Bollywood’s musical affair


Bollywood is nothing, if not musical. In fact, music is almost the raison d’etre of Bollywood films. And what a varied selection it serves up, marvels Akul Tripathi. He traces the history of sound in Bollywood music, its manner of dissemination, global impact, and how this music offers something for everyone.

A hundred year old industry with an exponential growth rate in number of movies produced, Indian cinema has
come a long way from the single print Raja Harishchandra produced and directed by the inimitable Dada Phalke. With over 1500 feature films certified by the Censor Board of Film Certification in 2012, it makes for a cold hearted, cut-throat approach to concise anything about it within the scope of one article. Most especially music – which has been the appetiser and the dessert, if not also the main course in the elaborate thali of offerings that Indian movies lay out so generously and earnestly.

The evolution of the sound of Hindi film music

Even when restricting the discussion to just Bollywood – the aspirational endearment styled after its big brother, Hollywood – it envelops the scope of sound movies produced since the first ‘talkie’ Alam Ara debuted at the Majestic Cinema in Bombay in 1931. With over 200 movies being released every year, Bollywood’s affair with music is intimate to the point of being indistinguishable.

The introduction of sound in movies, unleashed into the film medium, the millennia old Indian culture of orality that predates most civilisations. Song as part of dramatic expression has a two thousand year old history in Sanskrit theatre. Interestingly, while silent films could not incorporate song and music in the narrative, these were often added to the screening of silent films by means of a live band in the theatres, often one that included singers.

From a Western perspective, Bollywood’s liberal use of song in movies has often been criticised as unrealistic, made further melodramatic due to the playback singing which the actor lip syncs, the elaborate dance sequences and abrupt location changes. However, with roots in this strong oral culture, music and song have the expressive equivalence of speech, and the ‘break’ felt by westerners is for the Indian viewer, an added impromptu musical feast and a barely noticeable departure.

The inspiration

The music in Indian cinema, particularly in the early days, stemmed from the same, age-old muses that the stories and plots derived inspiration from. The classics and the classical music tradition (Carnatic, Hindustani and the folk songs), were the first to find voice in cinema. Parsi, Marathi and urban theatre along with the Bengali jatra cast its glance on the style and substance of movies and the accompanying musical influences followed. Some of the earliest movies were filmed stage plays. By the mid-1930s, Bollywood had started experimenting with Western instruments, harmony and orchestration. This spirit of borrowing, including and creating from various sources had never found expression in the norm and custom dominated classical musical fields, and its acceptance and appreciation by the cinema audience opened vistas never before explored.

And then in 1934 began the first step towards commercialisation of Hindi film music, when the first gramophone records were produced and played on radio. Proving to be a burgeoning commercially lucrative industry, the fame and fanfare and the near divine status that film stars acquired in a country starved for heroes, the ‘thirsty for new’ cinema industry, by the 1940s, had begun to display an exotic and eclectic array of styles, with songs being written in jazz, as waltzes, or in the style of other Western and also Latin American popular genres.

Quite unsurprisingly, continuing in what is now the first knee-jerk response Indians are habituated to offer towards whatever they feel threatening their way of life, they boycotted and banned it. The in-vogue hybrid style of film songs offended and continues to offend the cultural purists. Generations have grown up being reminded of, and reprimanded for indulging their aural senses to the ‘vulgar’ insinuations offered on a platter by the errant and unscrupulous vagabonds of Bollywood.

The black era for film music

Music, believed its harshest critics, made a film commercial and the opium of the uneducated masses, as opposed to the ‘art’ cinema which appeals to the urban elite and intelligentsia. Perhaps the roots of this class-based divide goes right back to the 40’s and Satyajit Ray’s essays on cinema, and continued by various others through the subsequent decades. Yet, so intricately woven into cinema was music that even today, despite the many differences between parallel art cinema and commercial movies, the simplest marker for an ‘art’ movie or a ‘serious’ film which does not offer the masala fare of commercial cinema is the absence of songs.

