The Lumber Room

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Archive for October 2010

On songs in Bollywood

with 4 comments

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