Indian movies and songs

The ingredients of the average Hindi films are well known; color (Eastman preferred); songs (six or seven) in voices one knows and trusts; dance – solo and ensemble – the more frenzied the better; bad girl, good girl, bad guys, goody guys, romance (but no kisses); tears, guffaws, fights, chases, melodrama; characters who exist in a social vacuum; dwellings which do not exist outside studio floor; [exotic] locations in Kulu, Manali, Ooty, Kashmir, London, Paris, Hong Kong, Tokyo … See any three films and two will have all the ingredients listed above. — Satyajit Ray (Our films, their films, Orient Longman pp90-91)

So wrote the legendary film maker Satyajit Ray about Hindi movies. Unlike Hindi movies of his days, Satyajit Ray took his viewers to the real life of his characters, showing the food they ate and clothes they wore. The life his protagonists led were simple and utterly and compellingly real. Ray’s movies were different from Hindi movies in their outlook and theme, yet they had songs. Although fewer than it’s counterpart.

So why songs are so important in all Indian movies?

Hindi movies without songs are rare. Naujawan, Munna, Kanoon, Pushpak, Achanak and Black are perhaps only movies without any song in them. And I doubts if there are many Indian movies without songs in other languages. In 1937, when Naujawan (Wadia Movietones) was released without a single song in it, a reporter reported how people reacted to this ‘experiment’. In Jubliee Cinema Delhi, where is movie was premiered the audience went on rampage, breaking chairs and shouting ‘Wadia ne loot liya’ (Wadia has robbed us); the film had to be temporarily withdrawn. Such a strong protest forced the producers to insert a trailer before the film to explain why there was no song in it.

Why did people find it hard to accept ‘a movie without songs’? Ashok Ranade who did seminal work on Hindi Film Songs gave an explanation.  ‘Historically Indian cinema relied on the heritage of Indian theatre which is built on the intertwining of the ‘drishya’ (visual) and ‘shravya’ (aural), giving rise to musical drama.’ [1] And music has to be an integral part of any drama. This is a ‘traditional image’ of drama. Movies, a new avatar of drama, must have songs in it. And Indians do not find it easy to tolerate something which varies from its traditional image whether it is a movie without a songs or a girl in western clothes.

Movies without songs were not recieved well in the past. It can all change now. A section of Indian population with significant purchasing power is comfortable with Western movies which rarely have songs in them. A Indian movie can now claim its existence without any song. A song and the way it is sung by protagonists, makes Hindi movies more surreal than they already are. But Hindi movies do not claim to be a ‘portrait of reality’. In 1970, Manmohan Desai, said of his works that he ‘want[s] people to forget their misery,.. [he] want[s] to take them into a dream world where there is no poverty, where there is no beggars, where fate is kind and God is busy looking after his flock’ [Ref]. And it worked well!

Peasant and workers went to movies for the same reason as, back in 19th century, a new literate and working class in England chose to read stories about rich and the famous. As a character in a George Gissing’s novel says, “Nothing can induce working men  and women to read stories that treat their own world. They are the most consummate idealists in creation, especially the women … The working class detest anything that tries to represent their daily life.” No wonder, most of Indian newspapers which are competing with television to become the source of entertainment, chose to to ignore reality. Only ‘farse and melodrama’, wrote Gissing, went down well with the British working class. Same can be said about Indians with the farce and melodrama being indianised.

Hindi movies are changing in their outlook. They no longer boast ‘stories of struggle’ or ‘a protagonist struggling to live a life of virtue’.  Although there have been exceptional cases. Today’s character are not virtuous young men and women or poor people struggling to make a living with dignity. They have been replaced by NRIs and middle classes. Their inspirations are projected as the inspirations of the nations and they set what should be seen modern or proper and what as backward. Movies are the best repositories of their changing inspirations. Despite of such rapid changes in outlook, as far as songs are concerned Indian movies have remained largely the same. ‘Indian audience’, writes film Historian Nasreen Munni Kabir, are ‘resigned to stock characters and predictable dialogues’. But they know, and hope, that these ‘tried old stories’ can yet be ‘brought back to life by good-looking stars and six or eight great songs’. These movie-goers ‘can accept repetition in story-lines, but they ‘will reject a film music if it has no originality’ [5]. Those who are seeing a lot of item-numbers in Indian movies these days may find this observation somewhat premature.


[1] Hindi Film Songs : Music Beyond Boundries, 2006, pp117 (for news report).
[2] The singer and the voice : Where is the music, EPW, Nov 27, 2004
[3] Mukul Kesvan, ‘Cine Qua Non’ (outlook, Aug 18, 1997) and ‘An undergraduate History of Hindi Cinema’ in B.G. Verghese ‘Tomorrow India, Another tryst with destiny’.
[4] Raj comics fans, See ‘Remembering Anthony Gonsalves’ . How Goan musician has changed face of popular music. You will meet  ‘Murda Anthony’ character there. Seminar, Nov 2004 etc.
[5] A people entertainment, ‘India After Gandhi’, Ramachandra Guha.
[6] “Our songs, their movies, The Hindu, Jan 12, 2013


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