India’s newest Oscar nominee is a man of many names- MM Keeravani, MM Kreem, and Maragathamani. He famously said, “If Stephen King can have two identities, I can have three.” The Oscar buzz around RRR’s Nattu Nattu has put the humble composer MM Keeravani straight to the spotlight, with AR Rahman also showering heaps of praise on his 35-year-long career. Debates galore on social media on why Nattu Nattu is undeserving of winning an Oscar. However, there should be no debate about the illustrious career of MM Keeravani, which demands universal recognition of his genius.
The man wanted to quit music in 2015. But due to the humongous success of Bahubaali films, his career got a new lease of life, and at present, he is our newest addition to the Golden Globes winner’s list. Long before MM Keeravani stormed the world with Nattu Nattu, he was MM Kreem-a name Bollywood melomaniacs must have seen many a time on the cassette covers. But he was a man whose songs we hummed but didn’t know the identity. It is absurd how it took so long for MM Keeravani to command the “pan-Indian” respect, and that, too, would not have been possible without the Academy validation.
Here’s a compilation of 10 Hindi songs from MM Keeravani and why I love them (in no particular order).
Maine Dil Se Kaha – Rog (2004)
Keeravani’s chef-d’oeuvre Maine Dil Se Kaha Dhoond Lana Khushi is sonically romantic and lyrically depressive. It might be my personal bias, but I adore this song from the 2004 film Rog the most. MM Keeravani joins hands with his frequent collaborators KK and Neelesh Mishra- and the song has been picturized on Irrfan, whose masterful performance in this song often goes unnoticed. It is a delightful association- rightfully birthing a song for the ages.
Keeravani is a master of composing situational songs, and here, the song plays after a dejected Irrfan comes out of his therapist’s chamber. His heart-wrenching, worldly-wise monologue talks about depression and suicide. As the ballad of melancholia breaks into the scene, lyricist Neelesh Mishra lands the poignant jab: “जश्न यह राज़ न आये, मज़ा तोह बस ग़म में आया है”. The composition has a breezy, conversational flutter that helps hide the pessimism and morbidity the lyrics entail. The images are flattering and hopeful, creating a paradox.
The song is introduced with a guitar and piano, which shifts to the 90s-style violin riffs in the interlude section. There is a new instrument introduced in every stanza. One can hear the bass guitar and saxophone acting as the dominant sound in the 2nd and 3rd stanzas, respectively. This is not a typical KK song, either. Though there have been heavy uses of bass guitar, KK doesn’t get enough room to hit those high-pitched notes he is famous for. In a way, this song is a companion piece to Awaarapan Banjaarapan, both providing unique opportunities to KK as a singer.
The hook, which gets repeated in every stanza, showcases slight variation in its composition. “Jashn ye raas na aye” is sung with major chords, while “gham” is sung with minor chords. KK’s voice falls with wreathed grace like a battered kite twirling to the ground. The songs unnerving, unflinching edifice gains a lot from Neelesh Mishra’s career-best writing: “बेचारा कहाँ जानता है/ खलिश है यह क्या खला है/ शहर भर की ख़ुशी से/ यह दर्द मेरा भला है”. Has there ever been a better verse written subverting the human expectation of catharsis into self-laceration and momentary distraction?
Gali Mein Aaj Chand Nikla – Zakhm (1998)
This song from the 1998 movie Zakhm uses a typical 90s melody reminiscent of the famous Indi pop songs of Falguni Pathak and Sudha Mudgal. The song was sung by Alka Yagnik and penned by Anand Bakshi. This is a happy song that talks about the longing for a loved one and how it makes all the sorrow worth it when the person arrives. It follows a usual tabla-dholak rhythm. The strength of the song lies in its mellow melody, which at times takes up an almost wailing tempo that beautifully encapsulates the feeling of longing.
The words may seem complicated now, but yet the song is loved by people across generations. This made Mahesh Bhatt say, “it means that good music always has a heart-to-heart connection that has also reached these kids.” It is totally to Keeravani’s credit that he has made even a formulaic song worth remembering for decades.
Aa Bhi Ja – Sur (2002)
The only aspect that salvaged the otherwise forgettable 2002 movie Sur is the MM Keeravani-composed masterful soundtrack. In Aa Bhai Ja, Keeravani has given Bollywood an immortal duet for the ages, comparable to the mammoths like Ye Rat Bheegi Bheegi and Abhi na jao. The movie followed the same trajectory as A Star is Born and needed a soundtrack that would be an instant hit.
Lucky Ali’s melancholic voice and Sunidhi Chauhan’s exuberance perfectly complement Keeravani’s glittering notes and tunes. The outstanding violin riffs of the song alone have the potential to generate melancholic waves in the listener’s hearts, and thus the instrumental portions of this song have been a popular choice of ringtones in the mid-2000s. Nida Fazli’s lyrics, coupled with a classical base and liberal use of violins, test both singers with their high notes. Lucky Ali goes a bit haywire with the high-pitched notes but does give enough characteristic flourishes to enthrall the listeners.
Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai – Jism (2003)
The whole album of Jism over the years has gained a cult status among its listeners. The subtly erotic Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai pictured the sizzling chemistry of John and Bipasha had captured the imagination of a whole generation. This was also the first song that uses the soft edges of Shreya Ghosal’s voice in a very urban soundscape establishing her as a singer who can sing with both innocence and sensuality. Jaadu Hai Nasha Hai perfectly fits the milieu of the film, which marks a diversion in Bollywood towards a range of more raunchy movies headlined by the likes of Emraan Hashmi. The soft, slow, and mesmerizing renditions of the song sets up the mood perfectly, and Keeravani shows his prowess in creating a versatile and modern soundscape while basing the songs on an infectious tune he is often praised for.
