AMIT KHANNA’S JOURNEY AS A LYRICISTby Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri September 19 2023, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 19 mins, 36 secs
Shantanu Ray Chaudhuri goes past many of Amit Khanna’s talents and brings focus upon the quintessential lyricist who gave Hindi film music a new language and the contemporary touch.
Managing director and group editor, Plus Channel. Editor of pioneering video newsmagazines Business Plus, People Plus and Bollywood Plus. Columnist for a string of A-list newspapers. Founder Trustee, Mumbai Academy of Moving Images. Chairman, National Committee of Media and Entertainment, CII, and Convergence Committee, FICCI. President, All-India Film Producers Council and The Film Producers Guild of India. Chairman, Reliance Entertainment. Winner of the National Award for Best Lyricist for Bhairavi (1996) and the National Award as producer for Gudia (1996) and Sardari Begum (1997). Creator of ground-breaking TV shows Swabhimaan and A Mouthful of Sky. Lyricist of some of the best-loved songs of the 1970s and ’80s. The man who pioneered the Indipop revolution in India. Director and screenplay writer. Author of Words, Sounds and Images: A History of Media and Entertainment in India, an encyclopaedic tome running close to 1000 pages. A poet with the published books of poetry, Anant Raag and Infinite Verse. And the man who probably coined the term ‘Bollywood’!
Each aspect of the incredible life and times of Amit Khanna probably requires a feature of its own to do justice to his remarkable achievements. Here, I would like to focus on his oeuvre of film songs. Ask any commentator about lyricists in Hindi cinema, and the responses will include the usual suspects – Sahir, Shakeel Badayini, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri, Gulzar, Anand Bakshi, Javed Akhtar, Indivar, Anjaan among a few select others.
Only the true connoisseur would probably think of Amit Khanna. Khanna gave Hindi cinema some of its most evocative songs of the 1970s, in a language that was markedly different from other lyricists. His imagery employs a contemporary vocabulary and yet is steeped in classic Hindi. He has created some of the most anthemic ditties that defined the zeitgeist of the era – ‘Kabhi alvida na kehna’, which even fifty years later remains the song for all farewells, the sublime romance of ‘Yeh naini eh kajal’, the rousing ‘Uthe sabke kadam’, an ode to the tippler, ‘Tu pee aur jee’, among others.
The reasons why his work as a lyricist is not taken more seriously are primarily twofold. One, most of his work came in films that were not in the blockbuster mode. By the time he wrote for a Dev Anand film (any lyricist’s dream), Des Pardes, the star was well past his best. That apart, Amit Khanna wrote primarily for the films of Basu Chatterjee and among his best works are films with one Bhisham Kohli (aka Vishal Anand) and a number of other films, which were too low-key or second rung for their songs to register despite their intrinsic merits. Two, Amit Khanna was a corporate honcho in Bollywood well before both those terms gained currency in the chaotic world of Hindi cinema of the era. With his numerous other engagements as producer, executive producer and on the various industry bodies he headed or was member of, penning film songs more prolifically could have well taken a back seat.
What sets him apart from the Hindi film lyricist is the language he brought in. He was never one for classical Urdu that defined the work of a majority of Hindi film lyricists and which have deemed the 1950s and ’60s as the golden years of Hindi film songs. Neither was he made of the everyday cut of Anand Bakshi or even Majrooh Sultanpuri when he was being Yaadon Ki Baraat-ish instead of Dastak-ish.
Amit Khanna made almost-classical Hindi acceptable in Hindi films songs. And he made it accessible. Above all, there was something utterly modern about his songs (albeit helped by composers, Bappi Lahiri and Rajesh Roshan, in particular, with whom he collaborated most) that defined the cultural preferences of a changing India of the 1970s.
Chalte Chalte (1976) / Dil Se Mile Dil (1978)
There are some works of art that are enough to find the creator a place in history even if he did not create anything else. ‘Kabhi alvida na kehna’ belongs to that category of art. Even if Amit Khanna had not done anything else in life, his place in Hindi film history would have been assured with this one song. And he was only twenty-five when he penned this. Fifty years have done nothing to dim the beauty of the melody, the luminosity of the words. And I dare say another fifty years and more will pass and the song will still resonate. Its impact was so telling, and it continues to be, that a few other gems in it have had to lurk in the shadows. In any other film, a song like ‘Jaana kahan hain’ would have been the go-to chartbuster. Amit Khanna creates the perfect image of the joy of being in love. Just consider the imagery:
Chanchal aaj pavan hai mithi mithi si chubhan hai/Banke ek lahar mann jhum raha hai
Ujala hi ujala baadalo se phir aaj/chaand ne munh nikala bikhari chaandi ki maala
The melody is intoxicating, sure, but it is the words that create the magic, the ambience of love in a more innocent, less rushed world. I have heard people who were in college those days swear upon this song as one that played Cupid in a number of instances.
