Ali Sethi On Why The Bollywood Item Number Has Lost Its Personality

Item numbers were a treat. Now they've become the main dish, says the singer
Ali Sethi On Why The Bollywood Item Number Has Lost Its Personality

Since lockdown began in March last year, musician Ali Sethi has been hosting hour-long sessions on Instagram from his New York home. His music has sustained many of us through the long and difficult year. He talks about trend of remixes, why the raag yaman has disappeared from Bollywood and why item numbers have lost their sheen:

Anupama Chopra: Why is raag yaman so popular in Bollywood songs? Every Sanjay Leela Bhansali movie has some version of the raag yaman. Do you have an explanation?

Ali Sethi: Except for Sanjay Leela Bhansali and Vishal Bhardwaj, who really rely on raag music for their scores, I don't really find raag music in mainstream Bollywood music anymore. I wonder why that is. I've asked my friends who compose music in Bombay, 'Why aren't we seeing more of this?' They say, 'Look, remixes ka zamana hai.' People don't even want to pay to music composers anymore. They just feel like the easiest, quickest, most expedient way to a hit tune is to recycle something from the 90s, to repackage this sasta nostalgia and feed it to the people because that's what they want.

The other day, I was on my way to my friend Amitav Ghosh's place for dinner. We were stuck in a traffic jam over the Manhattan Bridge so I decided to check out the latest Bollywood songs on Spotify. I wanted to know what were the latest beats, the chords, what were the ways of thinking. I heard them, I heard 2-3 playlists, for 45 minutes. And I could not distinguish one song from the other. Where one ended, the other began. All these otherwise very versatile and talented singers and musicians listed in that distilled version of 'This is Bollywood today.' all their work sounded so uniform. And so I thought of the music I listened to when I was growing up. Films had one fast song, one slow song, one bhajan/qawwali type song and one item number.

Item numbers were a treat. They had their own freaky occurrence. Now the item numbers have become the main dish, and so the item number has lost its personality. If you listen to R. D. Burman's item numbers starring the great Helen, like 'Aa Jaanejaan'. That song, I believe, is the finest and musically very exquisite item number. It begins with these roars and then that trembling mandolin comes in. Then there are certain diversions and some rising kind of features, finally leading to Lataji singing, 'Aa janejaan…' The atmosphere! The adventure! That's gone. And this is inevitable everywhere. I'll get some comments like, 'Look at your Pakistan! What are they doing?' Who's talking about Pakistan, we too make remixes. There's Coke Studio of course, but I think in the name of folk music, we have done perhaps too many renditions. I am guilty of that myself. Now, I believe we are moving towards an original space in Pakistan, which is very exciting. I think the most exciting music in Pakistan today is coming from the younger artists, who are just doing their hybrid, completely improvised thing. And the same is with the indie scene in India as well.

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