Tuesday, October 29, 2013

In defence of the song sequence - an essay

[Enjoyed writing this essay for Himal magazine’s special issue on South Asian cinema. Wish I’d had twice the word length though, since there were so many other films and songs I would have liked to mention - including more mainstream ones. Hope to expand on this piece sometime soon]


One of my most vivid memories of watching Hindi films in the 1980s – inevitably at home, on a video-cassette player – was that almost each time a song came on, someone would get up to press the “fast-forward” button. Or we would let the scene play out but it would be treated as a breather, allowing us to see to other things for five minutes: one of us might take a bathroom break, another would go and check on the food cooking on the stove.

I should add that this was a generally poor time for Hindi-film music, and the movies I mainly watched as a child were revenge-and-violence sagas where music played only a perfunctory role. Many of the songs were tuneless and their picturisation mostly uninspired. Our viewing habits did change a little when melody (some of it admittedly plagiarized) crept back into Hindi cinema in the late 1980s, with teen romances like Qayamat se Qayamat Tak and Maine Pyaar Kiya. But in general, songs were treated as fillers.

Thinking about it, perhaps this attitude wasn’t restricted to that period - perhaps it has always been part of the wider snobbery directed at popular Hindi cinema, even by viewers who enjoy watching it as a guilty pleasure. There is a telling scene in the 1974 film Rajnigandha, a gentle, thoughtful entry in the so-called Middle Cinema, which occupied a niche between the high-voltage drama of mainstream movies and the stark minimalism of “art films”. In the scene in question, the talkative Sanjay (Amol Palekar), having carelessly entered a movie hall long after the film started, wastes little time in getting up again for some fresh air when a song sequence begins on the screen in front of him. "Lo, gaana shuru ho gaya," he chuckles, "Main zara baahar ghoom kar aata hoon." ("Oh look, a song, I’ll go out and walk around for a bit.")

Given how cramped and squalid-looking the hall shown in that scene is – this being decades before the arrival in India of posh mall-multiplexes – you can almost sympathise with Sanjay’s desire to escape. (This was one reason why most of my early movie-watching was done in the comfort of home.) Yet there is an irony here: Rajnigandha itself made very delicate use of songs, which are integral to the story and to a psychological understanding of the principal character. The film is about a woman named Deepa (Vidya Sinha) who finds herself torn between her current romantic relationship – a happy but occasionally monotonous one– and the idealistic memory of an ex-boyfriend Naveen, with whom her path crosses again. Her inner state of mind, and the film’s central theme, finds beautiful expression in the song “Kai Baar Yun”, which includes the lyrics "Kai baar yun hi dekha hai / Yeh jo mann ki seema-rekha hai / Mann todne lagta hai / Anjanee pyaas ke peeche / Anjanee aas ke peeche / Mann daudne lagta hai..."  (“It often happens / that the mind breaks its own boundaries / and starts thirsting after the unknown…”.) The scene has Deepa and Naveen travelling through Bombay in a cab together: he is being polite and distanced, but she throws surreptitious glances his way, clearly wondering about what her life would have been like if they had stayed together. (The fact that the song is in the voice of a male singer adds a note of whimsy and allows us to wonder about the feelings of the otherwise inscrutable Naveen, a question that will again arise near the end of the film.) Any viewer who missed this sequence because they decided to step outside the hall - or fast-forward a video cassette - would have missed a vital part of the film.

It should be mentioned that this scene is – by the standards of the mainstream Hindi movie –a restrained one. There is no lip-synching by the actors, no dancing around trees; the song, which simply plays on the soundtrack while Deepa and Naveen ride together, serves as commentary and interior monologue. But anyone who has grown up watching Hindi films has seen hundreds of far more flamboyant song sequences. Music, and the way it is presented on the screen, are an integral part of this cinema.

And why not, for a great song – where rhythm, lyrics and singing combine to optimum effect – can reach emotional depths and express poetic truths in ways that conventional narrative cannot. Similarly, a well-filmed musical sequence can work within the context of a movie to deepen our attitudes to the characters and situations. In fact, it can be argued that the history of form in the popular Hindi film is inseparable from the history of the song sequence. Very often, directors and cinematographers have experimented with stylistic flourishes in musical sequences – perhaps because these scenes tend to be inherently non-realist – while holding themselves back when it comes to the more prosaic passages. Consequently, at times it is like the film has temporarily entered a magical realm, moving beyond the commonplace of routine, plot-oriented storytelling. To take just one among countless possible examples of such visual inventiveness, the 1968 film Aashirwad has a famous number, “Rail Gaadi”, sung by Ashok Kumar in a rapid-fire style that has often led the song to be categorised as proto-rap music. But equally effective is the use of super-fast zooms in the scene: during the quickest sections of the song, the camera goes from a medium shot of the actor to an extreme close up and back in the time it takes to snap your fingers. The visuals (which are very unusual for a Hindi movie of this vintage) are mimicking, or trying to keep pace with, the music, adding urgency to the moment, and enabling us to relate to and participate in the children's growing excitement.


