20 Years of Taal: An Ode to the Time When Music Made the Movies

Bollywood

20 Years of Taal: An Ode to the Time When Music Made the Movies

Illustration: Arati Gujar

On Monday, Varun Dhawan shared the first look of the Coolie No 1 remake, directed by his father David Dhawan, where he plays the lead with another star kid, Sara Ali Khan. It’s yet another addition in the interminable line-up of sequels, adaptations, and remakes that conveniently preclude the need for any kind of original thought. And nowhere is this more apparent than in the soundtrack of these films, where bad dance remixes of Punjabi standards are the order of the day. For instance, besides being a pointless sequel, Student of the Year 2 gave us a remake of Kishore Kumar’s “Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani” that absolutely no one asked for. 

To try and find an original song in Bollywood in 2019 is as fruitless as searching for survival tips in PM Modi’s episode of Man vs Wild. But the music landscape of our movies has not always been so bleak. In the halcyon ‘90s, Bollywood found fans around the world, thanks in large part to its churn of catchy tunes that could transcend barriers of language and nationality. So how did we go from the wonders of A R Rahman’s work in Taal back in 1999, to the insipid rehashes that dominate playback charts today?

As any ‘90s kid could tell you, there was a time when it was the music that made the movies worth watching. A time when I would see Malaika Arora gyrating atop a train in Dil Se’s “Chaiyya Chaiyya”, or the sex-on-the-beach scenes of “Churake Dil Mera” in Main Khiladi Tu Anari, a time when singing and dancing along was even more of an event than the plot of the film. For me, everything that happened in between the music was basically window dressing — only there so I could enjoy the conceit of watching a movie. In fact, looking back at my favourite ’90s movies like Taal, my nostalgia is as much for the music as any story or star. On the surface, after all, the narrative of Taal is not that different from, say, Rangeela (1995). In both films, a small-town girl makes it big as a performer in Mumbai and gets caught up in a love triangle; both even feature lots of dance sequences performed by its actors in typically bizarre outfits.  

But what sets Taal apart from its predecessor is not just incredible charm of Akshaye Khanna’s Manav, who could pull heroine Mansi (Aishwarya Rai) over a mountain cliff to take creepy photos of her and still be a heartthrob. He was helped along by the delicate strains of “Taal Se Taal Mila” that played as he stared into Mansi’s eyes while she clutched his hand, swinging precariously over a chasm and looking confused as hell. Then there was Rai’s graceful, unaffected portrayal of a simple village girl who transforms into a canny singing starlet, underscored not only by her expressive dancing but also the lilting, romantic musical motifs that follow her character. And Anil Kapoor’s usual attention-grabbing effervescence as the hotshot music producer who helps build her career, is punctuated by the upbeat, slightly sinister energy of “Ramta Jogi”. The role of Vikrant Kapoor would win him many accolades, but it was deftly defined and contained within a single song. 

So how did we go from the wonders of A R Rahman’s work in Taal back in 1999, to the insipid rehashes that dominate playback charts today?

Through all the Bollywood drama of Taal — which includes the well-worn tropes of a poor girl who is not accepted by a rich boy’s family, a pair of star-crossed lovers, and a benevolent third-wheel suitor who lets her return to her true love — runs a thread of profound emotion that makes it much more than the sum of its parts. This depth can only come from a brilliant soundtrack, chock full of instant classics like the heartcry of “Ishq Bina” and the bouncy “coo-coo-coo” of “Kahin Aag Lage”. They immediately bring an otherwise good film to life, elevating it into an unforgettable experience. As director Subhash Ghai commented at the time: “This movie is a romance and I could have called it anything… but Taal means music and music means Taal. After listening to the songs, I felt it was worth all the trouble.” 

Certainly, coming up with an enduring soundtrack like Taal’s takes a lot more effort than a Honey Singh remix. Even twenty years on, is it possible to hear the title of the film without having the chorus to “Taal Se Taal Mila” play in your head? I wonder if the kids who’ve grown up listening to cringe-worthy electronic versions of beloved Kishore Kumar songs will look back at those with the same fondness that millennials have for our ‘90s favourites — or whether the art of great original music is lost to Bollywood for good. Still, I’d rather accept this new reality than have to endure the horrors of Taal 2, starring Aryan Khan, Baby Taimur, and Misha Kapoor.

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