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Posts Tagged ‘movies

On songs in Bollywood

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A rambling email I’d sent a while ago, lightly edited. Disclaimer: I haven’t thought about any of this too deeply, some of it is regurgitated wisdom, some of it stuff I’d been meaning to say for a while, and some of it is rubbish if you think about it, but anyway… a bit of harmless fun. Also it was written on a bus when I was extremely bored and verbose.

On Wed, Aug 11, 2010 at 8:19 AM, Vipul Naik <email redacted> wrote:
Subject: Trends in Bollywood music
> Hi,
> I am not sure whether these trends that I spot are just figments of my
> imagination, since the movies I watch aren’t a representative sample.
> * Duos seems way down, particularly the kind where the male and the
> female alternate and get symmetric time on the song. Solos seem to be
> way up.
> * In an earlier era (e.g., the DDLJ days) song time meant that the
> plot of the movie literally stopped. Nowadays, the plot often keeps
> moving even through the song, typically between the singing parts, and
> sometimes, even while the singing is going on. In other words, the
> songs seem to be much more situational and the actions and words of
> the songs have more of a bearing on the plot of the movie and its
> progression.
> * The use of chorus is down and the use of special effects and
> high-pitched singers is up.
> Question: (i) Have you noticed similar trends in Bollywood? (ii) Why
> these trends, if so? (iii) Are similar trends engulfing Mollywood,
> Tollywood, etc.?
> Vipul

(i): Not just your imagination. These trends have been around and increasing for a few years (as I’ve noticed them, at least).

(iii): It’s not just Bollywood, but also (to a lesser extent) other regional cinema (extrapolating from the very few Kannada/Telugu/Tamil movies I see bits of. :p)

(ii): To some extent, the answers to “why” are straightforward: new music directors come in, who want to ‘experiment’ and ‘innovate’ and ‘break with the past’, fashions change and audience tastes change accordingly, previously unavailable special effects become available. To this extent, such trends exist everywhere in the world.

But wrt how the songs are *situated* in the film, I think there’s a more profound change going on in the nature of Bollywood. In short, there are fundamental differences between traditional Bollywood and Hollywood (and between Indian art forms and modern Western art forms in general), and of late, the traditional grammar and idioms of Bollywood are being replaced by Western (specifically Hollywood) ones. (And in regional languages, the influence comes indirectly through Bollywood.) The Western influence on Bollywood is not new at all — it has existed since the very beginning, and is evident even in the name — but earlier Western influences used to be “Indianised” before being adopted wholesale.

As you noticed, in Bollywood the songs used to be interludes, not part of the plot: the song was usually used (besides being there for plain musical entertainment) mainly to express, say, love, longing, fantasy, hope, etc., and to dwell on some emotion or idea: to say something better than it could be said in words, and to prolong a feeling for an extended duration. The songs were thus part of the emotional structure of the film: whatever other events a film may contain, a film with many happy/sad songs felt a happy/sad film, etc.

This inspiration/structure comes from traditional Indian (either folk or “high culture”) forms of theatre. At points of high emotional impact, the performance switches from dialogue to song. You can see this at a glance in the structure of, say, Sanskrit plays like Shakuntala or Mṛcchakaṭika.

The closest analogue in Western art that mixes dialogue and music is opera, which has long been out of popular fashion. It has had little to no influence on the grammar of Hollywood, which seems to draw more from plays on the stage. (Perhaps opera has had a little indirect influence, through Broadway through Gilbert&Sullivan.)

The fundamental difference I spoke of is something like the following: Western art aims for “cognitive realism”, while Indian art aims for “affective/emotional realism”. In Hollywood, plots are supposed to be realistic, and events onscreen depict what may actually happen. (This is often violated of course, most egregiously in action films, but the idea is present.) In Bollywood, this is less important than getting the right feeling or emotion across.

A copy of the universe is not what’s required of art; one of the damned things is ample.