Unfortunately, the very use of the song in popular Hindi cinema – its disruption of narrative, its apparent lack of “logic” – often invites derision from those who have narrowly defined views about realism in art. The most literal-minded questions run along the lines: how have the actors’ voices magically changed to those of professional playback singers? Where has the background music come from if they are singing in a garden? But to ask such questions mockingly is to forget not just the origins of Hindi cinema – in the multilayered tropes of Parsi and Sanskrit theatre – but also the very nature of film as a medium grounded in artifice and stylisation, so closely associated with the magic show in its early years. (As the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid said to me once, there is something fundamentally irrational about walking into a darkened hall, sitting amongst hundreds of strangers and watching images flashing before your eyes at 24 frames per second.) In any case, there are many possible modes of cinematic expression. At one extreme is kitchen-sink realism – so spare that even a feature film can be made to look like a stark documentary – and at another extreme is great stylisation, or the expression of emotions through hyper-drama. Both modes, and the many others in between, are equally valid as artistic choices; what should concern the critic is not the mode itself but how well it is executed to realise the internal world of the film.

Popular Hindi cinema has derived its episodic, occasionally disjointed structures from a long tradition in theatre, literature and the other arts. In becoming obsessed with psychological realism and logical continuity, we sometimes forget that art has traditionally never been expected to conform to such parameters. Even someone of Shakespeare’s stature (to take an example of an artist who is universally respected today, even though he was anything but “highbrow” in his own time) inserted bawdy comic asides in his profoundest tragedies: consider the brief role of the porter, rambling on about urination as an effect of drinking too much, at a key point in Macbeth when the drama is about to reach its highest ebb (the murder of King Duncan just having been committed, the body about to be discovered). For the Elizabethan viewer, such passages must have served an important function as breathers – as brief, tension-alleviating changes of tone – but they also work at a literary level, as reminders of one of life’s most essential truths, that deep tragedy and absurdist comedy can exist in the same frame.

In a stylised film, it is entirely valid for a song sequence to be a stand-alone piece of performance art that punctuates two conventional narrative scenes. In such a case, the song itself may clearly be non-realist, being “sung” in an outdoor setting without any visible musical accompaniment, and in the voices of seasoned singers rather than the actors. But depending on the quality of its constituent elements – such as the music, lyrics, performance and cinematography, and how well they come together – such a sequence can work brilliantly on its own terms. There are also the sequences that
are explicitly presented as dreams or fantasies – a famous example being a 10-minute-long dream scene in Raj Kapoor’s 1951 Awaara. This partly Dali-esque sequence – in which the film’s hero Raj confronts the key people in his life, his lover and his adopted father – is so well conceived and shot that only the most strait-laced viewer, blind to cinema’s qualities as a visual medium, would fast-forward it. But it also serves an important symbolic function, introducing lyricism into a prose work and subtly commenting on the larger themes within the film: as the writer and Hindi-film scholar Rachel Dwyer observed, “The sequence condenses the film’s themes into a dream about love, religion, women, motherhood, punishment, and crime, and shows how Hindi film enacts these in songs”. It is organic to the film.

One reason why the traditional Hindi-movie song sequence can do with some defending today is that there have been big shifts in Hindi cinema in recent years. Some of the most high-profile directors – such as Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee, whose films are critically praised but also reach good-sized audiences in multiplexes or through the DVD circuit – have been using music in increasingly varied ways. Thus, Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, or Kashyap’s Black Friday and Gangs of Wasseypur, have brilliant, pulsating soundtracks, but they are used as accompaniments and commentaries to the film’s action; they are not part of the narrative diagesis. In recent times there have also been stimulating examples of familiar old songs being reworked to subversive new ends: in Bejoy Nambiar’s Shaitan, a trippy version of the beloved romantic song “Khoya Khoya Chand” plays out during a violent action sequence shot partly in slow motion. This is a conceit that might not have made sense on paper, but on screen it perfectly fits the film’s hallucinatory mood.