There’s also Lata Mangeshkar’s delectable ‘Duur duur tum rahein’, another song that defined the feel of the era. This was part of a series of similar Lata Mangeshkar songs composed by Bappi Lahiri (a few written by Amit Khanna, for example, the silken ‘Dooriyan sab mita do’ in Saboot, 1980, and the haunting ‘Aur kaun ayega’, Aur Kaun, 1979) that have Lata in a mode entirely different from her other more celebrated works. Or for that matter, the peppy ‘Pyaar mein kabhi kabhie’, another song that could have come only in the 1970s and only from a poet who had a modern take on matters of the heart.
Though not half as celebrated as Chalte Chalte, Dil Se Mile Dil, yet another collaboration with Bappi Lahiri, has one of the most beautiful songs in praise of the beloved ever written in Hindi cinema. And it uses none of the lofty phrases Hindi film lyricists use in such situations, and yet manages to create a charming portrait.
Ye naina ye kajal/ye zulfen ye aanchal/khubsurat si ho tum ghazal/kabhi dil ho kabhi dhadkan/kabhi shola kabhi Shabnam/tum hi ho tum meray hamdam…
And in subsequent stanzas, the equation between the lover and the beloved finds exquisite description in Amit Khanna’s wordplay: ‘tum mala ham moti, ham deepak tum jyoti’, ‘tum nadiya ham dhara, tum chanda ham tara’, ‘tum pooja ham pujari, tum kismat ham juari’. Like Chalte Chalte this too has a playful Lata solo with the singer never more enticing than in ‘Chhodo bhi ye nakhra’, a delectable roothna-manana ditty.
Apart from yet another winner by Kishore Kumar in the title number, Amit Khanna shows his range with two diametrically opposite songs: ‘Haathon mein meray mein’ (few songs in Hindi cinema conjure a young girl’s dream of Prince Charming as alluringly as this one) and the crazy world of Bappi Lahiri’s ‘Aflatoon, maaro teer nishane pe zara’.
Bhisham Kohli may not ring a bell with any follower of Hindi cinema. He passed away in 2020, forgotten and unsung, much as he had lived. However, the history of Hindi film music owes to him two of its finest practitioners, and two sterling musical scores, for which we cannot be grateful enough.
From the modern rhythms of Chalte Chalte and Dil Se Mile Dil, we travel to the classic Indian sound of three brilliant numbers all of which need to be mentioned among the best of Indian film songs. Yesudas creates magic with his rendition of ‘Ka karoon sajni’ (so impactful is the song that even a less-than-inspired picturisation gave Dheeraj Kumar his five minutes of film fame). Rajesh Roshan composition is out of the world but it is in the words that we have what makes the song one for the ages.
If ‘Ka karoon sajni’ is one side of the coin of a lover waiting for the beloved to come home, ‘Pal bhar mein yeh’ is the other. In this song he creates the definitive link between the monsoons and the subdued impatience that the rains accentuate: ‘Sawan aya /ab ke sajan /din bhar mujhe yun sataye /un bin ab toh raha nahin jaaye’. Shabana Azmi’s portrayal of a woman in the first flush of love, Rajesh Roshan’s mesmerizing flute refrain and string ensemble, and Lata Mangeshkar’s dulcet rendition of this Raag Maand composition does full justice to Amit Khanna’s soaked-with-rain words fragrant with the aroma of the Bengal countryside in the monsoon (is there a better sight than this?).
