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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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)
This evocative bhajan by Jaidev gave India the message of unity.
21. 1963 Mora gora ang laile (Bandini)
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)
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)
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 folk album came with moving lyrics from Hasrat Jaipuri, about this conversation with god.
29. 1967 Mere desh ki dharti (Upkar)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
Hariharan and Kavita Krishnamurthy sang this beautiful number against the backdrop of the Mumbai riots.
59. 1996 Chhod aaye hum woh galiyan (Maachis)
Another brilliant album from AR Rahman with folk music as its mainstay.
63. 2001 Dil chahta hai (Dil Chahta Hai)
Sonu Nigam sang about seizing the day and finding happiness in every situation.
65. 2004 Yeh jo des hai (Swades)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)