The Biscuit Shakers

English-speaking Hindi filmmakers are changing the film song beyond recognition—not that there’s anything wrong with that

The music of new Bollywood films like Shaitan is international in both sound and idiom.
01 August, 2011

A GLANCE AT THE SOUNDTRACK of Shaitan yields these song titles: ‘Enter’, ‘Amy’s Theme’, ‘Retro Pop Shit’, ‘Unleashed’, ‘Outro’. Even the songs with Hindi titles here would roll easily off a non-Hindi-speaking tongue: ‘Nasha’, ‘Hawa Hawaii’, ‘Josh’, ‘Fareeda’, ‘Zindagi’. Disgruntled murmurs complaining about Hindi cinema being conceived in English and merely translated into Hindi are likely to climb a notch higher now that even the music accompanying the movie is being stripped of a love for the language. From Sahir Ludhianvi to Anand Bakshi to Sameer, the Hindi film lyric has already witnessed a colloquialisation—bordering, at times, on easy-rhyming banalities—and now the transformation seems complete. The language of casual conversation for these new Bollywood filmmakers is English—this is far from a jaundiced judgement; it’s merely observation—and so their music too is international in sound and international in idiom.

It’s not just the reggae-calypso bounce in the recreated ‘Hawa Hawaii’—which is far easier on the ears than the original, with Laxmikant-Pyarelal at their most raucous; has there been another duo with such an exquisite ear for melody and such a disastrous talent for music arrangement?—but also the way words are treated in ‘Bali-The Sound of Shaitan’. (And the words are truly “treated,” not just in terms of how they’re handled by the singers, but also in the way they are wrung through techno-machinery so that the plated output resembles the input and yet doesn’t—it’s music-making as alloy-making.) The first line we hear after blips and beats is You know you gotta feel it baby, don’t you know, and then, Adhisaya ragam, ananda ragam, azhagiya ragam, aboorva ragam (a snatch of lyric borrowed, for reasons not immediately apparent, from a song from the Tamil film Aboorva Ragangal), and eventually Khwabon mein aate ho aur dil mein samate ho (which evokes the Chori Chori song, ‘Jahaan main jaati hun vahin chale aate ho / Chori chori mere dil mein samate ho’)—English, Tamil, finally Hindi. Only, you wouldn’t know that it’s Hindi—far from the crystalline enunciations of Lata Mangeshkar, this garbled intonation emerges from the larynx of a flustered fembot. And I say this as a sincere compliment.

Shaitan is only the latest in a long line of Hindi-film soundtracks where the “Hindi” is merely incidental. These films are made for the denizens of polyglot cities, and their directors, naturally, are unconcerned about fidelity to language or local idiom. If their films are melting pots of international influences, their music too is deracinated, with roots nowhere and a leaf from everywhere. When this was not so, when the world was simpler and our leanings were culturally congruent, the film song—a traditional amalgam of cinema and music and poetry (in the form of lyrics)—served a variety of highly specific purposes. A song was a sip of water between reels of spicy masala meals. It served as background for narrative-propelling montage sequences. It was a yellow-tipped marker that highlighted a just-revealed emotion. It was dialogue that couldn’t be spoken, an encapsulation of purple prose that would have been farcical if said but turned fabulous when sung. And it was entertainment.

Of these time-honoured functions, the English-language Hindi film has use only for the montage enabler. The reduced running time cannot accommodate anything else, and a song is simply connective tissue, fusing together a clutch of disparate visuals. One of the most spectacular stretches in Shaitan involves a montage set to ‘Khoya khoya chand’, no longer Rafi’s effervescent broadcast of romantic rapture but an implosion of drug-addled languor that perfectly underscores the slow-motion events on screen. Music in these films, then, is not about melody or even choreography-readiness—it’s about mood. Decades ago, ‘Khoya khoya chand’ was a number you’d hum along with while waiting for sleep to descend on your exhausted eyes. Today, it’s a track that demands, with its bravura visuals, that our eyes remain wide open. Music inside the film, in the context of the film, is everything—outside, our lips are left with nothing to whistle on the way home.

In any case, you surely cannot bring home a snatch of song like Delhi Belly’s blithely vulgar ‘Bhaag DK Bose’, at least if those at home think of ‘Khoya khoya chand’ as incomplete without Rafi. Another number, ‘Jaa chudail’, is once again designed to be experienced on video (and not audio)—and its rock-fuelled rage recalls the Guns N’ Roses anthem ‘Back off Bitch’ (which, of course, approximates to ‘Jaa chudail’.) The rowdy language is refreshing. This is how many of us speak. This is how we casually pepper our conversation with profanity, not intending the actual meaning (when we say “bitch,” we don’t actually refer to a female dog). The coyly couched vulgarities of ‘Saat sahelian khadi khadi’ from Vidhaata (1982) look as dated as the wink and the nudge. Everything today is in your face, and because youngsters—or at least, those who think young—are more direct than elders, the Hindi film song in the English-language Hindi film embraces the brash and the irreverent.

The Hindi film for all audiences, that which could be watched alike by grandfather and father and grandson, is in slow decline, and as a result the traditional film song has snapped free. For the sips of water between masala meals, for the yellow-tipped highlights of a just-revealed emotion, for the dialogues that couldn’t be spoken or for the encapsulations of purple prose, we have to turn to regional cinemas, whose economics are still dictated by single screens and their non-urban audiences. In Tamil cinema, for instance, you still find songs based on the raga, and you still have songs you can hum along with because you understand the lyrics and because there’s an expansiveness to the mood of the song that spills over into your life. There are still love songs in Tamil cinema that to people in love can feel expressly written for them. In Hindi cinema, though, it’s become rarer to find a ‘Tere mast mast do nain’, and even in Dabangg, it was ‘Munni Badnam Hui’ that affixed itself to a nation’s lips. The item song, though, shows no signs of disappearing. Even if you think in English, you need to shake that biscuit.