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90 years of Sound: The flow and ebb of Hindi film music

Songs have been an integral part of Hindi cinema, existing not only in musicals, but also as a narrative device in films of every genre from comedy and romance to crime thriller and horror.

Suyog Zore

The history of Indian film music spans 90 years; it is ever evolving and cannot be restricted to one or two genres. In India, music has been inseparable from cinema because, for the longest time, film was the only source of music for most Indians. Though from time to time there have been experiments in independent music, till date the Indian popular music landscape is dominated by film music. In fact, in the second edition of Music Inc, Neeraj Roy, founder and chief executive officer of Hungama Digital Media, pointed out that film music still accounts for 80% of music sales in the country.

Songs have been an integral part of Hindi cinema. They not only exist in musicals, where you would expect them, but they are also used as a narrative device in films of every genre from comedy and romance to crime thriller and horror. While songs are part of a film, hit songs become complete units in themselves, with their lyrics and melody offering an emotionally satisfying experience on their own.

Many times songs are used as an invitation to lure the public to the theatres. This was especially so in the era when a common household couldn't afford expensive LPs. Before the advent of the audiocassette, songs used to play such a huge role in drawing audiences to theatres that many films became successful only because of the popularity of their soundtracks.

With the arrival of audiocassettes and with TV sets proliferating in households, people no longer needed to go to theatres to listen to and watch their favourite songs. But that did not mean the importance of songs in cinema reduced. With the arrival of new technology such as cassettes and CDs, film producers found a new avenue to earn money, creating an album for a film and licensing the rights to a  music company like Sony, Tips, T-Series or Saregama. These music rights sometimes covered as much as 30% of a film’s cost. According to a report in The Financial Express newspaper, the music rights of films Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2000) and Devdas (2002) were sold for a whopping Rs10–12 crore each, which was 25% of their overall budget. It was such a lucrative business that many production houses, like Yash Raj Films, set up their own music labels.

The use of songs as an integral part of a film's narrative started in Indian cinema from the country's very first talkie, Alam Ara (1931). The Ardeshir Irani-directed musical had seven songs.

The trend set by Alam Ara continued and between 1931 and 1940, India produced 931 Hindi feature films with an average of 10 songs per film, according to a research article on the Shankar Mahadevan Academy website.

The tradition of song and dance in Indian cinema has come from Indian theatre which used to have a lot of musical plays in those times. Following in the footsteps of musical plays, Indian films also started incorporating songs as narrative devices to take the plot forward.

For the first few years of the talkie in India, actors and actresses used to sing their own songs and producers looked for artistes who could also sing, but that was becoming a challenge. Playback singing offered a practical solution. It was first introduced in Hindi cinema in 1935 with Dhoop Chhaon and changed Indian cinema forever.

Shamshad Begum and Mukesh were among the first popular playback singers who arrived in Hindi cinema in 1941. They were followed by Manna Dey, Mohammed Rafi, Hemant Kumar, Geeta Dutt and Lata Mangeshkar. Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar appeared on the scene in 1948.

Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Mohammed Rafi

These playback singers revolutionized Indian film songs and their voices lifted the numbers from 'add-ons' to an essential element adding to the aesthetic and commercial value of a film. Once professional singers joined forces, lyrics writing too evolved into a poetic art form.

All elements of film music reached their zenith in 1949 with actor-director-producer Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat (1949). This was one of the earliest Hindi movies to became a hit on the strength and popularity of its songs.

Barsaat contained 11 songs and each became a hit. Eight of these songs were Lata Mangeshkar solos, two were duets where she was joined by Mukesh, while Mohammed Rafi sang the only male solo.

One could argue that Barsaat, not quite intentionally, set the trend of using music as a promotional tool. Thereafter, filmmakers started giving priority to the quality of music. Major composers like Naushad, C Ramchandra, SD Burman and Shankar-Jaikishan emerged in that era and cemented their place as pioneers of Hindi film music with their memorable and soulful tunes.

From the time of India’s independence in 1947 to the late 1960s is the period that film historians generally regard as the Golden Age of Indian cinema. Movies became hits or flops depending on the quality and popularity of their music. And these music composers and singers played a huge role in that.

