Plagiarism in Hindi Film Music: Is Imitation the Most Sincere Form of Flattery?

Music directors in the Bollywood industry today are often accused of plagiarizing songs without giving proper credit to the original sources. Pritam Chakraborty, in particular, comes to mind as a composer who has been subjected to such accusations in recent times. Yet, lifting tunes is not a new trend in the industry: its origins can be  traced back to the industry’s earliest days when music directors of the Golden Era composed melodies heavily inspired by unattributed sources. Below, let’s take a listen to some plagiarized works composed by five of the greatest music directors of yesteryear: R.D. Burman, S.D. Burman, Shankar-Jaikishan, Salil Chowdhury, and O.P. Nayyar.

 R.D. Burman

Among the music directors of his time, R.D. Burman was perhaps the most notorious for composing inspired tunes.  Within the list that I’ve provided below, the magnitude of plagiarism varies from song to song. Some numbers below are direct lifts from their originals, such as the cult classic “mahbuubaa mahbuubaa” from Sholay (1975). Others represent more subtle variations of plagiarism: for instance,  the Kishore Kumar classic “dilbar mere kab tak mujhe” only takes it mukhDaa from “Zigeunerjunge” but has original antaras and interludes.  As a musician, I personally feel that the latter form of lifting is somewhat justifiable because it still reflects a level of creativity and originality on the part of the composer. The direct copying of tunes, however, raises ethical concerns and may have even placed music directors like R.D. Burman in legal trouble had such songs been released today.  Regardless of your opinion on this issue, what is universally striking about the list of songs below is the diversity of sources from which R.D. Burman drew his inspiration.  Collectively, the original melodies come from a smorgasbord of musical genres from all over the world: traditional folk, American pop, Greek, German, French, and even Iranian rock!

aao twist kare.n (Bhoot Bangla, 1965)  / “Let’s Twist Again” (Chubby Checker, 1962)
churaa liyaa hai tum ne  (Yaadon Ki Baraat,  1973) / “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” (Bojoura, 1969)
teraa mujhse hai pahle kaa naataa koii  (Aa Gale Lag Ja, 1973)/ “The Yellow Rose of Texas” (Traditional)
mahbuubaa, mahbuubaa (Sholay, 1975) / “Say You Love Me” (Demis Roussos, 1974)
mil gayaa ham ko saathii (Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin, 1977) / “Mamma Mia” (ABBA, 1975)
jahaa.n terii yah nazar hai (Kaalia, 1981) / “Heleh Maali” (Zia Atabi, 1977)
kaisaa teraa pyaar (Love Story, 1981) / “I Have A Dream” (ABBA, 1979)
dilbar mere kab tak mujhe (Satta Pe Satta, 1982) / “Zigeunerjunge” (Alexandra, 1967)
kahii.n na jaa  (Bade Dilwala, 1983) / “La Vie En Rose” (Edith Piaf, 1955)
tum se milke  (Parinda, 1989) / “When I Need You” (Leo Sayer, 1977)

Zeenat Aman sizzles in “churaa liyaa tum ne” from Yaadon Ki Baraat (1973)

S.D. Burman

Like his son, S.D. Burman has also composed melodies that reflect marked inspiration from foreign sources.  Although we have already investigated the influence of Tagore’s music on S.D. Burman in a previous post, we now observe how his compositions also were inspired by non-Indian genres.  For a composer who was rather traditional in his musical output, who would have imagined that he lifted material from Mexican, Italian, and American country melodies?

chaahe koi khush ho (Taxi Driver, 1954) / “Tarantella” (Traditional)
jiivan ke safar me.n raahii
(Munimji, 1955) / “Mexican Hat Dance” (Traditional)
ek laDkii bhiigii bhaagii sii (Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, 1958) / “Sixteen Tons” (Tennessee Ernie Ford, 1955)
ham the vah thii (Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi, 1958) / “Watermelon Song” (Tennessee Ernie Ford, 1957)
yah dil na hotaa bechaaraa (Jewel Thief, 1967) / “March” (Bridge on the River Kwai, 1957)
saalaa mai.n to sahab ban gayaa (Sagina, 1974) / “Chella Lla” (Renato Carosone, 1959)

