With every new release, a debate we never thought we’d be having is rekindled. Is the film song, a defining feature of popular Hindi cinema, heading for the exit?
It hasn’t disappeared, of course. Most of 2022’s big Hindi releases as well as the dubbed hits had actors performing lip-synced songs. Can we imagine SS Rajamouli’s RRR without the uber-energetic Naacho Naacho, in which Ram Charan and NTR Jr move their bodies in perfect co-ordination for four breathless minutes?
Yet, songs have undoubtedly lost their pre-eminence in Hindi cinema. Gone are the days when movies had at least half a dozen tunes to mark the narrative arc.
Treated as a necessary evil or marketing tools, songs are frequently dumped into the background, woven into situations (a wedding, a celebration) or rolled along with the end credits. Composers who can create entire soundtracks or lyricists who express a movie’s mood and theme are increasingly rare too.
As the prolific composer Pritam told Devarsi Ghosh in a Scroll.in interview in October, mainstream directors and producers are committing “hara-kiri” by ignoring the importance of film music. “Even today, look at the box office opening a film gets if there’s a good trailer and just two good songs before the release,” Pritam said – sound counsel that is falling on deaf ears and fuelling the perception that Hindi cinema is losing its connection with its audiences.
The most recent example is Rohit Shetty’s Cirkus, which buried one of its catchiest songs, Aashiqui, in the end credits. Directors, choreographers, musicians and lyricists are concentrating their energies on the wedding song or the club number, leaving cinegoers who regard in-film music as an intrinsic element of the viewing experience bereft.
It took one of the masters to remind us that some of 2022’s most noteworthy movies wouldn’t have worked without their soundtracks. Few directors know how to use music as Mani Ratnam. Even in his lesser films, Ratnam’s genius for that Indian concept known as “song picturisation” is undisputed.
In Ratnam’s Ponniyin Selvan: I, AR Rahman’s songs and background score further a plot set in the Chola kingdom in the tenth century, express a character’s emotions or simply invite us to luxuriate in the wonderment on the screen.
Ponniyin Selvan: I, the first in a two-part adaptation of the Kalki Krishnamurthy novel of the same name, was released in Tamil in September and dubbed into several languages, including Hindi. Its songs flow as smoothly as the Ponni (or Cauvery) river that inspired book and film, in no small part because of the manner in which they were used.
A little over 10 minutes in, a song marks the soldier Vandiyathevan’s mission to deliver a message from his commander to the Chola king. Vandiyathevan is accompanied by a rousing track about the Chola kingdom’s lush beauty. Vandiyathevan’s sense of marvel is matched by Illango Krishnan’s lyrics (the Hindi lyrics are by Mehboob), Rahman’s head-bopping music, and the dexterous inter-weave of plot exposition and a choreographed dance.
In another musical sequence, Ratnam seamlessly intercuts the aching memory of a truncated romance with a battlefield victory dance. Slow-motion, fog-filled flashbacks are juxtaposed with jittery camerawork as the heir apparent Adithya Karikalan drunkenly dances to remember as well as forget.
Ponniyin Selvan: 1 has massive ground to conquer – several principal characters, intersecting sub-plots, different locations. Accordingly, nearly all the songs either trail off into the following sequence or are interspersed with dialogue exchanges. Ratnam even barely uses one of Rahman’s most haunting songs, filmed on the boatwoman Poonkuzhali (and sung by Antara Nandy).
The songs and background score accompany, but never overwhelm, a power struggle between royals and rebels. Ponniyin Selvan: 1 is thoroughly modern in its treatment and resolutely old-fashioned in its treatment of its musical aspects.
Another area expert proved that film music can lift a narrative, rather than raise impatience levels. Sanjay Leela Bhansali, whose filmmaking heritage goes back to the early years of cinema, paid attention to every one of the tunes he composed for his February release Gangubai Kathiawadi.
The period movie stars Alia Bhatt as a sex worker who takes charge of her brothel in Mumbai’s Kamathipura neighbourhood. Two garba dance sequences mark the transformation of Bhatt’s Gangubai from naive adolescent to streetsmart adult.
In the first song, shot in three long takes, Gangubai swirls around in youthful ardour. In the second garba song, Gangubai is older, wiser and heavier. The song has a greater number of editing cuts, reflecting Gangubai’s altered reality.
