All over the world, from Bombay to Jackson Heights, NY to Southall, London, to Kuala Lumpur, more than 200,000 people listen to Indian film music a year, and over 70% of what they’re listening to is written by the same three men: Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani, and Loy Mendoza. On film credits, they’re billed as their team name, “Shankar Eshaan Loy”, just like a corporation. As big as these three have become, they practically are one.
Their name alone exemplifies the best of modern India, Shankar, a Hindu, Ehsaan, a Muslim, and Loy, a Christian. They’re a part of the dynamism and success that evolves from a secular, progressive country.
In the past six years, they’ve reinvigorated the musical genre in India. Gone are the arcane, traditional village folk melodies of previous generations that accompanied many scenes of buxom heroines frolicking along the Western Ghats. Waves of immigration over twenty years have made the audience more global, more attuned to varieties of musical styles and sensibilities. Hip-hop, alternative, techno, and the old-fashioned Broadway score, have become incorporated into the songs of Hindi films diversifying the sound and emotions contemporary Indian pop culture.
The songs of Shankar Ehsaan Loy have the extraordinary ability to unify masses of scattered people in different countries and of different generations through common melodies that are infectiously catchy and irresistibly singable. Half the listeners don’t even speak or understand the Hindi lyrics of the songs. But people, regardless of cultural background, know a good song when they hear one, and Shankar Ehsaan Loy have prodigiously churned out several in the short span of only half a decade.
The Essential Shankar Eshaan Loy:
Mission Kashmir (2000)
Love amidst the blood-soaked beauty of civil war-torn Kashmir. The film itself was a compelling blend of heaving machismo and romanticism, like crossing parts of Rambo with Dr. Zhivago, but the score was haunting and otherworldly. From the achingly wistful lullaby, “So Ja Chanda” to the famous folk serenade, “Bumbro” performed by resplendently costumed Kashmiri dancers, the songs wrap you around in a dreamy haze.
Dil Chata Hai (The Heart Wants… - 2001)
Farhan Akhtar’s debut film about the love lives of a group of three close friends facing the anxieties of what to do with their lives after college touched a raw nerve among Indian teens in the way Say Anything and The Breakfast Club spoke to the youth market of the late 80s. The songs are wildly eclectic and catchy: the rousing club anthem, “Koi kahe kehta rahe,” the romantic banter sung to the strains of a deegiree-doo in “Jaane kyon,” the joyously playful movie nostalgia piece, “Woh ladki hai kahan” to the soaring title song, the soundtrack was inventive and fresh and different from anything ever heard in Indian movies.
Kuch Naa Kaho (Don’t Say a Word - 2003)
This slightly better than average romantic comedy about a single mother finding true love is one of those movies that proves that a gorgeous score can save a movie. The partnership of the three composers with the éminence gris of lyricists, Javed Akhtar was seldom as rapturous and lush as it was here. The Old World court poetry of ghazals set to contemporary pop and disco melodies made for an eclectic blend of love songs and serenades. The rapier “battle-of-the-sexes” banter of “Baat Meri Suniye” has a Cole Porter cleverness, while the dance tune, “Tumhe Aaja Maine Jo Dekha” is at once energetic in beat and tender in romantic longing.
Kal Ho Naa Ho (Tomorrow May Never Come - 2003)
The great, epic NRI (non-resident Indian) movie. The Kapur family of Queens, with their emotional squabbles over marriage, money, and the future, their closeness with their friends and community, became a representation of us in our struggles to stake out an identity in the West while still retaining our Indian heritage. The wistful title tune, “Kal Ho Naa Ho” is gentle nod to mythic move ballads of the past, “As Time Goes By,” and “Three Coins in a Fountain.” But the most endearing, winning song is the boisterous wedding finale number, “Maahi Ve,” now played in every Indian wedding party in every hotel ballroom.
