Women are fading out from Bollywood musicAn analysis of over 24,000 songs
By Gurman Bhatia
March 17, 2018
Though many activities in Indian public life have been dominated by men, there is one where women have led the way – playback singing in Bollywood music. Yet in recent years, even that has changed: the melodious voices you hear in the top movies have become increasingly male.
Consider songs that were sung by only women in 2017.
Now look at the ones that were sung by only men. It’s more than twice as many.
Bollywood music albums didn't always look like this. We analysed more than 24,000 Bollywood songs from the 50 highest-grossing movies of every year since 1950 and discovered that the share of songs being sung by women is constantly declining.
Take, for example, the solo, that most versatile of Bollywood’s musical forms. The solo can be used to introspect, as in Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli, sung by Manna Dey, or to seduce, as in Don’s classic Yeh Mera Dil sung by Asha Bhosle.
While it continues to be a part of Bollywood films, today, one in every four solos is sung by women. Contrast that with the 50s and 60s, where they sang three in every four.
Fewer women are singing Bollywood solos
Percentage of solos sung by gender for the top 50 Bollywood grossers (1950-2017)
Source: Hindi Geetmala, Wikipedia, HT Analysis
From the 1950s to the 1970s, when Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle dominated all of Bollywood music, very few competitors existed. In the earlier years, Geeta Dutt and Shamshad Begum had their share of solos, but they never managed to overpower the Mangeshkar sisters. The male voices were Mohammad Rafi’s in the 1950s and 1960s, and Kishore Kumar’s in the 1970s and 1980s. Other male singers did not sing nearly as much.
In 1958, for example, Asha Bhosle sang 45% of all songs in releases that year. That means she sang almost every other major song that released that year.
Today, even the top ranking Arijit Singh sings about 10% of all songs. With more singers in the fray, very few singers dominate the market like those in the past.
More players, more competition
Percentage of songs singers sang in the top 50 Bollywood grossers (1950-2017)
Each block represents a singer who sang more than 20 songs in that decade.
Who ruled, when
Percentage of songs the top singers sang in the top 50 Bollywood grossers (1950-2017)
Note: All singers who were the top-most singer in any year are listed.
So what led to an explosion of songs that were sung only by men?
Music composer Amit Trivedi, who currently produces most of the songs sung by women, says it’s simply a matter of what the script demands. “In Secret Superstar, where the film is about a female singer, there will naturally be more female songs,” Trivedi says. But Secret Superstar is an exception: today’s scripts demand more songs sung by men.
The shifting narrative in Bollywood is another factor. With a reduced focus on the family in Bollywood stories, there are fewer opportunities for female songs. “Earlier, there”d be one song for the mother, another for the sister, and a third for the mother-in-law,” says Ganesh Anantharaman, film historian and author of the National Film Award-winning Bollywood Melodies: A History of the Hindi Film Song.
Anantharaman also mentions the “merging of the vamp and herione into one” as a reason. In the 50s and 60s, Lata Mangeshkar would sing for the heroine, while Asha Bhosle and Geeta Dutt would sing for the vamp. As the concept of the vamp has vanished, only the heroine has a chance to sing.
Recently, Bollywood storylines have given more prominence to women. But that doesn't necessarily translate to more female songs because lip-sync is not as popular as it used to be. So even in female-centric films like Queen and Kahaani, there aren’t many songs sung by women.
Kahaani 2, the thriller from 2016 with a female protagonist, does not have a single female solo; contrast that with three solos sung by men. Yet there is also 2017’s Lipstick Under My Burkha, where every song is sung by only women.
Select a decade
List of songs in