Top 10 – The Romantic Filmi Qawwali

Qawwali is to the dargah what a bhajan is to the temple – an open line of communication with God, a glorifying musical sonnet, acquiescing to his command as the almighty and entreating him with supplication of pure love.

Amir Khusro with Hazrat Nizamuddin

Amir Khusro with  Hazrat Nizamuddin

It’s beginnings lay in the Chishti order of Sufism. Amir Khusro is credited with creating the first recitations of qawwali in memory of his mentor, Hazrat Nizamuddin in the 13th century.

The etymology of the word is traced back to the Arabic word ‘qaul’ which means ‘to speak’ or ‘utterance’ (of the Prophet). ‘Qawwali’ is a compilation of these verses and ‘Qawal’ is the singer. For a more detailed analysis of the traditional qawwali, you could visit this link.

As moderated by Bollywood, this devotional love transmuted into the romantic realm. For the purists, it diluted the somewhat somber image of the qawwali but extended its popularity and longevity across continents by taking it to the living rooms of the uninitiated.

There were two cinematic improvisations as well. Firstly the chauvinism, with no known precedence of women singing qawwalis, was corrected. Secondly it introduced a contest format whereby two parties, sitting opposite each other competed in an arena like setting through vocal calisthenics. This battle predominantly was between ‘husn’ (beauty – the feminine) and ‘ishq’ (love – the masculine) – the provocation providing a dramatic link to the narrative by elevating it to a conflict

Different from the geet and the ghazal in the construction of its melody, rhythm and meter, there are certain inimitable characteristics of the film qawwali. It begins with a musical interlude followed by an alaap (long intonation of the various notes), moves on to introduce the main lyrical body and a gradual addition of accompanying musical instruments (harmonium, tabla, dholak, sitar and sarangi are favored) as the tempo increases, with the chorus repeating the refrain after the lead vocalist with a cyclic clapping of hands while building to a crescendo.


Since its first screen appearance in the film ‘Zeenat’ (1944) with “Aahein na bhari”, the qawwali vault is brimming with precious gems. And for sake of clarity I have delineated them into two categories: the romantic and the non romantic qawwali.

Every worthy film qawwali qualifies with certain parameters: It’s sequential placement in the story, poetic and musical import, on screen performance and in no small measure, the visual editing.


Here are my favorite Romantic Qawwalis: (Please click the picture for video link).


1. Na toh karwan ki — Yeh ishq ishq hai – Barsaat ki Raat (1960)

Vexed heart of a Qawwali party’s lead singer bleeds for a down on his luck poet who, in turn, is besotted by the one he saw one rainy night. “Mere naamurad junoon ka hai ilaaj koi toh maut hai” (The inevitable cure of my damned obsession, is only death).  It is fitting that a film dedicated to qawwalis (there are many more in it) provides THE greatest one of all time.


Reasons are aplenty for this tour-de-force; Sahir provides the words which Manna Dey, Asha Bhonsle and Mohammed Rafi bring alive.

The melody and orchestration however is provided by the uncrowned Emperor of Qawwalis, music director Roshan. The gradually rising cadence, the amalgam of the sitar and the saarangi and the floating, unencumbered notes nourishing the vocals.

All this is sustained by the fluid camera movements of director P L Santoshi and judicious editing by P S Khochikar

2. Teri mehfil mein kismat – Mughal e Azam (1960)

The kaneez (servant) is challenged to a war of verses by the princess in waiting in a mini contest setting with the judgement to be passed by the prince. While one believes in surrendering to love until death ‘Yeh kyaa kam hai ke mar jaane pe duniya yaad karti hai’, the other deems such capitulating love as foolish and weak.

Teri-Mehfil-mein-kismat-azma-kar-Mughal-e-Azam-1960 Qawwali

It is a pretty straight forward treatment, heavily influenced by Indian classical music and composed by Naushad.

The lyrics penned by Shakeel Badayuni provide the main gravitas, reflecting on how the psychological state of the different classes have a bearing on their personalities.

Madhubala and Nigar look resplendent, making one ache for the kind of beauty which no longer exists.


3. Yeh maana meri jaan – Hanste Zakhm (1973)

A wealthy heir chucks the affluence, becomes a cab driver and falls in love with a fallen woman. Of course the bourgeois defenders of ‘ghar ki izzat’ type family don’t approve. Nonetheless, with Chetan Anand writing and directing, the ideal of socialism is bound to get its share of the limelight.

Yeh-mana-meri-jaan-Hanste-Zakhm Qawwali

The genre gets an improvised and robust Punjabi Dhol style treatment from Madan Mohan Kohli, the ghazal musical maestro born in Baghdad.

He infuses it with an infectious energy as Kaifi Azmi’s poetry provides the balance. Rafi rules, Navin Nischol can’t dance saala and we see all of Priya Rajvansh’s three and a quarter expressions.


