Remembering the list song, 25 years after ‘Paththar Ke Phool’ gave us ‘Kabhi tu Chhalia lagta hai’.
Some part of me dies every time a film from my school or college days celebrates a major anniversary – I’m talking about you, Paththar Ke Phool, now 25 years old – but this isn’t a how-time-flies- post. Neither is it a do-you-remember-when- post. Some of you may recall that this was Raveena Tandon’s first film, opposite a Salman Khan who still looked like a bratty boy (as opposed to the bratty muscle-mountain he is today). For me, the film brings to mind Vinod Mehra, who died a few months before its release. It’s incredible to remember that this gentlest, most self-effacing of actors was allowed to flourish as a leading man. Okay, I guess this is turning out to be a do-you-remember-when- post after all, but let’s pause just a minute to marvel at a Hindi cinema that looked at a Vinod Mehra, a Rakesh Roshan, an Amol Palekar, a Navin Nischol, and said, “Never mind that you think ‘gym’ is a character from Huckleberry Finn. You’re hero material.”
But back to Paththar Ke Phool, it’s a song that comes to mind: Kabhi tu Chhalia lagta hai. It became quite popular. It’s a dream duet, and the lyrics are a concatenation of film names. The heroine tells the hero that he’s sometimes a Chhalia, a Deewana, an Anari, an Awara. He returns the favour, calling her Noorie, Julie, Chandni, Bobby. The song is modelled after the Ek Duuje Ke Liye song, Mere jeevan saathi, which was not only more rooted in the film’s context (it wasn’t just a dream; the hero did not know Hindi, and he had to rely on the names of films to put across his feelings) but also a purer song, in the sense that it is, from start to finish, a concatenation of film names. (The Paththar Ke Phool song, on the other hand, has bridging lines that aren’t made of film titles.) But that doesn’t matter. The point is that these are “list songs” – as the name suggests, songs whose structure is that of a list, a catalogue of similar-sounding (or similar-meaning) things.
I’m sure the list song has a long and storied history (our devotional chants, for instance, even if you may not categorise something like the Venkateswara Suprabhatam or the Hanuman Chalisa as a “song”), but as a pop-culture staple, they begin to show up in Broadway. In the 1920s and 30s, Cole Porter wrote songs like You’re the top, in which he compiled a list of people and things that represented the very best, and went on to use them to refer to the couple. You’re the Coliseum… You’re the Louvre Museum / You’re Mahatma Gandhi… You’re Napoleon Brandy / You’re the National Gallery / You’re Garbo’s salary… The most famous list song from Broadway, at least to Indian ears, may be My favourite things from The Sound of Music. Raindrops on roses, whiskers on kittens… This may look easy, but it’s anything but. It’s a rigid structure, and the lyricist has to transform a laundry list into something playful and loose, something that sounds like poetry.
But it isn’t always about rhyming or metre. Gulzar’s Mera kuchh samaan from Ijaazat is (as composer RD Burman reportedly complained) filled with jagged lines, but it is very much a list song – quite literally so. It’s a list of things the woman has left behind with her ex and now wants back: a few monsoon days, the sound of falling leaves, her rain-soaked heart from the time they shared an umbrella and got partly wet, one hundred and sixteen moonlit nights, that single mole on his shoulder… Ek ladki ko dekha, from 1942: A Love Story, is a more joyous list song. As is Kannadasan’s Kaalangalil aval vasantham, from Paava Mannippu. Among seasons, she is spring / among the arts, she is painting / among months, she is December / Among flowers, she is the jasmine.
Gulzar wrote another kind of list song for Kitaab, less wistful, more exuberant: A aa e ee, Masterji ki aa gayi chitthi… Students sing about a letter from which sprang a cat, a mosquito – it’s a combination of list song and nonsense verse, the most famous instance of which may be Rail gaadi, from Aashirwad. That film also had the delightful Nani ki naav, in which a boat is filled with all kinds of things which are taken away by a crocodile. Parts of Pettai rap, from Kaadhalan, also come under this category, the nonsense verse list song – it’s a list of realities, feelings that make Madras Madras. This film also had Kaadhalikkum pennin kaigal, a list of the things that happen in the presence of a girlfriend. Tin becomes gold, sweat turns into holy water…
For a time, Vairamuthu was the foremost practitioner of the list song. Kannukku mai azhagu from Pudhiya Mugam. (The list song as romantic reverie.) Senthamizh naattu Thamizhachiye from Vandicholai Chinraasu. (The list song as misogynistic rant.) Or even something as recent as Malargal kaetten, from O Kaadhal Kanmani. (The list song as plea; you’ve given me so much, but I want more, I want you.) Can Kannadasan’s wordplay be counted under list songs? After all, what are Athikaai (from Bale Pandiya) or Athaan (Paava Mannippu) or Paarthen sirithen (Veera Abhimanyu) if not a “list” of dazzling rhymes? My favourite list song from that great composer is Kodi asainthathum, from Paarthaal Pasi Theerum. Did the flag begin to flutter after the breeze set in, or was it the other way around? Did the flower unfurl after the moon came out, or was it vice versa? It’s as existential a love duet as you’ll find, the chicken-and-egg question tucked into a gorgeous list song.
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