When I think of sad love songs from old Hindi cinema, my mind turns to two 1960s classics that, in different ways, mislead a viewer. Watching Dost Dost Na Raha on Chitrahaar without having seen the film it was from, Raj Kapoor’s epic melodrama Sangam (1964), I thought the song was about the hero Sunder (Kapoor) having been betrayed by his lover Radha (Vyjayanthimala) and his buddy Gopal (Rajendra Kumar). The visuals underlined this: There was Sunder, singing at a piano, looking heartbroken and sardonic in turn; behind him, the other two squirmed, their flashback memories suggesting perfidy.
This interpretation turned out to be wrong: Sunder isn’t indicting his loved ones, he is just relating another friend’s tragic story. And though the lyrics make Radha and Gopal feel sheepish, they are the story’s real romantic couple and have nothing to be ashamed of (except, perhaps, that they have spent so much time indulging a whiny, masochistic man).
Vyjayanthimala shows up again in Jewel Thief (1967) as Shalu, singing the plaintive Rula Ke Gaya Sapna. When you first see this beautifully filmed nighttime scene—Shalu in the moonlight, Vinay (Dev Anand) rowing a boat while listening intently—you’ll assume she is mourning the broken romance that has been mentioned earlier in the story. But it turns out to be a red herring, a clever exercise in misdirection.
Seen together, these two sequences also point to a difference between the sad love song that centres on the hero’s pain versus the one that focuses on the heroine’s: The former mode tends to be self-righteous and accusatory (remember the soaring Dil Ke Jharokhe Mein from Brahmachari , with Shammi Kapoor’s steely gaze directed at Rajshree), while the latter is gentler, more about immersing oneself in the pleasure-pain of loss than in blaming the duplicitous other. Even the title song of Barsaat (1949), so effectively reprised in the film’s closing scene—over the funeral pyre of a young woman who was abandoned by a playboy—expresses regret, Mil Na Sake Haaye, Mil Na Sake Hum, instead of hitting out.
This is, of course, a generalization, and, as with everything else in Hindi cinema, there are exceptions: Take the lovely O Saathi Re scene from Muqaddar Ka Sikandar (1978), in which Sikandar (Amitabh Bachchan), instead of going on about his unrequited love, pays tribute to the girl who reached out to him—as a friend—when no one else would. Or other scenes that blur gender lines, such as three wonderful songs that are primarily about a woman’s inner world but are sung in a male voice: Tum Bin Jeevan from Bawarchi (1972); Kai Baar Yun Bhi Dekha Hai from Rajnigandha (1974); and Khamoshi’s (1970) haunting Woh Shaam Kuchh Ajeeb Thi, in which the singing is done by Rajesh Khanna but the scene’s focus is the great Waheeda Rehman, lost in the memory of an earlier love that has emotionally drained her.
The post-love (or interrupted-love) song encompasses many other forms and themes. There are tragic songs performed in the exalted mode (Aaja Re Pardesi from Madhumati , Beqas Pe Karam Kijiye from Mughal-e-Azam ). There is judaai (separation) in the name of duty or social propriety (Chalo Ek Baar Phir Se in Gumrah ), or through death (Lagi Aaj Sawaan Ki from Chandni ). There are rousing compositions that transcend their contexts (it’s possible to be stirred by Ismail Darbar’s Tadap Tadap Ke Iss Dil from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam  even if you can’t work up sympathy for Salman Khan or Aishwarya Rai), and other rousing compositions that work brilliantly alongside the film’s visuals (Ae Ajnabi Tu Bhi from Dil Se.. ).
In the 1970s and 1980s, the high emotional registers of the mainstream were balanced by the more muted approach of the so-called Middle Cinema, which didn’t deal with concepts like eternal soulmates but with the matter-of-fact possibility that love can fade, that people might simply grow apart because it’s the nature of the beast, not because of warring parents or glowering villains. However, grounded situations can still have ethereal music and lyrics—see Gulzar’s Aandhi (Tere Bina Zindagi) in 1975 or Ijaazat (Mera Kuchh Saamaan) in 1987. And even in today’s indie cinema, so self-conscious about “cheesy” love songs, there is room for something as raw and heartbreaking as Bohot Dukha Mann from Mukkabaaz (2018), which plays in the background as the boxer Shravan searches for his abducted wife, his aatma (soul).
I have special fondness, though, for the deliberately funny-sad song that moves from one meter to the next within seconds. Decades before Dev.D’s hilarious Emosanal Attyachar offered a rude commentary on our many angst-filled Devdases (Bol bol, why did you ditch me / Zindagi bhi lele yaar, kill me / Bol bol, why did you ditch me / Whore), there was Na Jaiyyo Pardes from Karma, in which two separated lovers express themselves in very different tones. First, Poonam Dhillon plays it dead straight, reaching longingly towards the van carrying her beloved away; then Anil Kapoor yodels in the voice of Kishore Kumar, singing phrases like O my darling, you don’t cry […] me going to die, oh bye-bye. To invoke a classical theory of aesthetic expression, these songs combine shoka rasa (sorrow) and haasya (merriment) in one package—and that’s as good a monument as you’ll find for the exhausting tragi-comedy of the romantic condition.
Above The Line is a column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world.
He tweets at @jaiarjun