Does Bollywood Have a Song-shaped Problem?

The song-and-dance routine has been at the heart of mainstream Hindi cinema’s popularity, but of late, few films have been able to deliver a well-staged song
Does Bollywood Have a Song-shaped Problem?

There was a lot at stake with the recently-released Brahmastra (2022), a film that tread into unchartered superhero waters while also promising to be a quintessential Bollywood entertainer. Many have grumbled about its failings, which include an unconvincing love story and a pitifully underwritten role for Alia Bhatt. For me, however, what really stuck out like a sore thumb was the song “Kesariya”, which was supposed to be the film’s ‘blossoming love’ number, a long-standing tradition of commercial Hindi cinema. The catchphrase ‘love storiyan’, which raised so many hackles, was the least of the song’s problems. Here was a catch-all ditty and it became popular, yet within the film, “Kesariya” feels like an awkward insertion. Since when did Hindi cinema lose track of its songs?

The song-and-dance routine is one of Bollywood’s defining features. A film’s song sequences were once the mainstay of mainstream cinema and filmmakers consciously made sure their narrative made room for musical sequences. A movie without songs would automatically be labelled offbeat and commercially non-viable. The most enduring of our classics — Awara (1951), Pyaasa (1957), Mother India (1957), Mughal-E-Azam (1960), Guide (1965) — told their stories through their songs. Writer Mayur Puri, who has penned lyrics for films like Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and ABCD 2 (2015), said songs are an integral part of both storytelling and spectacle in Hindi cinema, “When we use a song in the film, we are trying to tell the audience that this is an important moment, asking them to take note of its emotion,” said Puri. “A full-fledged song sequence has the capacity to freeze an emotion with manifold intensity. Therefore, songs and lyrics have often performed the functions of a screenplay for our films. Be it “Mud Mud ke Na Dekh” (from Shree 420, 1955) where the story moved forward, or a song like “Koi Patthar Se Na Maare” (Laila Majnu, 1976), where the Laila pleads to the villagers to stop tormenting her beloved, it is the director asking us to pay attention to that moment. Similarly, in a screenplay, when you need to switch from one emotional state to another, a song can be incredibly helpful to make that transition. ”

While the musical genres and tastes that informed soundtracks changed, Hindi cinema’s flair for elaborate song sequences as a centrepiece remained constant. Things started shifting in the 2000s, with a new tribe of filmmakers veering towards relatively realistic cinema. Perhaps the emergence of multiplexes also had a huge role to play in it because now, urban audiences who bought the more expensive multiplex tickets became more important than the single-screen audiences that had been the traditional mainstay. Urbane viewers were more exposed to Western ideas of moviemaking and when some of Hollywood’s yardsticks were applied to Bollywood, one of the first elements that faced a reevaluation was Hindi film music.

While some commercial filmmakers stuck to their old ways, a chunk of commercial cinema became vaguely embarrassed of its escapist nature and the lip-sync tradition (in most modern musical traditions, actors sing songs in their own voices. Indian cinema is the last refuge of playback singers). Now, directors sought ways where a song-and-dance routine looked somewhat believable. Some adapted smartly — in Ghajini (2008), A.R. Murugadoss locates a dream sequence in “Guzarish”, beautifully building anticipation both for our hero Sanjay and the audience, as Sanjay waits for Kalpana’s answer to his proposal. Band Baaja Baraat (2010) uses “Ainvayi Ainvayi” brilliantly, with Bittu (Ranveer Singh) breaking into song to rejuvenate a rather drab wedding reception. In “Dhan Te Nan” (Kaminey, 2009), Vishal Bhardwaj gave a thumping musical boost to Charlie, shooting the song in a dimly-lit nightclub to articulate his giddy euphoria. Meanwhile in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), Zoya Akhtar embraced song-and-dance routine with “Senorita” and “Ik Junoon”. Lyricist Hussain Haidry said “Kun Faya Kun” from Rockstar (2011) remains one of his favourite songs of recent times. “In that one sequence, Jordan (Ranbir Kapoor) is suddenly enlightened and transformed — and we buy it. We become convinced of the epiphany, because of the way it's shot and performed. That’s the effect music can have on a narrative.”

