How The 2010s Changed Hindi Film Music (And Not For The Better)

Multi-composer model, transition to digital, and changing narrative structures: What’s hurting the Hindi film song?

Sankhayan Ghosh

The first half of the 2010s is peak Amit Trivedi; the arrival of an absolutely nuts composer called Sneha Khanwalkar; and a brand new Pritam. Of the long-held suspicion that Sanjay Leela Bhansali is a closeted music director coming true. Of Rockstar (2011), the soundtrack to which I’ve spent many a drunk post-break-up night drowning in self-pity. These are big events. It’s personal. It’s also… gradually realising that with age, my feelings towards what has always been an inherently commercial art form will be complex. Even in the songs I like I will find flaws. The things I love I’ll be militant about. I’m kinder to albums I had problems with 7 or 8 years ago. It’s just the way it is.

It’s been an eventful decade. It began with an infusion of fresh, new sounds, and allowed for experiments that would've been unthinkable before — a two-part, 27-track album such as Gangs of Wasseypur (2012); curated soundtracks with an indie edge, such as Shaitan (2011), Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015) and Gully Boy (2019); the musical numbers in Jagga Jasoos (2017). And yet the decade has ended in hopelessness. The awful eclipsed the amazing. There are just too many remixes, and the rest sound like each other.

It’s also been a decade that saw a change in the way we consume music. Albums aren’t released so much as singles are ‘dropped’, reducing our chances of discovering a song in this too-much-to-choose-from era of entertainment. What we listen to is, often, driven by what’s being aggressively marketed. Music companies, producers and artistes buy ‘paid-views’ on YouTube, and advertise the numbers as though they’ve earned it. We fall for it the same way we decide to go for a movie based on the information that it has earned Rs 200 crore, and not because it’s a good movie.

But beyond the subjectivity of good art and bad art, there has been, over the past decade, a seismic shift in terms of how the industry functions. I’ll try to explain how that is bad for an art form that is unique to Indian cinema.

Multi-Composer Model Is The New Norm

The 10s will go down as the decade that opened the floodgates for a large number of new composers: Ankit Tiwari, Amaal Mallik, Tanishk Bagchi, Rochak Kohli, Akhil Sachdeva, Vishal Mishra, Arko Pravo Mukherjee, among others — some of whom have come and gone, and some of who are currently dominating the charts. The format that has made this possible is that of a number of composers (and lyricists) contributing to one film. It’s also an approach — or rather the way it is being implemented, like a mass-market mode of production — that allows the composer less and less creative room. Instead of giving him the time and space to immerse himself in the script and the spirit of the film under the singular vision of the director and inspiring him to come up with songs and pieces that are thematically bound, it relies on simplistic briefs — or ‘hooks’ — that are so generic they could practically belong in any film.

This is almost entirely an invention of the music labels — one could pin it down to the insane success of Aashiqui 2 (2013), with which T-Series struck gold. Why did it catch on with producers and other labels? One, it’s cheap and convenient. Instead of giving a composer 6 months to work on 5 songs, they can get the job done much faster with 5 composers. Two, it has become a model through which the producer/label can exert more control over a film’s songs.

Established composers such as Vishal-Shekhar, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Pritam, Amit Trivedi, Ajay-Atul, and of course AR Rahman, are resisting it, only taking up projects that give them entire films to work on. “It’s like saying: Get one director for the emotional scenes, one for action scenes, and for comedy you get another. Do we make multiple-director films? To me it doesn’t make sense,” says Shankar Mahadevan, who has been around as part of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy since the late 90s. In the past decade, there have been numerous instances of composers leaving projects after they’ve been told that the producers are bringing in other composers as well.

This has meant that work for this generation of composers is thinning, but they’re banking on existing associations with directors: Vishal-Shekhar have Siddarth Anand, Ali Abbas Zafar, Anjaana Anjaani(Bang Bang, WAR, Bharat, Tiger Zinda Hai, Sultan); Amit Trivedi has Anurag Kashyap (Bombay Velvet, Manmarziyaan), Vikramaditya Motwane (Udaan, Lootera, Bhavesh Joshi Superhero), Abhishek Kapoor (Kai Po Che, Fitoor, Kedarnath); Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy have Meghna Gulzar (Raazi, Chhapak), Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra (Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Toofan) and Shaad Ali (Kill Dil, Soorma); Pritam — who has the reputation of being the most consistent of hit-makers among the older lot — has Ayan Mukerji (Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Brahmastra), Anurag Basu (Barfi, Jagga Jasoos), or the next Karan Johar film.

Composer Shantanu Moitra and lyricist Swanand Kirkire parted ways with regular collaborator Raju Hirani (Lage Raho Munnabhai; 3 Idiots; PK). And there are those who made promising beginnings over the decade, but either gave in to the format — Sachin-Jigar — or have almost disappeared from film music — Sneha Khanwalkar, Ram Sampath.