During a conversation last year, Banerjee told me he felt the modified international cut of his film Shanghai was better than the version released in India, because the song sequences in the former were more minimalistic. For instance, the Indian version has a rambunctious song titled “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, which features a group of street revelers singing and dancing, and one of the film’s protagonists Jaggu (Emraan Hashmi) joining them. In the sparer international cut, the full song does not unfold on screen, and more importantly Jaggu never joins in. The director was right about the stripped-down version being better, but that is largely because of the type of film Shanghai is. In its look and feel, it is very unlike the mainstream Hindi movie to begin with – it is cooler, more grounded in the contemporary Western sense. And given that the dance is actually happening within the narrative (it isn’t a fantasy), it would be out of character for Jaggu (presented as a somewhat diffident person) to participate in it.

However, it would be short-sighted to suggest that music should only be used in this minimalistic way. With Hindi cinema trying to break free from the shackles of the past and find new directions (a commendable pursuit in itself), there has been an increased self-consciousness about the “silliness” of the earlier type of song sequence, and a championing of the idea that music should always “carry the narrative forward”. But one should be open to the possibility that there are many ways of carrying a narrative forward: after all, even an apparently conventional romantic song sequence can enhance a story or take the place of dialogue scenes simply by recording the growing closeness between two lovers, by poetically indicating that their hearts and minds are becoming attuned to each other.

In fact, the song sequence (not just the song) in Hindi cinema can perform so many varied functions that one is in danger of running out of space trying to list them all. But perhaps the point will be partly served with two examples from the work of directors who are not associated with the most “commercial” cinema, but who still had a basic love for (and lack of self-consciousness about) the classic song sequence. In their work, one can see genuine thought and skill going into these scenes, to make them one of a piece with the film, and as commentaries on character and story.

A notable instance of songs performing a clear-cut narrative function occurs in the under-seen 1966 film Biwi aur Makaan, directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee, one of the most popular of the “Middle Cinema” filmmakers. This marvelously crafted musical-comedy didn’t do well at the box office, but it is historically important, being the first of many fruitful collaborations between Mukherjee and the poet-lyricist Gulzar (who would go on to become an important director himself). Biwi aur Makaan – about five friends looking for accommodation in the big city and eventually forced into a masquerade where two of them have to pretend to be women – has songs that often take the place of dialogue. Hemant Kumar’s music brings together conflicting idioms, notes and emotions in the same number – for instance, the song “Bas Mujkho Mohabbat Ho Gayi Hai” (“I have fallen in love”) has one of the friends, Shekhar, mooning over a girl while the others try to bring him to his senses. Thus, while Shekhar sings sorrowful, unrequited-lover lyrics, the others plead, scold and cajole; their chorus “Ab kya hoga, yaaron kya hoga” (“What will happen now?”) provides the counterpoint to his song so that we have a symphony of clashing moods.

This establishes a pleasing duality, helps us appreciate the personalities of all the friends, and also adds to the narrative tension. Though the genuineness of poor Shekhar’s feelings are never in question, we also know why his friends are so paranoid and what is at stake, and our own emotions vacillate with the ones being depicted on screen. In mainstream Hindi cinema one is used to seeing “dramatic” tracks alternating with “comic” tracks (a bit like the inebriated porter and the murdered king in Macbeth), but in this case both modes operate simultaneously, as if to acknowledge that one man’s tragedy can be another man’s comedy and the two things can flow together: the tone shifts effortlessly from the melancholy to the ridiculous to the hysterical, and even the two “cross-dressers” begin to acquire shades of the maternal/sisterly figures they are pretending to be. There is more nuance, insight into character, and artistic rigour in this apparently lightweight sequence in a “fun” movie than there is in many films that flaunt their seriousness of intent for everyone to marvel at.

There can also be subtler dimensions to a song sequence, dimensions that only someone who comes to a film with a willingness to appreciate the medium’s own language will grasp. Take the “Bachpan ke Din” (“Childhood Days”) sequence from the 1959 Bimal Roy film Sujata. If you simply listen to the song, you’ll think it is a happy, lilting number sung by two sisters as they recall their carefree childhood – and you wouldn’t be wrong. But watch the sequence as it plays out in the film, and new shades of meaning are revealed.