In his Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam (1999), Bhansali masterfully filmed a song as a series of teasing glances and mimed moments between lovers. Gangubai Kathiawadi has a less conventional relationship: the brothel madam has fallen for her tailor Afsaan.
Jab Saiyaan continues with the mime montage. Gangubai, perched on her balcony, mock-plays cards with Afsaan, who is on the street below. She invites him over for a drink (him: Rooh Afza. Her: alcohol). Their flirting culminates in a tonga ride that appears to be a tribute to an excised moment from Abrar Alvi’s Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962).
A scene in a song in which the aristocratic Chhoti Bahu lays her head on the lap of her sympathiser Bhootnath was removed because it appeared suggestive. In Bhansali’s film, which celebrates its heroine’s fearlessness, Gangubai uninhibitedly snuggles up to her lover.
Meri Jaan is a virtuoso single-take song, in which Gangubai and Afsaan run the gamut of romance – infatuation, rejection, renewed acceptance, the sudden realisation of unattainable love. Bhansali’s brilliance at filming songs make us forget the ordinariness of his tunes.
One of the highlights of Rishab Shetty’s sleeper hit Kantara is the song Varaha Roopam, in which rock guitars bring an ancient folk tradition into the present. Indubitably ripped from the five-year-old Navarasam by Thaikkudam Bridge, Ajaneesh Lokanath’s Varaha Roopam serves as the leitmotif connecting generations of folk performers.
In the absence of full-bodied soundtracks, directors in 2022 relied on a single anthem-like number to convey their ideas. Shakun Batra’s Gehraiyaan had Doobey, which summarises the choppy waters ahead for a woman pursuing a clandestine affair with her cousin’s boyfriend.
Anees Bazmee’s Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 cleverly reworked Ami Je Tomar from its prequel Bhool Bhulaiyaa, giving a gender twist to the original tune’s revenge theme. A possessed Vidya Balan performed the song in the first film. The spiritual sequel has a spirited performance by Kartik Aaryan.
Older Hindi film songs popped up with regularity in the year’s releases, often in anachronistic situations – Kisi Ki Muskurahaton in Vikram Vedha to Dil Ka Bhanwar Kare Pukar and Babu Samjho Ishaare in Cirkus. Among the most inspired musical moments in 2022 was the sonic match between singer Himesh Reshammiya’s yowl and a wolf-man’s howl in Amar Kaushik’s Bhediya.
Smart reworkings of Hindi film music included Harshvardhan Kulkarni’s Badhaai Do, about the lavender marriage between a gay police man and a lesbian physical education coach.
A wedding song reminds us of the necessary fakery that underpins the marital union between Shardul and Suman. In two other romantic songs, Shardul and Suman express their ardour for their same-sex partners with gestures and expressions that are typically used in heterosexual romance.
One of 2022’s entertainers was named after a line from a chartbusting 1970s song. Vasan Bala’s Monica, O My Darling owes its title to Piya Tu Ab To Aaja from Caravan (1971). Varun Grover’s lyrics, Achint’s retro score and Anupama Chakraborty Shrivastava’s treacly voice perfectly capture the intent behind Bala’s homage-heavy crime caper.
Yeh Ek Zindagi and Bye Bye Adios have both the philosophical bent nestled in the club songs of the 1970s as well as their penchant for nonsensical filler words. In Yeh Ek Zindagi, Monica anticipates the perilous journey of robotics whiz-kid Jayant.
Bye Bye Adios, which is used in the background during a funeral, contains another warning to Jayant. The feckless lover is gone, may you survive whatever’s coming your way, Chakraborty Shrivastava sing only half seriously.
Music provided the heartbeat of Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Vikram, filmed in Tamil and dubbed into Hindi. Vikram is part of what is being called the “Lokesh Cinematic Universe” – a suite of crime thrillers flowing from his 2019 film Kaithi.
Anirudh Ravichander’s addictive soundtrack was a snug fit for a film about drug-runners. Ravichander inventively paid tribute to the 1980s film Vikram that inspired the current production, designed themes for each of the major players (including a call-back to Kaithi) and turbo-charged scenes with his music. Indeed, Ravichander’s score as much a character in Vikram as are Kamal Haasan, Fahadh Faasil and Vijay Sethupathi.
The tracks included an ode to Pablo Escobar and a funked-up nadaswaram for an impromptu wedding. It was the kind of movie in which even a cameo by Suriya had its own identifiable motif – a leading example of approaching film music with brain and heart.