The gods of cinema gave scripts and technology to Hollywood, and song and dance to Bollywood. Aren’t we glad for that? It lets us thrust our sanskriti (culture) and parampara (tradition) in the face of all comers, and at the same time allow us to thrust our pelvis at head-shaking purists. More importantly, they let our films have a life beyond moving images.
What Holly has been doing with coffee mugs and t-shirts over the past decade, Bolly has been doing with songs from the time Kundan Lal Saigal first lent his nose to film music.
And I bet a copy of ‘The History of Indian Film Music’ box-set that Saigal’s nasal twang will far outlive your matted Matrix mousepad.
If you don’t believe me — and even if you don’t care much that Saigal, apart from Mohammed Rafi, remains the most cherished Indian singer between Delhi and Istambul — get a copy of the 10-CD collection yourself. After it drills a Rs 1,999 hole in your pocket and before it bores you to deafness, it will tell you that Bollywood has not been so plotless along the ages, after all. From Saigal’s Devdas in 1936 to Abhishek Bachchan’s Bluff Master in 2005 is a magnificent sweep of plots.
But there are few things as satisfying as watching a perfectly coherent plot disintegrating as a soap bubble the moment a song comes on. The stories maybe rooted in gritty reality, but the songs allow everyone to take wings. Actresses forget that they cannot wear a backless choli in snowy Kashmir, actors forget they cannot be in Mumbai one moment and Montreal the next, and directors forget the story they wanted to tell in the first place. Songs infuse the much-needed magic in a plot’s realism.
Listen to the 10 CDs that arranged by decades (with the first one packing in the 1930s and 40s, and the 70s split into two discs) and watch the changing plotlines of Bollywood. The change happens in lurches, but it’s as clear as a Kishore Kumar yodel.
As the collective nasal twang of Saigal, Pankaj Mullick, K.C. Das and Devika Rani gives way to the Strepsil-clear voices of the post-1940s’ Rafi, Lata, Manna and Asha, tunes become more hummable. Instead of gently swaying to ‘Panchhi bawra’ and ‘Nainon se chori’ in villages, we have heroes and heroines twisting and jiving to ‘Gore gore o baanke chore’ and ‘Eena meena deeka’ in urban revelries. And by the time Kishore bursts into stardom with ‘Gaata rahe mera dil’ in Guide in late 60s, a new set of stars such as Rajesh Khanna and Jeetendra are demanding new plotlines involving running around trees. And by the time the nasal twang comes back in Kumar Sanu’s ‘Ek ladki ko dekha’, rough-haired anti-heroes are staring down brilliantined, goody-good heroes. In the 2000s, with ‘Saathiya’, ‘Jadu hai nasha hai’ and ‘Maula mere maula’, there are no black-and-white portrayals — everyone is a shade of grey. The neighbourhood don is as much a friend as the well-meaning shoolteacher.
Over the discs, the change happens at a ‘Hindu rate’, but in the compacted form of decades the mood shifts can be sudden. A classical-inspired bhakti number can spike the mood you acquired while listening to the previous one, which could be love song.
Some singers can go it too. For example, I get a sudden urge to conquer Poland every time I hear Mukesh’s voice — from any year, even when he’s singing ‘Sawan ka mahina’ — and Lata in any song after Lekin (1990). But Kishore Kumar’s ‘Chingari’ or Kunal Ganjawala’s ‘Bheegey hont’ make me want to stretch and have a cup of chai.
Have I raised the hackles of tut-tutting purists by shovelling all of Hindi filmdom into the bottomless pit that’s ‘Bollywood’? Well, so be it. This column will try to play ball with Hindi film and non-film songs. And I prefer to play with a term you can hold on to, rather than one — say, the Hindi film industry — that sounds like a litigant on an official document. Amen.
This fortnightly column will alternate with Rock-n-Roll Circus