In 1952, the attack on Hindi film music escalated from the domestic and literary to the government level, on the back of the Nehruvian ideology seeking to raise the standards of the masses and clinging to pure, Indian traditions. B. K. Keskar, the then Minister for Information and Broadcasting in a zealous attempt to cleanse airwaves of film songs, restricted the government run All India Radio (AIR) from broadcasting film music. As is with almost everything, a demand will find supply, and listeners merely tuned to Radio Ceylon which would broadcast Hindi film songs. With this workaround in place, the impasse could only end one way – Keskar reinstated film songs on the airwaves in 1957.

Like it is with any prohibition, all this did was increase the craving for that which was denied. The golden era of the 40s presided over by the likes of Naushad Ali, Khwaja Khurshid Anwar and Rajeshwar Rao, transformed into the unforgettable 50s and 60s with stalwarts like S. D. Burman, O. P. Nayyar, Madan Mohan, Hemant Kumar, Khayyam and Shankar Jaikishen, enthralling a nation struggling with post independence blues and frequent wars. Moving on into the 70s and 80s R. D. Burman, Bappi Lahiri and Jatin-Lalit brought about a strong Western flavour. The 90s and 2000s came to be dominated by A. R. Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan- Loy, Anu Malik, Salim-Sulaiman amongst others.

The technological revolution, music and piracy

Meanwhile, the technological revolution in the 80’s, was revolutionising music. The audio cassette did to music what colour did to TV. From a popular medium which could wilfully be consumed only by the elite or those lucky to have friends and family with a good voice, the cassette made it possible to own a very well rendered copy of film music and play it on demand. And soon, along came the Sony Walkman, and music whether it was on the airwaves or not, could always be carried around in the pocket.

Economics could not be far behind such a major breakthrough and every arrangement related to music within a decade underwent a paradigm shift. Film songs achieved massive sales ranging from 10 lakh cassettes for unsuccessful films to crores of cassettes for successful ones. The enormity of these numbers can only be gauged by understanding that these are just official figures. Pirated cassettes stood at 95% of official market in 1986 to 40% of official market in 2001. The zeroes in the combined numbers are just mind-boggling.

The introduction of the CD was thought to only galvanise this industry further, but the 2000s saw the industry crash. While some see this as a corrective of the bubble that formed in the 90s with music companies engaged in bitter warfare to gain market share, the proliferation of the internet and the availability of larger quantity of tracks, simply through the much compressed MP3 files, had a significant say in the decrease in sales volumes. An increase in audiovisual consumption, particularly on TV and through ripping from the film print has also been offered as a reason for decline in sale of audio-only products.

In these turbulent times, the biggest reprieve to the industry came through ‘mobile music’ and ‘license digital distribution’. The 2000s and continuing since has seen a stringent look by the bigger companies over copyright violations with entire departments being set up to address this issue and ensure that every usage of copyright is paid for. This is a typical reaction in an industry where the dominant sales are from revenue from ringtone sales through mobile device providers, than sale of the original song itself.

Unlike genre-based following in the Western world with people veering towards pop, rock or some other genre, all sectors of Indian society have people who are avid followers of film music. That film musicians have unabashedly borrowed from every genre and style of music there is and provided it in the mix would definitely be an influencing factor here. This is not to say that there is a culture where certain composers are followed more avidly or preferred more by a certain section of the population than others. In an endearing manner, the strictest critic of film music will on a good day and in an amiable mood, confess to having at least some songs which meet his taste!

And this is the greatest achievement of film music – to serve something of taste to every one of this county’s varied palette and keep all who devour and patronise it satisfied – irrespective of language or dialect – while still leaving them hungry for more. No matter what it is that you believe unites India – cricket, scams or English – everything in the country finds its expression through film music. After all, Gaana aaye ya na aaye, gaana chahiye!


Akul Tripathi

The writer is a media professional and freelance writer.