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75 top songs from Hindi cinema that shaped our lives and history

A celebration of India its consciousness and its identity through music – here are some great melodies, some for entertainment and some with meanings that will take lifetime to understand

Written by Suanshu Khurana | New Delhi |
Updated: October 5, 2021 9:55:44 am
songs, Hindi songs, Hindi cinema, Bollywood, songs that define India, Indian songs, stories told through songs, movies, films, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express newsA celebration of India through Hindi cinema melodies. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

The story of India will be incomplete without its songs – the background score to our lives. Be it the anguish of KL Saigal, when he crooned Jab dil hi toot gaya (Shahjehan, 1946) in his nasal voice, perhaps the most significant break-up song of the last century or our sudden belief in gold dust and green fields when we heard Mere desh ki dharti (Upkar, 1959) ringing out of our transistors. We were companions in misery with Guru Dutt when he lamented Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye toh kya hai (Pyaasa, 1957). And we will always look up to poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi for asking a tough question “Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain (Where are those who are proud of India)?” amid the failure of socialism.

For decades, we lent our ears to Binaca Geetmala, as Ameen Sayani played the top 10 every Wednesday from Radio Ceylon, our loyalties bought forever by Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Hemant Kumar, Mukesh, Talat Mahmood and Kishore Kumar. If we were sold out on the grandeur of Pyar kiya toh darna kya (Mughal-E-Azam, 1960) where a brave courtesan professed her love for a prince before an invincible king, there was Kaifi Azmi’s Waqt ne kiya (Kaagaz Ke Phool, 1959), about the inevitability of life.

In the ’80s and thereafter, songs of longing and unrequited love were replaced by street songs and realism. There were new stories to tell, new songs, new metaphors. The nation has always sung along.

1. 1947 Afsana likh rahi hoon (Dard)

Weeks after August 15, an independent India cocked its ears to this gentle ditty put together by Urdu poet-lyricist Shakeel Badayuni and Naushad with Uma Devi crooning it in her earnest voice. Afsaana (story) became the song of the year.

2. 1948 Watan ki raah mein (Shaheed)

This Ghulam Haider composition carried the zest of the youth wanting to lay down their lives for the nation.

3. 1949 Mere piya gaye Rangoon (Patanga)

A trunk call from Rangoon (now Yangon, Myanmar) to Dehradun that spoke of love and longing was an inherently fabulous, funny and catchy number, with Shamsad Begum’s nasal inflection imprinting it in collective memory.

4. 1949 Aayega aane wala (Mahal)

This is the watershed year when Lata Mangeshkar, who sang this haunting Khemchad Prakash composition and took the nation’s breath away, sealing her supremacy in the Indian film industry for decades to come, with no rival in sight. The song broke all records at Radio Ceylon as people flooded their office with letters to ask for the singer’s name (The gramophone company only carried the character’s name – Kamini). Every composer took notice. Lata Mangeshkar had arrived.

5. 1949 Suhani raat dhal chuki (Dulari)

A favourite with Rafi, the piece catapulted him to fame.

6. 1951 Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer (Baazi)

In this rather buoyant melody, poet Sahir Ludhianvi says, overcome your ruined fate with faith. Composer SD Burman had Geeta Bali sing the ghazal as a club number in this Bombay noir.

7. 1953 Mausam beeta jaaye (Do Bigha Zamin)

In Manna Dey’s haunting voice, the song was a commentary on the rising inequality in the country.

8. 1954 De di hamein azaadi (Jagriti)

One of Kavi Pradeep’s early patriotic lyrics was dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi, his ideas of freedom and non-violence. This Hemant Kumar composition is almost always sung every October 2.

9. 1955 Pyaar hua ikraar hua (Shree 420)

This iconic duet by Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey will always be remembered for the iconic imagery of Raj Kapoor and Nargis under the umbrella.

10. 1957 Yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaye toh (Pyaasa)

Sahir’s poignant verse highlighted the eternal struggle between the crassness of materialism and peace of the spiritual. Who can forget Mohammed Rafi’s heart- rending crescendo Jala do isse, phoonk daalo ye duniya that tore into our heads and hearts.

11. 1957 Jinhe naaz hai Hind par woh kahan hain (Pyaasa)

This protest song by Sahir Ludhianvi established him as a peerless poet of the time.

