Fifteen songs per actor might take more work than I could do at present, so I thought I would go with eleven Hindi film song videos that jump out at me sitting here today (the composition of the list is probably subject to change on a day-to-day basis). My list is centered on song videos from the last thirty or thirty-five years; to a certain extent that reflects the fact that I am much better-versed in post-Rajesh Khanna cinema, but to an even greater extent it reflects the fact that the song-video really came into its own during the 1970s (Raj Kapoor always excepted). In any event, in no particular order except for the roughly chronological, here goes:
GHAR AAYA MERA PARDESI (Awaara): In the beginning was the dream -- more accurately the dream sequence to end all dream sequences, replete with imagery and tropes that would become Hindi film staples over the next few decades: the fog, the sets, only a tenuous link to the linear plot of the rest of the film, and so on. But this video also features a mood of some disquiet (heightened by the use of a giant prop or two), consistent with the ambiguity I always associate with a dream, even (especially?) a dream of a homecoming. . .
[There are other Raj Kapoor videos that could easily make this list; while not as indispensable as the one above, one would be remiss if one overlooked the memorable videos in Shree 420, Chori Chori, Sangam, and Mera Naam Joker.]
SHARMAAKE YE KYUN SAB PARDA NASHEEN (Chaudhvin Ka Chand): I cannot think of a better mujra video from the black and white era: the scale, the energy, the contrast between the voices of Asha Bhonsle and Shamshad Begum (itself a source of erotic tension in the song), the costumes, the "adaayen", and the utterly conventional lyrics, all make this one of the most memorable of Hindi film songs as far as I am concerned. Over three decades later Subhash Ghai would incorporate most of these elements in his "Choli ke Peeche Kya Hai", but nothing renders this Guru Dutt classic superfluous.
MEHBOOBA MEHBOOBA (Sholay): Prior to this there were songs "picturized"; after this there were item numbers too. Sure we'd had bimbette videos before, including ones featuring Helen, but nothing quite like this, with its frank carnality, R.D. Burman's raw and singular male vocals a world removed from the refinement of conventional playback singing, and its hint of danger (personified by the leering Gabbar Singh) and even voyeurism (Veeru and Jai think they're here to catch Gabbar, but really, aren't they just a couple of peeping toms?). Perhaps most striking of all is Helen, semi-undressed amidst a gaggle of leering dacoits, and yet utterly in command of the situation -- as my dear friend and one-time NGite SMR once said, she is the only person in Sholay who is never intimidated by Gabbar Singh. But this isn't just a feminist item number; it's an old-fashioned lechfest too, making it just like a good masala film, i.e. with something for everyone.
EK HASEENA THEE (Karz): When the Apocalypse is upon us, you can bet your last rupee this song will be playing in the background. Perhaps no other song showcases the almost superhuman power of Kishore Kumar's voice as well as this one, and Ghai does both Kishore's vocals and Laxmikant-Pyarelal's composition full justice in the film, where this song is not so much set to a video as it is a drama staged. "Ek Haseena Thee" is musical theater, picking up enough cues from both Shakespeare and good ol' desi masala to give us the film's climax, in which Simi Garewal's character learns what Rishi (and we) have known for quite some time -- namely that Rishi Kapoor is the reincarnation of the man Simi murdered for money. And unlike in an ordinary play, where the audience watches the onstage action unfold, here both we and the performer watch Simi come to grips with the onstage action: the conventions of dramatic irony are inverted, and rather than the audience being able to read more into the words of the onstage character than the latter could have intended, the audience-member we are interested in is condemned to read less. And when realization dawns on her, the play is over. Only rarely can a song have mattered so much in the context of a film's narrative as this one does, unquestionably Subhash Ghai's finest moment as a filmmaker.
APNI TO JAISE (Lawaaris): The club dancer. The cheap lights. The villain guzzling alcohol. The chamcha. This could be an entire decade of masala badness -- except the populist hero in his soiled garb is Amitabh Bachchan, so it's not. This is hardly the most innovative song video (director Prakash Mehra didn't do innovative), nor does it present a refined visual aesthetic (Mehra didn't do refined either), but it is a stirring and sentimental tribute to the little guy, even if the little guy here was Amitabh Bachchan at his flamboyant best (Mehra certainly did populism). The video is most remarkable for the way Amitabh's body language uses the space around him: in this video, as not infrequently in Bachchan's oeuvre (the opening of Jurmana comes to mind), space is not what the man moves in; space is what the man owns. Mehra knows this full well, and sets the song in a club that is virtually empty, signifying with admirable economy the outcast Heera, the private party he is excluded from, as well as the fact that when Amitabh was in his element, others might as well not bother to show up.
DEKHA EK KHWAB (Silsila): I loathe what has come to be known as the "Yashraj brand" of filmmaking. And it's hard not to let some of that resentment transfer itself to films like Kabhi Kabhi and Silsila. But not to worry, there is a cure for such resentment: just watch this song. Gazillions of clones have taken off some of this video's sheen, but what remains is still the best use of European natural beauty I have ever seen in a Hindi film song. Like Aradhna's "Mere Sapnon Ki Rani", what this video lacks in verve it more than makes up in its influence on videos that have followed. And "Dekha Ek Khwab" surpasses the Aradhna video in its marriage of mainstream sensibility to a "high" aesthetic, one of serenity and contentment (and a little too far removed from the sort of disordered romantic aesthetic I can relate to). "This too is worthy", Yash Chopra seems to be telling us; for a quarter of a century now, we can certainly not be accused of forgetting.
