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Music fights its way back to films

Like a lost diamond, the Hindi movie song has been lying in a film of dust since the late nineties, its glitter fading every year. But it is beginning to shine again, writes Neelesh Misra.

music Updated: Feb 29, 2008 10:55 IST
Neelesh Misra

Some singers do not take fees these days after completing a song in Bollywood.

It is not out of a sense of philanthropy, but the knowledge that the real earnings are not from the one-off fee — instead, from the money-spinning stage performances that are to follow, as music makes a strong comeback in the new Bollywood.

Like a lost diamond, the Hindi movie song has been lying in a film of dust since the late nineties, its glitter fading every year. But it is beginning to shine again.

After a decline in sales that began 12 years ago, Indian music is beginning to look up with a return to good lyrics, great music, better promotion, renewed listener interest and bigger margins.

For the first time, the music industry is propping itself up again, supported by digital music rather than the dwindling sales of cassettes and CDs.

International movie and music companies are stepping into Bollywood, and are set to bring with them a mirage that has eluded composers and writers for long: royalties.

But at the heart of it, there was no number crunching or marketing jugglery; it was pure craft.

“Women call me about the song and weep on the phone,” said Prasoon Joshi, referring to his eloquent song Maa in Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par. The music, by Shankar-Ehsan-Loy, is among the top hits of the year alongside the music of Om Shanti Om, composed by Vishal-Shekhar.

The craft of the song is changing. A new set of young writers, composers and technicians is giving music a new sound, a new face and a new feel.

“I have not worked with a single director above 42 years. Most are in the 30s, even late 20s. Most technicians are young. Forty-five is the upper limit,” said Vishal Dadlani of the composer duo Vishal-Shekhar.

“It is a shift of generation. The average age in the business will soon be 25. I think its fantastic — it accurately reflects the mindset of the future,” Dadlani said, relaxing on a sofa at his music room in Mumbai’s Bandra neighbourhood. “Even songwriting structures have entirely changed.”

The traditional mukhda-plus-two-antaras structure (opening and two verses) of the song is often being experimented with. The influence of rap music brought in broken, jagged, often conversational verses. Sometimes the mukhda is done away with. English words are often part of the lyrics.

This is an industry where most songs have long been composed the inverse way — music directors create melodies, directors approve them, then they are given to lyric writers along with a brief of the story and song situation, and then the song is written to suit the metre of the song and the context.

But that too is changing. Several music directors, including AR Rehman, Shankar-Ehsan-Loy, Vishal-Shekhar and Sandesh Shandilya, often compose lyrics given to them. The leading young composers are also giving Bollywood a new beat.

“Melody has taken off its clothes, it wants to wear something new,” said Sajid Khan of the music duo of brothers Sajid and Wajed. “Bombay is glittering like gold. Its talent is being flashed all over the world.”

Most of that talent, including the leading singers, are much younger than the icons in past generations.

“You cannot use older singers — the younger brigade is led by Sonu (Nigam), Shaan, KK, Sunidhi (Chauhan), Shreya (Ghoshal),” said Dadlani. “I think it does give it a certain vibrancy. They are open to experimentation, and do new things all the time. People now come to you and say they want to work with new voices and lyricists.”

All that is part of a huge arc of efforts that is reviving Bollywood music.

The music industry has witnessed a slump worldwide — and that has been reflected in India as well. Pirated music is believed to be one-third of the organised market.

Also, sales of cassettes and CDs going down — in 1994, a top selling album sold 3.8 million copies; in 2006, it sold 2.6 million. Unlike in most other developed markets, music is dominated by films in India.

But things are looking up. The music industry, valued at $ 250 million (Rs. 1,000 crore) in 2000, was estimated at $155 million (Rs. 650 crore) in 2006. Digital music is going to prop it further, taking it to a projected $170 million (Rs. 750 crore) in another two years, according to a study done for the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII).

“This is an amazing time for a creative person. This is the best time,” said top music director Vishal Bhardwaj.

“Many writers are trying to say something new, find a new language to write,” said lyricist Swanand Kirkire, whose first song Baawra Mann in the 2005 Hazaron Khwahishen Aisi still resonates with listeners.

“For the first time, I see that a normal Indian is finding his voice. Money and recognition is better. People know who has written a song,” Kirkire said. But he added: “The new Bollywood is not flawless, it is not complete yet.”

Many of the flaws have to do with what lies at the heart of it all: in the world’s most watched movie industry, where music fetches millions of dollars, composers and lyric writers do not get royalties due to them.

“The music business is run with a shopkeeper mentality — they don’t care whether they are selling soap or music,” said Dadlani.

“Royalties — will take their own time. Let the big guys eat, once their stomachs are full, they might want to distribute it to the people who make the music,” said Sajid Khan.

Some of that is changing already. International companies are stepping in with the promise of starting a royalties system in India. Vishal-Shekhar are producing albums by other artistes, and will give royalties.

At a larger level, many say the movers and shakers in Bollywood do not understand or respect good writing.

“Understanding of good writing is not necessarily there — it is a need-based thing,” said writer Joshi. “If you don’t behave well with you driver, your staff, one day they will all start leaving you. And then you realise you did not respect them. That is not change — that is opportunism.” “Respect for writing is needed, not respect for writers.”

(Series concluded)