Hindi Film Music: Fine Tuned

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A new set of composers transform Hindi film music

In a 2010 interview published on, Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann was asked what draws him towards Bollywood music. After all, the director had famously used strains of Anu Malik’s Chhamma Chhamma, from the 1998 Rajkumar Santoshi film China Gate, in his 2001 cabaret musical Moulin Rouge, starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor. His response was simple: “Bollywood music in essence is music of joy and life. And that is what fascinates me the most.”

For more than eight decades, films produced in the Hindi language have routinely featured playback songs, usually set to choreography, with the actor (or actors) lip-syncing the words. That makes most Bollywood films like musicals, although they cannot be compared with those made in Hollywood during what is considered the golden age for the genre (1930s-50s). Starting from the very first Hindi language ‘talkie’, Alam Ara (1931), Bollywood has used songs to convey love, joy, sadness, pain and elation. These songs have traditionally been ‘picturised’— used in this context exclusively to describe how visuals are set to music in Indian cinema—with the help of elaborately choreographed numbers either on sets or picturesque locations, often employing back-up dancers in costume.

In recent years, even the casual moviegoer would’ve realised that this has now changed. Most films now have five or six songs as opposed to the earlier average of seven to ten. Fewer songs have back-up dancers and elaborate choreography; even lip-syncing to playback singing is beginning to get less common— more and more songs are now used in montages, thereby keeping the narrative intact. Instead of one composer- lyricist team per film, Bollywood movie soundtracks now regularly feature multiple music directors and lyricists.

Sanujeet Bhujabal, marketing director at Sony Music India, feels that although this is a trend that has been gaining acceptance for the past five years, it isn’t an outright formula. ‘People today are exposed to different kinds of music,’ he says, via email. ‘If the requirement of a film is such, then it works.’

It’s hard to pinpoint any one film or instance that actually kick-started this trend. “I don’t really think the industry woke up one day and said ‘Let’s change how we use songs in movies’,” says Aniruddha Guha, film critic and screenwriter. “The change came with the change in how a new generation of filmmakers like Dibakar Banerjee and Anurag Kashyap were telling their stories, as a result of which the usage of music changed.”

In 2009, Kashyap’s acclaimed musical drama Dev D, a contemporary take on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s much-adapted novel Devdas, featured a soundtrack of 18 eclectic songs (a rarity, especially these days) composed by Amit Trivedi. The presentation stood out: barring a unique, ‘brass band’ version of the wildly popular track Emotional Atyachar, none of the songs were lip-synced and the choreography was largely hyper-stylised. Two years later, the black comedy Delhi Belly had a 10-song, multi-genre soundtrack composed by Ram Sampath. “The aim was to make the entire soundtrack sound like a mixtape, because the film needed it,” says Sampath, who has been active in films and advertising since 1997. “I liked the way the songs were used, because they never stopped the narrative. It allowed for a very diverse kind of music.”

In recent years, this has become more commonplace. Last year, for instance, successful films like Airlift, Neerja, Udta Punjab, Happy Bhag Jayegi, Pink, M.S. Dhoni: The Untold Story, and Dear Zindagi have—to different degrees— used songs sparingly and often as part of montages, with minimal disruption to the plot. The Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Fan used the song Jabra Fan for promotional purposes, but didn’t have any song in the film, not even as part of a montage. That is not to say that the traditional depiction of songs is dead and gone— ‘masala’ films like Sultan and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil still rely on the same tried-and- tested formula. Bhujabal agrees and adds: “We have also had single music director-films like Dilwale [composed by Pritam] and Dear Zindagi [composed by Amit Trivedi], and the music of these films has also done phenomenally well. There is space for every kind of model to co-exist today.”

If you think of the great Hollywood scores, they work so well because they're used correctly and not all the time

As external influences change the way our films are made, there is also a difference in how music is being curated for films. Earlier, it was straightforward: a music director composed and recorded the songs for a film and record labels like T-Series, Sony Music India, and Zee Music Company would buy its music rights. Today, although not for all films, it often works in the opposite manner: labels buy songs from composers or independent artistes and place them in films in order to make the film more saleable. Revenue no longer comes from physical sales. Instead, they come from streaming apps like Gaana and Saavn, digital downloads, and radio and TV rights, both pre- and post-release.

While this seems like a logical model to follow in what is called a ‘singles market’, where the consumer has a wealth of music to choose from, thanks to the availability of every kind of genre on the internet, composers feel that this has led to a lot of film music losing out on a certain emotional thread that was present in the films of the 50s, 60s, and 70s. “Gone are the days of Sahir Ludhianvi and Khayyam— or that kind of combination,” says Sampath. “These people were at the top of their game, drawing from literature, culturally rooted in our traditions. Today that’s happening less often.”