Dheere Jalna – Paheli (2005)
The romantic number set on the hit couple of that time, Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherjee, and sung by the melodious Sonu Nigam sets off delicately before exploding into a joyous chorus. Keeravani’s musical arrangement with flute, tablas, and the sitar is minimalistic and thus successfully creates a simmering effect on the ears. Listening to this song is equivalent to getting burnt by the low flame of a lighter while you hold it for your lover to light their cigarette. It wounds you, but mostly in all the right places of your heart.
The classical recital by Sonu Nigam is passed on to a sanchari by Shreya Ghosal. The Rajasthan folk inspirations are evident in Gulzar’s lyrics, and words are beautifully strung together with the crescendo. The song starts deceptively slow and meanders towards the end, the middle is full of twisted and uplifting music that jabs deep inside a listener’s heart. The shehnai interlude gives the song much-needed earthy touch.
Kaun Mera – Special 26 (2013)
Kaun Mera sung by the exquisite Papon and Chaitra Ambadipudi is from Keeravani’s last memorable outing as a Hindi Film Composer- Special 26. The song written by Irshad Kamil has three versions, another one sung by Sunidhi Chauhan. Though none of these versions are very individualistic in their approach, it feeds a song lover’s mind well as you get to hear the same song in different favorite voices. The first version sung by Chaitra is a typical love ballad and is sung against only the guitar and piano, while Sunidhi’s one is the unplugged version.
Papon’s version has a soft rock element to it and reminds you of early Pritam compositions. There are bold western influences in this composition, and Keeravani intermittently uses drums and pronounced beats for the Papon version. Papon uses his characteristic baritone voice for the high-pitched notes. With Kaun Mera, Keeravani proves that there is no better composer to marry a pensive tune with a crescendo that dies on its listeners, similar to how waves hit the shore.
Tu Mile Dil Khile – Criminal (1995)
The song from the 1995 movie Criminal was originally recorded in Telugu as “Telusa Manasa” and was inspired by the electronic music arrangement by Enigma’s song Age of Loneliness. This Kumar Sanu-Alka Yagnik song was still a breath of fresh air at that time since such ambient and electronic music was quite unprecedented in Bollywood, which has historically been dependent on orchestral music till that point in time.
Indeevar’s cheesy lyrics go well with the visuals of Nagarjuna and Manisha Koirala wrapped in satins. Though the song was a huge hit, listening to it a few decades later makes one feel that the song’s complex composition is due to its confused identity, which overworks itself while marrying the semi-classical tune with a starting alaap with very much western orchestration. Some Tanpura beats are also thrown into the mix to give it a desi touch.
The alaap is haphazardly thrown into the song with Alka Yagnik’s bad impression of how whisper should sound like, and the lines go like this: “Darling, every breath you take, every move you make..I want to love you forever, and ever, and ever”. This song shows early signs of how Keeravani does not rely on hooks or lyrics to immortalize a song but rather on his serene melodious notes alone.
Jane Kya Dhoondta Hai – Sur (2002)
I kept this song on my list because I believe this is the one Hindi song that proves MM Keeravani’s mettle as a versatile composer to the predominantly Bollywood song-listening audience. The album of Sur needed a particular kind of music that fits the musical landscape of the film’s narrative. But it also features a very atypical Keeravani composition which will surely remind you of the Lucky Ali Indi-pop songs. Surely the idea behind this was to create a track that the audience associates with the kind of songs Lucky Ali creates, and that would give the movie a promotional boost. Thus the video of the song is also reminiscent of other Lucky Ali song videos- shot in a remote, deserted location. Keeravani creates a soulful, feet-tapping number with unique rhythms and percussions that can only benefit from Lucky Ali’s raw and creative flourishes.
Keeravani’s music has the bohemian touch that transports you to a journey by caravan through the deserts and woods. No wonder a windy instrument like Flute has been heavily used in the interludes, and Lucky Ali’s voice goes back and forth with the flute as if we are witnessing a music battle. The film is based around the life of violinists, so this song also has ample use of the violin as well, though it doesn’t get a solo window as it gets in Aa Bhi Jaa.
Awarapan Banjarapan – Jism (2003)
Keeravani is absolutely wonderful at creating pensive music, and his melodies translate well while describing the psychological state of a person suffering from Depression. Due to KK’s phenomenal singing, Awarapan Banjarapan still remains one of the most notable songs of Keeravani’s Bollywood career. KK, in one of his interviews, said he was in a happy mood before the recording of this song, and he was indebted to Mahesh Bhatt for getting him into the relevant mental state to express the pain the protagonist is feeling. KK did justice to the emptiness that the tune exudes. The stoic melody has another version sung by the composer himself, which is less understated and more haunting to the ears. Sayeed Quadri’s eternal words in the last stanza, “Kahan kiske like hai mumkin/ sabke liye ek sa hona” perfectly encapsulate the themes of the movie.
Chup Tum Raho – Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahi (1996)
There has been scarcely any discourse around this song on social media these days since it remains mostly unheard of as the Sudhir Mishra directorial Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahi has not been watched by too many. The song belongs to the large tradition of Bollywood. Characters breaking into song in the middle of a party (remember when a certain gentleman wrapped in a modest shawl broke into Jaane Woh Kaise log they jinke?) We get K.S. Chitra’s flawless vocals merging with MM Keeravani’s searching voice (lip-synced by debutant R. Madhavan).
There are some inconsistencies with the Hindi pronunciation, but that favors the song with a raw, live-singing effect and fits the situation. It is a mellow romantic number, and we see characters getting flashbacks of their affairs. The off-kilter rhythm is sure to remind the listeners of R.D. Burman’s orchestrations. The song oddly fuses harmony with an abrupt screeching sound in the middle, and the following use of trumpet is surely a surprise to the listeners.