Singing cinema

Print edition : October 18, 2013

M.S Subbulakshmi and G.N. Balasubramaniam, both Carnatic vocalists, in the Tamil film "Sakuntalai" (1940). The music that was used within the narrative of early Indian cinema was "classical". All the actors were trained musically, and it was this that defined their entry into the world of bright lights.

Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle, Manna Dey and Mohammed Rafi rehearsing for a marathon qawaali sequence in a Hindi film. Forms of music that were not strictly classical were also valued by the elite. Photo: THE HINDU photo archives

Ilaiyaraja at a studio in London, composing music for director Gautham Vasudev Menon's "Nee Thaanae En Pon Vasantham" (2012). Over the years, various musical influences and musical systems from across the globe have been adapted into Indian film music. Photo: by special arrangement

S.P. Balasubramaniam, K.J. Yesudas, P. Susheela, Hariharan and the new generation of playback singers. Playback, a startling technology-enabled possibility, ringed off the actor from the singer. This was a critical change in the nature of the music, actor and singer. Photo: Bijoy Ghosh

Cinema music exists only because there is cinema and has been and is constantly in a state of transition.
100 years of Indian Cinema

WHAT is fascinating about Indian cinema is how its artistic space is negotiated between drama, music and dance within the story. Anyone interested in Indian cinema or even drawn to it as a plain viewer would find this process most interesting. As a musician I find it compelling. How did these vital strands of Indian cinema feed the larger “home” of their existence, the movie itself? How have the different elements influenced each other? Has this process changed with time, and if so, how has this changed? Music, we know, has been one of the great constants in Indian cinema but the music has changed. It has been what can be called a “changing constant”. Where and how has the music changed? More importantly, why? Answers to these questions constitute the real story of music in Indian cinema and define the music that we have received and continue to receive in rich profusion.

Indian cinema is a large canvas, and while making general observations, there is always the risk of missing many exceptions. In the course of this article, I shall be making generalisations based on the dominant sound, which is the sound of its music, and the image of cinema, but I shall do so without implying that the entire Indian cinema follows the patterns I highlight.

In the early days, whether it was Hindi, Tamil or Telugu cinema, the musical content was rooted in the nativity of that music. It grew from its very clear beginnings, which did not lie in cinema. But this evolution was not simple. Every region, even locality, had multiple strains of music, and this begs the question as to how certain forms of music found preference in their cinematic avatar over others. And that leads us to the real “screen” behind the silver screen, society.

The higher classes of society, supposedly the “custodians of the classical arts”, controlled the movie industry at large, and hence the music that was used within the narrative of early Indian cinema was what we call “classical”—a word that is more indicative of social disparities than any musical quality. This classical idea was also extended to include forms of music that were not strictly classical but were valued by the elite, like, for instance, qawwali. And here, folk sounds, too, found their place. Folk once again is a complex word that needs to be understood as representing a socially segregating notion rather than a musical concept. Classical and folk do have musical senses but when usually used they are not so much about what they are but about where they come from. This differentiation is important in this context, and it describes the point I am trying to make. Folk music was always heard as being rendered by the “other classes”, while the classical was the voice of the privileged. The controlling group controlled the music and further deepened established social inequalities.

If we were to watch an “old” film, we would find that the music is not only the “first” thing about it but that it, in fact, dominates the medium. Even acting was secondary to the musicality of the film. Consequently, all the actors were trained musically, and it was this that defined their entry into the world of bright lights. In the early years of talkies, cinema was after all a new medium and the storyline was twinned to song but there was no real integration between storytelling and the music. The songs were rendered in many situations whether or not the situations warranted a musical rendition. Music not only embellished but replaced dialogues in many instances and went beyond even that. Since most lead actors were necessarily musicians, their musical faculty was used to the hilt. And what of the people, the audiences? They went to the movies to experience something altogether novel: a new experience mix. They went not just to hear music but to watch music. Cinema had made music something to be seen as much as to be heard. Theatre had done this before but to a limited extent. Cinema made music visible.

