The past 12 months have been short on Hindi film soundtracks that will be remembered down the years. For a snapshot of how few albums, as opposed to singles, have been genuine hits, just take a glance at iTunes India’s 100 best-selling albums, a list that’s updated in real time, and you’ll see that out of all the Bollywood releases, including best-of compilations, less than 10 are from 2017, and that’s if we count the dubbed soundtrack to Baahubali 2 – The Conclusion.
Has it been a particularly bad year for Bollywood original soundtracks? One could argue that the last half-decade has been short on truly great music. But 2017 in particular seems like a period in which we struggled to find a classic. Some might say that Jagga Jasoos featured some of Pritam’s best work, but is Galti Se Mistake anywhere as memorable as his Chana Meraya? To examine the current state of Hindi film music, we thought we’d use a case study, the biggest soundtrack of the year Badrinath Ki Dulhania.
We’re calling it the biggest on a number of factors. It’s the oldest 2017 release – it came out in February – that’s still on the iTunes chart, and sits at number five on the music e-tailer’s list of the most popular albums of the year, making it the highest-ranking soundtrack of the past 12 months (2016’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil is number one). The title track, with over 320 million views, is the third most viewed Bollywood music video on YouTube of all time. The standout tune, ballad Humsafar, with over 69,000 searches, is the most Shazam-ed Hindi film song of the year. The film too was a box-office smash.
As far as soundtracks go, Badrinath Ki Dulhania is as generic as they come and that’s what makes it good for a case study. Every tune is infectious, and every tune plays like something you’ve heard before. In fact, there’s something distinctly 1990s about the way the soundtrack has been put together, a comparison that reviewers have made with the content of the film itself. Aashiq Surrender Hua, filled with clattering drums, horns and whistles, and the buoyant Badri Ki Dulhania, the original of which itself sounds remixed, are throwbacks to the tapori songs of yore, and have been engineered for maximum play at baraats and sangeets (even though the title track is supposedly a Holi song).
Roke Na Ruke Naina is the heartbreak ballad, lavished with sarangi and Indian classical flute for adequate poignancy. If you didn’t know it already, there are no prizes for guessing that the vocalist is Arijit Singh. Then of course there’s Tamma Tamma Again, Tanishk Bagchi’s “recreation” of Bappi Lahiri’s Tamma Tamma Loge from Thandedaar (1990), which itself is a remake of a remake, or to put it less politely, a copy of a copy. This recreation (an appropriate term given that most songs these days are timepass rather than timeless) features the voices of Lahiri and Arunadha Paudwal, who sang the ‘original’ version, which was inspired by Mory Kante’s Tama.
The new version loses some of the eccentricities of Lahiri’s work, including the minute-long instrumental introduction, but is, on a very relative scale, one of Bagchi’s better rehashes. It could have done without the predictable and unnecessarily rap verse by Badshah but composers don’t seem to know any other way to update a song these days. Unlike the soundtracks of the ’90s, and in keeping with a more worrying trend, all the songs, with the exception of Tamma Tamma Again, are presented from the male perspective, the female voice a respondent if at all. This is curious considering that Bollywood is increasingly making films told from a woman’s point of view.
Similarly, the best track on the album, Humsafar takes it inspiration from a recent phenomenon. It’s an Arijit Singh song that’s not sung by Arijit Singh. Humsafar, rendered with a refreshing restraint by its singer and composer Akhil Sachdeva, is full of the pathos that is beloved of ballads in Bollywood and is likely to be the only song that people will be play-listing when the film is long forgotten. That said, there’s little doubt Sachdeva got his cues from the hits Pritam has been mass-producing with Singh.
Sachdeva is one of three composers on the five-track OST. The others are Armaan Malik (Aashiq, Roke) and Bagchi (Badrinath, Tamma). This cherry picking of music directors is something that a few critics have pointed out has contributed to the dearth of quality soundtracks in recent times. That it doesn’t affect Badrinath too badly has to do with both the filmmakers’ shrewd curation and the fact that so much of Bollywood music sounds so similar these days that composers, few of whom bear a distinctive stamp, are almost interchangeable.
The creative drought is further emphasised by the need to remake earlier hits when inspiration doesn’t strike at home. Bagchi is the go-to guy/chief culprit but it’s happening because it’s working. The two other 2017 hits on the list of the top ten most viewed Bollywood music videos on YouTube ever are Laila Mein Laila from Raees and The Humma Song from OK Jaanu. Tamma Tamma Again and Tu Cheez Badi from Machine are in the top 25. That none of them is an improvement on the original is another matter.
A quick look at the list, which includes tracks from a number of flops, will show that YouTube itself is affecting the roles songs play in a film’s success. Gone are the days when a hit soundtrack guaranteed at least a good opening at the box-office. When the clips can be watched with a click, why waste time suffering through a dud, like we had to in the old days?
A relatively better option in this multi-music director era is the co-option of Punjabi hits. A couple of this year’s most successful examples of this are tunes by Guru Randhawa, the singer-songwriter from Gurdaspur whose Suit Suit and Tu Ban Meri Rani livened the respective soundtracks of Hindi Medium and Tumhari Sullu, two of the finer films to hit the marquee in 2017. It’s another easy way out – the song’s already a regional favourite, so the chances of it being a national chartbuster are high.
Maybe it’s all about timing and there’s hope for a fresh new sound in Bollywood soon. Ajay-Atul, who broke through in 2016 with Sairat, did not have a Hindi film release this year and are on board for the eagerly anticipated Thugs of Hindostan. Ears are also trained on Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar’s upcoming movie that’s based on the lives of Mumbai rappers Divine and Naezy, two of the most interesting acts to emerge from the Indian independent music scene recently. Only time will tell what Bollywood makes of them.