It’s a distinct culture that fascinates the whole world – the song and dance routine of Indian cinema.
Originating from nautanki – the musical folk theatre art form especially popular in northern India, the song and dance narrative of Indian cinema is a style of storytelling that has endured through the 100 odd years since its inception. But does it deserve to last? Can it?
While the original stars of early Indian cinema are said to have sung their own songs, it is around the 40s, 50s and 60s that playback singing came to the fore. So singers were supplanted by the actors who merely lip-synched and emoted in front of the camera to the recorded voices.
The “rain song”, the “I love you song”, “the boy stalking girl song”, “the Holi song”, “the item song”, “the separation song”, “the patriotic song”, “the karwa chauth song” and now of course “the night club song” sub genres evolved rapidly and have been hungrily lapped up by the movie-going folks.
Songs have most often outlived the movies they were featured in, and stars came to be identified by the hit songs they danced to.
No one questioned how a poor hero from Chandni Chowk suddenly landed atop the Alps in Switzerland in thick designer woollens, wooing his heroine ludicrously clad in skimpy chiffon in freezing sub zero temperatures sunk in ankle high snow. The joy of watching heaving bosoms surpassed any need for logic or reality.
Dance was and mostly still is the way a Hindi film heroine expresses her sexuality, while the shrill high pitch of the audio denotes her coyness or her sweetness. Naiveté even.
From classical to folk to jerky callisthenics, the song gives the actors and movie makers their big chance to let go and simply heave ho!
I, like many others, have often wondered about the fascination with the song and dance routine in Indian cinema. It’s as natural to us Indians as breathing or spitting pan on the streets.
But what we have perhaps failed to recognise is that the air around us is changing. It’s no longer as rarefied and insularly Indian as it used to be. The very definition of Indian has undergone a paradigm shift – feudal lords and undeserving heroes are passé.
There are artistic winds blowing in from different corners of the world – from the Americas, Europe, Korea, Turkey, Iran and everywhere else. It has created a cauldron of intermingling styles of storytelling and filmmaking that everybody needs to adapt to – that is if we want to go beyond our jingoism and pandering to the homesickness and nostalgia of NRI audiences and that alone.
While in the past there was an audience that lapped up celluloid miracles like Nirupa Roy’s blindness in Amar Akbar Anthony being reversed by the light of Sai Baba’s diya (lamp) or a hero singing an entire song (blood spewing from his mouth just before he died), today’s audience is more discerning and less gullible.
Even escapist fare for our suffering masses needs to exhibit some more credulity. Thanks to the exposure available through the internet and our exposure to world cinema and reality entertainment.
Why, even plagiarised songs don’t go unnoticed whereas in the past many of our most popular hits have been direct copies of western Arabic and Russian songs.
Now coming back to the main point of this blog – everybody is always asking why India has not been able to make that one big cross-over film that the whole world sits and takes notice of.
Forget local box office numbers and the Rs 300 crore and Rs 1,000 crore clubs that desis all over the world patronise and desi filmmakers bless them for. We are talking about that one cross-over film like a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon from China or Et Tu Mama Tambienfrom Mexico that makes the whole world sit up and take notice. There are many such examples from other parts of the world, but let’s talk about our own now.
India does have the talent. And the stories. And the means to tell them effectively. So why is that not happening? The big cross-over?
There are westerners making Indian stories and raking in bigger numbers and accolades on the world stage than we Indians have ourselves managed to do with our own tales. As in the case of Slumdog Millionaire or Lion or even Life of Pi for that matter.
So why hasn’t that happened? Because that can happen only provided we get rid of our need to adhere so strictly to our song and dance narrative and that too so ferociously.
While filmmakers in the past like Vijay Anand and Guru Dutt and in more recent times Sanjay Leela Bhansali have escalated the song and dance sequence to its highest form, everybody else seems to fall poorly short.
Befikre being the most glaring example of modern confusion. While trying to explore a new age western mindset of individual choice and non-commitment to the institution of marriage, was there a need to stick to the centuries-old cliché of 50 dancers in a market place with synchronised movement?
The dilemma of a crotch-flashing Indian heroine alongside pairi paunadialogue? How confused are our filmmakers getting?
Or Raees for that matter. Were those romantic lip-sync songs (just to make Shah Rukh Khan spread his arms out in his signature style) necessary? It broke the narrative in an otherwise taut and effective film.
In my view, the few films that could have made the cut to the cross-over brigade and become world class were Satya – marred by the songs. Lagaan – the songs were too many and too long again. And Bhaag Milkha Bhaag – too many lip-sync songs and over-indulgent dialogue.
Dangal broke out of the stereotype of traditional Indian storytelling with lip sync and yet gave us memorable chartbuster songs and retained its great Indian ethos – hopefully it will set the trend for a new kind of cinema to emerge in the years to come.
The day aspiring actors in India take acting classes rather than dance lessons and actors earn more from their movies and the craft of their acting rather than shaking their booty and lip-syncing to film songs at weddings and award shows, is the day our cinema will truly come of age. Ahem… and Jai Ho!