Naushad Ali, C Ramchandra, Sachin Dev Burman

Film historian Pavan Jha told Cinestaan.com that Shankar-Jaikishan became so popular in the early 1950s that filmmakers would sign them even before they had decided the cast. Their name on the poster was the easiest way to attract the audience. They were also handsomely paid.

Jaikishan and Shankar

Till the early 1950s, gramophones were the main instrument for Indian music lovers to listen to songs. They were introduced to long-playing records (LPs) in the late 1950s. LPs made Hindi music even more accessible to music lovers as one could now get multiple songs on a single disc, unlike on the old gramophones where only one song could be recorded on one side of a disc.

Film historian Sudhir Kapoor said technological advancement brought about changes in Hindi film music, too. "From the 1930s to the 1960s songs were recorded twice: once they were recorded for a duration of 3 minutes 20 seconds because gramophone records could not record a song for more than the specified duration and then [they were recorded] for the film's soundtrack," Kapoor said. "So the recording for the soundtrack and the recording for the gramophone records were done separately."

That changed with the arrival of LPs. The first vinyl LPs were released on 10 June 1948 by Columbia Records and changed the history of music recording. The new vinyl records were more durable than the heavy and brittle shellac discs, but they had another advantage: with the same diameter, a single record could fit as much music as four discs of an old album. 

A gramophone (left) and an LP turntable

From musicians recording a song live on location during a shoot to single track recording in the studio to multiple track recording used currently, the technological advancement has also been reflected in the music produced. When songs were recorded live during shooting, music composers would avoid using too many instruments and would rely heavily on the actor or actress's voice. If one pays attention to the songs made in the early days of sound in cinema, one will notice how rarely percussion instruments are used and how frequently string instruments such as the violin and sitar or traditional Indian instruments like the flute and the tabla are used. These instruments would not overshadow the voice of the artistes who were singing live.

With the advent of single-track recording in a studio, music composers got a bit more freedom to experiment with their orchestration, which is evident in the music produced in the late 1940s. Lengthier interludes with experimental instrumentation became the norm.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Hindi cinema music, which was till then rooted in Indian culture and inspired by folk music, started branching away and the influence of Western music, especially jazz and Latin music, started becoming more apparent. Traditional Indian instruments like the sitar, sarod, manjira and shehnai began making way for Western instruments such as the tenor saxophone, bongo drums and piano accordion. It's not as if traditional Indian instruments were not used at all, but with each passing decade their presence waned.

"There were multiple reasons for the shift of Hindi cinema from folk-based songs to more Western music," explained Jha. "The first was the change in cinema itself. Before the 1950s our cinema was mostly rural and would tell stories of rural India. The tussle between zamindars and farmers, the oppression of villagers, and superstition were common themes.

"But after the arrival of actors like Dev Anand and Raj Kapoor, the focus shifted to the metro cities. That was also when people from villages started migrating to cities in larger numbers. Hence we saw films like Awara (1951), Baazi (1951) and Shree 420 (1955) which told the stories of youths who had just migrated to cities in search of jobs.

"The second reason for the emergence of Western music in Hindi cinema was our arrangers and musicians who migrated to Bombay from Goa after India became independent. Owing to their early exposure to Portuguese and European culture, these musicians were quite well versed in Western music. They assisted music directors like Shankar-Jaikishan, OP Nayyar and C Ramchandra and inevitably fused jazzy sounds with Indian arrangements."

Blending jazz with classical Indian music gave birth to a new genre called Indo-jazz. Ramchandra's 'Shola Jo Bhadke' from Albela (1951) and Nayyar's 'Babuji Dheere Chalna' from Aar-Paar (1954) and 'Mere Naam Chin Chin Chu' from Howrah Bridge (1958) are some popular examples of this new genre.

The 1960s and 1970s saw major improvements in film sound, and songs, with the ever-improving quality of recording and the introduction of multi-track recording. The improvements in technology broadened the scope for composers like RD Burman and Kalyanji-Anandji to experiment and come up with innovative soundtracks. This period of transition in film music coincided with the commercialization of All India Radio and Doordarshan, allowing film music to reach a wider audience faster and at its convenience.

