The classical underpinnings of many old songs fill them with magic.

Most of us ‘old song lovers’ are hooked to and entwined with the songs of SD, Naushad, Madanmohan, Ravi, Shankar Jaikishan, Kalyanji Anandji (and yes, even some LP), RD, Hemantda, Salil Chaudhari, Chitragupt, et al. In our unilateral view, any music directors and singers after that era will need to sit around in vats in some basement until they are appropriately aged and their music survives the test of time.

There is one school of old Hindi film song lovers/listeners who defensively and steadfastly refuse to be drawn into any talk about ragas used by music directors. Were you to even tangentially suggest that a particular song is so perfect for the lyrics and the situation in the film because the music director has chosen to cast it in a particular raga, the too-quick response is, “I don’t know about all this ragas-wagas-and-all. I just know it is so melodious.”

I for one am endlessly fascinated by how three or seven minute-long Hindi (and other regional) film songs could evoke and etch the personality of an entire raga. There are of course the out-and-out ‘Classical songs’ from films. They are great numbers, no doubt, usually set to dance performance or mehfil situations in the film itself. The raga-sangeet antecedents of such songs are evident up-front.

Every music director and singer worth his or her name has rendered many, and every yesteryear actor has worked hard on the picturisation of these songs on themselves. To randomly recall some: Dilip Kumar doing a great job of Rafi’s ‘Madhuban mein radhika’; Manna Dey’s ‘Phul-gendawa na maro’ or ‘Laaga chunari mein daag’. One can again and again watch Mehmood and Shubha Khote’s mischief behind the guru-shishya session in ‘Ajahun aaye balama sawan beeta jaye’. Or smell the Malhars in ‘Garajat-barasat sawan aayo re’. The duet ‘Manmohan man mein’ is virtually a lec-dem. Or there is Asha-Lata’s scintillating ‘Sakhi ri sun bole’. Many of these songs are originally compositions from the Hindustani classical tradition, on which the lyricist may have worked further to create stanzas. Tablas, tanpuras, sitars, jal tarangs and flutes play in the background or as little interludes in these songs.

And then there are a whole lot of film songs for which ragas have been used in the most ingenious and creative ways. The scene is rarely one of a classical music or dance setting. The raga’s mukhda or face may become apparent to the person versed in raga-sangeet, but this is simply not a must, for the song to please. The song appeals at first in its own right; only later do its raga underpinnings become apparent, and most times the use is so subtle, so clever, that while the raga base has done its job of creating the mood, hand-in-hand with the lyrics and the picturisation, there is no ‘classical music’ air about the song. The music director also takes calculated risks and liberties with the raga, rendering the song even more bewitching.

Some of my favourites (going in no particular order):

From Anuradha, Ravi Shankar’s ‘Haye re woh din’in Kalavati. Now a more obvious Kalavati song would be ‘Kahe tarasaye, jiyara’ from Chitralekha. But it’s the elegiac, nostalgic air of the other song that lingers. (There is some debate about both these songs being in Janasamohini.)

Kishore’s ‘Koi humdum, na raha’ — till recently I never thought about its raga. Then sitar player Shujaat Khan recently played it on his sitar to demonstrate raga Jhinjoti, and I had the ‘aha’ moment. The song’s pathos and sweetness owes as much to the singer, the picturisation, the words, as to this sombre raga itself.

While ‘Jyoti kalash chalake’ is the more obvious devotional Bhoopali, listen out for the same notes declaring themselves in a ‘Sayonara, Sayonara’! Or in the seductive ‘In aankhon ki masti. And I suspect that the night-clubby ‘Aage bhi, jane na tu’, is a Bhoopali too!

Intriguingly, K.L. Saigal’s dreamy waltz-like ‘Ae dil-e-bekaraar jhoom’ is powered by the notes of Bihag, which might usually be doing duty in a more classical ‘Tere pyar mein dildar’.

The haunting ‘Ek tu na mila’ is set in a Charukeshi, one realises many years after hearing the song. It is a raga that may be more evident in a ‘Baiyan na dharo, o balama’, presented in that film as a classical performance.

The great, purely classical number ‘Tere naina talaash karen jise’, showcases a Chayanat; but it is the Rafi song for Dev Anand ‘Hum bekhudi mein tum ko’ that is the more surprising and unusual use of the raga.

The haunting and mellow Patdeep is used in ‘Megha chaye adhi raat’ while ‘Saaz ho tum awaaz hoon mein’ is the more classical version. Haunting Shivranjanis (‘O mere sanam o mere sanam’) echo through the hills and valleys of many an old film.

One last song, which has an equally classical performance (Nutan with a tanpura, after throwing a giant window-breaking tantrum in Seema): the Jaijaiwanti of ‘Manmohana bade jhute’ — with Lata’s luminous voice in the lower octaves and quicksilver taans in the higher. This song is as much a film-moment as it is a music-moment.

Bageshri, Bhairavi, Khamaj, Yaman, Bhipalasi, Ahir Bhairav, Lalit, Malkauns, Jogia, Darbari, Desh…every raga under the sun has been fantastically marshalled and deployed by the stalwart composers of Hindi film music. These are two giant oceans that meet — raga-sangeet and old Hindi film music. Sometimes the waters collide dramatically, sometimes they merge seamlessly, and anyone standing on a rock watching and listening to all of this can only marvel at the scale and beauty of it all.