12. 1957 Maang ke saath tumhara (Naya Daur)

This song complemented the memorable Ude jab jab zulfein teri. OP Nayyar turned to Punjabi folk in this composition and presented it with his trademark ghudtaal (the clip-clop of horse’s hooves) in the rhythm.

13. 1958 Yeh mera deewanapan hai (Yahudi)

One of Mukesh’s finest, the song became a refuge for every heartbroken lover.

14. 1958 Suhana safar (Madhumati)

Salil Chowdhury worked with the simplicity of Shailendra’s lyrics, bringing swelling strings and chirping birds into the tune, along with a unique pause-and-play effect.

15. 1958 Woh subah (Phir Subah Hogi)

When Ludhianvi’s sharp lines cut through the disparity between haves and have-nots.

16. 1959 Waqt ne kiya (Kaagaz Ke Phool)

Guru Dutt’s melancholic masterpiece was an amalgam of light and shadow, Kaifi Azmi’s words and Geeta Dutt’s voice.

17. 1959 Jalte hain jiske liye (Sujata)

Bimal Roy’s scathing comment on caste has lovelorn Brahmin boy Sunil Dutt singing for Sujata, a “lower”-caste girl.

18. 1960 Jab pyar kiya toh darna kya (Mughal-e-Azam)

The coming together of potent lyrics, Naushad’s composition, Lata Mangeshkar’s voice and Madhubala as Anarkali immortalising the song with her cracker of a performance. It became the song of defiant love for India.

19. 1961 Aye mere pyare watan (Kabuliwala)

Memorable for its rabab riffs, and Manna Dey’s soulful voice about home.

20. 1961 Allah tero naam, ishwar tero naam (Hum Dono)

This evocative bhajan by Jaidev gave India the message of unity.

21. 1963 Mora gora ang laile (Bandini)

Gulzar makes his debut using Awadhi in the lyrics to describe a woman’s desire to meet the man she loves without getting noticed, due to her fair complexion.

22. 1963 Aye mere watan ke logo

In the aftermath of the 1962 Sino-Indian War, a disturbed Kavi Pradeep song, immortalised the words, Jo shaheed huye hain unki, zara yaad karo qurbani. The song, composed by C Ramachandra, eventually went on to become a tableau of nationalism. Pt Nehru is known to have welled up. Just like numerous Indians. Jab hum baithe the gharo mein, wo jhel rahe the goli… It hit home.

23. 1963 Laaga chunari mein daag (Dil Hi To Hai)

Sahir Ludhianvi took this line from mystic-poet-saint Kabir’s nirgun bhajan that highlighted the soul’s struggle with materialistic desires.

24. 1964 Mann re (Chitralekha)

This song in Rafi’s voice was the backdrop of a difficult year with the Kashmir crisis and the death of Nehru, India’s first prime minister.

25. 1964 Apni azadi ko hum (Leader)

The song became synonymous with revolution.

26. 1964 Naina barse rimjhim (Woh Kaun Thi?)

Madan Mohan creates this atmosphere that is both haunting and melodious. Squawking bats, gliding Sadhna in an ethereal white sari and a crematorium.

27. 1965 Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai (Guide)

This “freedom song” symbolised a moment of rediscovery, where Rosie reclaims her life again.

28. 1966 Sajan re jhooth mat bolo (Teesri Kasam)

This folk album came with moving lyrics from Hasrat Jaipuri, about this conversation with god.

29. 1967 Mere desh ki dharti (Upkar)

Manoj Kumar made the film on then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s suggestion, to tell the story of the Indian farmer. The song soon became an anthem.

30. 1970 Jeena yahan, marna yahan (Mera Naam Joker)

Even though Raj Kapoor’s masterpiece was misunderstood and the film tanked, the music was a chartbuster and had Mukesh immortalise Raju, the joker.

31. 1971 Dum maro dum (Haré Rama Haré Krishna)

RD Burman’s most famous hour; he also got Asha Bhosle to sing this seminal piece.

32. 1971 Humko mann ki shakti dena (Guddi)

A Vani Jairam rendition, it was played often on radio as India went to war with Pakistan. It was adopted by many schools as their morning prayer.

