Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



Indian film music, India's foremost popular music form, with phenomenal popularity for its vocalists, known as playback singers. General film song is known as filmi gana, distinguishing it for example from filmi qawwali, an immensely popular, secular form of Qawwali (which see), the devotional Muslim music. Film was brought to Bombay in July 1896 by the LumiŠre Brothers, and it would be impossible to overestimate the impact of it; 'pictures' (as films were known) became far and away the dominant cultural medium, ousting trad. theatrical forms in a region where illiteracy is still the norm in some states. The Indian film industry generates about 700 feature films a year, though estimates differ, and very few lack songs. The first Indian talkie was accomplished '31 by Ardeshir M. Irani (b 10 Dec. 1885, Poona; d 14 Oct. '60), who adapted Alam Ara, a Parsee theatre piece, retaining the play's songs: this decision retained a link with folk theatre origins, invented the institution of film song, gave Indian cinema its first singer (W. M. Khan) and achieved success in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Burma (Myanmar) and what historian Hameeduddin Mahmood described somewhat open-endedly as 'West Asia'. With the introduction of the talkies the industry had feared that pictures would lose their universal appeal; with films being made in 15 major languages, the answer was the film song, music wooing the largely illiterate audience to the cinema. Just as the early pioneers of the silent cinema had used mythic and religious stories to attract their first audiences, music provided a new universal element; film song became a prerequisite of any successful film, and also contributed to Indian film's unique narrative style, developing into a convention whereby song (and frequently lavish dance scenes) are intercut to break up and suspend the narrative flow. Film critic Firoze Rangoonwalla wrote that between '31 and '54, regardless of their subject matter or weightiness, only two commercial films had no songs whatsoever; whether the all- Empire-pals-together morale-booster Gaon Ki Gora '44, director Raj Kapoor's romantic comedy Awara '51, Mehboob Khan's iconic Mother India '57 or Pakeezah, a truly fine romantic weepie, the common denominator was that they used song to gain commercial advantage.

With the advent of talkies, the Indian film industry encountered the same problems as Hollywood: some crowd-pulling actors had weedy voices. So much music was used to entice audiences that the Indian industry encountered a permutation of this problem; singer and Gramophone Company of India producer G. N. Joshi wrote that 'Even unmusical heroes and heroines like Devika Rani, Motilal, Savita Banerji, Leela Chitnis and Ashok Kumar came before our microphones a number of times.' Two solutions were found. Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, Marathi, Bengali and other regional cinema industries sprang up to cater for their markets; and there arose the convention of the playback singer. Accounts differ on precisely when this occurred, because nobody wanted to admit it at the time, but soon enough the dubbing of singing voices began. During a transition period, Shamshad Begum made a breakthrough singing nine songs in Khazanchi '41, a thriller that lifted its director, Moti Gidwani, from a Lahore base to national fame; by the time Mela '46 teamed her with music dir. Naushad Ali and the male playback heart-throb Mukesh her fees had skyrocketed, but by then the music directors understood that playback singers were worth it. Although she had a fuller, more rounded voice, Begum was subsequently toppled from her throne by Lata Mangeshkar; for over a decade it was policy to omit credits for playback singers, owing to fears for the star's popularity and screen glamour, and the early post-war film Mahal credited the playback singer (Mangeshkar) as Kamini, the name of the role played by the actress Madhubala. But the existence of playback singers became an open secret, and in time they were as highly fˆted as the film stars themselves, while the conservatism of producers caused a small, select band of playback vocalists to monopolize most sessions, so that they became a major factor in box office success.

The extraordinary linguistic, class, and ethnic diversity of the audience embracing the modern nations of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal, and caressing the backside of Afghanistan, is mind-numbing to non-Indians, but playback vocalists transcend it all. K. L. Saigal (Kundan Lal Saigal, 1904--47) was a larger-than-life figure who sang in Punjabi, Bengali, Tamil, Urdu and Persian, also played male leads and was famous for his drinking antics; he influenced the major male playback stars in the North, centred largely around Bombay and long since dubbed Bollywood, such as Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, and Kishore Kumar. Top female playback singers incl. Rajkumari, Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, the last two creating a volume of work unrivalled anywhere in terms of productivity. In the Madras-based Southern industry Yeshudas, Janaki and S. P. Balasubramanyam (also spelled -maniam) were highly popular. Suraiya was a female singer of gentler, less brashly commercial repertoire, her heyday of 1950--61 captured on Nostalgic Hits Of Suraiya on EMI India.