The ever-versatile Kishore Kumar stars in a comic role in Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi (1955)


In my opinion, Shankar-Jakishan were the quintessential music directors of Bollywood’s Golden Age. They combined the authenticity of traditional Indian music with the modern sophistication of Western influences to produce songs that appealed to the masses. It’s not surprising that some of their tunes reflect inspiration from foreign influences, but what is remarkable is that several of the songs listed below are remembered today as some of this duo’s most treasured gems.  Two songs from Chori Chori (1956), two songs from Gumnaam (1965), and the title track of Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai (1961) — among many other hits — were heavily inspired by existing Western numbers. I think you’ll be surprised to see some of your favorites on the list below…

ghar aayaa meraa pardesii (Awaara, 1952) / “Al Balad El Mahboub” (Umm Kulthum)
aajaa sanam madhur chaa.ndnii me.n ham (Chori Chori, 1956) / “Tarantella” (Traditional)
panchii banuu.n uDtii phiruu.n (Chori Chori, 1956) / “Coming Through The Rye” (Traditional)
aigo aigo yah kyaa ho gayaa?
(Boyfriend, 1961) / Stupid Cupid” (Connie Francis, 1958)
jiyaa ho jiyaa kuchh bol do  (Jab Pyar Kisi Se Hota Hai, 1961) / “Broken-Hearted Melody” (Sarah Vaughan, 1959)
sukuu sukuu (Junglee, 1961) / “Sucu Sucu” (Ping Ping, 1961)
dekho ab to kis ko nahii.n hai khabar (Janwar, 1964) / “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (The Beatles, 1963 )
gumnaam hai koii (Gumnaam, 1965) / “Charade” (Henry Mancini and Orchestra, 1963)
jaane chaman sholaa badan (Gumnaam, 1965) / “Autumn Leaves” (Nat King Cole, 1956)
le jaa le jaa meraa dil (An Evening in Paris, 1967) / “Man of Mystery” (The Shadows, 1960)
kaun hai jo sapno.n me.n aayaa? (Jhuk Gaya Aasman, 1968) / “Marguerita” (Elvis Presley, 1963)

Rajendra Kumar definitely breaks conventions of automobile safety during the picturization of “kaun hai jo sapno.n me.n aayaa?” from Jhuk Gaya Aasman (1968).

Salil Chowdhury

Salil Chowdhury’s compositions always reflect an intelligent and sophisticated mastery of music that set him apart from his peers in the industry.  Instead of describing the songs listed here as cases of plagiarism, I would be more likely to categorize them as adaptations. When Salil Chowdhury used another Western melody as an inspiration, he always managed to make it his own by adding something special that would resonate with Indian audiences. Take, for example, the evergreen Talat-Lata duet “itnaa mujhse tu pyaar baDhaa.” Although the mukhDaa is clearly inspired by Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony, Salil composes new antaras that beautifully complement the original melody.  As another example, consider “bachpan o bachpan” from Memdidi (1961).  Inspired by the children’s rhyme “A Tisket, A Tasket,” Salil takes the melody to a new level of complexity by inserting operatic interludes sung by our beloved diva Lata Mangeshkar.  Bravo!

dharti kahe pukaar ke (Do Bigha Zameen, 1953) / “Meadowlands” (Lev Knipper, 1934)
halke halke chalo saa.nvare (Tangewaali, 1955) / “The Wedding Samba” (Edmund Ros and Orchestra,  1950)
dil taDap taDap ke (Madhumati, 1957) / “Szla Dziewczka” (Traditional)
zindagii hai kyaa, sun merii jaan  (Maya, 1961) / “Theme from Limelight [from 3:27] ” (Charlie Chaplin, 1952)
itnaa na mujhse tu pyaar baDhaa (Chhaya, 1961) / “Molto allegro” from Symphony No. 40 (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1788)
bachpan o bachpan (Memdidi, 1961) / A Tisket, A Tasket” (Traditional)
aa.nkho.n me.n tum ho (Half-Ticket, 1962) / “Buttons and Bows” (Dinah Shore, 1948)