When in a Bollywood film the scene suddenly shifts to a couple dancing with a troupe of uniformed dancers in the background, we experienced viewers don’t really think “where did these background people come from? how did they all learn to dance the same way?” etc.—we understand that it’s not supposed to be real, that the background and scenery are present simply to accentuate the idea or emotion, exuberance or whatever. A typical Hollywood viewer’s initial reaction may be to consider the song as part of the plot, and wonder *why* a couple is dancing around trees instead of making out.

This is also why in Bollywood we’ve had melodrama, overacting, SRK’s hamming, overexplained jokes etc. — it’s ok to not act “real”; what’s important is that the audience react the right way. (In the early days of Hollywood filmmakers explicitly took pains to get rid of the trained actors’ “stage acting” and delivery, which was found excessively expressive for the screen.) A Hollywood movie as a whole typically tries to tell one story well, most Bollywood ones aim to be a fully satisfying meal with all emotional flavours. :-) (“Masala”, etc.)
[Consider overexplained jokes: they're intellectually unsophisticated, but they serve to prolong the humour. In India you must have met some old people who, after a joke is told, unnecessarily repeat or explain it…]

So songs were there just for effect; now with the Hollywood influence such breaks in the plot are out, but filmmakers still feel compelled to include songs with no idea why they’re adding them. Duets are on the decline because they’re less plausible (as part of the plot) than solos: you could imagine someone singing to oneself; it’s a private act that could be entirely in someone’s head, but pairs of people generally don’t sing to each other “in real life”. (Even in the duets that we do have, the actors less frequently move their lips to the song.)

[Another difference between Indian and Western art, though not related to your question: Indian art tends to care more about the resulting art work itself, and its effect on the viewer, than about the identity of the artist. Many of the valued works of art from the classical past are even anonymous! Western art is more about the artist's skill and effort and achievement; a copy of the work has less value than the original. Pablo Picasso is a great painter because he started a "brave" revolution in the art world, whether or not his paintings themselves are actually pleasing to the eye. The corollary to movie songs is that playback singing is perfectly natural in India: to result in the most pleasing song, get the best person to do the job. Playback singers are often bigger stars than actresses: over the decades, actresses may come and actresses may go, but Lata Mangeshkar goes on forever. :-) In Hollywood playback singing is considered "cheating"; the actress is "supposed" to do the singing herself and show off her skill. Audrey Hepburn did not get even an Oscar nomination for her classic performance in _My Fair Lady_ — was it because there was resentment at her "stealing" the role from Julie Andrews (who was given the Oscar that year for another film!), or because her songs were dubbed?]

Then there are other possible reasons for the trends you noticed:

* Duets were common, when showing intimacy in Bollywood films would risk disapproval both by the censor board and the “family audience” (though each member of the family probably wouldn’t mind if watching alone :p). A song could be just an expression of love, with details perhaps “suggested” by the song but left to the viewers’ imagination and sensitivity. Those taboos are gone. The censor board doesn’t care so much now, and ever since (say) Dil Chahta Hai, film-makers realise they can afford to make money with films that appeal only to urban multiplex audiences, ignoring conservative/family audiences. Duets are less “necessary”; an actual onscreen act of intimacy may have more impact than a song.

* Popular music in India used to be (in terms of cassette sales etc.) almost exclusively film music. Now that films need not (or cannot) be in charge of providing all the country’s music needs, they have slightly less of an incentive to make “context-free” music that is “reusable” outside the film (radio and TV airplay, cassettes and CDs, etc.) and feel free to inject plot into the songs. (Not that this happens; most songs lyrics still have near-universal applicability, even if the video pursues the plot.) Also, with soundtracks of films being released separately, we can have dialogue onscreen but still not in the song, and we have songs produced for the film sountrack that aren’t even present in the film (perhaps because they couldn’t be worked into the plot). (I wonder why this didn’t happen earlier, though.)

See this article (whether or not you like Kuch Kuch Hota Hai):
“HOW TO WATCH A HINDI FILM: The Example of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” by Sam Joshi.
Not the best on the topic, but gives a general idea of aesthetic theory.

