The State of the Film Song in the Age of Streaming 

Will Netflix (and other OTT platforms) enable more song-less films? And is that necessarily a bad thing? 
The State of the Film Song in the Age of Streaming 

In a recent interview with Hindi film lyricists conducted by Anupama Chopra, the discussion, from the issue of lyricists unfairly being left out from credits, soon turned to the larger issue of the future of the film song itself. At one point, Swanand Kirkire expressed his concern over the possibility that the rise of streaming will further endanger songs. To provide some context: songs in Hindi mainstream cinema have been losing their importance as a narrative tool, but the films haven't been able to let go of them completely because they are believed to play a big role in the marketing. If you go through the list of mainstream Hindi films that have released in the theatres—before they were shut down due to the pandemic—you'll hardly find one that didn't have songs (an exception is Mardaani 2, which promoted the fact that it did not have a promotional song). And now in the span of a few months, we've had at least three song-less films–Class of 83, Bulbbul and Mrs Serial Killer: all Netflix India originals. Kirkire's fears were also fuelled by the fact that even some of the films that had songs, such as Choked: Paisa Bolta Hai and Raat Akeli Hai, didn't release them (which means the songs don't exist outside the film and are not available for the purpose of listening).

Is there a reason for the Hindi film music fan to be alarmed? At first glance it would seem so. If I like a song from Raat Akeli Hai, but I can't listen to it, that's ridiculous enough. But it may not be Netflix's fault so much as it is a lapse on the part of the producer, RSVP Movies, who own the music rights (on the contrary, Netflix original films that have songs, such as Guilty, and Maska released albums in music streaming services). As Varun Grover points out in the lyricist's adda, it's more a matter of "a transition phase" before a system falls in place that'll take care of the problem.

But what about the first problem—which is a separate one—and is it even a problem? It's good for cinema in that there's no place for compromises anymore. Anvita Dutt says that she wrote Bulbbul as a song-less film even before the streaming giant came into the picture—the irony that she is a lyricist herself isn't lost on her, as it wasn't lost on her compatriots in the video interview. But it's doubtful if the road to being able to stick to that choice would've been as smooth if Bulbbul was going for a traditional theatrical release, which calls for a mandatory promotional music video (that can play at the end of the film and not interfere with the flow of the narrative). Even Trapped had songs.

But what if the filmmaker wants to use songs but isn't able to because it doesn't fall in the Netflix scheme of things? Director Atul Sabharwal was roped in for Class of 83 after Netflix and Red Chillies Entertainment had already decided on the kind of film they wanted to make, which was "in a more realistic space like Delhi Crime"; it demanded the film to be of a certain length. Sabharwal says that if he was in the project from the start, he would've liked to make a 2.5 hour film with songs—"a flash back song between Vijay Singh and his wife; a training song; a qawwali for the dargah sequence" he has it all worked out. "It's set in the 80s, and if I am getting Viju Shah, I would've loved to have some songs, like a classic Rajkumar Santoshi/Mukul Anand film," he says over the phone.

There's nothing wrong with Netflix wanting a certain design for Class of 83; it suits their target audience—and algorithm based decision-making—used to watching international crime thrillers. And it's not that it's the only kind of film they produce; for every song-less Class of 83, Bulbbul and Mrs Serial Killer, they have a Yeh Ballet, Guilty and Maska, all of which have songs. If anything, this new trend will normalise song-less films for theatrical releases as well, once they open up. Sabharwal says that social media is rapidly changing the rules of movie marketing anyway, and his interaction with producers have led him to believe that they are increasingly warming up to the idea that a film can release in a theatre and yet be completely song-less.

Expect more such examples across other streaming platforms, too; you have films such as Mee Raqsam on Zee 5 and Kadakh on Sony Liv that are song-less. While quantitatively this'll result in lesser number of film songs overall—and lesser work for composers and lyricists—qualitatively speaking it may not be such a bad thing to not have songs at all, rather than having songs that have no bearing on the film or force-fitted for promotional purposes. That system has enabled the remix and the sonic-template culture that we have come to abhor. Whether a film should have songs or not should be a creative call, and not a business one. What could be potentially exciting is the web series format—the recent Bandish Bandits on Amazon Prime got Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy to compose the album. It doesn't have the pressure of being under a certain length like the films. Instead it has the liberty of the long-form, which is ripe for the film songs to thrive on. Imagine the songs of Bombay Velvet getting the space they deserve if they were spread over 10 episodes.

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