Vijayantimala coyly hides behind a tree in the picturization of “dil taDap taDap ke” from Madhumati (1957)

O.P. Nayyar

O.P. Nayyar is known for his characteristically Western-inspired approach to crafting melodies for Hindi films, but his contribution to our list of directly plagiarized songs is relatively small in comparison to some of his peers in the industry. The most well-known example here is, of course,  the Rafi-Geeta duet “yah hai bambaaii merii jaa.n” which has been lifted from its predecessor “My Darling Clementine.”

baabuujii dhiire chalnaa (Aar Paar, 1954) / “Quizas, Quizas, Quizas(Trio Los Panchos, 1947)
yah hai bambaii merii jaa.n (C.I.D., 1955) / “My Darling Clementine” (Traditional)
lakho.n hai.n yahaa.n dilvaale (Kismat, 1968) / Red River Valley” (Traditional)

Biswajeet hams it up for Babita during the picturization of “lakho.n hai.n yahaa.n dilvaale” in Kismat (1968)

What is your opinion on plagiarism in Hindi film music? Was it acceptable for music directors of this time to lift material from Western sources in order to introduce musical diversity to Indian audiences? Or, is it unethical for such plagiarism to occur without giving credit to the original musicians who created the songs in the first place? Let us know in the comments, and feel free to share any examples that go along the theme of this post!

-Mr. 55

12 thoughts on “Plagiarism in Hindi Film Music: Is Imitation the Most Sincere Form of Flattery?

  1. It was not correct to borrow so directly from foreign sources. But the music directors believed that the audiences did not have the same access to foreign music and films that they did and so would not find out and they would appear to be original. For the most part it has been true until today when we can get our hands on every bit of information. Our music producers/directors were very talented and did not need to do this and still do not. Or as school kids are taught from a young age give credit to your source if you borrow someone else’s work.

    • You’ve brought up an excellent point about technology in the Information Age. Because we have a wealth of information about any topic available at our finger tips, it is easier to catch music directors in the act of plagiarism now than it was back in the day.

  2. Plagiarism, in any field, is morally & ethically wrong. And if you are earning from it, it is professionallly wrong too !
    Due recognition & credit Must be given to the original.
    However good a song was/is, when the truth gets revealed finally, it shows the music director in extremely poor light.
    It is not merely a matter of having to seek permission & pay royalty, but the larger issue of taking undeserved credit & basking in borrowed glory.
    It reveals a weak character & professional integrity Despite, as you have pointed out, being inherently talented & competent.

    It is one thing to be influenced by a certain kind of music/person, by straight lifting of tunes ?!!

    Although I cannot remember the exact songs, there are a few that have tunes lifted from Cliff Richard songs. I remember coming across Hindi songs using “Theme for a Dream” & some others too.
    Persian music has also influenced our music directors.

    The list you have given is an eye-opener. It’s something I’ve always wanted to know.
    Pity. Most of these songs (& others) are among our classics/favorites. Well, they’ll still remain favorites – plagiarism or not, they are part of our culture now ;-))

    I do wonder, though, about Folk Music. Naushad used many folk tunes in his compositions. Is it plagiarism in case of folk tunes ? Since there is No One person to whom the tune(s) can be attributed, And these are in the public domain, would that count as plagiarism?

    • Ah yes, I did not cite songs that were inspired by Indian folk tunes or classical bandishes here because it is a much more complicated issue. Such songs often do not have attributable sources, so it is less likely that a music director would be accused of plagiarism for drawing inspiration from these genres.

  3. Originality of work must be appreciated and credit/acknowledgement should be given every time. Some great names above, though as mentioned we have more information or access to information very easily as compared to old days in which it was impossible to check plagiarism or the extent of plagiarism. But even then, I must say original work should be credited no matter taken from what time/era

  4. Pingback: Shammi Kapoor, the Elvis of India: Realities of a Rockstar | Mr. & Mrs. 55 - Classic Bollywood Revisited!

  5. Copying is one act of theft, the worst is when they get some unknown but talented person to compose the songs but take all the credit. C Ramachandran did it for all the songs in Albela. Laxmikant Pyarelal and Kalyanji Anandji were no less. I think its high time these things are brought into open and people given due credit. Many of these composers are from Goa. A goan film Nacho ia Kumpasar exposes a few.

