My Peeve with Bollywood Shows

By Kollengode S Venkataraman         e-mail:

You are a typical guy or gal who likes listening to Bollywood songs, but are not heavily “into” it. If I give you the starting lines of popular Hindi songs, you can right away identify the playback singers, the actors who lip-synch for the song, and the film in which the song appeared. You will be less certain about the music directors who set the tune, and you will may not know the lyricists who penned the song. So, Bollywood shows held all over India and outside are popular, where organizers try to satisfy the yearnings of people to re-live their old days, and to go back on a nostalgia trip mentally recreating the old magic.

Understandably, in these shows, singers re-creating the pieces already recorded in songs, pay all their attention to the way the original playback singers render the songs. They pay tribute to the original playback singers using hyperbolic phrases.

But no matter how good these playback singers are, in the context of Indian films, they only lend their voices. Does it ever occur to the singers in Bollywood shows that without the lyricist, there is no need for playback singers no matter how talented they are? And before these singers step into the recording studio, a lot of creative and artistic work is already done?

In creating songs in films, the Indian film industry has wisely com­partmentalized the skills required, namely, creating the lyrics; developing the music; and then singing. Often, the lyricists have no sing­ing skills, but are well-grounded in the literary and cultural traditions of India, and are aware of Indian music traditions. And the music directors have limited singing skills, but are rooted in India’s classical, traditional and folk melodies. And the playback singers often have no grounding in the literary traditions of any Indian language, including their own mother tongue. Their assets are their well-trained vocal chords — nothing else.

Typically, the film director describes to the music director and the lyricistthe story line and situations where he/she would like songs in the film. The playback singers are nowhere in the picture at this stage.

Then, the music director and the lyricist put their creative minds to­gether and come up with the tune and the lyrics to reflect the situations. A lot of give-and-take goes on between the music director and the lyricist when they integrate the tune and the lyrics to reflect the underlying themes of the song — pathos, happy mood, self-pity, disillusionment, humor, satire, sarcasm… …

The music director and the lyricist fit all this into songs that are three to five minutes long, with a mukhada* (Hindi) or pallavi (Tamil) that is repeated after two or three antaras* (Hindi) or charanams (Tamil).

The lyricists choose their words creatively conforming to the flow, meter, alliteration, rhyming schemes of the languages, describing the theme, mood, period, and the character in the film who lip-synchs the song. Only then, the playback singers come into the picture.

Often, in the Indian filmi-duniya, playback singers have no literary background or poetic skills. They may have a sketchy grasp of the Indian musical tradition. I am not belittling them here. I am only stating the obvious. How many of Bollywood playback singers can compose, say, a few verses of 4-line shayaris or 2-line dohas around unifying theme in their own mother tongue? Or in any other Indian language? And how many of them can give a sold-out concert with non-filmi songs? There are exceptions, but they are rare.

Often, the music director, like a drillmaster, works with playback singers on how to emphasize which phrase, and where they should draw out the phrases, where to simply hum, where to taper it off, and where they should leave pauses and for how long — all to embellish the song. The playback singers follow their music directors closely and give what the music director is expecting out of them.

Given this, it is inexcusable that in Bollywood events in India and outside emcees and singers, while praising the playback singers to the sky with visual aids projected on large screens, completely ignore the music directors and kavis (lyricists) altogether.

This was the case in Bharatanatyam till recently. Starting from the mid 70s, the Bharatanatyam choreographers are mostly city-bred, “convent-educated” women with barely a colloquial working knowledge of their own mother tongues, not to speak of other Indian languages. In their programs and brochures, they never used to give credit to the poets whose songs they use in their storytelling. But with criticism in the media on this point, many of them are taking pains to acknowledge the poet-philosophers and kavis whose works they use in recitals.

The situation is better in Tamil films. Song writers (Kannadasan, Vali, Papanasam Sivan, Vairamuthu) and music directors (Viswanathan, Ilaya Raja, K.V.Mahadevan, A.R.Rahman, and others) are household names. So, in Tamil shows, they acknowledge the music director and the poet.

When will the sophisticated among the Bollywood shows’ audiences start demanding from the organizers, emcees, and singers that they credit the music director and the lyricist for every item they sing ?

* the author thanks Shambhavi Desai for these Hindi literary terms.

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