Ranjish Hi Sahi: How Sad Bollywood Songs Make Life Bearable


Ranjish Hi Sahi: How Sad Bollywood Songs Make Life Bearable

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

I grew up with a mother who was a huge fan of sad songs. Our house had an exhaustive collection of music; most of it was compilations of sad songs. In a 12-cassette set of Mohammad Rafi songs, at least 10 were filled with sad songs. Growing up, there were two songs my mother was particularly fond of: One was Rafi’s “Rang Aur Noor Ki Baraat”, in which a despondent Sunil Dutt sings at the wedding of his lover Meena Kumari, telling her, in ever so slightly passive-aggressive tones, how he is letting her go. He has come to the wedding to give her his couplets as the last present, “Ye mere sher mere aakhri nazraane hain,” he sings and Aai gently sobs with him.

“Raat Aur Din”, the second song, is heavy with melancholia. A lonely Nargis Dutt who suffers from a split personality disorder, one of old Bollywood’s favourite maladies, sings it. While no lover can cure her loneliness, she hopes. My mother loved this song so much that she taught it to me for a singing competition in school. I stood second, probably because the astonished judges were wondering why a six-year-old was singing this song. What does she even know about the “andhiyara” she sings about?  

I often wonder if it is possible to say that some people are born happy and others aren’t. Is sadness something you acquire? Even when I couldn’t express my inner chaos, I felt this gnawing sadness within myself. My mother, too, perhaps is the same. Maybe that’s why she gave me her sadness and her love for sad songs as inheritance.

As much as I like sad songs now, as a child I was constantly irritated by them. I’d often ask her why she was like this. My seemingly happy Aai was a servant of sadness, and maybe it was hard to explain to a child why she heard these songs and not happy ones. “I just do. I like these better,” she’d say. Usually, I’d accept her answer, but some days I’d prod her for more and she’d relent.

“Maybe it’s because I grew up poor? We’d didn’t have much going for us, you know. Not like you,” she’d say. While my mother managed to escape that life, a lot of her family couldn’t, and then there was the burden of past trauma. “It’s easy to associate with sadness anyway,” she’d tell me. This is something I understand now. One can be happy for other people, but one cannot associate with that happiness. But sadness is more universal in its existence. It can take in so much. I can, like Aai, feel overwhelming sadness at someone’s heartbreak, or someone’s death, even if I am not close to that person. Within their tragedy I can always find mine.   

My tragedy deserved all kinds of art from kitsch to subtle yet seething.

Whenever I felt butterflies flutter in the pit of my stomach, I went back to the same love songs – “Aaj Kal Paav Zameen Par”, or “Pehla Nasha”. These were clichés, just like the happiness I felt. But sadness is way more creative. There aren’t many ways to fall happily in love, but there are several ways in which one can be sad. The pain of broken relationships because a lover got married or abandoned you, the sadness of outliving a lover, the loneliness of unrequited love, the agony of being star-crossed lovers. And of course, love isn’t the only reason for sadness.

When Guru Dutt laments in Pyaasa, “Tang aa chuke hain kashmakash-e-zindagi se hum”, his kashmakash, the paradox of life, isn’t just love, it is everything. It’s the world not understanding the pain of a street poet, who wants recognition, but won’t get it, who is so tired of the world that he wouldn’t care if it is burnt to ashes. “Tumhari hai tum hi sambhalo ye duniya,” he says. I want none of it.

I remember the first time someone broke my heart. Aamir Khan’s “Tanhai” was the song for the brokenhearted at the time. Crying to that felt customary. But because I was taught better by my mother, I was also listening to Geeta Dutt admonishing her lover in “Ja Ja Ja Bewafa”. And, Runa Laila’s “Ranjish Hi Sahi.” I needed to feel sorry for myself in the voice of a woman as I hoped for my lover’s return.

My tragedy deserved all kinds of art from kitsch to subtle yet seething. The next time it happened, the man I had feelings for told me he was too broken to reciprocate love. Hollowed by life’s cruelties, he wouldn’t be able to love me. Armed with that knowledge, I nursed my heart by listening to “Pyaar Mujhse Jo Kiya Tumne, Toh Kya Paogi”. Isn’t this what my lover was asking me? What will you get by loving me? Nothing, I realised later, was the real answer.

Sentimental songs help me sail through life.

A few months ago I found myself alone in a remote Finnish village, on a writing residency. I was having a hard time adjusting to the new, beautiful surroundings. Living in India you are used to a certain chaos that works as white noise. But Finland was so quiet I could hear myself with too much clarity. It made me nervous. So, I devised a routine to drown out the silence. I listened to a certain kind of sad song. They evoked a feeling of melancholia, and at the same time kept me company.

But why did I turn to sad music to deal with an already sad situation? It wasn’t done consciously. Like, how we listen to break-up songs when a relationship doesn’t work. Shouldn’t they make us feel sadder? Shouldn’t we be looking for something that might cheer us up? Are we all such big masochists? Not really, if you believe Aristotle. According to him, by overwhelming ourselves with an undesirable emotion through music or drama we might actually be purging ourselves of that emotion.

You could say I attach too much value to sadness, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

Aristotle, in all probability, was right. Who doesn’t know the power of a good cry? Crying makes us feel light and even happy. But there might be another reason behind our playlists displaying more sad songs than happy ones.

According to a research published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, the perceived reaction to sad music does not coincide with our actual reaction. In the study 44 people listened to a piece of music and answered questions on their anticipated and actual reactions. “The results revealed that sad music was perceived to be more tragic, whereas the actual experiences of the participants listening to the sad music induced them to feel more romantic, more blithe, and less tragic emotions than they actually perceived with respect to the same music.”

One of the several hypotheses they came up with talks about how while sadness is a negative reaction, the sadness of the songs does not impose any new, uncomfortable feeling on us. It doesn’t pose us any threat because it isn’t happening to us. So, we can comfortably “enjoy” it.

In Finland I used to listen to Andrew Bird’s “Armchair” a lot. My mornings would start with it. I used to eagerly wait for the lines “You didn’t write/You didn’t call/You didn’t feel a thing at all.” In a quiet song, these are urgent lines. His anger at such a betrayal feels palpable.

But I had no lovers to betray me, no lovers to not call me then. And yet, here I was listening to Bird, singing with him. The reason could be the fact that Bird posed no threat to my seemingly lonely life in Finland. Maybe that’s why it helped me survive the darkness I felt in a foreign country, and I am grateful for that.  

You could say I attach too much value to sadness, and you wouldn’t be wrong. There are days when I long for it. Words come easily to me when I am quiet in my sadness. I am not the only one to think this either. Keats, the saddest boy of the 19th century, wrote, “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” But perhaps Hartley Coleridge summed it best when he said, “Melancholy is the only muse.”

Melancholy lets you stew in your own sentiments, lets you find that tiny little voice in you that tells you what you should be creating. Sometimes, poetry comes to me as sketches of sadness. Sometimes, when I feel the urge to write but can’t, I reflect on these sketches, and sad music gives me easy access to them. When I am writing, a set of sad songs is playing on my YouTube playlist. They hold my hand, always. Like the wonderful Maya Angelou once said, “Music was my refuge. I could crawl into the space between the notes and curl my back to loneliness.” This is all I do. And maybe, this is also what my Aai does. Each day, with each sad song, she turns her back, more and more, to her loneliness.