Although just about everything about cinema and cinema music has changed, this element still holds good within the film industry. The music even now is both watched and heard. Even today, the audio release is critical to films. There have always been movies that have been successful only because of the music. And music directors are next only to, and very often even higher in standing than, film directors.

The themes of early movies were borrowed from the theatre world and were the initial drivers of the screenplay. But as political and social changes backed by the strong sense of nationalism pushed for a new India, the tones in Indian cinema changed, leading then to a change in content and story. This is possibly the first strong movement that changed the musical sound of cinema.

Different parts of the country faced different social challenges, but the basic idea, not just an idea but a new nationally held ideal, was that this was a country that wanted everyone to be treated as equals. This ideal permeated and soon dominated the spirit of cinema. The emergence from poverty and degradation of the various sections of society, establishing the identity and demanding respect within the new political and social environment, had its impact on the scripts and, hence, the storylines. It was only natural and inevitable that this new spirit at its heart should find a reverberation in cinema music. India was itself making new connections with the wider world. Cinema music was not to be left behind. Questioning the classical and folk paradigms within which music in society had operated, Indian cinema music went further afield, opening the doors for other sounds from other parts of the world to come into it.

Influence of the West

Right from the 1960s, the West has been influencing music in cinema. While this influence might have been the natural result of technology, it was more than reflecting technological advances. It was becoming an instrument of new national impulses. It was becoming, necessarily, an equaliser. To be sure, the sounds of classical and folk and their social implications were so well-etched in everyone’s minds in each region that no rearrangement by itself could have given society a classless music. Even borrowings from various regions within India, which was part of the film music practice all over the country, did not have that effect as the nature of the classical sound remained clearly recognisable. But it is undeniable that once music from the West was brought into the experience of music, the effect was dramatic—this fusion of Western sounds obliterated direct associations. Older classifications of classical and folk continued to be felt in the music, but the new sound within which they now existed gave people easier access, and a less intimidating sound. Whether it is language, customs, rituals or art practices, they are all meshed with religious and class identities.

Hence, distancing it from its “pure sound” helped people from all sections feel music without social connotations. This new sound was a common voice, not classical, not folk, not from this region or that, not bound by regional or cultural limitations. It was, simply, new, the newest and biggest change within the constant of cinema music. The real creation of an adaptive Indian film music sound within each regional cinema may also have begun at this time.

Cinema had become the most accessible medium with the largest reach in society. This meant that any change or need for a change in society was reflected in cinema. Cinema broke free from the mythological bounds of theatre to represent contemporary social realities. Many socio-political movements used this new medium to express their thoughts and re-engineer society and politics. This, too, was a critical game changer in both the music content and the persona of the film music community. In the initial days of cinema, film songs were rendered by the actors themselves, which meant that they were either theatre actors trained in music or classical musicians. But playback, a startling technology-enabled possibility, ringed off the actor from the singer. This was a critical change in the nature of the music, actor and singer. All these became independent of each other. The actor need not know music, the singer need not act and the music need not orient itself to the limitations of the actor-singer. This affected not only the musical content but also the people engaged in each of these fields. The actor could be anyone, not just the musician who usually belonged to certain caste or religious groups depending on the region in question. The singer was a “faceless wonder”. All that mattered was the voice. The singer need not have to be trained within the classical sense as film music was becoming more eclectic. This welcomed great voices from various backgrounds to explore the film world. The composer now worried only about the story and the singer. The actor was significant only as the face of the voice and nothing more. This social engineering led to cinema acquiring not only a new look but also a new sound. People from diverse backgrounds found a place as musicians and composers in cinema only to enlarge its musical identity. I am not placing all these changes within a single time bracket as they occurred at their own pace. Some took longer, some were slower in the making but a democratisation of musical sound took place and that too at the very heart of Indian cinema, becoming the distinct and powerful genre we know it to be—cinema music.

