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15 magical tracks only Sonu Nigam could pull off – Birthday special

As the singer turns 44 today (30 July), we look back at some outstanding numbers that made him a modern playback legend.

Mayur Lookhar

Hailing from Faridabad in Haryana, Sonu Nigam began his singing career aged four. From singing at parties, weddings and satsangs (religious gatherings), Nigam moved to Mumbai, getting his big break with Gulshan Kumar's film Bewafa Sanam (1995). Subhash Ghai then roped him in for his Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Pardes (1997). There was no looking back thereafter as Nigam surged his way to the top.

Sonu Nigam's voice drew comparisons with the great Mohammed Rafi, but he is no clone. While he has, like Rafi, thrived on ballads and romantic numbers, he has not been afraid to experiment with different modern genres. As the singer turns 44 today, we look at some of the outstanding numbers that have made Sonu Nigam a modern playback legend.

'Yeh Dil Deewana' – Pardes (1997) 

Two decades on, Sonu Nigam has several great and popular numbers to his name, but ask the singer and you will know that the 'Yeh Dil Deewana' track remains very dear to him. It was with this Nadeem-Shravan composition that Sonu Nigam had announced himself in the Hindi film industry. The lyrics by Anand Bakshi were simple, but the style and energy that Nigam brought to the track were exemplary. It remains one of the most difficult Hindi film songs. Nigam pulled if off with consummate ease.

'Satrangi  Re' – Dil Se (1998)

Junoon (or obsession) is one word that describes the madness and passion in Shah Rukh Khan’s eyes and Nigam’s voice in the 'Satrangi Re' track. This is a Gulzar ballad, truly Dil Se. Nigam mesmerizes you with the antara ‘Teri raahon main uljha uljha hoon… mera jeena junoon marna junoon’. The grief-stricken voice simply melts your heart. Nigam reserves the best for the last verse, the alaap followed by the most blissfully grave lyrics and tone. You may not find your love, bur there is divine joy in dying for it. Nigam’s voice had that power to move the heavens.

'Aisa Lagta Hai' – Refugee (2000)

This was a Javed Akhtar gem set to music by Anu Malik. Abhishek Bachchan and Kareena Kapoor’s debut film will be remembered for its breathtaking romantic numbers. Indeed, one fails to find praise high enough for this Sonu Nigam-Alka Yagnik duet. Nigam is one the few singers to have this thairaav (stillness) in his voice. From the beginning to the end of the song, the purity of his voice moves you while the words flow like a river. 

'Tanhayee' – Dil Chahta Hai (2001)

Loneliness was the theme of this song and Sonu Nigam filled your heart with desolation. For a sombre track, though, the music had a pretty fast pace. Nigam had to bring out the sombreness without compromising on the fast beats. He did that with elan.

Saathiya (2002) title track

Sonu Nigam reunited with AR Rahman for Shaad Ali’s Saathiya, a refreshingly realistic love story. The title track by Gulzar was a joyful, romantic number. The lyrics were not easy, but Nigam was on the button, turning a difficult track into a delightful melody. He was a bit awry with the intro (mukhda) but came into his own with the antara and then there was no holding back.

'Yaar Mangeya Si' – Kaante (2002)

The music by Anand Raaj Anand was a bit too loud and wavering in the antara, but Sonu Nigam’s biggest challenge was whether he could do justice to Dev Kohli’s largely Punjabi lyrics. Nigam, however, was flawless not just in his diction but also in his rendition. The 'Yaar Mangeya Si' track is, perhaps, one of Nigam's more underrated performances.

Kal Ho Naa Ho (2003) title track

In any era, a top playback singer often gets the best songs. Javed Akhtar penned a great philosophical poem as the title track of Kal Ho Naa Ho. Nigam was at his peak then. Having a good voice is a gift, but Nigam also stood out for his range and the ease with which he could navigate it. The Kal Ho Naa Ho title track is another example of this. It also helped Nigam win the Filmfare Best Playback Singer award.