You can see unrelated complaints about Bollywood’s new generation of inauthentic wannabe-Hollywood movies here, for instance.
And apparently the book by also complains about “the new internationalised wannabe Bollywood, a world of burgers, fries, Coke, tank-tops and faux-accented American English.”
(Added later: Also see the beginning of this post.)

Though mere imitation-Hollywood is pointless and unbearable (what with rapper costumes and all that), I do think it’s good that Bollywood is moving towards more realism, less melodrama, etc.
But one can’t help feeling that something innocent has been lost. :-)

Written by S

Sun, 2010-10-03 at 14:39:38 +05:30

Where Have I Seen…

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I have, for a long time, dreamed of a Firefox extension that would do this. Now, finally, empowered by Greasemonkey, I wrote one myself. (Technically, a Greasemonkey user script is not a Firefox extension, but it can be easily converted into one, and a Greasemonkey script is the Right Thing anyway.)

What it does: on any IMDB cast listing, show for each actor what other movies you have seen him/her in. Here’s a screenshot:

Clearly there is a lot of work left to do, but it took less than half a day to learn Greasemonkey (and parts of JavaScript) and write it, and it’s already usable! By me, that is.
[The following was true at the time of writing but is no longer true.] I don’t know if anyone else would be interested in this, but it currently won’t work anyway except when running on my laptop. This is its crazy “design”: on any IMDB page with a cast listing, it first looks for each actor on the page, and extracts their ID. (Reasonable so far.) To find their other movies, it then makes a xmlhttp request to a PHP script running on my laptop, which then calls a Python script and returns its raw output inside ‘pre’ tags. Now you know. The reason for this nonsense is that there was no JavaScript API/library for IMDB while there was one for Python, so it was really easier to just use the latter, and the only way available of interacting with the “outside world” from a Greasemonkey script is through xmlhttp requests, and…
Anyway it’s not all that hard to parse each actor’s “other movies” through JavaScript myself, if that’s all I’m doing, so I might get to that eventually. (I also considered keeping IMDB’s data locally and parsing the text files, but they’re huge and not very well-formatted: No IDs, for example.)

It’s currently named “WHIS”, can you think of a better name? :)

Update: It’s now a full-fledged Greasemonkey script, and is up on

Written by S

Sat, 2008-08-09 at 06:41:02 +05:30

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So much to catch up on…

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79 Years of Best Picture Winners in Posters Some excellent posters, I have seen too few of them, and a few I hadn’t even heard of.

Also see list with nominations.

Also, because it can never be said enough times: 1976 WTF??

Written by S

Wed, 2008-02-27 at 07:02:18 +05:30

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More annoying than dubbing

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I have always preferred watching subtitled movies to those @$%@$! dubbed ones, but there exists a practice so incredibly infuriating that it makes one weakly plead for even dubbing instead: a “reading” by a voice actor. That’s a voice actor; a single man doing all the voices.

See this NYTimes article.

You have to see it to believe it, and then desperately try to forget it to remain sane.

See also Wikipedia article, which has a sample from the Matrix. Yes, that’s right, you hear both soundtracks, for extra authenticity. Nothing like watching a German film with Polish reading (with the German still audible) and English subtitles.

To quote from this blog:

One feature of Polish television that I keep forgetting about and which throws me back into my childhood every single time I travel there, is the “Lector voice over”. This one is really great. It is like being 5, sitting with your older brother in front of the television. He really wants to go out on with his friends, so he hates having to be there with you. But father grounded him, so now this really angry older brother has to read all the subtitles to you. All of them. He becomes the angry voice of every single character in the movie. And he hates it. So there might be a woman on screen, screaming and throwing dishes at this strange looking American guy, while your brother sadly proclaims “I hate you, and I am going back to my mother.”
It seems to be always the same voice, always the same sad, sad voice. Absolutely no other emotion than sadness. A voice just loud enough to make it impossible to hear the original language if you actually understand it. It is a very unique experience. Kojak comes to my mind now, but I remember Dynasty as well, and yes, ALL of the characters in Dynasty had the same sad voice, of the same sad man. A lector. Oh, when the credits appear on screen, he just reveals his name. Same voice.