Throughout its existence, Bollywood music has incorporated influences from many genres and formed its own distinct identity. In the 50s, composers like OP Nayyar and SD Burman combined their Hindustani classical training with Western orchestral arrangements written by Goan musicians who were an integral part of Bombay’s jazz scene between the 30s and 50s, as documented in Naresh Fernandes’ book Taj Mahal Foxtrot: The Story Of Bombay’s Jazz Age. This fusion of two vastly different styles—Indian classical, which lays emphasis on the sanctity of each note and the manner in which one travels to the next note; and Western classical, which focuses more on instrumentation, harmonisation, and sonic variations—would go on to define the ‘sound’ of Hindi film music for decades to come. Influences from Latin music, bebop, rock and roll and blues were blended with classical raagas and vocalisations such as harkat, aalaap, and taan to create a genre of music that had pan-Indian appeal.

Over decades, Hindi film music has adapted to the times. In the 70s and 80s, the likes of RD Burman, Kalyanji-Anandji, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, and Bappi Lahiri used synthesisers, brass sections, and Motown-like bass guitar parts in their songs to make Bollywood songs sound contemporary. In the 90s, AR Rahman took Hindi film music a step further by introducing a blend of sophisticated arrangements combined with electronic wizardry reinforced by timeless melodies, which stemmed from his extensive knowledge of Hindustani, Carnatic and Western music (not to mention the pioneering influence of his mentor, South Indian film composer Ilaiyaraaja).

Films are shorter now, there's more happening, so it feels like songs get in the way more. There's more emphasis on using a song only when you need to

Today, the dominant strain of film music is a well-packaged blend of Western genres such as rock, electronica and dance music. Technology, in the form of digital samples, synthesisers, and audio production software, has enabled composers to recreate instruments to a previously unimagined degree of verisimilitude—many orchestral or drum parts, for example, aren’t actually played by musicians but programmed through keyboards. Superficially speaking, they sound nearly as good as the real thing, but even casual listeners can sometimes tell the difference.

Sampath, who started his career as a keyboard player for music directors like Laxmikant-Pyarelal, Vanraj Bhatia and Anand-Milind in the early 90s, recalls the “painful” period of transition from analog to digital recording, which he says began around 1995 and went on till as late as 2007. “Yes, there was a period in the early-2000 where many music directors had minimised live instrumentation —not only is it cheaper to produce, but digital means that changes can be made till the very last minute,” says Sampath. The last five years, however, have seen a resurgence of a “happy hybrid” of using live sessions musicians and digital music, which he credits to the rise in popularity of shows like Coke Studio, which features studio-recorded fusion music performed live.

Trends continue to influence much of Bollywood music. “We had the whole Pakistani band trend—because of the likes of Jal and Strings—a few years ago,” says Sampath. “Then there was the Punjabi song trend that’s still going on. And then there’s a bunch of A minor”— a reference to the key in which many emotionally driven songs are usually written—“composers.”

“Our films have become less lyrical, less poetic and more plot- and narrative- driven,” he adds. “Films are shorter, there’s more happening, so it feels like songs get in the way more. So there’s more emphasis on using a song only when you really need to.”

In this scenario, background scores—long treated by Hindi films as a hasty, additional topping on an already overloaded sundae—have assumed more prominence. As Bollywood emulates Hollywood in terms of storytelling, scores have also become more like films made in the West—more unabashedly orchestral and epic in feel while still retaining their omnipresent nature. However, background score composers feel that there’s much more ground to be covered in the area, still.

“The biggest problem is that background music is usually the last stage of the process,” says Sanjoy Chowdhury, a composer who has worked exclusively on scores for 106 films in Hindi, Bengali, Malayalam, and Punjabi cinema over 27 years. “By then, the film has already been edited on reference tracks—which nowadays tend to be from Hollywood scores. So they demand something similar from the composer, but at a fraction of the budget. So, what you end up getting is a cheap copy because what they’re asking for is a beef burger for the price of a vada pao.”

It must be noted that background score composers aren’t always the same as music directors—the latter compose songs exclusively, and most films employ separate professionals for the jobs.

Pritam, who has been one of Bollywood’s most successful music directors for more than a decade, says he used to avoid taking up background score work for the longest time because of the nature of the work until recently—last year, for instance, he has worked on the songs and scores of Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil and Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal. “Directors just want every scene to be full of music,” he says. “There’s no space for silence. If you think of the great Hollywood scores, they work so well because they’re used correctly and not all the time.”

Sampath, who is very selective about the films he works on and always opts to compose both songs and score, describes Bollywood’s general approach to scoring as a “Mickey-Mouse-ing of emotions” that stems from the fear that audiences won’t ‘get’ a scene unless the background music tells them how to feel. “Our scores are usually always too loud and overdone but now things are starting to change,” he says.

As the audience’s tastes change, locked in tussle with traditional Indian cinema values, is it perhaps valid to suggest that more films will choose to have fewer or no songs? “I would like to say that each period has its own distinctive characteristics,” says Bhujabal. “These are exciting times and we see more scope for collaborations with production houses and music labels to get the best music possible for the project.”