  6. I am listening to Hindi movie songs for over 60 years. I first heard whispers of plagiarism in the 60s , when some of my favourite songs ( from Awara, Dil dil se milakar dekho from Mem Sahib – Madan Mohan, Thandi hawa ye chandni suhani from Jhumroo- Kishore, and of course some songs of C.Ramchandra ) were shown to be plagiarised. There were many tunes based on that famous English song “Que Sera Sera” from ‘ The Man Who Knew Too Much’. But in every case, the MDs dressed up the songs well, and truly embellished them. Thandi hawa of Kishore is based on Julius la Rosa’s 1955 song ‘Domani’. But in Kishore’s rendering it gets fully transformed and with the richness of his voice, sounds much better than the original. He did not just lift,but uplifted the original! Even so, plagiarism is plain theft, unless the source is acknowledged.
    But since the 70s , with the arrival of new generation of MDs, the phenomenon has crossed all limits. It is a surprise only if something is really original. [ Ravi refused to follow these ‘modern’ trends, and for over 14 years did not compose Hindi songs.]
    There are other kinds of plagiarism within India- like Tamil movies simply lifting Hindi tunes. This has been happening freely since the 50s (to my knowledge.) There are also cases of Music directors adapting tunes from older songs of other MDs. We saw a fine example of this in 1942- A Love Story.
    But our musical background is such that it easily leads/ lends itself to plagiarism, and does not look upon it with distaste or disapproval. For instance, in Raga based songs, common notes cannot be avoided, even though the number and kinds of tunes based on the same raga are quite considerable. When Roshan’s song “Rahe na rahe hum” ( Mamta, 1966) became a hit, SD Burman rang up Roshan to congratulate him. But Roshan apologised, saying that this tune was based on SDB’s own song ” Thandi hawayein” from Naujawan! Burman da is reported to have told him, ‘ Arre bhai, there are after all only seven swaras and we are all the time copying them! “. This may in a sense indicate their over all attitude to the issue.

    Another kind of plagiarism is when an MD copies another’s style deliberately. In Hindi music, OPN blazed an entirely new trail, with his own style of tunes and orchestration , in the 50s. OPN soon reached the top, with hit after hit.This shook all the old MDs. But then OPN hiked his fees, which the smaller producers could not afford. It is said that they engaged other MDs but asked them to compose some songs deliberately in the style of OPN! This had the effect of marginalising OPN after 1958!

    We have also to ask the question whether, with the number of movies being produced, and amount of music being churned out, it is really possible for our MDs to be original or creative? Imagine LP composing music for 635 films in 35 years, with all their songs, background music etc! Today, with deft computerisation, plagiarism can be disguised.

    In Hindi film music, the role of the arranger and assistant is crucial. In the 50s many Goan musicians came to Bombay and with their knowledge of western music theory, mastery over instruments, skill with notations and written music proved invaluable to our MDs. It is they who embellished the songs with preludes, interludes, counter melody, etc. They transformed our film music. But their role has never been openly acknowledged. We do not even know their names! Our MDs have plundered their musical wealth. I do not know whether this will amount to yet another kind of plagiarism.

    With the vast resources we have through the Internet now, we are increasingly realising the magnitude of plagiarism by the day. This has indeed somewhat diluted our appreciation for even the old masters.

    Whatever we may say- lifting, adapting, copying, being inspired, etc. plagiarism is theft. Such words may make us cleverer, but not better. it is far better , and just fair, to acknowledge the original source. We can show our creativity in improvements.

    • Nanjappa ji, thanks for such a beautiful note. You brought up a really significant point about the way music arrangers have been treated and never given their due. Here is a beautiful two part programme on these unsung heroes by Rajya Sabha TV.


      Shabir Hussain

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