One sister, Rama, initiates the song by playing it on the piano, while the other, Sujata, hums along, and there are parallels in their movements and gestures: Rama spreads her dupatta playfully across her face, and a second later Sujata matches the gesture with the garments she is removing from a clothesline. But though the sisters’ voices merge and they are clearly tuned in to each other’s feelings, they never share the frame – Rama is indoors throughout while Sujata is on the terrace above the piano room. And this tells us some things about these characters and their story. The unusual composition is visual shorthand for the fact that there is an invisible line separating their lives and that Sujata isn’t, strictly speaking, part of the family. A low-caste “untouchable” by birth, she has been raised by Rama’s parents, whose affection for her has been tempered over the years by their consciousness of social mores and restraints, so that Sujata has grown up yearning to hear them call her “hamaari beti” (“she is our daughter”) rather than the more formal and defensive “hamaari beti jaisi” (“she is like a daughter to us”).

Thus, in the song that introduces the grown-up versions of the sisters (this is the first time we see Sujata and Rama as adults), the real daughter is firmly ensconced inside the house, clearly at ease with her setting, while Sujata – whose demeanour is more reticent – is in an open space, underlining her outsider status. The scene also provides our first view of something that runs through the film: the association of Sujata with the natural world, or the outdoors. Much of her time is spent in the garden and the greenhouse, tending to plants, and we are reminded that she is a child of nature, her true origins unknown, rather than an unqualified, legitimate member of the household (in the “Bachpan ke Din” sequence she literally has no roof over her head, but for the sky). This expert use of space and framing is as important to this film’s mise-en-scene (and the creation of its world) as any of the dramatic scenes.

On the face of it, the two scenes mentioned above – along with hundreds of others – might appear to be merely enjoyable interludes – the sort of distraction that may easily be shrugged aside by the viewer hankering after “serious” cinema. Observed more closely, they are vital and narrative-enriching, and important cogs in the unique storytelling engine that is the mainstream Hindi film.


[A related post: the Lavani dance sequence in Aashirwad]


  1. Indian cinema's traditional strength has always been in the realm of the musical. The great Indian musicals are so much more enjoyable and nuanced than the Hollywood musicals for instance.

    It's a shame that we seem to have lost this strength of ours over the past 5-10 years, with songs in more recent films resembling Rihanna numbers with no narrative built into them.

    Here's a classic example of how the narrative in a film is advanced using a song. A very slow-paced song on the surface ends up advancing the narrative of the film by embedding a flashback in its lyrics! This is incredibly skilful. Nothing quite like it in Hollywood. And I say this despite being someone whose first love is classic Hollywood.

  2. Here's another 1949 song which illustrates how skilful Indian cinema has always been in advancing the narrative through a song sequence.

    Observe how Dilip Kumar falls for Nargis in the course of this song and how this is impressed upon Cuckoo - the other girl who initially is under the impression the singer is infatuated with her. And finally you have an elderly female relative who exchanges glances with Nargis' father expressing her displeasure with the open flirting that's going on. The father lowers his head signalling his disappointment at the turn of events.

    It's magnificent narrative. So much better than Anne Baxter's narrative advancing flashback monologue in Hitchcock's I Confess

  3. Now that the piece is on your blog, please elaborate further!! Great read :)

  4. Mira: thanks. But to really do justice to this subject, one needs not an essay, not even a book but ideally a multi-volume encyclopaedia. Let's co-write one!

  5. Shrikanth: thanks for those links. It's daunting to think of how many great sequences of this sort there are ("great" in the sense of showy and obviously meaning-filled as well as in the sense of quietly nudging a narrative forward).

  6. Cannot agree more with this. For a long time while growing up, I have been critical of the use of songs in Bollywood movies. Most of this was because of my narrow view of judging a movie based on realism alone. I just could not envision a scenario where people in the street would stop their daily lives and join the hero in sing and dance.

    Over time and with better appreciation of different aspects of movie, I have started enjoying the role songs play in spilling over the emotional peaks of the movie.

    By the way, English movies also use this from time to time (maybe less now than before). Few recent ones that come to mind are pulp fiction, kill bill, Django unchained, top gun, tenacious D, Sweeney todd, Many John Woo movies, across the universe, Lion king, Big lebowski, Silent bob movies etc.

  7. No mention of Guru Dutt? Has anyone in Hindi cinema used music better?

  8. well defended.completely agree with the song's use to add layers to a character or a situation.

  9. This reminded me of another mainstream Bollywood film from the 80s that pointedly used songs to progress the narrative and also bring out relationships between characters -- Raj Sippy's Satte Pe Satta, especially the ones revolving around the seven brothers (and their seven brides).

    - SS

  10. SS: interesting coincidence - last evening I happened to hear "Zindagi Mil ke Bitaayenge" on radio and thought about Satte pe Satta in this context too.

