Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The shrinking shelf life of Indian Film Music

One of the regular days, as I made my way to work this morning I switched on the music on my phone and listened to Naav from Udaan (2010). Yes, it has been almost two years since the movie released but this track still imparts ginormous inspiration and sweeping exhilaration to my nubile senses. Many a days, I just play the complete album of Udaan or Rockstar while working out or walking or just while sitting in my room by myself. There have been times when I have danced alone to Subha Hone Na De (Desi Boyz) or jumped while driving my car listening to O Meri Jaan (Life In A Metro) or found myself covered with goosebumps after playing Yeh Jo Des (Swades) or undergone rousing nostalgia due to Tum Se Hi (Jab We Met). For most people, music has the unrivaled immersive prowess of deeply altering the course of thoughts and mood, almost instantly. The jarring setbacks of reality or the ecstasy of the unreal, the lack of concentration or the overdose of distraction, almost everything that has edges seems to be smoothed by the inimitable thrill of good music. Having concluded that, I was punched in the face by a recent statement by leading writer and lyricist, Javed Akhtar, who at a recent event on music, claimed that Indian film music is suffering from a shrinking shelf life and songs are losing their USP in films as they are being increasingly used as mere background scores more and more in new films. Really?

When I introduced Mr Akhtar's idea to a friend, he chided me by showing his iPod full of music from last 3-4 years or more, most of which were film songs. But then again, on another night, while playing the game of Antakshari with some of my family friends, I could see almost everyone, including the people younger to me, come up with an old song upon little prompting. Why not the new Bollywood songs from the past 10-15 years? Whether you agree to it or not, you would cheer up if a film song plays at a night club while you are there, amidst the barrage of international and punjabi music. And yet again, I had a friend who is also a professional dancer complain to me recently that there are no new songs that can be used for performances. Has the music in Indian films really lost its memorable nature?

With all due respect, I would like to take up Akhtar's allegation and break it down to understand it. Firstly, is the shelf life of film music really shrinking? How would we even know if this is happening? Films disclose their Box Office collections and we witness how long it runs in the theaters. Though we have stunningly lost the concept of golden or silver jubilees, yet we are able to gauge the memorable nature of a film, both in the popular sense and the critical sense by deploying more than one methods. Whereas a cloud of doubt surrounds the actual longevity of a music album. Sales numbers, even if disclosed, are ineffectual in telling us if a song is memorable for years. Radio could be used as effective means to virtuously exemplify the shelf life if stations are still playing an album on popular demand, long after the buzz of the film has diminished. A prudent analysis can only be conducted when we have actual studies in place to trace the trajectory of an album post release, instead of what makes for a chartbuster before release. What we do know is that song and dance was the most common wily identifier for Hindi films across the globe for ages along with being exaggerated to an almost discriminatory stereotype for us. We dont care. We love what we do and are proud of it. Yes, we do. But over time, not only did songs and dances serve as randy means to communicate our film language to a layman, but also evolved or rather morphed themselves straddling forward with the buffet of ever changing trends and gritty audience expectations. Time and again, music has suffered from half-hearted creations or trashy lyrics. A lot of times a song is born to suit the needs of a star, a producer or a director who is consumed by an ongoing blinding race to make a mark by re-hashing an already successful formula of a song and deliver a chartbuster. A lot of film's marketing strategy is aligned and wrapped around its music, which must bring about a lucid uproar. The sprawling frequency of scaly music production has increased in the past few years compromising heavily on the quality of music. So even if the shelf life is shrinking, it is because of the drop in the volume of quality songs, not because of any other whimsical reason.

We need to understand that those great hits of yesteryear's attained that classic stature over many years of music production which also comprised of a bunch of duds. If we look at a bracket of 10 years in recent times, we could have shelled out the same number of memorable hits as was done in the 70s probably, along with the cluttered heap of junk. We might be in a position to judge today's music around 20 years from now, if our kids are still humming these tunes. An album like Rockstar, DevD, Udaan, Jab We Met might receive the coveted status that we have imparted to Kishore Kumar hits, who knows. Hence, we do need cerebral judgement based on probing studies over a long period of time to conclude if the shelf life of current film music is actually shrinking.

Having said that, I completely disagree that this phenomenon is anyway related to the changing use of songs in narratives. With Indian cinema ready to transcend its own boundaries, the sensibilities of using a song in a film narrative has outgrown from a necessity to a plot-driven requirement. More directors are not averse to experimenting with their music album to grate their narrative, instead of the alternate practice of planting songs customarily. Amongst recent releases, Don 2 did fine with just one song lip-synced and so did Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara. For DevD, Ek Main Aur Ekk Tu, Kahaani, Gangs of Wasseypur etc, it was more than inherent to use their songs as a background canvas to enunciate the ongoing proceedings of the plot. Shanghai used all its song videos for promotional purposes and retained only one song for the film. However, filmmakers still indulge themselves in the age-old practice many a times and throw in many songs without realizing the botheration it causes the pace of the narrative, such as in Rowdy Rathore, Agneepath etc.

I feel one of the more uncomfortable yet perceptible reasons of our music losing its memorable nature could be that Indian music has been predominantly overshadowed by Indian Film music, for as long as I can trace it back to. Music was never developed as an independent art. Little kids singing in TV talent shows or learning music only dream of singing for films. The concept of vocal artists and bands releasing their albums or singles has always been snubbed and meticulously dwarfed in front of the music for films, when it came to popularity. Never has an album of an artist or a band tasted the same success as done by an album of a film, barring a few that stick out in this pile of mud. Sonu Nigam's initial albums, KK's Pal, Atif Aslam's Doorie, Jal and Falguni Pathak are few exceptional instances of popular success. But this clout is diminishing fast into oblivion. Is there any non-film album in the past three years that could boast of reasonable success? Where have all the new singers who came out with their debut albums disappeared? Our solo artists are earning their bread doing numerous shows around the country and abroad, singing at weddings, functions etc along with music festivals. Music festivals have been clinically instrumental in exposing the latent talent with a lot of Indian bands, artists, disc jockeys. Bands such as Jalebee Cartel, Agnee amongst others have gained the necessary recognition in their niche audience that was aware about their existence. But now, shows like The Dewarists, Coke Studio, MTV Sound Trippin, MTV Roots and a couple of others have endowed them with all the limelight that enables their talents to be broadcasted across television. Yet, the exposure is minimal if you consider the strutting expanse of the listeners. Unlike the west, we seem to be content with our film music, atleast most of us. Instead of blaming the use of songs in films, we should be promoting alternate forms of music, which helps it to establish its own artsy identity, irrespective of the films its used in.

We could definitely cut some slack to film music and let the Rahmans, Trivedis, Pritams do their job. We could also let our directors decide if and when they want to have a lip-synced song and dance sequence, as this change is for the good. The focus should undoubtedly be on quality in music, not only in fanciful film music to increase this shelf life. We need to allow a breather for another Mirza Ghalib or a Jagjit Singh. If the creation of music is as free an art as is painting, and strings are not pulled from all sides to follow a one-dimensional approach, the new season of Coke Studio MTV speaks volumes of what Indian music can do.

Originally published for the online journal Long Live Cinema here

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