By Proma Khosla, Daily Bollywood Columnist
Published January 31, 2013
For months, I’ve been singing the praises of Bollywood musicals, so it’s high time I focused on one indispensable aspect: music. It's as integral to the Indian film industry as cameras or actors — even if they aren’t full-blown musical numbers, the music in Bollywood movies is as distinct and lasting as the films themselves.
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The relationship between music and movies in India stems from a long and ancient tradition of intertwined art forms. Students of Indian classical dance cannot complete their training without basic knowledge of acting (abhinaya) and instrumental music. Time and key signatures change between dance styles and individual pieces, creating a repertoire that is far more diverse to a trained viewer.
Similarly, Indian actors could never get by on basic theater knowledge and good looks (theoretically); they must be able to dance and bring true life to the choreography they are given — often with an equally talented ensemble backing them up.
The Bollywood film at its finest is a showcase of the best blend of Indian art forms. Accolades go (as in the West) to the director, producer, cast and crew — but also to choreographers, composers, art directors and lyricists.
Film soundtracks are the equivalent of mainstream music in the United States. Knowing songs from the new movie “Student of the Year” is the Indian equivalent of having heard the new Justin Timberlake single. I’m less informed if I miss a soundtrack; I’ve missed a pop-culture moment and need to catch up right away to stay cool.
I grew up with Bollywood music and, for close to a decade, was almost determinedly unaware of any other genres. I wouldn’t get into the car with my parents without the latest movie soundtrack, and we still have an enviable collection of Bollywood cassettes collecting dust in a prominent display in our basement.
Up until the past decade, Bollywood music was almost universally of the highest standard. Even the worst films had excellent music, and it's not uncommon for songs to outlast the movies which debuted them. For instance, even my generation knows 1993’s provocative “Choli Ke Peechhe Kya Hai” (“What is behind my blouse”), but I’m willing to bet a sizable amount of rupees that none of us have seen its parent film “Khalnayak” — let alone heard of it. “Chhaiyya Chhaiyya” is probably the most salient Bollywood song of my lifetime (so far) but I’ve never seen more than five minutes of “Dil Se” — and it’s usually the five minutes surrounding the song.
For outstanding films, the soundtrack takes on a life of its own in prolonging the work’s longevity. The only reason I have a special place in my heart for “Hum Aapke Hai Kaun” is because of the countless hours spent in my living room dancing to “Didi Tera Devar” with my best friend when we were four. “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” is still one of my favorite films and whenever one of its songs comes up on iTunes shuffle I just cry and laugh (craugh) and have to let the whole thing play out. I don’t think I can watch the movie without singing along, and I certainly can’t sing along without making every facial expression demanded.
Yet as with so many other aspects of Bollywood movies, music has taken a hit over the past 10 years with the rapid confusion of modernization and Westernization. The semi-classical basis of composers like A.R. Rahman have been replaced by techno-pop beats and music designed for the “discos” (Bollywood severely overestimates the prevalence of disco in the West). Beautiful lyrics penned by poets like Javed Akhtar and Gulzar are replaced by directors’ requests for random English lyrics, rap interludes and phrases like “Rock the dance floor” and “Party on my mind.”
The reason I mentioned “Student of the Year” earlier is because, in a year severely lacking good Hindi songs, this entire soundtrack was entertaining and original without pandering to the audience Bollywood thinks it wants.