Using Old Hindi Songs in New Films is an Underrated Art, and Overpriced, Film Companion

In the recent web series Aarya, starring Sushmita Sen, old Hindi film songs are a constant presence. Playing in the car stereo, playing in the wedding, on the LP at Aarya’s home and in the mind of the protagonist and of everyone else’s. One song stands out in particular. “Bade Acche Lagte Hai” (from the 1976 film Balika Badhu) is played in almost every episode. It’s the song Aarya’s husband, Tej (Chandrachur Singh), liked to sing for her, and it keeps reminding her, their children—and us—of him even after he’s gone. Sometimes it’s the version sung by Tej (in Singh’s voice), recorded by him in a mobile video. At one point, their little son, Aadi (Pratyansh Panwar), tells Aarya if he can watch the video of his ‘Papa’ singing. As Aarya grieves over her departed husband, she finds solace in his favourite song. It becomes a kind of coping mechanism. 

Ram Madhvani, who has co-directed and written Aarya, says that they wanted to use old Hindi film songs as a device to “keep Tej’s character alive even after his death” as they “didn’t want to use flashbacks”. But there is another element at play here. Madhvani and Co were also paying homage to Sriram Raghavan and Quentin Tarantino, who he describes as the filmmakers who have shown the way in terms of using old favourites in new contexts. And indeed, in Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddar, Dharmendra’s character keeps alive memories of his dead wife by playing a tape of her singing “Mora Gora Ang Laile” (from the 1963 film Bandini) over and over again. Madhvani was not only paying a tribute, he was paying a tribute within a tribute. “Ram was copying Sriram,” he jokes.

Using an oldie in the narrative of a film or web series can be a powerful tool because it uses the audience’s familiarity with it to its advantage, often playing against their expectation. The viewer may remember “Akele Akele Kahaan Ja Rahe Ho” as the song Shammi Kapoor sings to serenade Sharmila Tagore in the French Alps in An Evening in Paris, but when it plays in Aarya, a young girl is kidnapped at night in a shadowy lane in Jaipur. The scene previously had a more generic thriller soundtrack going for it, but then the editors Khushboo Agarwal and Abhimanyu Chaudhary thought of using the Mohammad Rafi song. As Chaudhary puts it, “it just made it 1+1=110”.

Pre-existing songs can be an integral part of a director or screenwriter’s imagination, and a great source of creative instinct. We think of it as a Hollywood or world cinema tradition, but many of our filmmakers think like that too.

The art of using old songs in Hindi film (and web series) isn’t paid much attention to maybe because it isn’t that commonplace. And the main reason behind it is that they are notoriously expensive. Directors and screenwriters have gone through mini heartbreaks when they’ve found out that their dream of referencing old favourites in their work costs so much as to cover the entire budget of the secondary cast of a film, and had to drop them from their wish-list. Many a times the producers dismiss these choices as an “indulgence” on the filmmaker’s part—and to be fair, in the economic scheme of things in mainstream Hindi filmmaking, it makes little practical sense to pay Rs 25 lakhs for a song (or less, depending on its popularity). But pre-existing songs can be an integral part of a director or screenwriter’s imagination, and a great source of creative instinct. We think of it as a Hollywood or world cinema tradition, but many of our filmmakers think like that too.

Vasan Bala, for instance, finds himself hopelessly imagining movie scenarios while listening to personal favourites. In 2009 he was listening to “Nakhrewali” (from the 1956 film New Delhi) when he thought of a scene in which a guy sees a girl and thinks of saving her but ends up getting beaten up by her instead, a standalone scene that later came to be one of the nicest moments in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, Bala’s second feature film. His first, Peddlers, started with a song as well, albeit not a Hindi film one–“God’s Gonna Cut You Down” by heavy metal band Johnny Crash–which gave birth to a scene where a cop chasing a criminal kills an innocent bystander on reflex. Bala says he has started censoring himself while writing his scripts, curbing an instinct that comes most naturally to him. 