Bunty aur Babli (Bunty and Babli - 2005)
Bunty and Babli is a playful crime caper, like Catch Me if You Can, where we’re rooting for the young con artist in spite of his callousness and naivete. The film follows a couple of teenage runaways on their Robin Hood escapades, hoodwinking corrupt government officials and slimy petty thieves, all of whom deserve the childish humiliation they receive. The songs are sublime; the best kind of musical storytelling that propels the narrative as well as enlivens the film. The pulsating call to adventure, “Dhadak Dhadak” that opens the movie, the irresistibly bouncy title theme, “Bunty aur Babli” and the famous, show-stopping rock-ghazal, “Kajra Re” are all unforgettable and totally appealing to everyone at a fundamental level of pure, joyous entertainment.
A very sleek, high-style crime thriller from Farhan Akthar, a remake of a 70s, pseudo-blaxploitation classic. Superstar Shahrukh Khan takes on an early Amitabh Bachan role and adds his own distinctive shadings of personality. The music is suitably sophisticated with brittle, hard-edged techno tones. Songs magnificently showcase a character’s motivations and drives. The lazy folk melody “Khaike Paan Banaras Wala” resurrected from the original film, is pumped up full throttle here, complete with a synthesized techno background and the nuanced vocal shadings of Udit Narayan. The seductive disco piece, “Aaj Ki Raat” is at once mysterious and danceable, and the religious hymn to Ganesha, “Maurya Re”is brilliantly composed, sung, and staged complete with clouds of pink and orange dust, cymbals, and hundreds of street dancers.
Salaam-E-Ishq (Love’s Sweet Salute - 2007)
Love, Actually, masala-style. Converging stories of different couples struggling through relationships in Mumbai has a breezy, effervescent quality that’s wholly entertaining. The eclectic song sequences are lavishly and lovingly staged by talented new director, Nikhil Advani. The gorgeous, infectiously catchy title number, “Salaam-E-Ishq” is a crowd-pleasing extravaganza in the vein of the golden age of Hollywood musicals from the 50s with the entire cast lip syncing like mad on a spinning soundstage; the Trafalgar Square wedding serenade, “Tenu Leke” is outrageous fun, with the film’s matinee idol, Salman Khan, playfully hip-thrusting with sari-clad back-up dancers in front of Nelson’s column. And the pensive lament, “Ye Rabba” is tender and aching, and adds just the right note of melancholy to temper the film’s buoyancy. The soundtrack is perhaps the most varied and virtuosic of the three composers, a startling showcase of their versatility.
Jhoom Barabar Jhoom (Dance, Baby, Dance - 2007)
A striving-for-edgy romantic comedy set in the South Asian immigrant borough of East London. The filmmakers spent more time on creating the illusion of cool associated with the stars than on developing an actual plot. The film’s only good song is the title song, “Jhoom,” but when it’s good, it’s incredible. Inventive in melody and instrumentation, with a repetitive, Sufic trancelike beat that stays in your head for hours. It’s a perfect blend of hybrid styles, courtly Old World Persian, Indian Classical, rock n’ roll and Bhangra that exemplifies the borderless, dynamic quality of Shankar, Eshaan, and Loy.
Chandni Chowk to China (2009)
The trio’s first, mainstream, wide-audience based movie: Bollywood musical meets a Kung Fu action flick. Reuniting with Saalam-E-Ishq and Kal Ho Naa Ho director, Nikhil Advani, Shankar-Eshaan-Loy explore a variety of different styles to compliment the commercial vehicle of this new type of cross-over movie. There’s a slick, pop-like Michael Jackson quality to the title track, “Chandi Chowk to China” while the film’s memorable romantic scene, the two loves soaring among the night-lit skyscrapers of Hong Kong, Mary Poppins-style with a magic umbrella, is accompanied by the gentle, electronic synthesizer melody of “Tere Naina.” But the best track, is the most traditionally minded. It’s the simple hero’s theme music, “S.I.D.H.U.,” a pulsating, exhilarating Indian classical, earthy Punjabi paean to optimism.