer. Nashad, since his song had been the one that had sparked off this idea in the first place.

And, quickly, one after the other, more songs, more singers/composers, followed. So here it is, my list of ten songs that were both composed by and sung by the same person. As always, these are all from pre-1970s films that I’ve seen.

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Regional Star, Hindi Also-Ran: Ten Actors, Ten Songs

(With much thanks to blog reader Dr TN Subramaniam, who suggested the theme for this post, and who also supplied the first three examples of the actors that appear on this list).

I did not watch too many regional Indian films until fairly recently. True, Doordarshan did show regional cinema back when I was a child, but I was never tempted to watch (now that I think about it, I’m not even sure those films were subtitled). But in recent years, ever since I began to make a concerted effort to watch more non-Hindi films, I’ve been struck by the gap between regional cinema and Hindi cinema. A gap in many ways. For one, in the types of films made; in the production values; in the standard of acting and directing (note: I do not at all think that Bombay’s Hindi film industry outdid its regional counterparts in these areas. In a lot of cases, it was the opposite: regional cinema turned out a lot of films that were more original and generally of a higher standard than Hindi cinema, enough for Hindi remakes to be churned out).

And then there were the people who acted in these films. On the one hand, there were the many actors who confined themselves to the cinema of the region they belonged to. These were the majority, some of them even very fine, well-respected actors (think Tulsi Chakraborty, for instance) who were never seen in Hindi cinema. On the other hand, there were actors, big stars of regional cinema, who were also fairly successful in Hindi cinema. Bengalis like Suchitra Sen and Utpal Dutt; stars of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada cinema like Padmini, Vyjyanthimala, and Waheeda Rehman: stars in their own regions, and stars familiar to Hindi filmgoers as well.

But there were some regional stars who, for some reason or the other, never could make it big in Hindi cinema. Perhaps they never felt the need to pursue a career in Hindi cinema (Soumitra Chatterjee, I know, was one of these), and never had the time; perhaps they could not be bothered with the language skills needed (though I can think of several people who did make names for themselves in Hindi cinema without being too good at Hindi). Perhaps they just didn’t have what it took to make them popular with a Hindi-speaking audience. Perhaps they were pure unlucky.

B Saroja Devi
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Ten of my favourite Shashikala songs

RIP, Shashikala.

It came as a shock to me to learn that Shashikala had passed away on the 4th of April, 2021. She was 88 years old, so a ripe old age, yes; but there was something so alive and vibrant about Shashikala even in her old age that I never actually realized how old she was. I would see photos and videos of hers in recent times, her brilliant silver hair stylishly cut, that trademark smile like a 1000-watt bulb. She was not one of those reclusive actresses who go into their shells and disappear after they retire; no. Shashikala always seemed so alive.

In her cinema, too.

Shashikala in Jeevan Jyoti
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Ten Avatars of a Magician: The Genius of Sahir Ludhianvi

I am leery of attaching ‘best’ and ‘most favourite’ appellations to anybody or anything, no matter how much I may be fond of the person/creation/whatever in question. I tend to say that so-and-so song or film, for instance, is among my favourites; the same goes for actors, singers, directors, and so on. There are some whom I especially like, there are some for whom I will watch a film just because they’re in it. There are none whom I idolize and place on a pedestal and see no wrong in.

Sahir Ludhianvi may be one of the exceptions. This is one man whose genius blows me away. If I were to list my favourite Hindi songs from the Golden Period, based purely on the sheer memorability of their lyrics, the one lyricist who would lead the pack would be Sahir Ludhianvi. His versatility; his hard-hitting, often brutal, honesty; his occasional humour and his exquisite expressions of romance: all come forth in many, many songs composed across the three decades or so that he was actively writing songs for Hindi cinema.

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Jai Kisan! Ten of my favourite ‘farmer’ songs

I have been on a bit of a hiatus for the past several weeks. That happened partly because I have been swamped with work (I’m working pretty much simultaneously on two books, juggling between one and the other), and partly because of some trying times my family’s been through. My father had Covid, then there were a couple of other family crises that we went through and from which we’re still recovering. It’s been a very, very stressful time.

I did have a couple of posts, both film reviews, ready to be posted, but I was too stressed to publish them. And now, even though we’re getting back on track and looking forward to Christmas, I couldn’t summon up the energy to watch a film and review it. It was time, I decided, for the sort of blog post that energizes me. A song list.

Given the situation in India right now, with the farmers’ protests front and centre, I was reminded of the many, many Hindi films that are about farmers. Since very early on, Hindi cinema has been enamoured with village life. And where there are villages, there are farmers. True, barring some films (Godaan, Do Bigha Zameen, Aurat and its remake Mother India, among them), rural life as depicted in Hindi cinema is far from the reality. Anybody who’d only seen farms in Hindi cinema would think Indian farmers had nothing better to do than sing and dance and bill-and-coo with glamorous village girls all day long.

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Ten of my favourite wind instrument songs

This is a post that’s been in the works a long time. Several years back, I’d compiled a list of string instrument songs—songs where the person lip-syncing to the lyrics is also shown ‘playing’ a guitar, sitar, ektara, mandolin or other stringed instrument. I also did a post featuring, in a similar vein, percussion instruments of different kinds: castanets, tabla, bongos, and more. Here, then, after a very long gap, is the third post in the series. Wind instrument songs.

Wind instruments, as the name implies, are instruments that create a sound as a result of wind: mostly (not always) the player blows into them—the wind in the player’s lungs produces the sound, which is amplified, made to resonate, and varied by the use of various devices built into the instrument, such as resonators, holes, the length of the air column in the instrument, and so on. Or, in some cases, the player doesn’t use his or her breath but uses his or her hands to work bellows that draw air into the instrument.

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