CHOLI KE PEECHE KYA HAI (Khalnayak): A fitting counterpoint to the Chaudhvin ka Chand number I've listed above, and, Sholay's "Mehbooba Mehbooba" notwithstanding, the most epic item number ever. Visually speaking, this song barely has a foreground; what it does have is great depth and breadth in the background, heightening the sense that Madhuri is almost pressed against us (thank you, Madhuri), a background that director Subhash Ghai populates with an unusually large number of people. Yet unlike in the world of Karan Johar, people aren't merely props (even of the blonde, Eastern European variety that has become a staple of contemporary Hindi song videos), but part of a vibrant crowd. Some of the item number's minor participants -- in this context, Sanjubaba, and Neena Gupta -- are so zany they might have walked away with the show. Steady there, boy, I said "might have": for in the final analysis no-one did walk away with Madhuri's show, for me the crowning moment of her many song-and-dance videos. Beta's "Dhak Dhak Karne Laga" might have been more carnal, Tezaab's "Ek Do Teen" more carelessly sexual, but only Ghai understood the erotic possibilities of the tease inherent in Dixit's onscreen persona, a theme advertised in the video's very first scene, when the "Ku-ku-ku-ku" chorus gives way to a vision of Dixit's back, and then her front, all while her face is veiled. Ghai, in short, understood what most Bollyfilmmakers never got, then or now: with the likes of Madhuri Dixit, the main event is not the skin show, but the seductive charm of beauty and expression.
CHAIYYA CHAIYYA (Dil Se): Compared to the other video gem from this film, "Chaiyya Chaiyya" is a rather conventional video -- except it doesn't feature the staleness that comes from blindly repeating a tradition, but the skill displayed when one represents the peak of a tradition. Mani Rathnam does not complicate matters here, retaining the urbane hero thrown in with the wandering minstrels of Bollywood lore; but he does do away with the static leafy beauty of the 1960s and 1990s, replacing it with an achingly beautiful countryside that literally slips by as we watch Shah Rukh Khan and Malaika Arora atop a train, a feeling of loss subsequently heightened by the grim urban spaces we see in the film once this song ends. I cannot think of a better train moment in Hindi cinema-- at least not since Veeru and Jai foiled a robbery in Sholay.
SATRANGI (Dil Se): If song videos have a poet, then surely that man is Mani Rathnam, and in his Hindi work, nothing surpasses this video. Rathnam takes a staple -- hero and heroine cavorting in idyllic surroundings -- and subverts the genre, memorably representing the bleak and compelling beauty of Ladakh, a landscape populated by lovers who seem anything but normal. Part psychological exposition of the film's characters, part Sufi parable replete with a solitary tree all dressed up in flames (an image that has mindlessly recurred in rather banal contexts in the years since), and part ambitious failure (the "modern" dance moment between Manisha Koirala and Shah Rukh Khan suggests bedsheets of the "They're alive!" variety, and are unworthy of this video), "Satrangi Re" is one of the artistic peaks of the Hindi film song video -- after this, perhaps there is only homage.
HEY KHUDA HAFIZ (Yuva): Simply my favorite song video representation of young love in Hindi cinema. What elevates this video is Rathnam's realization that the inarticulate goofiness of puppy love needs a prop -- and there is none better than the sea: crazy, tempestuous, and destabilizing, just like the romance that is going to upend the lives of both Vivek Oberoi's and Kareena Kapoor's characters in the movie. The camerawork is spectacular, and the verve befitting one of A.R. Rahman's most soaring compositions. The sea, the sea: we never want the song to end.
KAJRARE (Bunty aur Babli): My former literature professor, Perry Meisel, would have said that this song had "interesting semiotics". Whatever: the Bollyfans in the room know it for what it is, namely enough star wattage to cause a blackout (but that's preferable to the sort of benighted existence led by those who have never seen this video), in the service of a grand homage to a cinematic idiom that had all but vanished by the time Bunty aur Babli was released. Aishwariya Rai, all tarted up and looking seriously sexy, arches her eyebrow, bemused at the Jr. Bachchan's attempts to play it cool, while herself being given the run around by the Sr. Bachchan, who symbolizes here a vanishing past, not just the cinema of the 1970s but also India's old world charms (manifested in the song's lyrics, and in the Amitabh-Abhishek exchange that precedes "Kajrare," as nostalgia for an Old Delhi way of life). Combined with sumptuous choreography, a supporting cast of lafangas, and Ash's foot in director Shaad Ali's face at the dance's commencement, this one has it all.
BOL NA HALKE HALKE (Jhoom Barabar Jhoom): It's not just the video; it's what the video isn't. That is, after years of jaunts to Switzerland, North America, New Zealand, or wherever the hell else Indians dream of fleeing India to, Rikki Thukral and Alvira Khan decide (while sitting around at a London train station) that nothing would be more romantic than some Indian role-play. The result is far more than an imaginary sequence set in India -- though it is that -- and combines a mellow love song with the visual intensity, and even the logic, of a dream: Freud would be proud of the couple exchanging Humayun's Tomb for the Taj Mahal in the blink of an eye, Preity even preserving the dreamer's surprise at her own dream, familiar to those (by now, perhaps all of us) informed by The Interpretation of Dreams. And then there's the evocative reality of nostalgia. The coolies were never like this, and heck I've never even flown a kite, let alone had my bleeding hand bandaged by Preity Zinta, but none of that matters: I want to go home.