"These foreign films were translated into Russian by means of a lektor. Used throughout Eastern Europe, a lektor is a single person, almost always a man, who narrates the entire film. It’s cheaper than proper dubbing, or even subtitles. (Sometimes the newsreader cadence of the lektor sounds ridiculously out of place. I once watched a cheesy horror film lektored into Polish, during which a mad slasher pursued a lingerie-clad woman down a dim corridor to her gory doom. No explanation was needed, but the lektor cheerfully rendered the dialog: “No. No. Help. No. Help me. No. Stop. No. Don’t do it. Please. No. Help. No. No."


Written by S

Sun, 2007-12-16 at 16:37:49 +05:30

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Bertrand Russell in Bollywood

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This is for real: Bertrand Russell featured in a Hindi film.

Wikipedia confirms it:

Russell made a cameo appearance playing himself in the anti-war Bollywood film “Aman” which was released in India in 1967. This was Russell’s only appearance in a feature film.

as does IMDB page for Aman (1967):

Bertrand Russell … Himself.

And without this movie, Bertrand Russell might not have had the finite Erdős–Bacon number that he does. His Bacon number is four, going through this sole tenuous link:

Bertrand Russell was in Aman (1967) with Brahm Bhardwaj
Brahm Bhardwaj was in Kaalia (1981) with Ranjit Chowdhry
Ranjit Chowdhry was in I’m Not Rappaport (1996) with Marin Hinkle
Marin Hinkle was in Rails & Ties (2007) with Kevin Bacon


Bertrand Russell was in Aman (1967) with Om Prakash (I)
who was in Ghar Ho To Aisa (1990) with Saeed Jaffrey
who was in Sphinx (1981) with Frank Langella
who was in Frost/Nixon (2008) with Kevin Bacon


Kevin Bacon was in New York, I Love You (2008) with Irrfan Khan
who was in Dhund: The Fog (2003) with Gulshan Grover
who was in Patthar (1991) with Sunder (I)
who was in Aman (1967) with Bertrand Russell

Surprisingly though, establishing an Erdős number for Bertrand Russell is even harder! He rarely collaborated, except with Whitehead, who collaborated rarely as well. There is a publication path, but it goes through non-mathematical work: the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955, titled Texts of scientists’ appeal for abolition of war, which gives him an Erdos number of 3, through A. Einstein — E. Straus — P. ErdösErdős. (That publication also gives Erdős numbers to many others including Max Born, F. Joliot-Curie, and Linus Pauling.)

Written by S

Mon, 2007-11-26 at 01:16:42 +05:30

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Playful Pixar

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Pixar’s 4-minute short film Red’s Dream (1987) has credits at the end that roll by inconspicuously, but if you take a second glance at the disclaimers, you’ll find they actually say:

All characters and events are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons or appliances, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The FBI investigates crimes. Mark Leather wrote a paint system but his name is really here just to impress girls. No portion of this movie, including the soundtrack, may be reproduced in any manner. Always wear a helmet.

Their 1988 short Tin Toy says:

Any resemblance to actual toys or children is unintentional. To open, press down while turning cap. Pixar and RenderMan are registered trademarks of Pixar. Seatbelts save lives. No portion of this movie, including its sound track, may be reproduced in any manner or we won’t be your friends anymore. This bag is not a toy. Keep out of reach of children.

It also has a “Babies John looked at a lot” section in the credits.
Several of the movies seem to have a “very very special thanks to Steve Jobs” and the like…

Written by S

Sun, 2007-11-25 at 00:30:53 +05:30

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Examples of bad design

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Here is a poster for Gattaca:

Gattaca poster

Maybe they have some notion of who the more popular actor is, but would it really hurt that much to swap the names around? This is ridiculous.

Read the rest of this entry »

Written by S

Tue, 2007-11-06 at 15:48:23 +05:30

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Film I saw

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Yesterday I saw A Mighty Heart. It is about Daniel Pearl, the American journalist who was kidnapped in Pakistan. Angelina Jolie plays his wife. It’s hard to make a good film where everyone already knows the ending, but it’s a pretty good attempt. Everything looks authentic. (Although the outdoor shots were shot in Karachi, the indoor shots — including everything involving Jolie — were in Pune.)If you pay attention, you can find the scene where the police carry out a raid and confiscate the “computer” — a monitor.Jolie did a good job, I thought. Moving film.

