It’s a balmy October evening in Mumbai. Lalit Pandit is on the phone; he’s singing ho gaya hai tujhko toh pyaar sajna.
I had mentioned how the differing tempos in the verse and chorus make it sound like two separate songs. “There were two different songs we combined to make one song,” he confirms. “Na jaane mere…it’s slightly fast. The energy and rhythm of the two pieces is Indian-Western. The ho gaya hai dholak break is amazing. Laakh kar le tu inkaar sajna, dildaar sajna, hai yeh pyaar sajna.” On the last “pyaar”, his voice does the upward lilt made famous by Lata Mangeshkar, who sang this and three other classics on the Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge soundtrack.
Aditya Chopra’s film celebrates 25 years on 20 October. It was, at the time of its release in 1995, one of the biggest commercial successes in Hindi cinema, setting off a trend of outwardly youthful, secretly conservative romances to woo the NRI community. It’s still watched and referenced today, so much a shorthand for Bollywood romance that Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan (2020) used it as a framework for its gay love story. Central to the film’s appeal is the music, composed by Lalit and his brother Jatin: seven songs, each of them intimately familiar to most Indians alive today.
When the duo was first called in by Yash and Aditya Chopra, they didn’t know the name of the film or who was in it. They presented some of the tunes they had at the time, including early versions of Mehandi Laga Ke Rakhna and Mere Khwabon Mein Jo Aaye—enough to get them the job. Later, after a detailed narration, veteran lyricist Anand Bakshi told them, “This picture will be great, give it your all.” “The biggest thing was that Lataji was going to do the songs. Millions of fans crazy about her, and you get a chance to make her sing…” says Lalit, his voice trailing off as if he still can’t believe it.
They worked on the film for four and a half months. Ruk Jaa O Dil Deewane was created in the image of Rishi Kapoor stage songs like Bachna Ae Haseeno. Mehandi Laga Ke Rakhna, originally intended for Khiladi (1992), then for a Firoz Nadiadwala film, found its rightful home. “Of course, we were the captains, but our collaborators were exceptional,” Lalit says. “Humein phoolon jaise upar utha diya (they lifted us up like flowers).”
Jatin-Lalit’s music was the bedrock of Hindi film in the 1990s. Theirs was an inviting sound: clean, uncluttered, with an emphasis on melody. Not for them the distinctive dolour of Vishal Bhardwaj or the aggressive rhythms of A.R. Rahman. Akshay Manwani, author of Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet and Music, Masti, Modernity: The Cinema Of Nasir Husain, says the duo brought “melody and a certain propriety” back to film music. “The Hindi film song had really hit its lowest in the 1980s,” he says on email. “Jatin-Lalit emerged in this backdrop. I wouldn’t say they were exceptional or ingenious or anywhere near as brilliant like Rahman, but they brought an element of decency back to the film song, which is their single largest contribution to Hindi cinema.”
As a child of the '90s my primary allegiance was to Rahman, but I consumed more Jatin-Lalit than any other composer. Emanating from movie screens and cassette players and countdown shows on TV, their music seemed to reach out a hand. I had my favourites, of course: Tu Mere Saath Saath from Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992), as seductive a vision of social mobility as anything in Rangeela; Jaana Suno from Khamoshi (1996), which transforms Paul Anka’s laborious Bring The Wine into a soaring ballad; Main Koi Aisa Geet Gaoon from Yes Boss (1997), with that wild violin break; Zindagi Maut Na Ban Jaaye from Sarfarosh (1999), a qawwali-style number movingly rendered by Sonu Nigam and Roop Kumar Rathod.