33. 1971 Kahin door jab din dhal jaye (Anand)

The song from Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s showcases the unfulfilled desires of a dying man.

34. 1971 Piya tu ab toh aaja (Caravan)

Helen’s groovy moves, Asha Bhonsle’s throaty rendition, the tried-and-tested RD Burman-Majrooh formula by Nasir Hussain, and that phrase, Monica, o my darling, made this into the best cabaret number Indian cinema has ever witnessed.

35. 1972 Kuchh toh log kahenge (Amar Prem)

The conversational song combines melancholy and joy to make this Anand Bakshi creation a classic.

36. 1972 Chalte chalte (Pakeezah)

This seminal piece by composer Ghulam Mohammed and poet Kaifi Azmi, describes the contemplations of a courtesan in love. The world of Sahibjaan hinges on the steam engine’s whistle, as a constant reminder of a love note she found in her ghungroo-laden feet. It is a spectacular piece of music; set along a looped tabla groove in Keherva, and Lata Mangeshkar’s fine voice.

37. 1973 Chaabi kho jaaye (Bobby)

This Laxmikant-Pyarelal song made Rishi Kapoor and Dimple Kapadia stars overnight.

38. 1973 Chura liya hai (Yaadon Ki Baaraat)

The tune of clinking bottles still gets our hearts racing.

39. 1975 Tere bina zindagi se (Aandhi)

Gulzar’s film was a storm to remember! It came in the same year as the Emergency and the protagonist Suchitra Sen closely resembled then prime minister Indira Gandhi. The film was banned for two years. The song by RD Burman speaks of a deep anguish, where an estranged couple looks back at their life.

40. 1975 Yeh dosti (Sholay)

This friendship song by RD Burman is remarkable for its guitar riff and Salim-Javed’s script.

41. 1975 Dil dhoondhta hai (Mausam)

One of Gulzar’s most memorable love songs owes a great deal to Mirza Ghalib, whose couplet forms the first line.

42. 1976 Kabhi Kabhi (Kabhi Kabhie)

Sahir Ludhianvi’s song makes apparent the pangs of separation in this number that many felt was written for another great poet in love with him, Amrita Pritam.

43. 1976 Parda hai parda (Amar Akbar Anthony)

This Mohammed Rafi song was made memorable with Rishi Kapoor’s sparkling performance, in a film that amplified the message of unity.

44. 1978 Hum bewafa (Shalimar)

Shalimar flopped at the box office just the way the Janta Party did in national politics. But the song found its place.

45. 1980 Tum itna jo (Arth)

This haunting ghazal, sung and composed by Jagjit Singh and wife Chitra, featured in Mahesh Bhatt’s film about adultery, love and loss.

46. 1980 Aap jaisa koi (Qurbani)

Feroz Khan discovered a young Pakistani singer Nazia Hassan in a London club and asked music director Biddu to make a song for her. It went on to become an iconic disco number. Bappi Lahiri followed the trend with another hit, Disco Dancer.

47. 1981 Yeh kahan aa gaye hum (Silsila)

This song saw the debut of music duo Shiv-Hari and poet Javed Akhtar.

48. 1981 Dil cheez kya hai (Umrao Jaan)

The song captured a generation’s heart, featuring Rekha in the role of a courtesan. It was also one of the grandest albums of the ’80s.

49. 1987 Mera kuchh samaan (Ijaazat)

Only RD Burman could turn a love letter into the most eloquent break-up song. Gulzar’s immortal lyrics.

50. 1988 Papa kehte hain (Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak)

The immensely catchy song turned Udit Narayan and Aamir Khan into overnight superstars.

51. 1989 Kabootar ja (Maine Pyar Kiya)

Lata Mangeshkar sang this cult favourite, in a film about young love.

52. 1990 Yaara seeli seeli (Lekin…)

This Hridaynath Mangeshkar composition was one of Lata Mangeshkar’s finest moments from the ’90s.

53. 1990 Dheere dheere se (Aashiqui)

Kumar Sanu and Anuradha Paudwal entered our homes with this delicate composition. The soundtrack apparently increased the sale of music players.

54. 1992 Chhoti si aasha (Roja)

The fresh and dewy vocals of singer Minmini, arranged with synth and ghatam in the Hindi remake of Mani Ratnam’s Tamil film, brought a new sound to Bollywood. It also introduced us to composer AR Rahman.