Even the picturization of songs changed over the decades, as newer technology allowed for more intricate sequences that could match changing audience sensibilities. The picturization went from impromptu moves around tree trunks in the 1940s to intricately choreographed steps featuring scores of professional dancers and exotic backgrounds in the 1990s. The change began from the 1950s as meticulously choreographed numbers started to appear in films like Lajwanti (1958), Navrang (1959) and Mughal-e-Azam (1960).

The 1970s were possibly the most dynamic decade for Hindi film music, as they saw the emergence of new genres such as disco and ghazal and increased use of genres such as qawwali and cabaret. For many of today's film-music lovers, the decade is uniquely placed as it is neither too old for them to connect with nor too recent to take for granted.

In an article in The Journal of Indian Cinema's 1982-83 issue, well-known film and theatre music composer Bhaskar Chandavarkar had outlined the changes that Hindi film music had gone through over the half-century since the advent of the talkie. It is quite amusing today to read him mentioning how music lovers in those days were complaining about the declining quality of film music. 'Old songs had real melody; today's songs are vulgar and banal and try to make up by loudness what they lack in musicality' was the usual complaint of 'kaansens', or listeners, back then, Chandavarkar wrote.

According to Jha, the degradation in the quality of Hindi film music also began in the 1970s. "That was a time when Hindi cinema was going through big changes," he said. "Its very character was changing. In the late 1940s and 1950s, most films were about social issues and focused on social evils. But from the 1970s, cinema was catering mostly to the youth. That was the first generation of youths born in independent India. From social, mythological and historical films, cinema moved towards more crime and action stories, especially after the arrival of the 'Angry Young Man', Amitabh Bachchan. This kind of cinema had little scope for music. Films Like Deewaar (1975) and Don (1978) did not focus as much on music."

The rise of multi-starrer films was another reason for the downgrading of music in Hindi cinema, according to Jha. "As directors had to allocate enough screentime to all the artistes, it became increasingly difficult to accommodate more songs in a film. Because of this, songs began losing their significance as a narrative device. That was when producers and directors started using songs as promotional tools. And aside from romantic films, music lost its importance in Hindi cinema and these factors slowly contributed to the drop in its quality as well." 

With Hindi cinema going global after 2000, the importance of flashy dance numbers was also reduced, and slowly films began moving away from such songs. Loud and flashy song-and-dance routines were toned down to make way for more subtle filmmaking as a new breed of filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Neeraj Pandey, Madhur Bhandarkar and Dibakar Banerjee tried to invent new ways of inserting songs into the narrative. Unlike the traditional song-and-dance, films like Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008), DevD (2009) and Gangs Of Wasseypur (2012) went in for distinctive music that not only played an important role in promotions but also introduced cinema audiences to newer sounds.

With the internet boom and ultra-cheap internet plans from telecom companies battling for market share, there has been greater curiosity about international music, especially among the youth. English rap songs and K-Pop have replaced Hindi film songs in the playlists of a generation that is well-versed with the international music scene.

But the dwindling popularity of Hindi film music may still not result in its demise. While connoisseurs may feel the quality of film music today leaves much to be desired, audiences may not accept filmmakers dropping it entirely, at least not in big-budget commercial entertainers. Indian audiences love to be spoonfed. We love it when a character’s emotions are announced rather than left to the imagination. And what better way to do that than through song?

Songs help to increase the emotional quotient of a scene, and thereby its impact on the audience. They also help to clarify emotions. Many a time we see a character going through some emotional turmoil without fully comprehending what they must be going through. But put a song in the background and voila! everything becomes quite clear without the character uttering a single word.

Jha agrees that it may be well nigh impossible to remove songs entirely from Hindi cinema. "I don't think that time will ever come when songs won't feature in Hindi movies," he said, "though I agree their importance will be reduced, especially with OTT platforms and web-shows."

Correction, 15:06pm: An earlier version of this special report used a portion of the song 'De De Khuda Ke Naam Pe' from the film Alam Ara (1973), a remake of the first Indian talkie film. No prints of the original are known to survive. Only a few stills exist.