They came from an illustrious musical lineage, the Mewati gharana. Their uncle, Pandit Jasraj, was one of the revered classical singers of the 20th century. The siblings were trained by their father, Pandit Pratap Narayan. Jatin, nine years older than Lalit, went into films first with their elder brother, Mandheer. They worked without much success for 15 years. Mandheer bowed out and Jatin-Lalit teamed up. Success came almost immediately, with their first film, Yaara Dildara (1991), yielding the disco-lite hit Bin Tere Sanam. The track was actually a repurposing of Le Ja Mera Dil, from their album Rhythmic Love (1989). Dil Kehta Hai, from the same album, would later become Chaand Taare in Yes Boss.
By the time Bin Tere Sanam became a hit, Jatin-Lalit were working on Mansoor Khan’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992). Unlike Yaara Dildara, this Aamir Khan-starrer was a hit, and so was the soundtrack, especially the piano duet Pehla Nasha. “Udit Narayan practised the song for almost one and a half months, every day,” Lalit says. “Sadhana (Sargam) would come in, so would Udit, we would finish the day’s work and rehearse with them.” Like all Nasir Husain productions, the sound was Western pop-influenced. The verses in Yahaan Ke Hum Sikandar are similar in metre and melody to The Who’s Pinball Wizard, and Naam Hai Mera Fonseca is a remake of Chuck Berry’s rockabilly classic Johnny B Goode.
It was on Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman that an era-defining partnership was formed. There are few things more quintessentially ’90s than Jatin-Lalit songs for a Shah Rukh Khan film. They collaborated on Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (1994), Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, Yes Boss, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Mohabbatein (2000), Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001) and Chalte Chalte (2003)—memorable soundtracks all, as well as some of the most successful Hindi films ever. The reason they meshed so well with Khan’s image is because they were the right composers for that era. The slick romantic drama had a resurgence in the ’90s, which suited their clean, bright style better than the naked emotionalism of Nadeem-Shravan, a more traditional sound which ruled the early part of the decade. “We had a clarity of sound that you couldn’t hear in anyone else,” Lalit says. And it’s true that in a Jatin-Lalit song, everything—voices, horns, strings—is in balance.
Jatin-Lalit’s most famous works are the Shah Rukh romances but they composed for other actors and genres too. Their filmography includes Vaastav (gangster film), Khiladi and Ghulam (action), Sangharsh (psychological thriller). The cop film Sarfarosh yielded the popular Jagjit Singh ghazal Hoshwaalon Ko Khabar. Ghulam (1998) had the monster hit Aati Kya Khandala, delivered in tapori fashion by Aamir Khan. And there was Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s musical drama Khamoshi, their most rounded work, which alternates typical Jatin-Lalit melodies like Aaj Main Upar with uptempo rhythm-driven pieces like Huiya Ho and Gaate Thhe Pehle Akele.
Lalit counts Bhansali as one of three directors he worked with who really understood how to use music (the other two are Aditya Chopra and Aziz Mirza). “I could make out that even though it was his first film, he was asking for something different,” Lalit says. “He would tell us, I will take money out of the film if needed, but I want my music.”
I ask Lalit if he ever felt competitive with his contemporaries. His reply is immediate: “I always felt, and now I feel ever more so, that our music was far beyond anyone at that time.”
As beloved as Jatin-Lalit’s music is, many would likely disagree with this statement. One could make a case for elevating the duo above Nadeem-Shravan, Anu Malik or Vishal Bhardwaj, but in terms of creativity and seismic impact, this simply wouldn’t hold for Rahman. As technically sound and dependable as they were, they weren't once-in-a-generation talents. It’s telling that they never won a Filmfare or National Award for best music director as a duo (Lalit and Sajid-Wajid won the Filmfare in 2011 for Dabangg), despite averaging more than one hit album a year from 1991-2001.
After 2001’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Jatin-Lalit started fading. More than Rahman’s dominance, it was perhaps the rise of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy as dependable (and more sonically adventurous) hit-makers that rendered the duo superfluous. Fanaa (2006) was their last hit album, after which they split up. They have worked separately since. In an industry where the great composers have careers spanning three or four decades, 10 years seems like a relatively short time. But those 10 years belonged to Jatin-Lalit.