The heart is a percussive organ—while percussion, in turn, is hearty — and lyricists down the ages have frequently waxed poetic about the thudding and the beating, the restlessness of the heart and its tell-tale rhythm.
We in Hindi cinema have often encountered this beat emphasized with a silken, blouse-clad dhak or two, but Anurag Kashyap—that brutally forceful film-maker with an inflammatory turn of phrase—makes sure the best song in his Bombay Velvet, the emotional core of the film, sees the metronome shattered to pieces.
This is not a still or enchanted heart but an enraptured one, beating with ribcage-rattling vehemence, using a sound usually reserved for cartoon violence: dhadaam-dhadaam. Dhadaam, as we know, is more sound-effect than sound, an exclamation mark-aided effect used to show just how hard the hero has flung a villain through the wall of a barn, or how roughly the villain has rammed a car off a pier. Dhadaaaaam. There is an animosity here, a dangerousness when compared to, say, a word like dhishoom. That’s just a sucker punch, a gunshot automatically echoed by another; dhadaam is immediately unsafe, potentially lethal.
What better word then for a heart careening off the edge?
Composed by Amit Trivedi, written by Amitabh Bhattacharya and sung by Neeti Mohan, Dhadaam Dhadaam is a masterwork, an emotionally overwrought song of operatic intensity, and it is the one song Kashyap reverentially leaves alone in Bombay Velvet. In a film made up of many a scrap of fine songs—understandably, considering it is the tale of a jazz singer—Dhadaam Dhadaam is the song Kashyap backs away from and lets blossom in the harshest and bloodiest spotlight. It plays out in full, gorgeously and film-haltingly, the absolute pièce de resistance.
The words are gorgeous. The first verse is a sigh (sirf haai), the second verse about betrayal and confession (humne daga tumhe hai diya), the third verse pines and craves (baarishein dhoondti dhadaam dhadaam), and in the climactic fourth verse, well, the hoofbeats gallop across everything and, after a dhadaam-dhadaam stampede over the other words, all that’s left is one dusty word of regret.
And what a word it is. Bhattacharya, an old Trivedi-Kashyap collaborator known for songs like Emotional Atyachaar in Dev D, was asked to tone down his colloquial style and try to hit more classical notes for this period film, a request that immediately made him look to legendary wordsmiths Sahir Ludhianvi and Hasrat Jaipuri. The result is a pure Hindi song of stunning clarity, comprised almost exclusively of common words. “Both Anurag and Amit didn’t like the word, nobody understood it, it was too complex for this song,” says Bhattacharya. “But it’s a song. Sometimes one word fits so perfectly nothing else will do.”
Malal is the word Bhattacharya uses to indicate regret. His other choice, afsos, appears prosaic due to overuse and appropriation: It is used for funerals, but also feeble report cards and polite rejection slips. Malal, a more despondent word, appears automatically more melancholy, echoing evocatively through the song. When Mohan belts that last high malal mein at the end, her voice stretched past breaking point, it’s a goddamned moment.
Trivedi’s challenge was to create a 1960s-1970s era jazz sound without actually playing jazz. “This version of jazz had to be relatable, with easy melodies, possible to sing along to. And I was looking at the kind of band that would have existed then,” says Trivedi, about making songs that would sound like the same band has written and sung them. “Those days, everyone would do covers. What would these guys sing about?” The answer came, as always, from “the captain of the ship”, as Bhattacharya calls him. In 2009, soon after Dev D released, Kashyap hit the boys with his Bombay Velvet dream, and revealed a song he wanted called Dil Gira Dhadaam.
That sounds like a playful song, one where a Johnny spots a Rosie and falls off a tram in his excitement (that tune, in fact, was reborn in the soundtrack as the jaunty Shut Up number). This one, despite a name mildly reminiscent of Biddu’s Boom-Boom, is a song of anguish.
In order to really get the feel right, Trivedi prodded young Neeti Mohan about her own heartbreak and locked her in a dark room for an hour. She came out, and sobbed through the recording. Now, both she and Anushka Sharma—who syncs to the song on screen, wailing her eyes out for all of us to see—cry a bit each time the song plays.
Good, because art beats arrhythmia. Some songs are worth skipping a beat for.