Songs receded into the background between 2009 and 2013 and the montage song emerged as a way to keep the music present but in the background. “Shikayatein” in Lootera (2013) marks a decisive, poignant moment for our protagonist Varun (Ranveer Singh), who chooses in favour of love over self-preservation. In Udta Punjab (2016), the haunting “Da Da Dasse” captures Kumari (Alia Bhatt)’s paranoia and claustrophobia. Rani’s heartbreak and melancholia are expressed in “Badra Bahaar” in Queen (2013), which plays while Rani roams the streets of Paris. However, being woven into the background didn’t mean the soundtrack was any less important. Take the films of Anurag Kashyap, who for all his rebellion against mainstream conventions, relies heavily on songs in his films (more so than most commercial directors) to set the tonality of his universe. Dev D (2009) had 18 songs, while together the two parts of Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) have over 20 songs

However, there seemed to be a growing sense that the newer films and genres that were coming into prominence weren’t driven by music. The number of films that made effective use of musical sequences began to diminish with each passing year since 2013. Director Vivek Soni, who made his debut last year with the Netflix film Meenakshi Sundareshwar, said, “We don’t do as many romantic dramas or comedies anymore — films which at any point had the template for a minimum of four to five songs: The standard intro song, the falling-in-love song, the separation song, and so on. The situations in the newer films that became popular and set trends weren’t as readily feasible for too many songs.” Even as independent filmmakers and indie topics came to the fore with films like Newton (2017) and October (2018) that didn’t follow familiar templates, the space for old-school musical moments diminished. Songs became less crucial for the story even as they remained an important aspect of a film’s publicity and commercial prospects. Filmmakers found ways to include songs, without unsettling the viewer (end credit sequences became the go-to, with one unrelated, peppy number being snuck in to leave audiences on a high note, pun intended). “Things changed drastically when we stopped buying cassettes or CDs and began streaming our songs exclusively. The makers stopped spending on those songs accordingly. Now all the budget is saved for songs that we play at events, weddings, clubs, and parties, so producers and labels ask for songs that can be played on all these occasions,” said Mayur Puri.

Today, a film soundtrack is usually made up of songs that function as background score and peppy dance tracks that sell, but rarely find a coherent place in the film’s story. This has also led to shrinking in the range of melodies and influence in the compositions, with many composers and lyricists feeling the pressure to create not what they want, but what is assumed to be popular and trendy. However, Haidry was not ready to place the blame on the audience, especially having seen how “Bandar Baant” — which he wrote the lyrics for — from the Prime Video film Sherni grew in popularity. “If a song is good and composed with novelty and honesty, it will eventually find its audience. I strongly believe that the filter of time will distil a lot of contemporary stuff, and make way for songs that truly have an emotional resonance. Creating a good song and ensuring the song reaches the audience, these are two very separate things.” He pointed to “Patakha Guddi” (from Highway, 2014), which he believes is one of the best-written songs in recent years, as an example of a song that became popular despite not adhering to conventions or standard trends.

From the way songs like “Kesariya” or “Alcoholiya” (from the recent Vikram Vedha, 2022) have been picturised and used in the films, it seems as though Bollywood is struggling to do what once came naturally to its filmmakers — making a statement with a song. “Earlier, songs were the face of the films,” said Mayur Puri. “Presently, we have stopped looking for situations that can have songs. This art shouldn't go away, for it's our cinema’s unique tradition.” Director Vivek Soni agreed that the song in Hindi cinema was in the process of evolving and the filmmaking culture needed to keep up with changing preferences in order to be memorable. “Having said that, when we do attempt song sequences, they must be done with innovation, intended to give the audience a unique experience,” said Soni. “If one is unable to recollect many of these songs, perhaps there is an actual dearth of well-done song sequences.” He gave the example of director Sanjay Leela Bhansali as someone whose films use music and spectacle with matching flourish. “Today, he is perhaps the only Hindi filmmaker who continues to make so much effort towards writing songs in the narrative, and executing them with finesse and beauty. The way he executed ‘Meri Jaan’ (Gangubai Kathiawadi, 2022) is just exquisite. It’s because of this class and conviction that Gangoobai worked, even at a time when some of the biggest star-vehicles struggled at the box-office.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that other Indian cinemas aren’t facing the same crisis that plagues Hindi mainstream cinema. Pushpa: the Rise (2022) became a sensation not only because of its alpha-male rebellious hero, but also because of the boost it got from “Srivalli” which could be heard on thousands of Instagram reels in the weeks following the film’s release. In RRR (2022), Rajamouli’s revisionist period action-drama, the thoroughly desi dance-off at an elegant British tea-party that was “Naatu Naatu” was explosively popular. This is not just because of the enthralling dance moves. S.S. Rajamouli stages the exuberance and locates the song perfectly in his narrative, showcasing both musicality and spectacle in a way that feels both rooted and modern. The entire sequence built around this song feels like a short film about resistance and ‘Naatu Naatu’ — much like the rest of RRR — does best what mainstream Indian cinema has always been known for: Melodrama and music.

The commercial success of films like Pushpa: the Rise and RRR in a year that has seen Hindi films struggle to find audiences has caused quiet panic to ripple through Mumbai’s tinseltown. Evidently, Bollywood needs to do some introspection, rather than engaging in knee-jerk, thoughtless responses. It needs to find ways to reconnect with its audience. Finding mojo for a well-staged song would be a good start.

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