Is there a more perfect piece of music Bollywood has produced than the title theme of Sholay (which celebrates its 40th anniversary this year)? I don’t think so. It is a little gem—simultaneously a symphonic triumph, and one of the most underrated achievements in popular art.

It begins with a single guitarist strumming an open chord, a suspended fourth. The guitarist, incidentally, is the great singer Bhupinder, who sang one of R.D. Burman’s most melancholic songs Naam Gum Jayega). Bhupinder plays along with another guitarist, Kersi Lord.

That basic strum alone will alert listeners to the theme about to be sketched out—the outdoors, men on horseback, adventure. It is a promise that Sholay fulfils in full measure, of course. The rhythm is initially played only on bongos—where has that instrument disappeared? It is to be found nowhere in Bollywood any longer. The rhythm has the clip-clop of horses in a canter and not in a trot, which separates it from O.P. Nayyar’s famous ghoda-gaadi songs like Zara haule-haule chalo more saajana and Maang kay saath tumhara.

The guitar strum and horse theme and whistling of the Sholay tune are used by Burman in another song, Raju chal Raju from Azaad. It is another one of my favourite songs but never got much radio play for some reason.

The melody is played out through some sort of horn. I have seen concert videos of Manohari Singh playing the tune on a saxophone. I am not sure if in the original he played on a sax, though it does have the characteristic smoothness of the instrument. I have always imagined that Burman composed the song from the ground up. Meaning that he had a small piece of music, most likely that saxophone melody, and he then wrote the other parts around that.

Burman holds the drums back till the entire tune has been played out and then brings them in with a machine gun rat-tat-tat that always sends my gooseflesh flaring. From this point on the drummer continuously plays rolls on the toms, giving this part energy and dynamism.

Now the violins, a whole lot of them, introduce the counterpoint and send the composition soaring outwards. It tells the listener that there are many many people playing this one 3-minute song.

When I lived in Mumbai, the studio where Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy worked was next to my house. My guess is they worked in one small room, with most of their music coming out of synthesizers. There isn’t space to fit in a whole orchestra of the sort that went into making the Sholay track.

The horn comes back to finish the counterpoint, and then we are back again with the original guitar strum.

This level of quality is not accidental and the attention to detail is high. If you notice the horses during this middle period, about a minute and 30 seconds into the song, their canter is perfectly in synchronization with the beat.

The first hint we get that this is an Indian melody comes now, with the swaying sarangi-like interlude. I say sarangi-like because I suspect it is a tribal or folk instrument not played by a studio musician. Burman was absolutely clear about the sounds he needed and often invented instruments to produce them (I read somewhere that he used an automobile differential filled with water to get the sound for one scene).

I could be wrong about this but it is the only part of the song which has minor chords, which gives it that slightly melancholic feel. To my ears the stringed instrument is fractionally late through the entire time it plays, but somehow resolves just in time. Whoever was playing that thing was a true master.

The guitars return with the melody, this time sounded out by a man whistling. I have a strong wolf-whistle but cannot even come near the quality to be found here. It is clean and loud.

As the horses approach Thakur’s house, the sweeping strings come in one final time in what is my favourite part of the song, before Burman closes with that guitar strum. By this time the song has introduced us to the landscape of the movie, the rocky hills and the village of Ramgarh. It is perfect in every way, including the way it has been shot, but especially the sound.

It is satisfying every time you listen to it. I do not know if I can say that of another melody that I have been friends with for 40 years.

Also read: Aakar’s previous Lounge columns