Ever since the advent of sound, songs have played an important role in Indian films. In the early days, most songs in Hindi films used to be of short duration, typically a little over 3 minutes. The technological limitations at that time restricted the length of songs, especially the ones that were to be released on records for public consumption outside of the film. Since each side of a 78 rpm gramophone record had a restriction of a little over 3 minutes duration, most songs adhered to that limit, or at the most were double that duration, appearing on two sides of the same record. However, there have been instances of songs in excess of 6 minutes on film even as far back as the 1930s, but such instances were few and far between. With technological advancements, the average length of a Hindi film song increased beyond the 1960s.
Sangeet Ke Sitare, a music group on Facebook, ran a theme last week where one had to post film songs that were longer the 7 minutes. It was quite a revelation to see a wide variety of long songs belonging to different genres and types.
If one looks at the various long songs that have appeared in Hindi films, one can see that they fall into several different categories. I have made an attempt here to classify them in a few categories based on genre or the way they have been filmed. I must add that these categories are neither exhaustive nor mutually exclusive.
Qawwali - The most obvious category where most of the songs are typically long is the qawwali. Although the qawwalis that we get to see in films today is mostly restricted to devotional or sufiyana type, one has seen quite a variety in the qawwalis that have made their way into films. Probably most famous, and my most favourite, qawwali of all time is the one from Barsaat Ki Raat (1960) - the mother of all filmi qawwalis. Running for more than 12 minutes, the words, the music and the singing all come together brilliantly.
At the other end of the spectrum is a modern qawwali - modern in terms of approach but still retaining the traditionalism in terms of lyrics and orchestration (barring the portions that highlight the impending doom that the characters are blissfully oblivious to). The film is The Burning Train (1980) and this qawwali runs just shy of 11 minutes.
Medley - There have been several instances in Hindi films where a number of songs that appear separately in the audio releases, are filmed as a single unit i.e as a medley of multiple songs. In some cases such a medley is used to show simultaneous state of mind of different characters as in this medley of three outstanding songs from Dekh Kabira Roya (1957), composed by Madan Mohan.
In many post 70s films, especially those of Nasir Hussain, medleys have been effectively used to show a competition between various characters.
Narrative Song - Medleys can also become a tool to narrate a story, like this medley of four songs from Ram Rajya (1967) that tells the story of creation.
Or this one from Anuradha (1960) where a story is narrated in the form of a dance drama
Apart from medleys, single long songs have also been used in films to narrate a story. One the longest songs ever filmed in Hindi films is from Rani Aur Lal Pari (1975). The sequence tells the story of Cinderella in the form of a song running for more than 20 minutes. More often than not, such songs are only meant for watching and have virtually no audio-only appeal.
One song from recent times that competes with the Rani Aur Lal Pari is a song from Aaja Nachle (2007). The tale of Laila Majnoon is narrated through this song.
Dance Song - Many films feature really long songs with the primary aim of showcasing the dancing prowess of the lead characters. Such songs typically have long instrumental passages. Here is one song from Raj Tilak (1958) where two exceptional dancers are pitted against each other as a sort of competition.
In relatively recent times, Madhuri Dixit song several such long songs right from Ek Do Teen that made her famous. One such song from a 90s flop - Rajkumar…
Multilingual Song - Multilingual songs are often used in films to depict national integration and many times, such songs end up being quite long. Like, for example, this song from Pyar Ki Pyaas (1961)…
Or this delightful one from Teen Batti Chaar Rasta (1953) where family members from various regions of India sing praises of their respective regions through a medley of songlets in different languages.
Sometimes, a multilingual song may be used just for fun. Aadmi (1939), was one of the earliest films with a 7 minute plus song.
Multi-starrer - Many multi-starrer films have at least one song that includes all the characters, and if one were to do justice to all the characters in that song, the song is bound to be long. One films that takes the cake in this category is J. P Dutta’s LOC Kargil. Although all his films tend to have at least one very long song, but LOC Kargil was unique that it had 4 songs that exceeded 7 minutes. The longest amongst them was this song that had as many as 15 characters lip-syncing at least a few words:
Another long song from this film had one playback singer singing for 8 different characters.
Multi-part Song - There have been several instances down the years that a song is fragmented into many parts and used to provide a narrative through the film. The longest songs in Hindi films actually belong to this category. I am told that Mahapavan Teerth Yatra (1975) had a 75 minute song spread across the entire film. I found the film on youtube and saw a portion of this song, but am yet to count the total duration of all parts put together. On similar lines, there is a 42 minute song in Sampoorna Teerth Yatra (1970), composed by Shivram and sung by Mahendra Kapoor. Then there is this song from Ziarat Gah-e-Hind aka Zeenat (1970), sung by Mohd. Rafi. All these songs appear in the film in a fragmented manner and talk about the various holy places in the country.
One more example of a multi-part song will be a mother’s song from Phoolon Ki Sej, that appears in three parts through the film.
Raagmala - By their very definition, raagmalas have the potential to be long. The very fact that 3-4 four different ragas are depicted in a raagmala, they usually tend to be longer than regular songs. Most of the well-known raagmalas in Hindi films have been between 6-7 minutes long. Here is one from Sau Saal Baad (1966) that manages to touch the 7 minute threshold.
Celebratory - This is one category where a significant number of long songs have been appeared in Hindi films in the last two decades or so. Typically, such songs depict friends and family taking part in some sort of celebration, either some marriage or other family rituals or simply having fun together.
In the same category would fall this parody song from Lamhe, where the characters are simply having fun at home.
As I mentioned earlier, this list is not exhaustive. There could be several other categories. And some songs are just simply long, for no particular reason. This trend has been more common in recent times. Interestingly, many of these songs are quite long in audio format, but used only partially within the film.
In a majority of these long songs, I find them enjoyable only as a visual experience. Listening to only audio makes one wish that the songs end quickly. Yet, there are definitely some songs that despite being long, feel like they end too soon. As the famous Jethro Tull song goes:
Life's a long song….
But the tune ends too soon for the song.