As much as cinema music has been able to reconfigure relationships between social classes and music, it has had an unusual relationship with religion. Most scenes or songs that depict worship, prayer, a temple or anything remotely religious fall back primarily on characteristic classical or folk sounds to evoke emotions. The choice between the two depends on the context of the scene and—one has to concede this—the broad caste background of the characters being depicted. Why is it that the very same film world that has broken ideas of class within the sound of music has been unable to create a sound for religion that can be un-classical or un-folk? The representation of religion in either musical form only establishes serious worship-centric class divisions. The context of the film may demand an urban or rural musical feel but yet for a romantic scene the composer is able to find music that is not caught within the classical and folk trap. But for any religious depiction the composer is far more careful. It just might be because the equaliser in the evolution of cinema music, the protagonist of this change, was not Indian music but an import. Western strains found their spaces within each region’s own melodies. Indian music as much as Indian society is so entrenched in the caste context that it has been impossible to create a sound from within that can break these religious realities. Completely alien sounds that could be reinvented within an Indian context did that work. They offloaded from cinema music its caste and religious complexions. This very same mechanism could not operate within the architecture of religion itself. There, it has been far more difficult to bridge the gap between religion and sound. This battle has not yet been won but needs to be if we want to use the medium of cinema music to enfranchise religion.

Beyond the social, what is the nature of film music? This question does not actually have a musical answer. Film music does not have a single character, and in fact should not. Here I am not speaking of the regional nature of cinema but the idea of cinema music. Cinema music is not a separate body of music that is utilised in cinema. Cinema music exists only because there is cinema. If we were to remove cinema from life, this music would not have a reason to exist. The music is a manifestation of “that which is being conveyed through the film”. This has a macro and a micro character. The broad focus of the film, its environment, characters, actors, screenplay all contribute to the texture of the music. Within these exist the specifics of the moment within the movie that the music is trying to capture. These are the emotions that are and need to be infused into the experience of the scene. It is these aspects of the cinema that the music seeks to capture. Beyond all these, society and the music that society at large is hearing force their way into the interpretation of both the complete film and its significant moments.

This means that the music in cinema has been and is constantly in a state of transition. This transition is not a subtle nuance but an obvious fact. It is this transitory nature of film music that gives it a permanently contemporary feeling among people. What is contemporary is a highly debatable idea. But, the general notion of contemporary is connected to the dominating images and sounds of the specific time. With film music being driven by the very same images and sounds, it is but natural for us to feel that it is almost always in sync with its time. Within this larger connection, the music composers create music that engages with the film’s own character. This is the aesthetic nature of film music and the most captivating aspect of its appeal.

Film music is inseparable from the film even if we can enjoy it as a beautiful composition beyond the film. The sound of Indian film music is dynamic and hued with numerous colours and shades. Over the years, various musical influences and musical systems from across the globe have been adapted into Indian film music and will continue to be as cinema allows this as part of its nature. I must stress here that film music is not an add-on to the film but the very nature of the film. Unless the film’s music is part of the ideation of the film, it lacks the strength to aesthetically unify. Aesthetics being the nature of its being and not a comment on its auditory appeal.

This leads us to look at how music is used within cinema. Songs have been used for various emotional contexts transcending reality into the realm of dreams. Whether depicting love, hate, failure, eroticism or passion, songs have been placed to heighten the emotion. With the segregation of music and acting, songs became related to the context of the movie. The actors were far more skilled in the craft of emoting, expression and dialogue delivery. But we must note here a constant within the change. The power and appeal of music being what it is, that playback or no playback, we see even today that songs sometimes exist because they are just there. The scene in fact is created for the inclusion of a song.

‘Item number’

A good example for such a song is what is known as the “item number”. Surprising as this may sound, conceptually the item has existed for long and is not a new invention. But what is interesting is that it is included even if that particular scene does not in anyway help further our experience of the movie, its emotions or the story. The role of the item number is clearly to arouse the audience. I am not going to debate sexism here but I do have a serious concern about the way this fits into the structure of the film. A movie is not a collection of scenes that tell a story. The movie is the story and its scenes are not broken pictures. Scenes are a continuum of imagery that cannot be dismantled individually. This does not mean that there is no conflict or sudden shifts in the film’s movement, even that is part of the continuum being created. The problem with the item numbers is that there are times when they disturb the cinema experience though they may be pleasurable. The item number is one example but there are many other such song inclusions.

