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An AR Rahman Album that Hits the Sweet Spot Between ‘What Works’ and ‘Something New’

When the Dil Bechara soundtrack was released last week, exclusively on Spotify before it was on any other music streaming service, it caused a virtual stampede that prompted the app to crash for a few hours, before it was back. Hindi films hardly have albums anymore, let alone enjoy such attention. Dil Bechara is an exception because of the extraordinary situation the film has found itself in, following the death of its lead actor Sushant Singh Rajput, but also, to a certain degree, the bouncy title track, that went viral soon after it was ‘dropped’. 

Everything about Dil Bechara—a film about two cancer patients in love no less—will be seen and felt through the lens of the actor’s untimely death less than a month ago, and it’s impossible to tell how much of the track’s instant success is because of public sentiments, but one thing is for sure: it’s been a while that AR Rahman has composed a new Hindi song that’s as groovy and has had the potential to be popular (as in Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na , or Rang De Basanti ).

With the Dil Bechara title track, the composer, along with lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya, crack something that is both buzzword-friendly and musically interesting, making up a song entirely out of millennial-baity words such as ‘Friend-zone’ and ‘Likes’, but by breaking them into staccato rhythms. The secret sauce is AR Rahman the singer, whose vocal mysteries have remained impenetrable even after more than 25 years. With his weird delivery and nasal pronunciation, he makes the song greater than the sum of its parts, taking it in unexpected directions. It is the album’s most special song, made even more special by the music video, that features a solo Rajput show, lip-syncing to Rahman’s vocals and dancing to Farah Khan’s choreography in a basketball jersey, more alive than ever. 

If the title track of Dil Bechara brings back the lip-sync to the Hindi film screen after a long time, the rest of the album is filled with exquisite duets—a Hindi film music staple not so long ago, now taken over by remixes and male-centric ballads—each with its own unique characteristics.

Take “Taare Ginn” for instance, that starts with Shreya Ghoshal and Mohit Chauhan singing as if stricken by the breathlessness of just having fallen in love but switches gears seamlessly to a slowed-down dreamy state. Rahman masterfully lets us ping-pong between these two tempos. And Bhattacharya’s genius is in the wordplay, that teases out little games out of counting stars: ‘Taare ginn, Taare ginn, soye binn, saare ginn; ek haseen mazaa hai yeh, mazaa hai ya, sazaa hai yeh’.

“Maskhari”, another duet, could’ve been a generic number about just ‘living your life’, but Bhattacharya’s words give it a middle-class grounding, finding similes in thandi koolfi and peera-hari balm and rhymes in baadal, bijlee and khujlee.

Typically in a duet, the female singer follows the male singer and vice versa, waiting for his/her turn to come, and maybe intersect at some point, before parting ways again. Arijit Singh and Shashaa Tirupati harmonise throughout “Khul Ke Jeene Ka”, singing at the same time but in different scales and performing their own ornamentations and yet somehow always in sync, intertwined like a creeper is embraced to a plant in serpentine and complex ways. Or in “Mera Naam Kizie”, where the young lovers seem to mock-romance to an imaginary Hindi film oldie, and the two young singers do some great playback ‘acting’: Poorvi Koutish, smitten, like a yesteryear actress, Aditya Narayan, a dash of manic energy with jazzy vocals and probably an Elvis hairstyle. 

None of this sounds earth-shatteringly pathbreaking, but Dil Bechara hits the sweet spot between ‘what works’ and ‘something new’, staying within the confines of standard rom-com fare and being creative within that framework (the album’s commercial success could go a long way in uplifting the state of Hindi film music, which is in dire need of some rescuing). And this is where Rahman benefits from Bhattacharya, who is one of the most intelligent and versatile lyricists of this generation, and with who he has collaborated just once (in the forgettable Lekar Hum Deewana Dil) and should work more. “Maskhari”, another duet, could’ve been a generic number about just ‘living your life’, but Bhattacharya’s words give it a middle-class grounding, finding similes in thandi koolfi and peera-hari balm and rhymes in baadal, bijlee and khujlee.

It’s strange that in a film over which death has cast a shadow, the best songs are the light ones—I’m yet to warm up to the sombre “Main Tumhara”, and I didn’t care for “Afreeda”, which is the type of Arabic-sounding song that you suspect Rahman composed on auto-mode. With the exception of perhaps the melancholy instrumental track, “The Horizon of Saudade”, that ends the album on a poignant note, and will likely play in the ending credits of the movie in memories of Rajput.

Gang Lucha
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