The newer lot have embraced the multi-composer model. It’s interesting — and scary — that many of them are actually happy doing so. They lack the desire, technical resources and either the understanding or the ability to pull off an album, aiming to deliver that one hit song in a big film. Instead of a filmmaker, they are more likely to be associated with a label/producer.

Among the new composers, only a handful are determined to work on solo albums — a minor miracle in the current environment — such as Karan Kulkarni (Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota) and Shashwat Sachdev (Phillauri; URI). But new solo offers are proving hard to come by. Since Mard, Kulkarni has been working on background scores apart from ad jingles; Sachdev has had a couple of offers, thanks to the success of URI.

No More A Filmmaker’s Choice

The multi-composer format isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It has, in a way, freed Hindi cinema of a convention that could be limiting to a certain kind of film or a filmmaker. (Imagine Gully Boy done in the traditional way, helmed by one composer instead of an ensemble of underground hip-hop musicians). But that choice should depend on the artistic demands of the film. The Hindi film song has always had to please both, the producer and the filmmaker in that it has to work both within and outside the film, one that maintains the pleasures of pop music, mindful of the market, as well as add to the cinematic experience, elevating the written material to a subliminal level.

But the model is being imposed on the filmmaker. Not only is he being given the format as the only option, but also a group of musicians — who are signed to the label — to select from. This decade has seen the filmmaker gradually lose control over the film song to the producer and the label — in a promotional music video from Khaandaani Shafakhana (2019), one of the actors break the fourth wall and asks us to subscribe to T-Series. Filmmakers of some repute still have some sway over the choice of composers. But for those making their first or second films, it’s getting particularly difficult. (Vasan Bala, the director of Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, says that he “got away with it because the stakes were lower” for his film and that he “had to really fight for it”). Many of them may want to work with a specific composer, but won’t push for it beyond a point because there are bigger battles to fight. For instance, how many screens will the film get.

Recent hits such as 'Stree' and 'Simbaa' show a growing disconnect between a film's content and its songs.

It’s important to note here that the changing narrative structure of Hindi cinema has contributed to the situation. We’ve been increasingly making films that could do without songs, but have to accommodate them for marketing purposes. Some of the more recent films feature songs so at odds with their content, they jump out grotesquely. Last year’s Stree, a horror-comedy with a message about women-empowerment in the end, has three ‘item numbers’ that blatantly objectify women. In Simbaa, the protagonist, a Marathi cop, starts singing a Sufi song in Punjabi.

Both were box-office hits. As more such films are commissioned, the filmmaker will, narratively speaking, depend less and less on songs. The producer will gain more control over it. Instead of collaborating closely with the director, the composer will serve the producer, working on briefs circumscribed by him. It will stunt the composer’s growth. It’s already happening. Take Tanishk Bagchi for instance, who did a likeable song, “Bolna" from Kapoor & Sons (2016) — as part of the duo Tanishk-Vayu — at the beginning of his career, but has since become someone who is known only for remixes.

Filmmaker Vikramaditya Motwane says that many of the new composers he meets approach him with a template of “one item number, one love song, one sad song, one maahiya something”. “They have become so used to being boxed,” he says.

The Target Audience Has Changed

The producer has eyes on the film song more than ever because in it he has found the easiest — and laziest — way to ensure a good box-office opening for a film. (In 2016, Dharma Productions appointed someone from their marketing department as a ‘music supervisor’, whose job is to retrofit songs into films from a pre-existing bank).

The label has a bigger stake in it. It not only promotes the composers signed to it — and gets a share in the profit earned from live shows once those composers delivers hits — but, with the transition to digital streaming platforms such as YouTube, Saavn and Gaana, is now also able to monetise the music. With high-speed internet access shooting up, especially after the arrival of Reliance Jio 4G 3 years ago, making inroads into small towns and villages, the market has become even bigger. India has 500 million internet users, second only to China.

“Earlier, you had to make an effort to listen to music, buy that cassette or CD. There was a limited audience, which was good for those times,” says Varun Grover, lyricist, screenwriter, stand-up comic, and Hindi film music buff. “But the scale now is something else. Now they don’t really care for the serious music audience. People just need numbers that they are getting because they have a wider reach. They have a different set of listeners who don’t know the legacy of Hindi film music — and they don’t really need to. It’s not their problem, it’s the problem of people who are serving them this kind of music.”

Grover is a part-time lyricist and hence can afford to stay off the multi-composer bandwagon. But he says that some of his colleagues who are dedicated lyricists have had to give in. “It’s the same thing that has happened many, many times in the world — which is taking something which was beautiful, which was pure to some extent, and just making it a fast food, kind of an FMCG product.”