Not all directors were content to stick to filmi's formalistic and cautious conventions: Naushad (Ali) (b 25 Dec. '25, Lucknow) made an artistic and commercial breakthrough by using classical music, until then considered too elitist or highbrow; in Baiju Bawra '52 he introduced themes using 'playful tunes based on ragas', leading to a full-blown classical performance by Ustad Amir Khan and Pandit D. V. Paluskar (on EMI India's Baiju Bawra/Shabab double soundtrack album). For director K. Asif's Mughal-E-Azam '60 he went further, talking the noted Hindustani classical vocalist Bade Ghulam Ali Khan into singing: his vocal performance during the noted 'feather scene' between the prince and his beloved Anarkali was sung live to film and met with acclaim (on EMI India's Anarkali/Mughal-E-Azam), musical direction and the eloquence of its Urdu script proving an unbeatable combination. 'I have only poured old wine into new bottles,' was the way Naushad described his role; but his and others' imagination helped transform and radicalize film making. The industry's use of what is known in India as 'picturization' technique foreshadowed video; employing many of the nation's greatest poets, it brought verse of a high standard, at its best rivalling the standards of the finest poetry found in ghazal (a hugely popular light classical musical form of Persian lineage) into the lives of the unlettered masses, while successful songs lured cinema-goers back to see the same film repeatedly. It is now perfectly acceptable for classical or light classical vocalists to work as playback singers in the commercial as opposed to art cinema, both in Indian and Western films; for example, Begum Akhtar and Salamat Ali Khan both sang in Jalsaghar, Parween Sultana in Pakeezah, Shobta Gurtu in Pakeezah Rang Barang and Lakshmi Shankar in Gandhi. Film has provided a useful subsidiary income for classical musicians such as the sitarist Ustad Rais Khan (Pakeezah), tabla maestro Ustad Allah Rakha (Jaagar), his son Zakir Hussain (Apocalypse Now, Heat And Dust and In Custody), the sarangi player Sultan Khan (Gandhi and In Custody) and the famed sitarist Vilayat Khan (Jalsaghar). Classical musicians have enhanced their reputations through work as music directors, such as Ravi Shankar for his work with the Bengali film director Satyajit Ray ('50s Apu trilogy and Gandhi), Ali Akbar Khan (Devi), Vilayat Khan (The Guru).

With their jackdaw eye for glitter, it became commonplace for Indian films to adapt Western hits, whether a Hindi version of Stevie Wonder's 'I Just Called To Say I Love You' with evocative violin accompaniment or the theft of songwriter Channi Singh's material: advertising for concerts in '94 for his group Alaap (arguably the foremost bhangra group in the world) noted Channi Singh as 'the music director of the famous films Yalgar, Shaktiman and Teri Mohabbat Ke Nam', illustrating the power of film and filmi beyond Alaap's straight bhangra audience. Needless to say, the discography of filmi is immense. The Gramophone Company of India/EMI India released a series of volumes of playback performers in the '80s with titles like The 50 Melodious Years; with contributions from Zohra Bai, Jagmohan, Suraiya, Pankaj Mullick, Geeta Dutt, S. D. Burman, Naushad, Anil Biswas, Mukesh, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar, Talat Mahmood and Manna Dey (some of these with their own entries in this book). The British GlobeStyle label released three noteworthy volumes of Golden Voices From The Silver Screen '90, which remain the best general introduction to the variety and stylistic diversity of the Bombay film industry during the '50s and '60s, the so-called golden age of filmi; by contrast most filmi of the '70s--80s has been described as ephemeral and disposable. The period's sheer diversity of styles is evident in Mohammed Rafi, Manna Dey, Batish Sudha Malhotra and Chorus, the ghazal 'Dil Cheez Kya Hai' by Asha Bhosle (both Volume 1) and 'Jaan Pehchaan Ho' by Rafi, the arrangement of which skilfully mixed Indian and Western elements, and 'Aaj Ki Raat' by Bhosle, a remarkable m‚lange of '60s film soundtrack clich‚s into which new life was breathed (both Volume 3). Western anthologies, it must be cautioned, tend to pick the gimmicky over the melodic, while melody is the first principle of Indian music.

As a popular art form, filmi has no real commercial or aesthetic equal in popular music. The size and demographic range of its audience make it truly a music for the masses; it is also an eloquent commercial force wherever Indian emigrants have settled (check out any Indian restaurant). For a notion of the scale of the Indian film industry see Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen's The Encyclopedia Of Indian Cinema (British Film Institute, '94). Filmi has influenced the popular music of many countries, reaching audiences wherever subtitled Indian films are shown, whether Egypt or Israel, Germany or Ghana, Myanmar (Burma) or Trinidad.