Written by S

Sun, 2007-10-14 at 03:26:27 +05:30

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Al Gore has NOT joined George Bernard Shaw

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I want to be pedantic here.

George Bernard Shaw used to be the only person to have both a Nobel (Literature) and an Oscar (Screenplay). Now Al Gore, who had earlier allegedly won an Oscar (Best Documentary), has won a Nobel (Peace). And unlike Shaw, he’s won an Emmy as well. And been vice-president, and almost-president.

An impressive list of achievements, no doubt, but the first part isn’t true: Al Gore didn’t personally win an Oscar; the film featuring him did (it won two, actually). The director called him on stage during the acceptance speech and Gore even spoke; that’s probably the reason for the confusion.
Full details:

  • The 2006 Academy Award for Documentary Feature was awarded to “An Inconvenient Truth directed by Davis Guggenheim”.
  • The 2007 Outstanding Creative Achievement in Interactive Television Primetime Emmy Award was Awarded to Current TV
  • “The Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 is to be shared, in two equal parts, between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert Arnold (Al) Gore Jr. for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”

(BTW: An Inconvenient Truth also won the Academy Award for Best Original Song: “I Need to Wake Up” – An Inconvenient Truth Music and lyrics: Melissa Etheridge. Apparently, it is the first documentary to win 2 Oscars, and the first to win a best original song Oscar.)

As for Shaw:

  • The 1925 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded to George Bernard Shaw “for his work which is marked by both idealism and humanity, its stimulating satire often being infused with a singular poetic beauty.”
  • The 1938 Academy Award for Writing Adapted Screenplay was awarded to Pygmalion – Ian Dalrymple, Cecil Lewis, W.P. Lipscomb, George Bernard Shaw from the play by George Bernard Shaw.

Note that this is a 1938 film, not My Fair Lady. (That one was nominated in 1964 but didn’t win, and Shaw was dead by then and had nothing to do with the film. He had forbidden any of his plays from becoming musicals, so the musical My Fair Lady could be made in 1956 only after he had died in 1950.)

Written by S

Fri, 2007-10-12 at 20:58:35 +05:30

Oui, vivant

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Paris, je t’aime

Apparently, the Faubourg Saint-Denis segment (the one with Natalie Portman) was shot very quickly, and even used to recruit other directors to the project. Written and directed by Tom Tykwer. Must remember the name. He made Lola Rennt. The actor in the segment is blind in real-life too. (The movie here, but don’t watch it unless you are able to turn the volume up enough…)

I was actually considering visiting the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris when I was there (the segment with Oscar Wilde’s grave). Apparently the entire cemetery has been vandalised by Jim Morrison fans. Of all the great people buried there, …

Apparently the reason I understand so much of the French of the woman in the last segment is not because she is speaking slowly, but because she isn’t speaking proper French.

Now, Wikipedia says

Initially 20 topics representing the 20 arrondissements of Paris were planned but two of them (the XVe arrondissement directed by Christoffer Boe and the XIe arrondissement by Raphaël Nadjari) were not included in the film because they could not be properly integrated into the movie.

which seems absurd. I cannot imagine how the segment with the beauty products salesman in Chinatown integrates with the rest of the movie — or with anything else in the world. WTF was that?

The film also has Juliette Binoche (from Trois Couleurs: Bleu).

iTunes says my play count of We’re all in the dance is 15. Oh well… this happens to me very frequently after I see a film — I remember playing Requiem For a Dream on a loop for nearly an entire day. BTW Feist’s 1234 is featured in the new Apple iPod Nano ad (TODO: fix this link when it gets broken.) And I didn’t think it had both French and English just because I couldn’t catch some English parts, it really had both.

Written by S

Thu, 2007-09-20 at 19:19:17 +05:30


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