4. Chandi ka badan – Taj Mahal (1963)

Honestly it was a kitschy item song of that period. The film itself had little historical or artistic merit. the acting was passable. Praise be to the producer A K Nadiadwala who had the vision to hire the hit team of ‘Barsaat ki Raat’ for the music, which shattered records.

Chandi-Ka-Badan-Taj-Mahal Qawwali

The soundtrack, in its entirety, is colossal.

It fetched the Filmfare trophies for Sahir and Roshan when the awards were actually merited. Shot largely against a painted background, its a true contest between ‘ishq’ and ‘husn’.

The variations in music are tremendous and the lyrics (Yun garm nigahein mat dalo, yeh jism pighal bhi sakte hain) were depictions on what is commonly now referred to as stalking.

5. Phir tumhari yaad aayi ai sanam – Rustom Sohrab (1963)

This is a pre-horror Ramsay production, their first. A fusion of a ghazal and qawwali, it’s dulcet tones and lilting melody will stay with you when afar from your beloved. The screenplay, based on Agha Hashar Kashmiri play from 1929.

Phir-Tumhari-Yaad-Aayi-Rustom-Sohrab 1963 Qawwali

Ostensibly, this inspired the song ‘Ho ke majboor mujhe’ in the film Haqeeqat (1964) but with a defeatist tone.

While the soldiers sit around a campfire and reminisce, the General delves into his personal memories as he pines for his beloved as well. The unnamed actors carry the qawwali with Premnath and Mumtaz supporting

6. Sharma ke ye kyun sab – Chaudvin ka Chand (1960)

The third film features here from 1960 and second of what were generically labelled as muslim socialsthe presentation of this qawwali is given Guru Dutt’s innovative touch although M Sadiq is named in the directing credits. The purdah system dominated certain sections of Lucknow in mid 20th century.


A musical celebration in this household is underscored by a group of ladies, defending the flirtatious actions of men, by pretending to be them.

The masculine head gear and the full bodied voice of Shamshad Begum is contrasted with the honeyed inflections of Asha Bhonsle. Waheeda Rehman provides timeless glamour with Rehman playing peeping tom.


7. Parda hai parda – Amar Akbar Anthony (1977)

Rishi Kapoor had no need to imbibe the nuances of performing a qawwali. He was genetically blessed by the Chishti peers. And only Manmohan Desai would have a co-hero play a professional desi qawwal and be confident of audience acceptance.


Shot with a single camera over three days, it is a testimony to the director’s craft and ingenuity. Desai directed four of the five top grossing in 1977, an unequaled record.

This qawwali  tipped the scales in favor of Laxmikant-Pyarelal to win the Filmfare award for Best Music.

Big B for once clears the center stage for Rishi Kapoor, the undisputed crown prince of the on-screen qawwali.


8. Nigahein Milane ko Ji chahta – Dil hi toh hai (1963)

The big guns, Sahir and Roshan combine again, this time throwing the gauntlet to Asha Bhonsle. Asha was usually slotted to sing seductive numbers as her voice was considered to be much smaller than her big sister’s.


When O P Nayyar gave her the freedom to soar, others followed suit and she is still airborne.

The only known qawwali with Nutan, she does not strain to dance (not her forte) but what she lacks in athleticism, she makes up for in poise, grace and expression. Raj Kapoor and Pran provide comic relief.

9. Hai agar dushman – Hum Kisise Kum Nahin (1977)

The qawwal and his party get a pop avatar in costume, set design, lighting and scale. Nasir Hussain’s flair for song picturisation shines bright and Munir Khan’s camera work complements it further.


Post ‘Parda hai Parda’ success, Rishi gets the mandatory qawwali later that year.

R D Burman’s  arrangement is bold and inventive as he adds the not so often heard ‘shehnai’ to the composition.

And after a lull in popularity during early seventies when Kishore Kumar ruled the air waves, Mohammed Rafi rose briefly like the proverbial phoenix till his untimely death in 1980,  never to be replaced.



10. Allah yeh ada – Mere Humdum Mere Dost (1968)

The differential factor of Laxmikant Pyarelal’s music was a dominating ‘dholak’. A virtuoso display of the same is given here by their musicians, Rashid Khan and Mumtaz Ali – almost the entire qawwali is driven by the rhythm of the dholak.


A diffferent, more delectable Mumtaz is also the cynosure of all eyes as an upset Dharamendra refuses to partake the pleasure of the festivities in his and Sharmila’s honor.

Mumtaz displays why, in the next two years, she was to become the biggest female star. Hrishikesh Mukherji edits with finesse as Lata mesmerizes.

Link: Top 10 – The Non Romantic Filmy Qawwali


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