Amit Khanna was not done yet, with Kishore Kumar’s ‘Yaadon mein woh’ bringing up the third ace. A trademark Rajesh Roshan-Kishore Kumar number, sensuous, deeply felt and soulful, this also marks a brilliant collaboration between Amit Khanna and the singer. A majority of the lyricist’s most well-known songs have the singer in top form and you can almost sense the singer giving it his all in these numbers: ‘Haan pahli baar’ (Aur Kaun, 1980, scored by Bappi Lahiri), ‘Main akela apni dhun mein magan’ (Man Pasand, 1978, Rajesh Roshan) and ‘Lamha lamha faasle (Doosri Dulhan, 1983, Bappi Lahiri), ‘Prem ki hai kya sun paribhasha’ (Hamari Bahu Alka, 1983, Rajesh Roshan).
And, the forgotten ‘Jaga soya pyar mera’ (Avinash, 1986, Bappi Lahiri) – a seductive quintet that conveys five different aspects of love.
Des Pardes (1978)
Des Pardes was the last of Dev Anand’s films that had good music and a halfway decent narrative (Man Pasand, which came in the same year was directed by Basu Chatterjee).
Amit Khanna started his career in cinema at age twenty with Dev Anand’s production house and was the executive producer/production executive in a string of Dev Anand films that underperformed at the box office post Hare Rama Hare Krishna – Shareef Badmash, Ishq Ishq Ishq, Heera Panna and Bullet. With Des Pardes he gave Navketan its last musical hurrah, six songs there, which featured in the top twenty-five in the year’s Binaca countdown - all of the first order and went a long way in perpetuating the star’s youthful appeal. The apogee of the Kishore Kumar-Amit Khanna-Rajesh Roshan, five of the six lilting tracks in the film were sung by Kishore.
When I met Amit Khanna, he rattled off the lines of the remarkable ‘Tu pee aur jee’ as a song structured very differently than the usual mukhda-antara mode we have in Hindi film songs. That, and the way the songs celebrates the tipple, makes it worthwhile to quote from it:
Sardi mein jab pioge yaaro/garam kot ban jayega ye/aai garmi ko madira jal/thandak tumko pahunchyega/arre rang bharega sapno me/ankhon mein jab ye bas jayega/mann ko tere meet tera bas/yahin kahi pe mil jayega/kaahe ko tu phire akela/are kaahe ko tu phire akela/dekh zara maujo ka mela//Ye Gujarati woh Bangali/ye dilawala woh dilawali/main desi hoon tu pardesi/phir bhi dhadkan hai ek jaisi/arre, ye Madrasi, woh Punjabi/har taale ki hai ek chabhi/pyaar ke maare, sab bechare/gore, kale, ye matwale/worker ho yaa maalik mil ka/raat kaa pyasa, bhukha din kaa.
What sets apart the songs of Des Pardes is that there are no love ditties in the film. What you have instead is the delightful striptease of a song ‘Jaisa des waisa bhes’ where the hero (Dev Anand) cajoles a reluctant heroine (Tina Munim) scandalized by the skimpy sartorial choices of women in the West to dress down. So, while she sings ‘Kaisi ye nagariya, kaise hain ye log, haay sabko laagaa prabhu besharami kaa rog’, he coaxes her:
Mann ko dhak le gori/tann ka dhakna hai bekaar/phool naa mahke jab tak//Uska khilna hai bekaar/arre aksar aisa hota hai pehli pehli baar/aa mujhse tu le le himmat thodi si udhaar.
‘Nazrana behja kise ne’ is a love song with a difference where the hero sings of his brother’s love for his sister-in-law, trying to assuage her worries about her husband who has left for the distant shore going incommunicado. Lata Manheshkar’s solo ‘Aap kahein aur hum na aaye’ is of course the icing on the cake, one of the legend’s finest, and one whose mukhda has become almost idiomatic in usage.
Man Pasand (1978)
For my money one of the best musicals, not so much as a film but in terms of its songs, in the history of Hindi cinema that has not received it due as one. Inspired by the classic Audrey Hepburn-Rex Harrison musical My Fair Lady (which was in turn inspired by George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which was also the inspiration for the Marathi drama Ti Fulrani penned by P L Deshpande on which the film is based). The film does not quite work as a whole with ho-hum performances (barring Mehmood) and lazy direction by Basu Chatterjee, by now over-prolific and nowhere near his best. However, it is the songs that are a standout. And though Rajesh Roshan borrows liberally from My Fair Lady (‘Hothon pe geet jaage’ is a note-for-note lift of ‘I could have danced all night’), no one can fault the quality of the writing.