    Aandthirtyeights: this wasn't meant to be a comprehensive piece, or anything like that. Also I need to watch some of Dutt's films again to be able to write properly about them. Hoping I can find ways to expend on these thoughts by looking at the vastly differing styles of other directors.

  11. Sid: if you're talking about the dance-competition scene in Pulp Fiction, there the music is very much part of the "realist" narrative setting. Sweeney Todd, Lion King and Across the Universe are explicitly musicals, of course.

  12. No mention of Guru Dutt?

    Can't speak for Jai. But not every director can be mentioned in a piece like this.

    Has anyone in Hindi cinema used music better?

    Well, why do we get hung up on certain directors. There are lots of directors who you have never heard of with a lot of impressive work that doesn't register because one is not familiar with their names. There are treasures everywhere if one cares to look for them.

    Indian cinema needs a Manny Farber like critic who can make forgotten names and films fashionable instead of a movie culture that idolizes the same old names - Guru Dutt, Mehboob Khan, RK, Vijay Anand etc.

  13. "Kisko meeet banoon, kiski preet nibhaoon!" Love this song and the way it plays out in the context of the film.

  14. Great read, but I don't see contemporary mainstream Indian directors being embarrassed about how songs disrupt the rhythm of the movie. How else do you explain the rise of the so-called Item Numbers? And look at KJo's movies-all songs are used with nearly no sense that the director minds the disruption of the movie's narrative. I think Kashyap, Banerjee, and their ilk are not really mainstream in that sense (and I for one am glad about that). If you consider Bhansali, KJo, etc. then you really see no real sense of the directors being aware of the disruptive effect of the songs in their movies. Bhansali, from what little I know, at least attempts to progress the narrative through some songs, but otherwise, they're just there to show nice locales, SRK or Salman in their designer-best, with a lissome lass or two in the background. Even Amir's (whose considered by many to be a cerebral actor and director) has done movies with such disruptive sones such as Fanna, Gajini etc.
    But I am so glad you seem to be as much an admirer of Rajnigandha as I am; for some reason, it's gotten lost in the shuffle and no one talks about it anymore as an insightful film. People seem to just remember it for its music (which is beautiful, no doubt).

  15. But I am so glad you seem to be as much an admirer of Rajnigandha as I am; for some reason, it's gotten lost in the shuffle and no one talks about it anymore as an insightful film

    Yeah. Great film. One of the finest to come out of Bombay ever.

  16. Great writing.
    I used to be an assistant to Kundan Shah and while scripting we would break our heads on the scene titled PBS 1 (Playback song 1). We would write it like a scene and it would be narrated to the the music director and lyricist and much later, the choreographer.
    If you see most of his songs from Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa (Aana, mere pyaar ko, Sachchi yeh kahani hai etc.) and Ai dil laya hai bahaar from Kya Kehna - they are actually scenes happening musically.
    Having talent like Majrooh Sultanpuri, Farah and Saroj Khan also helped a great deal.
    I truly lament the loss of this great style of story telling.

  17. Gorky: thanks. And yes, I do vaguely remember speaking with Kundan about song sequences in Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na - must go back and check my transcripts of our conversations.

    Shvetal: thanks, will just go and check it out.

    Slytherin: Rajnigandha still has quite an exalted status, as far as I know - it has never really been off the radar for people who were into the "Middle Cinema" (though that is a relatively modest percentage of total viewers).

  18. That's a line from 'Kai baar yu bhi dekha hai'! It is that line that convinces me that, though sung in a male voice, the song reflects Vidya Sinh's dilemma. After all, we never really find out if Dinesh Thakur's character has the option of choosing between two loves.

  19. Shvetal: ouch, sorry! See, this is what happens when you're replying to multiple comments while also trying to get some deadline-driven writing done on the side...

  20. "As the Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid said to me once, there is something fundamentally irrational about walking into a darkened hall, sitting amongst hundreds of strangers and watching images flashing before your eyes at 24 frames per second."

    I don't see why this is so "fundamentally" irrational - you need to flesh your argument out more. Unless it's just the laziness of Hamid (to which he is prone), where he reworks any old daily activity into a decontextualized framing where it's made to seem absurd.

  21. Interesting piece, Jai! I went to take another look at Bachpan ke din... you break it down beautifully.
    Your post brings to mind all those tense piano numbers in 'bhari mehfils' - of course they were integral to the story.... I write about one particular film that uses song to propel the story forward here: http://sheetalvyas.blogspot.in/2011/03/kise-pesh-karun.html