Bollywood music for dummies

12 December 2011 - 14:43 By Nikita Ramkissoon

You hear drums. Chiming of bells. Dramatic pauses. People making funny noises. Then the music turns orchestral while a duet is sung. No, it’s not an Abba musical.

It’s a Bollywood song.

To the Western ear, Bollywood music sounds like one big merry mess with prettiness in between. What needs to be understood – especially by a person who is unfamiliar to the tradition and style – is that Bollywood songs are an entirely different machine to the usual.

Songs in Hindi films are so intrinsically linked to the visual of the film, the meaning is kind of lost if you’re not watching the film, and the structure of the song will definitely sound like something out of a postmodern dance show if the visual is not taken into consideration.

Having grown up with the Bollywood tradition, I understand how weird it must sound, to hear sitar and then violin… and then trumpets.

But it’s all about the film. The colour, dancing and celebrations are all superfluous and an excuse to showcase the beauty of Indian culture.

Bollywood culture is a very specific type of escapism where generic upper-class reality of religion and family meets the fantasy world of true love despite restrictive traditions. This is what the masses of India use to break away from the hard life of poverty-stricken India.

Movie themes are generally along this storyline. Forbidden love, tradition, religion and family.

The songs are an integral part of this as the likes of Shah Rukh Khan and Aishwarya Rai sing to each other, telling the story of the obstacles standing between them and happily ever after.

Each song indicates the fantasy world of the lovers, the celebrations of religious tradition, the expression – and importance – of culture, or demonstration of emotion. These are sung by playback singers, and acted out by the stars, which carry the story by this form of expression. Mostly duets, the songs explain the characters’ feelings.

This is coupled with dancing in a field in different outfits the characters would otherwise not wear, different locations such as the Pyramids of Giza – hence the mélange of different music styles, and elaborate dance sequences at weddings, which do actually happen.

(Though at real weddings these are rehearsed and don’t include massive dance troupes who suddenly know all the words and choreography.)

So, basically, the music is an extension of the action. If the actors are dancing at a Diwali celebration it will be traditional, and so will the music. If they are at a Western-style ball with suits and dresses, the music will be orchestral.

The songs are really long, too; because the films are long, and so are the ceremonies. Indians like to draw out everything to the point of wrist-slitting boredom.

If the characters are in India and then suddenly appear in China for a bit of a fantasy dance sequence, the music will change to suit the scene. Don’t ask me how they end up in China. They just do.

Another thing that may be confusing to Bollywood newcomers is the inexplicable inclusion of music from another song from another film. This is India’s way of being postmodern. Bollywood loves doing this. It makes the directors feel all clever-clever.

Cross-referencing, giving a nod to previous greats and shameless use of old dance moves is done through musical themes. This often occurs in films in which actors from said previous film are paired up again. How sweet.

Reprising themes from other songs within the same film accompany flashbacks – a character remembering good times in a sad song or sad times in a happy song. Silly, but entertaining nonetheless.

Also, there are happy and sad versions of the same song. Usually the title track is manipulated to reveal the emotion of the scene. The title track theme is also used in other songs just for the hell of it. Don’t ask why. It just happens.

Certain musical themes follow different characters around, much like the same disconcerting strike with a bow across the violin to indicate Batman’s Joker or the two piano notes which immediately spell Jaws. But with Bollywood, this can be done mid-song.

Prayer segments are also included every now and then. Confusing to anyone who doesn’t know there’s a prayer for everything from sunrise to slicing bread.

Note, no amount of kitsch can be considered silly, unprofessional or uncool in Bollywood. With the ‘80s never having left India, even including a bit of big brass band or reggae in an awesome traditional dance number is acceptable.

(And yes, Indians still call them ‘dance numbers’.)

Finally, the contents of the song dictate the sounds. If the song comes out of a scene where there is traditional dancing, the sound of sticks or bells can be heard throughout the song.

Understanding the incongruencies of Bollywood music all point to one solution: Watch the darn film. They’re three hours long, silly, pretty, unrealistic and sometimes really confusing what with all the feet-touching and Shiva causing lighting that kills the baddie.

But if you can believe that Q can make James Bond’s a car disappear, believe that Saif Ali Khan and Preity Zinta can go from Lucknow to Paris in a matter of seconds.

It will make the music so enjoyable, you may – like me – do some shoulder-shaking Bhangra dancing while in traffic, or randomly break into song just like they do in the movies.

Don’t ask questions. It’s not Scorsese coupled with Danny Elfman. It’s Bollywood. A totally different world. Just enjoy it. Every random minute of it.