'Do Pal' – Veer-Zara (2004)

A classic Lata Mangeshkar-Sonu Nigam duet that made you wish time stood still so you could bask in the moment forever. Unfortunately, in life, joyous occasions come but momentarily and departure is a bitter pill that one has to swallow. The Javed Akhtar-penned 'Do Pal' epitomized this state beautifully. This is a sombre track, but the two strangers also reminisce about their good times. Nigam and Mangeshkar’s voices were filled with both joy and sorrow.

'Dheere Jalna' – Paheli (2005)

The selection of this film as India’s official entry to the Oscars triggered an outcry. But there was none over the 'Dheere Jalna' track, among Sonu Nigam's finest numbers. The film's soundtrack was composed by National award-winning composer MM Keeravani with lyrics by Gulzar. Keeravani reused his own tune of 'Naadir Dhinna' from the Telugu film Okariki Okaru (2003). This was not your typical filmi romantic number. It was more in the Hindustani classical mode, and a stern test of Nigam’s range. But his performance was masterly. Nigam’s voice needed to be in synch with each and every rhythm and beat, especially the tabla. He did not let listeners down.

'Main Agar Kahoon' – Om Shanti Om (2007)

Sonu Nigam has never shied away from admitting that the great Mohammed Rafi is his inspiration. Had Rafi been alive, this track would have made him say, “This chap sings a bit like me”. The lyrics, again by Javed Akhtar, and Vishal-Shekhar’s music took you back to the golden era of Indian film music. Nigam had the perfect foil in Shreya Ghosal.

'In Lamhon Ke Daaman Mein' – Jodhaa Akbar (2008)

This song is arguably one of Javed Akhtar’s best poems and Rahman’s best compositions. Jodhaa-Akbar was a visual and musical delight. Sonu Nigam and Madhushree came up with a divine performance for this number. Nigam just takes you high with the antara, ‘Mere khwabon ke iss gulistan mein, tumse hi toh bahar chhayi hai, phoolon mein rang mere thay lekin inmein khushboo tumhi se aayi hai.’ Each word speaks of an emotion and it is all reflected beautifully in Nigam’s voice as he magically shifts his range. Sadly, such a great performance went unrewarded at the Filmfare awards that year.

'Soniyo' – Raaz: The Mystery Continues (2009)

Kumaar is a name that we come across some tracks today. The lyricist, though, first shot to fame with the 'Soniyo' track from Raaz: The Mystery Continues  (2009). A simple romantic poem was transformed into a love anthem by the magical voice of Sonu Nigam. 'Soniyo' was one of the more popular numbers that year. Just the way Nigam sings the first word, Soniyo, would give you goosebumps. The film was released three weeks before Valentine’s Day. That year, many a lover must have crooned this song for his beloved.

'Shukran Allah' – Kurbaan (2009)

This is one of Sonu Nigam's many underrated songs, probably because the film bombed at the box office. One must thank lyricist Niranjan Iyengar and music director duo Salim and Sulaiman for blessing us with this romantic melody. It takes skill to split a word and sing the two parts in two different styles. It is all the more difficult when you have to do that with many words in a verse or stanza. Listen carefully to the way Nigam sings the words nazron, jannat, aasmanduaein and ibaadat. He breaks them ever so imperceptibly, without any pause as that would have ruined the impact.

'Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin' – Agneepath (2012)

After a brief lull in his career, Sonu Nigam roared back to form with this breathtaking ballad by Amitabh Bhattacharya. Vijay Deenanath Chauhan is the perfect anti-hero, first made famous by Amitabh Bachchan. Years later, Hrithik Roshan stepped into Bachchan’s shoes. All through the film, Hrithik Roshan had this agony writ large on his face. That pain and intensity were matched by Nigam while singing 'Abhi Mujh Mein Kahin'. The song was a firm reminder that the singer was far from finished.

'Mana Ke Hum Yaar Nahin' – Meri Pyaari Bindu (2017)

The rise of Mohit Chauhan and, later, Arijit Singh meant Sonu Nigam was no longer the most sought after playback singer. The lean spell ended, however, with this majestic Kausar Munir ballad from Meri Pyaari Bindu, set to a haunting tune by Sachin-Jigar. Nigam has sung many ballads in his career and this one struck an instant chord with many forlorn lovers.