1 Jo Dard Banke Zamane Pe – Parbat Pe Apne Dera (1944)
This early film was one of 21 productions for which Vasant Desai composed the music for mentor V Shantaram's banner Rajkamal Kalamandir. Desai rose from office boy at Prabhat Film Company in Poona to become a leading music composer under the tutelage of Shantaram, whom he called ‘Anna’. In Shantaram’s second film under the Rajkamal banner, he asked "Desai", as Shantaram used to call him, to score the film. Desai was an experimental composer and in the beginning of ‘Jo dard banke zamane pe’ sung by Zohrabai Ambalewali, one can hear the inclusion of an echo. These little touches were what made him great.
2 Main Hu Nanhi Nai Dulhan – Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946)
Vasant Desai continued his long association with filmmaker V Shantaram on Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani (1946), the true story of young physician Dwarkanath Kotnis, who travelled to China as part of a medical team in 1938 to provide assistance during the Sino-Japanese War. Shantaram cast himself and his wife Jayshree in the lead roles in a screenplay written by KA Abbas. Desai combined Indian tunes with Chinese melodies to create hits like ‘Main hu nanhi nai dulhan’ along with lyricist Deewan Sharar. Jayshree did her own singing in this film.
3 Nain So Nain Naahi Milao – Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje (1955)
The musical dance drama featuring the famous dancer Gopi Krishna and Sandhya (V Shantaram's third wife) had ten distinctive hit numbers, including this soothing romantic song sung by Hemant Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar. For the first time in Indian films, the santoor was used on the soundtrack by Vasant Desai. Upcoming santoor maestro Shivkumar Sharma, who would later go on to compose film music in the 1980s and beyond, played the instrument for Desai. Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baje was Shantaram’s first film in Technicolor.
4 Aye Maalik Tere Bande Hum – Do Aankhen Barah Haath (1957)
Written by Bharat Vyas, the prayer plea for atonement, love and peace ‘Aye maalik tere bande hum’ sung by Lata Mangeshkar to a simple score by Desai still has power to move a listener after all these decades. Shantaram played a revolutionary jail warden, Adinath, who undertakes an ‘open jail’ experiment to rehabilitate hardened criminals. Do Aankhen Barah Haath won the Silver Bear for Extraordinary Prize of the Jury at the Berlin International Film Festival as well as the Samuel Goldwyn award at the Golden Globes.
5 Teri Shehnai Bole – Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959)
Vijay Bhatt’s Goonj Uthi Shehnai starred Rajendra Kumar, Ameeta and Anita Guha. Kumar played Kishan, a down-on-his-luck shehnai player. Vasant Desai’s score, highlighted by Bharat Vyas’s lyrics, made Bismillah Khan’s mastery of the instrument the hero of songs like ‘Teri shehnai bole’ sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi. Goonj Uthi Shehnai was the only film for which the legendary ustad played the shehnai.
6 Rail Gaadi – Aashirwad (1968)
For Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Aashirwad starring Ashok Kumar, Sanjeev Kumar and Sumita Sanyal, Vasant Desai composed four signature songs with lyrics from Gulzar. One of those fast-paced songs, ‘Rail Gaadi’, gave Ashok Kumar the opportunity to sing again and is generally credited as India’s first rap song. Ashok Kumar won the Filmfare and National awards for Best Actor for his performance.
7 Bole Re Papi Hara – Guddi (1971)
In the latter stages of his career, Vasant Desai came back to filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee for his behind-the-scenes look at the Hindi film industry through the eyes of a young fan, Guddi, played by Jaya Bachchan (then Bhaduri). With only three songs, Desai again made maximum impact and introduced a new singer, Vani Jairam, to the industry. The lyrics of Guddi were written by Gulzar.