The pièce de résistance is of course ‘Charu chandra’ with its brilliant alliteration in the lines:
Charu chandra ki chanchal Chitwan/bin badra barse saawan/megh malhaar madhur man bhaawan/pawan piya premi paawan
Which then segues into the rapturous ‘Sa re ga ma pa ma ga re sa ga sa ga’ with some of the best wordplay you can dream of in a Hindi film song in its three stanzas, creating one of the most beautiful duets in cinema:
Tere mere mere tere sapne sapne/sach hue dekho saare apne sapne//ham tum tum ham gumsum gumsum/jhilmil jhilmil hilmil hilmil//rimjhim rimjhim chhamchham gungun/dil dil pal pal runjhun runjhun
Then there is the classy Kishore Kumar solo ‘Main akela apni dhun mein magan’, with Amit Khanna again going against the established mukhda-antara structure of a film song to create an unparalleled ode to love. And the Lata Mangeshkar gem ‘Suman sudha rajanigandha’ rounding off a brilliant track with its unique use of shudh Hindi that needs to be quoted:
Prem sighashan piya viraze/pankha jhalu mai haule/mohit mugdh unhi ko taku/ban mayur man dole//Pratibimb meri aashao ka/tum santosh ho mera/aalingan sundar sapno ka/khushiyo ka kosh ho mera
Loot Maar (1980)
Dev Anand’s descent into inanity and vulgarity began with this 1980 flick that is an assault on the senses. The only thing that makes the film bearable (and you don’t need to watch the film to savour this) is the soundtrack, with a string of melodious numbers composed by Rajesh Roshan and written by Amit Khanna. Special mention needs to be made of Lata Mangeshkar’s ‘Paas ho tum’ in which the Rajesh Roshan reprises Madan Mohan’s brilliant composition ‘Baat muddat key eh ghadi aayi’ (Jahan Ara) and Asha Bhosle’s sensational ‘Jab chhaye mera jadoo’, which continues to be hugely popular to this day. Two songs of entirely different genres, both penned with equal felicity by Amit Khanna.
Director-producer Feroz Khan and composer Biddu unleased a tsunami called Nazia Hassan with ‘Aap jaisa koi’ in Qurbani (1980), ushering the disco revolution in Hindi cinema. Films like Karz (1980) and Disco Dancer (1982) established disco as the new sound of the decade. However, the one Hindi film with true-blue disco music at its heart has more or less been forgotten. Written and produced by Biddu, Star was directed by Vinod Pande (of Ek Baar Phir and Yeh Nazdeekiyan fame) and had Hindi cinema’s most authentic disco score composed by Biddu and sung by Nazia and Zohen Hassan (who were Biddu’s first choice for the film’s leads) with Amit Khanna exhibiting his pop chops with seven foot-tapping numbers in a scintillating album.
The songs range from the soulful ‘Muskuraye ja’ to the impish ‘Ooie ooie’ and demonstrate the lyricist’s hold over the grammar of the medium and understanding of changing audience preferences.
Star came riding on the wave of Love Story, had great music and yet bit the dust at the box-office. Though no one has cracked the mystery of the box office, what might have worked against it is that it was not your run-of-the-mill fluffy romance. With the hero losing his girl to his brother (a taboo at the time as far as Hindi cinema was concerned), audiences accepting another cute Love Story-style boy-meets-girl outing were disappointed and not even the superlative music could salvage the film.
However, forty years later, its soundtrack stands testimony to the lyricist’s ability to capture an era and pioneer a trend. Not even Disco Dancer measures up to the sound of Star when one talks of disco. Qurbani, Karz and Disco Dancer are essentially Indian in sound despite the odd funky beats that inform the compositions.
Star is the real deal. Amit Khanna would go on to fashion the non-film Hindi pop with a string of private albums and music videos that created a new genre. These albums include Salma and Saba sing ABBA in Hindi, Boney M and more in Hindi (Mahendra Kapoor was one of the singers), Chal Disco Chal (with Sharon Prabhakar) and that awesome Sufi-rock fusion ensemble Awara Sur (composed by Bappi Lahiri and sung by Shaqfat Amanat Ali).
With Young Tarang (1983), the third of Zoheb and Nazia Hassan’s genre-defining albums, Amit Khanna pioneered the music video album. Young Tarang became the first album from the Indian subcontinent to release with music videos, and Amit Khanna directed three of these, ‘Zara chehra toh dikhao’, ‘Sunn’ and ‘Dosti’.
