While we may have chosen 100 of the best Bollywood movies, with over six decades of popular Hindi cinema, it's nearly impossible to choose just 11 of the best Bollywood songs. So instead, we've picked just a taster of the world of Bollywood music, selecting 11 of the most memorable and important songs.
With films dating from 1951 to 2014, this list will give you a glimpse into just how much Bollywood has changed over the last 60 years, while providing you with some absolute bangers you'll want to add to your playlists, too.
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The best Bollywood songs
Film: ‘Ragini MMS 2’ (2014)
How exactly has Bollywood change? Well, the track will give you an idea. Controversial Punjabi rapper Yo Yo Honey Singh waxes lyrical about the virtues of drinking four bottles of vodka (the chours goes: ‘I want a hangover tonight’) over this dissonant hip hop club beats, which also features Canadian-Indian porn star Sunny Leone. Sure parents hate him, maily for the slackness of his lyrics and for encourging their sons to dress ‘inapprpriately’, but the kids love him, as proven by this track's millions and millions of views.
Film: ‘Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’ (2013)
A song dedicated to mischief and being a player, with superstar-in-waiting Ranbir Kapoor – featured in our list of the ten best Bollywood actors – popping, locking and hip-thrusting through a salsa and reggaeton-flavoured party track. It sports a catchy chorus, as well as a jaunty sing-along melody and the immortal lyrics, ‘Bollywood, Bollywood, very, very jolly good’. This is huge, as 50 Cent might say, ‘in da club’.
Film: ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’ (2003)
An example of a song recurring throughout a film, the flute intro from the title track of ‘Kal Ho Naa Ho’ haunts this massively successful early noughties film. Sonu Nigam’s rich, textured voice dreamily animates exquisite, poetic lyrics by Javed Akhtar (of screen-writing duo Salim-Javed, responsible for ‘Sholay’ and ‘Deewaar’), and soundtracks a love triangle with a terminal-illness twist.
The entire soundtrack – by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy – is brilliant and the phat hip hop production of Mahe Vee reflects twenty-first century Bollywood absorbing ‘outernational’ influences.
Film: ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’ (2001)
Despite opening to mixed reviews at the time, ‘Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham’ went on to become one of the highest grossing Bollywood films internationally. The title track is an example of how a song can weave its way through a film, Lata Mangeshkar's distinctive and emotive voice whisks you away on a journey into the complex world of the family. Through her vocals she imitates the film's title (which translates to ‘in times of happiness, in times of sadness’), hurt and celebration coalescing in one stunning performance.
Film: ‘Dil Se..’ (1998)
A mesmerising, passionate Urdu love song performed on the roof of a train as it trundles through a jaw-dropping mountain forest backdrop. Item dancer Malaika Arora rivals Shakira in the hip-swivelling stakes and Shah Rukh Khan dances (and head bangs) effortlessly as he always does, in this composition by AR Rehman, sung by Sukhwinder Singh and Sapna Awasthi. This is one song that wasn’t an excuse for a toilet break.
Film: ‘Dilwalhe Dulhania Le Jayenge’ (1995)
The song from the most romantic film in a generation ‘TDTYJS’ nods to Bollywood’s wholesome days of yore with playback singers Kumar Sanu and Lata Mangeshkar as star-crossed lovers Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) and Simran (Kajol) are reunited in Punjab’s glorious fields.
They declare they’ll die in each other’s arms amid costume changes, location switches (to the Alps), and dream-sequence montages. The combo of glorious melodies, soaring strings and the innocent purity of Lata’s voice has been a Bollywood staple for decades. After all, if it ain’t broke…
Film: ‘Qurbani’ (1980)
Considering mainstream 1970s disco has a certain OTT, kitsch appeal, Bollywood disco seems a match made in mirror-ball heaven – and here’s the evidence. ‘Aap Jaiso Koi’ has roots in Britain with Bangalore-born, London-based producer Biddu (Kung Fu Fighting) behind the languid groove and glossy disco vibe of this Bollywood disco classic.
Remarkably, its ethereal, fuzzy voice belonged to 15-year-old Pakistani schoolgirl Nazia Hassan, living in London, who went on to record a hugely successful album ‘Disco Deewane’ (produced by Biddu) with her brother, Zoheb. Tragically, Nazia passed away in 2000 aged 35.
Film: ‘Kabhie Kabhie’ (1976)
Songs are often key to the plot of Bollywood movies and repeated throughout the film, as is the case with this achingly beautiful song from the spectacularly successful ‘Kabhie Kabhie’.
Poet Amit (Amitabh Bachchan) falls in love with student Pooja (Rakhee Gulzar), and the smooth operator recites a poem to her: the lyrics to this song, sung by all-time great playback duo Mukesh and Lata Mangeshkar.
Family prevents Amit and Pooja from being together, with Pooja having an arranged marriage and singing this song on her wedding night and imagining what might have been. A real heartbreaker.
Film: ‘Hare Raama Hare Krishna’ (1971)
What do you do when you’re Ashaji and your older sister is Lata Mangeshkar, the most in-demand, perfect playback singer in Bollywood? You develop a persona opposite to Lata’s goody-two-shoes image, singing for racy, carefree and sensuous actresses (in this instance, 1970s vamp Zeenat Aman).
This is a homage to hippies in India, as they pass round a chillum as Asha sings, ‘take another hit’ to a glorious, psychedelic Bollywood funk composition by RD Burman – who became Ashaji’s hubby in 1980.
Film: ‘Guide’ (1965)
‘Today I feel like living again,’ goes the chorus to this song, a joyous ode to living life and forgetting responsibility. Lata Mangeshkar – intoxicatingly – conveys carefree abandon and a sense of liberation as Rosie (Waheeda Rehman), a dancer in a loveless marriage, falls in love with tour guide Raju (Dev Anand).
It’s the standout song of a standout film that was ahead of its time in portraying a couple living together out of wedlock, and it starred two well-loved, classy actors in Rehman and thinking-woman’s-crumpet Anand.
Film: ‘Awaara’ (1951)
Raj Kapoor is the father of cinema in post-colonial India. The actor and director was behind a flurry of hits in the 1950s and 1960s – including ‘Awaara’ – and key to film becoming central to India’s cultural imagination.
The song ‘Awaara Hoon’ sees the actor cheerfully sing about being a drifter, tapping into the Partition of 1947 that saw around 10 million people displaced. His everyman charisma touched a nerve, and versions of this song appeared in the Soviet Union and China, with Chairman Mao reportedly a big fan of both film and song.
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