55. 1993: Dil hoom hoom kare (Rudaali)

Director Kalpana Lajmi asked her partner Bhupen Hazarika to create the tunes for this film about caste, and placed it in the world of professional mourners. Lata Mangeshkar brings the sadness of the “unlucky” Dalit woman to the fore.

56. 1994 Maye ni maye (Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!)

After the success of Maine Pyar Kiya Sooraj Barjatya repeated composer Ram-Laxman for this film that changed the meaning of blockbusters.

57. 1995 Tujhe dekha toh (Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge)

The mandolin riff in this romantic melody rang through the film and in our hearts.

58. 1995 Tu hi re (Bombay)

Hariharan and Kavita Krishnamurthy sang this beautiful number against the backdrop of the Mumbai riots.

59. 1996 Chhod aaye hum woh galiyan (Maachis)

Vishal Bhardwaj’s film set during insurgency in Punjab, during the ’80s, had Hariharan and Suresh Wadkar as the lead vocals.

60. 1997 Sandese aate hai (Border)

Newbie Sonu Nigam’s soulful, “Rafi-like” voice carried the ditty with such competency. The film would resonate when the Kargil War broke out two years later.

61. 1998 Aye ajnabi (Dil Se…)

While Chhaiya Chhaiya found love, it was this underrated masterpiece by Udit Narayan that won everyone’s affections.

62. 2001 Chale chalo (Lagaan)

Another brilliant album from AR Rahman with folk music as its mainstay.

63. 2001 Dil chahta hai (Dil Chahta Hai)

This hip and zesty number introduced musicians Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. The song, like the movie, unabashedly celebrated aspirations for a good life.

64. 2003 Kal ho naa ho (Kal Ho Naa Ho)

Sonu Nigam sang about seizing the day and finding happiness in every situation.

65. 2004 Yeh jo des hai (Swades)

The shehnai prelude in this AR Rahman number draws you in to the story of an NRI, who is caught between staying home in a village in India or returning to his life as an engineer at NASA.

66. 2005 Baawra mann (Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi)

Swanand Kirkire’s greatest service to Bollywood is this beautiful song set in the ’70s, amid the Emergency.

67. 2006 Rang de basanti (Rang De Basanti)

With Rahman’s music and Daler Mehndi’s vocals, this song became a modern retake of a patriotic number.

68. 2007 Chak de India (Chak De! India)

Salim-Sulaiman’s anthem sung by Sukhwinder Singh was a rallying call for the female hockey team in the film. Written by Jaideep Sahni, it is played ever-so often at Indian sporting events, including this year’s Tokyo Olympics.

69. 2008 Jai Ho (Slumdog Millionaire)

This Rahman song will forever be remembered as the one that brought home two Oscars (Best Original Score and Best Sound Mixing) for Rahman and Resul Pookutty, respectively, through Danny Boyle’s film, Slumdog Millionaire.

70. 2009 O pardesi (Dev.D)

The film showcased composer Amit Trivedi and lyricist-singer Amitabh Bhattacharya’s masterful command over a range of musical genres. O pardesi lets us imagine as if a Haryanvi club song is being sung in Buddha-Bar, Paris, to scat singing and sitar riffs.

71. 2011 Sadda haq (Rockstar)

A power-packed performance from Mohit Chauhan alongside distorted guitars and synths, gave the composition a grungy rock feel.

72. 2013 Kabira (Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani)

Amid criticism for plagiarism, composer Pritam played an inventive hand and gave us Kabira, lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya’s best work till date.

73. 2013 Tum hi ho (Aashiqui 2)

Arijit Singh broke into the big league with this Mithoon composition and never looked back. This earworm carried the airwaves for months.

74. 2015 Tu kisi rail si guzarti hai (Masaan)

Created by Indian Ocean, this couplet from Dushyant Kumar’s poem is complemented by Varun Grover’s lyrics and Swanand Kirkire’s fantastic baritone.

75. 2019 Azadi (Gully Boy)

It’s wild, it’s irreverent, and extremely catchy as it turns the spotlight on Mumbai’s underground rap scene. It’s one of the finest political pieces of music one has heard in a long time. The chant azadi traces back to feminist-poet Kamla Bhasin, who passed away last month.

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