Sometimes songs are included in films only because movies have been successful owing to the popularity of the music director. This has led to producers and directors almost deciding in advance that they need at least five songs in the film and then fitting them into the narrative. This again dismantles the original idea of music in cinema. Unless the director hears the music in the story and can convey this to the music director, the music is only attached to the film.

Music in cinema has not only been about the songs but also about the background score. While in American cinema the background scores are almost compositions by themselves, in India they are not though they play the most important role in the experience of the movie. The musical nature of the background score has followed that of the changes in songs. Many beautifully orchestrated short melodies have given us so much more than what the actors have given us. In fact, great background scores have the capacity to camouflage a badly constructed scene or a lack of emotive connectivity from the actors. This unified nature of the scene with its music makes such deconstruction almost impossible. The irony is that this defining, mood-setting music, because of its very background nature, is invariably obscured from our consciousness.

But in the recent past, I sense that the amount of serious musical work that used to be put into the background score is missing. Many of the scores only reiterate habituated melodies that emphasise certain emotions. Depending on the situation, variations of the same ideas are used behind the scenes to enhance the mood. Until even the 1980s, far more effort was put into creating the right musical sounds to enhance the experience.

Musical technocrats

Among film music enthusiasts, the most highly debated subject is the use of technology in film music. The criticism is that music in cinema has become highly dependent on technology and that the real role of the music composer has diminished. Anyone with even a basic knowledge of technology is able to put music together and think he is composing. The computer technology is such that you need to be more a technician with an ear for sound rather than a creative musician with a sense of technology. The other side of the argument is that such a comparison is irrelevant as we are trying to compare two different sets of skills, the first of a natural music composer and the second of a person who understands technology and its possibilities. They say both need to be respected and appreciated within the context of their existence. Both arguments have validity, but the question to be asked is what is the role of technology? This question is as relevant to cinema music as it is to our life today. I am one who believes that technology is an enabler and should not replace human inspiration. The problem with technology today is that it seeks to remove the role of inspired creativity from the fold of the film composer. Today, the creative role can stop at assimilation and recognition, assimilation of the musical sounds that exist around and recognition of the possibilities that technology can provide. In this limited scope of function, the spark of the composer, the idea of the musical genius, is lost. This is what is dangerous from the angle of artistry. The technologist’s music may be beautiful to hear, as much as that of the creative genius, but a serious aficionado can spot the genius in the music, within the music, layered in the music, that which transports one into the film. This, I feel, technology-driven music does not possess. The larger problem today is that even brilliant composers are falling into the technology trap, unable to break free of its shackles. From the era of musical geniuses, we have moved into the age of musical technocrats, and this is not progress.

I have tried to give a few pointers on the transformation of film music and raised questions that seem to transcend all the various cinemas in India. There have always been people who stood by themselves, making a contradictory yet important statement in film music. They will remain what they are, checks to the dominant trends. But within the larger trends in film music, its transformation into a unique genre and its immense adaptability are universal. Yet, these two elements have also led to the cinema music community lacking the strength to question musical trends that are at divergence with cinema itself.

I have only spoken about a few aspects in this essay, but the community needs to seriously consider the role of music within cinema and within individual movies if film music should remain a relevant aesthetic element of that fascinating genre.

T.M. Krishna, the acclaimed Carnatic vocalist, belongs to a tradition, but is not owned by it. His concert stage, whether in his home town Chennai or elsewhere in the world, is wholly classical but his concert practice is his own. He sings with a musical rigour that goes back centuries but from a musical imagination that must roam free from the coils of mindless adherence and, equally, from the traps of soulless innovation.