There’s a simple but key difference between Hollywood musicals and Bollywood movies

Musical classics are back.
Musical classics are back.
Image: Lions Gate/Dale Robinette
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The American musical seems to have become an almost forgotten genre in recent times. Not surprising then, that the imminent release of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, a full-blown musical harking back to the mid-century classics, fills us with anticipation.

This all singin’, all dancin’ movie about an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and a jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) has already become a critical favourite, and is touted as a raison d’etre for the continued communal experience of film-watching on the big screen (it will be released in India on IMAX screens on Dec. 09 and on regular screens from Dec. 16). The big numbers in La La Land, especially the opening sequence on the Los Angeles freeway, take us back to the no-holds-barred staging of musicals on location, like Fame or West Side Story.

When we enjoy American musicals, do we channel our own conditioning of watching songs and dances in Hindi films? Is the experience the same? After all, Hindi films could, for the most part, be said to exist in a la la land all of their own, where real life is inflected with songs, dances, fist-fights, melodrama, death, flying cars in slomo/fastmo, and jump cuts.

We should be ahead of the game, should we not, having had our very first talkie, Alam Ara (1931), filled with songs, just like the Americans did four years earlier in their first talkie The Jazz Singer (1927)? The Hindi film has always been brimming over with songs, from seven in Alam Ara to 14 in Hum Aapke Hain… Koun! (1994). No filmmaker has equalled the number of songs from the mythological Inder Sabha (1932)—72, over a course of 211 minutes.

They wouldn’t dare. The most managed by an American musical, The Jolson Story (1946), is 25.

So are Hindi films with songs musicals by default?

First, some definitions: a movie may aspire to be a musical only when the actors on screen mouth the words of the song, either singing in their own voices, or with playback (like Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady). Films in which songs form the background to the narration, however successful in mood building, would be eliminated from this category. We therefore do not refer to Pulp Fiction or Forrest Gump as musicals. Nor, in the strictest sense, should we call Dev. D a musical despite its 18 tracks.

As an alternative, look at The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964)Jacques Demy’s French/German production, about a three-way romance set in the 1950s, in which all the lines of dialogue are sung, as in an opera. The closest we have to this is the immortal tragedy Heer Ranjha (1970, Chetan Anand) where all the dialogues (by Kaifi Azmi) are recited in rhyming couplets or shers, and, of course, these are interspersed with songs. In most films, though, the song is an entity, rather than a process.

So, how are our films different from their films? Here is a possible way to compare them, using grammatical punctuation as an analogy.

Songs in big Hollywood productions, like Fiddler on the Roof (1971), or most Broadway hits, converted from stage to screen, move fairly seamlessly within the narrative. One moment, Tevye is breaking the fourth wall, addressing you directly, and the very next he continues talking in a song—If I Were a Rich Man—and then, as the song ends, he resumes talking in his normal voice. The song acts as a hyphen that moves the narrative along. Most popular musicals, especially films whose subject matter is not singing, dancing, the stage, or the silver screen, use songs like sung dialogue, as in West Side Story or My Fair Lady or even animated Disney favourites such as The Jungle Book or Beauty and the Beast.

On the other hand, a song in a Hindi film acts like a semi-colon, inducing a pause in the narrative, allowing for a course correction or offering various kinds of relief. The ubiquity of de rigueur songs in the Hindi films of our childhood, placed at almost equal intervals in the course of interminable storytelling, was always stereotyped in our minds as the right moment for a bathroom or smoke break. We always knew, once the song (and dance) was done, the narrative would resume just where it left off.

Nostalgia aside, songs in Hindi films are literally speed-bumps, beginning with an instrumental introduction to set the stage and ending, more often than not, with a fade out (or a shot of distant mountains).

One exception that readily comes to mind is Rajesh Khanna segueing into Maine Tere Liye Hi from Anand. The show-stopping nature of Hindi songs is both governed by genre—happy, sad, funny, devotional, cabaret, picnic (you know the type)—or their position as a fulcrum to turn the tide in the affairs of the actors on screen. Take Koi Hasina in Sholay, a song entirely superfluous to the narrative, but positioned to bring in the long climatic gunfight and resolution.

In her survey of genres in Indian cinema, Cinema of Interruptions, Lalitha Gopalan refers to the song sequence as one of the “interruptions” that form our films (the others being the interval and censorship, but those require separate columns by themselves). Songs, she asserts, serve the purpose of “delaying the development of the plot, distracting us from the other scenes of the narrative through spatial and temporal disjunction.”

Gopalan also highlights the stature of songs in our minds as an iconography of attractions that calls our attention to other interests. We are not there only for the story, but also for a variety of experiences (including songs that we aspire to in advance of the film) that are held together by the narrative. Our interruption or narrative figure/ground sometimes gets inverted, as in the case of Sargam (1979) or Aashiqui (1990), films we still remember for their musical numbers, but whose stories have already receded from memory. We find this in English films as well, especially in movies that are star vehicles for their musical performers, like the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night or Help! or just about any Elvis Presley/Cliff Richard film.

A dying art

Who would have believed a few years ago that the iconic presence of songs in Hindi films would decline? There was a time when we knew all the songs of a film even before its release. We would fall over each other to buy the vinyl records and “by heart” the songs, incorporating them in antaksharis and watching them with full devotion on Chhayageet and Chitrahaar. Music marketing was probably a greater force than music production. But that no longer seems to be the case.

As films have evolved, narratives have taken over. The superfluous has decreased, as has the length (the multi-show format of the multiplexes has seen to that). Even multiple tacks in storytelling—the obligatory comedy interlude; the disabled, ill, or dying mother/sister; the interminable flashbacks; the expository dialogue—have all been subsumed into the filmmaker’s awareness of the audience’s awareness of the experience of film-going.

In our meta-age, originality is no longer imperative—referencing is. The movie-maker knows what you know, and keeps feeding it back to you as comfort food. Songs are often remixes of past songs or items for easy consumption—these are the songs that constitute today’s film-based hits. Even current ear-worms, such as Baby Ko Bass Pasand Hai or Kaala Chashma fulfill the essentially interchangeable functions of foregrounding the star vehicles in a heavily choreographed but ultimately egregious occupation of screen time.

Dances have moves designed to be imitated by their consumers at sangeets or weddings. Nothing demonstrates the superfluity of the Hindi film song when the most popular number is show-pieced with the end titles scrolling on one side. So, we have to, for lack of choice, turn to the Hollywood musical for the complete experience and satisfaction of watching songs unfold on screen and have the dancing stars take us away, willingly, into la la land, uninterrupted by the self-conscious or the self-referential.

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