The Biscuit Shakers

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

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

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.

Baraswaj Rangan  is a National Award-winning Film Critic and Deputy Editor with The Hindu. His book, Conversations with Mani Ratnam, was published by Penguin in 2012.

Keywords: music language English Hindi film lyrics soundtrack
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