In the movie Wake Up Sid, as Konkona Sen walks the streets of Mumbai, the wind whips her hair around her face, and Iktara, the song that won most of the awards for 2009, plays in the background.
In Paa, as Abhishek Bachchan romances Vidya Balan, another of 2009’s hit songs, Mudi Mudi, plays in the background. And in My Name is Khan, made by Karan Johar who has taken the tradition of song and dance in Hindi films to new heights, the songs Tere Naina and Sajda play hauntingly in the background as the film moves from one phase to the next.
These songs have two things in common. Great scores is the first. But the second feature they share is surprising, given that the songs are all from Hindi films. Unlike in the past, when most hit numbers were associated with a star who sang them on screen (or rather, lip-synced them to vocals by a playback singer), these songs were played in the background, while their picturisation was a montage of events that carried the story forward.
It’s the kind of thing Hollywood movies do. Is this the way Bollywood is going?
“It’s to do with the kind of films that are being made,” says director Kunal Deshmukh, whose two films Jannat and Tum Mile both had hit songs that were not lip-synced by the stars. “The new filmmakers have a new sensibility, and they find the concept of the star singing a song on screen a little outdated.”
Put that way, it makes sense. As singer Shaan explains, “The time when the hero and heroine ran around trees and sang to each other is gone. When we talk realistic cinema, we definitely do not talk singing songs. The public will not accept it. We are, in a lot of ways, looking west. With the kind of films we are making, we may see many without any songs at all.”
This doesn’t mean that actors will never lip-sync songs at all. Lip-syncing can and does work – provided that it suits the situation.
“We are making films that are believable,” says composer Shantanu Moitra. “So if there is a situation such as friends jamming together, or at a disco, then a lip-synced song works. For instance, in 3 Idiots, all the songs were lip-synced as the situations and the compositions required someone to commit to the song. They wouldn’t have sounded or looked convincing had we used them as background scores.”
It isn’t just situations that ensure that lip-syncing works. Characters do too. “For instance, in Cheeni Kum, it would have been odd if Tabu, who played a no nonsense, intelligent woman and Amitabh (Bachchan), who was a stiff chef, had broken into a love song,” says R Balki, the man behind Cheeni Kum and Paa.
But even this is too simplistic, he adds. Sometimes a song in the background just makes more sense than a lip-synced song. For instance, Vidya Balan and Abhishek Bachchan in Paa could have sung Mudi Mudi to each other on screen, but Balki preferred it otherwise. “There were story leaps that, if shown in any other way, could have made the film drag,” he says. “A lip-synced song makes any jump difficult and unbelievable.”
That’s all very well, but a Hindi movie has certain essential elements without which it wouldn’t be the kind of movie we know and love. Naach-gaana is an integral part of the Indian film sensibility – at least, that’s how it’s been till now.
That’s how it will remain, say filmmakers. “All we are doing is experimenting with the presentation of songs in films,” says Deshmukh. “The scope of doing a song differently becomes huge. Also the audience is far more receptive to modern designs now. So why not take the chance?”
The fact that film music is now becoming a self-contained industry is another factor. “Now songs become popular on their own. You do not need it to be part of a film for it to become a hit. In fact the number of songs that are hits is far higher than films that are hits,” says Shaan.
Playback singers find this liberating. Earlier, certain playback singers were associated with certain heroes – for instance, Mukesh with Raj Kapoor, Udit Narayan with Aamir Khan, and so on. Now, as playback singer Shilpa Rao points out, singers are free to give a song the treatment it deserves.
“Now it’s more about emotions,” says Rao. “A voice represents and reflects situations and emotions. So the scope to sing without having to bother if a certain note will match an actor’s voice is greater.”
Will more Hindi films take up the trend of songs in the background? “Perhaps,” says Moitra. “But since our films are based on the nautanki style, the fundamentals cannot go away. We may become slick and stylish, but only a perfect balance of the old and new will be acceptable. Lip-syncing cannot go away entirely.”