As producer at Plus Channel, Amit Khanna brought to fruition a number of important films that made a mark as much for their different narrative sensibilities as for their music. These include films like Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin, Sardari Begum and Gudia. Though these films garnered critical acclaim and National Awards, they failed at the box office.
Bhairavi was no exception. However, it is special in Amit Khanna’s oeuvre as the film that fetched him the National Award for best lyrics for the song ‘Kuch is tarah’. Bhairavi is quite an exceptional album, with Kavita Krishnamurthy at her best in songs like ‘Ab ke sawan mein’, Chal ri pawan’:
And, ‘Beech bhanwar se’:
Apart from these, Amit Khanna came up with one-off winners in other films where he either shared the space with another lyricist or where one or a couple of numbers stand out in an album. Of these, one of his most enduring songs came in Basu Chatterjee’s Baton Baton Mein: ‘Uthe sab ke kadam’.
Another vintage Amit Khanna-Rajesh Roshan collaboration, this rousing song with its infectious beat, splendidly rendered by Amit Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar, continues to be as popular today with phrases from it (‘Tara Rum Pum Pum’ and ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham’) having made it as film titles too.
He also wrote the lyrics for that quintessential romantic duet of the era, ‘Kahiye suniye’, with its catchy refrain becoming a buzzword for tongue-tied lovers.
For some reason, Amit Khanna was a favourite among the Ramsay brothers (who often displayed an ear for melody) and wrote the songs for a number of the Ramsay’s horror outings. I have already mentioned the songs in Aur Kaun.
Arguably the most popular of these songs, one that has an almost cult following among lovers of the pop sound in Hindi film music is Purana Mandir’s ‘Woh beetey din yaad hai’. Sung with great flair by Ajit Singh, the song again demonstrates the lyricist’s ability to circumvent the traditional song structure:
Woh bite din yaad hai/woh palchhin yaad hai/guzare tere sang jo/lagake tujhe ang jo/woh muskaana teraa/woh sharmaana teraa/December kaa sama/woh bhigee bhigee sardiyan/woh mausam kya hua/na jaane kahan kho gaya/bas yaadein baqi
Woh baate sab yaad hain/woh raate sab yaad hain/bitaayee tere sang jo/lagaake tujhe ang jo/mujhase lipatana teraa/palke jhukaana teraa/abhee hai dil mein/meray honthon kee woh narmiyan/aag lagaake tum najaane kaha kho gaye/bas yaadein baqi
Rounding off his exceptional oeuvre as a lyricist whose song-writing skill hasn’t received the attention it deserves are two compositions by another of his regular collaborators, Bappi Lahiri. In Lekh Tandon’s marital drama Doorsri Dulhan, he pens the exquisite Bhupinder number ‘Yeh kis bandhan mein’. This is poetry of the highest order as Amit Khanna encapsulates in words the vicissitudes of fate the character is grappling with:
Ye kis bandhan me uljhaya hai tuney zindagi mujhko/jo toda bhi nahi jata, nibhaya bhi nahi jata/jo kehta tha mohabbat mein/wafa ka devta ho ja/tajjub hai wahi kehta hai/ja mujhse bewafa hoja/ye uljhan ye pareshani/ye majboori khuda tauba/meray saaki ne mujhko/de diya hai jaam kuch aisa/jo choda bhi nahi jata/uthaya bhi nahi jata
Given that Amit Khanna’s journey as a lyricist began with Bappi Lahiri in Chalte Chalte (which also helped establish the composer in the industry), it isn’t surprising that when he directed his first feature film, Sheeshay Ka Ghar (1984), it was Bappi Lahiri he turned to as composer.
Among the interesting crop of films in the early 1980s that straddled commercial filmmaking without losing its hold on a realistic narrative, Amit Khanna’s debut feature earned critical acclaim for his deft handling of a tale of marital discord set in the world of Mumbai’s art and music circuits. Never quite breaking new ground, the film stands out for its simple unpretentious style.
Bappi Lahiri delivers on the faith reposed by Amit Khanna, delivering a couple of immensely hummable classical-inspired ditties (‘Mukhtasar si baat’ and ‘Na todo piya’ by Salma Agha), and what is probably Anup Ghoshal’s most well-known song in Hindi cinema after Masoom’s ‘Tujhse naraaz nahin’, ‘Tum paas ho’.