Music of our Cine-Dreams

From gramophone to cassettes to CDs, the joy of 'filmi geet' has endured, and every generation has its own film song moment
Sonali Ghosh Sen Kolkata

Bollywood movies are often described in broad strokes as “kitschy song
and dance dramas”. If someone wants to daub a particularly malicious
stroke, then they call all Hindi movies just ‘musicals’. To any lover
of ‘filmi geet’, that’s doing the Hindi film song a great disservice.

Everyone knows, songs in a Hindi movie exist in any genre – social,
mythological, fantasy, noir, and yes, even the musical. Their shape
shifts from bhajans, qawwalis to disco, but not only do they enhance
the pleasure of movie-watching, they define the essence, the soul of
Hindi cinema. Noted documentarian Nasreen Munni Kabir describes the
Hindi film song as “the only truly original moments in a Hindi film… I
mean you couldn’t take songs, say from Border, and use it in any other
film. Everyone goes on about the 800 or so films produced in India,
but 790 seem to have the same story. It is mainly the music that shows
fantastic new energy and originality.”

Unlike in a musical, a Hindi movie song does not need to add to
narrative continuity, or even plot context – it just is. It can
provide a ledge for fantasy to perch on, or it can be there as a
backdrop to romance, intrigue, comic relief, or all of the above. It
adds to the emotional texture of a film, and in a country with 22
official languages, it gives the movie a universal feel of unity – you
might not understand Hindi, but you can never escape the feeling
behind the song. To give it a transnational credibility, lyrics and
music also have to align themselves to poetics that feel familiar,
even if the language does not. As musicologist Ashraf Aziz points out,
“The Hindi-Urdu song lyric with its codification –vocabulary and
phrases that are repeated – plays a substantial role in the cultural
work that film songs perform, which include their ability to create a sentiment and function as a vernacular.”

Since the coming of sound in 1931, virtually all commercial Hindi
films have contained songs. As Anna Morcom writes in her essay,
Tapping the mass market: the commercial life of Hindi Songs: “If films
are big business and songs are indeed essential to the commercial
potential of films, then we may presume that film songs themselves
have considerable commercial power. What is the nature of the film
songs commercial power and how is it related to or independent from
Hindi films? Do songs sell films or do films sell songs?”

Though many film directors and superstars have made their fortune on
the strength of a good movie plot, it has often been the songs that
give their film an identity different from the plethora of movies
cluttering the market. Such is the lasting power of filmi geet that
you often know a classic song, but not who sung it or the movie it is
from. You really don’t care as the song has officially transcended
cinema and entered the collective subconscious. For instance, when you
hear the strains of Sama hai suhana, the actor Jalal Agha doesn’t
immediately come to mind, and the evergreen Raat kali ek khwaab mein
ayee does not necessarily remind you of the movie Buddhha Mil Gaya.

Grandparents enjoy a soulful KL Saigal and Noorjehan, parents remember their spandex-suited disco days, children dance to AR Rahman numbers

The film song has now moved into the realm of pop music, where the
sales of the song can be viewed, classified and even savoured
independently of the revenues generated by the film itself. What is
important is who sang the song, not who enacted it, and importantly,
who was the music director, not who directed the film. The line-up of
these music gods can rival that of any Hindu pantheon and often CDs
are sold on their names – the best of RD Burman, the best of Kishore
Kumar, the best of Lata Mangeshkar (a living totem of the longevity of
film music). So, Hindi film music can be film music, pan-Indian music,
pop music – all in the same form, but with different contexts and
meanings for different generations.

From gramophone to cassettes to CDs, the joy of filmi geet has
endured. It serves as a historical marker for families. Grandparents
still enjoy a soulful KL Saigal and Noorjehan, parents remember their
spandex-suited disco days, while children dance to AR Rahman numbers.
Because every generation has its own film song moment.

The Hindi film song is a great leveller of class, language, geography,
religion; it even helps bridge the generation gap. If this, then, is
to be the music of Indian life, what more can we say than play on...

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MARCH 2012