Varun Grover doesn’t. He still writes his scripts filled with old Hindi film song references even though he has seen that the negotiations around it can be frustrating, something he faced in Sacred Games, and before that in Masaan—the English title of which, Fly Away Solo, is inspired by the Kumar Gandharva song “Ud Jayega Hans Akela”. He says he finds it absurd where in real life we are surrounded by old Hindi film songs, in autos and taxis, in the streets and at our homes, that they will be missing from our films. “Initially one should go with their best wish-list possible. And then you get to know, that of the 25 you have written there is budget for only 5 and then you get to chose which 5. If you write only 5 then they will say you can do only 1,” he says.

That’s what happened with Netflix’s Sacred Games, for which the makers had grand plans of punctuating the narrative with old Hindi film songs, many of which were period-specific, including some Bappi Lahiri and Biddu numbers denoting the 80s. Eventually the 28 odd songs in the script came down to 3 or 4 songs in the show, that includes “Main Na Bhoolunga” (from the 1974 film Roti, Kapda Aur Makaan) in Season 1, and “Dharti Kahe Pukaar Ke” (from the 1953 film Do Bigha Zameen) in Season 2. 

Grover finds the pricing by the music labels restrictive and ridiculous. “It’s part of a narrative and it’s stupid of people to play this really capitalist game. There should definitely be a fair use kind of policy where you can use the song for 30 seconds or 1 minute.”

Grover finds the pricing by the music labels—mostly Saregama, unless you are looking at 80s and 90s—restrictive and ridiculous. “It’s not that I am stopping that monetisation of the song by using it in my show or film. It’s part of a narrative and it’s stupid of people to play this really capitalist game. There should definitely be a fair use kind of policy where you can use the song for 30 seconds or 1 minute. That’s all we need it for,” he says. 

Which is what makes Aarya a curious case because its use of old Hindi film songs is so extensive. But it couldn’t have been too expensive because the show doesn’t seem to be any more high budgeted than Sacred Games. Madhvani told me that the creative team were given a free hand by the producers Disney+Hotstar. Madhvani had asked them for a list of songs from the Saregama catalogue from which they can choose and also submitted a list of their own. In return they were given an “exhaustive” list from which they could use anything. Agarwal says that they were “spoilt for choices”, so much so that it gave them the liberty to use more songs than were there in the script, later in the edit.

Both Disney+Hotstar and Saregama refused to comment on it as a part of their policy, but the guess is that they worked out some kind of an arrangement, perhaps as a part of the deal they struck last year after the two entities entered a partnership when Saregama’s Yoodlee Films produced the first of the Disney+Hotstar Originals. Bejoy Nambiar–who gave the classic “Khoya Khoya Chand” the shock treatment by using a reimagined version by Mikey McCleary in his debut feature film Shaitan–recalls having a hard time “haggling with Saregama” for the rights, for which they demanded “an astronomical figure that they just couldn’t afford”–until Anurag Kashyap, one of the film’s producers, stepped in. Kashyap had acted in a film produced by the label and he used it as a leverage to get the rights of the song.

Examples such as these show that the workings of the music labels in the Hindi film industry, apart from being a bit exploitative, can be arbitrary and based on relationships and equations rather than for the empowerment of art. Nambiar, who likes to curate the songs for his films, tells me that it was easier for him to get licensing of released songs down South. The music labels there are less strict with their clauses with artists, and unlike in the Hindi film music industry, composers such as Ilaiyaraaja and AR Rahman own the IPs (Intellectual Property) of their work. So when Nambiar wanted to use an Ilaiyaraaja song for his Malayalam/Tamil film Solo, the composer gave the rights for free.

Filmmaker Vikramaditya Motwane, the show runner of Sacred Games, says that by putting such a restrictive pricing on old songs, the label is letting go of an opportunity to promote them to a younger generation. “I do think the biggest disservice to the industry is being done by Saregama right now, completely sitting on the entire library that they’ve got…You have to listen to them, otherwise people will not know. You can’t just say ‘Buy Caravan, it has 6000 songs’.”

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