Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Why do Indian movies always have songs?

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="450"]Two most beautiful women in one screen Indian Beauty Unlimited![/caption]

She had tears in her eyes. He had a lost look on his face. They were sitting in a public garden. He reached out to her and held her hand it close to his heart. Shivers ran down her body. "I love you", he said. She wiped her tears, started smiling. 

Background music started. So far all the inconsequential characters in the public garden fell into a formation. Drums started to roll down the slope.  Hero started dancing and they all mimicked. She hid behind the trees and he started to sing, dance and run behind her... All at the same time. 

The whole crowd in the theatre started cheering the hit number. My American colleague who wanted to get a guided tour to Indian movies, looked aghast. He had a big question mark on his face as he looked at me. I reached out for my next popcorn.

The world is always puzzled about such songs being integral part of Indian movies. Don't they make the whole movie unrealistic? Globally, film makers go out of their way to make the movie look as close to reality as possible. They shoot at locations, record background noises at locations etc. They are amazed at how Indians can be so comfortable with songs which are so blatantly unreal? And why does the audience in the theatres cheer or clap at onscreen actors in theatres? Do they expect the on screen actors to hear it?

Indian movies have their root in "Sangeet Natya" which is a Sanskrit word for musical dramas. (  This was the most popular entertainment format prevalent in India. All major characters in this art form had to be singers. They would communicate partly in dialogues and would suddenly break into songs. As the name suggests, songs was the main attractions for these dramas. The audience would know the hit numbers but they would watch the drama again and again to hear it from their favourite singers. They would cheer, clap and hum the song with the characters. If they liked the song, they would request the on-stage character to sing it again. The actor would take it as his honour and oblige. Indian movies, when they arrived in 1913, we're looking to compete with a highly active and interactive form of entertainment.

Dadasaheb Phalake, father of Indian movies, had no choice but to make Indian movies look very similar to Sangeet Natya. He could get actors very easily, the format was set. All he had to do was film it and show it on the screen. In fact, while introducing movies to people he called them - drama on screen. This is where Indian movies inherited songs. The storyline and songs are intertwined and not really seen as two separate things by Indian audience for last 99 years. The tradition of cheering on screen performance is also deep rooted. That's how it used to happen in those days. If the actors performed on stage and the audience did not clap or cheer, that would be a nightmare for the actors. Those were signs of a bad act. Audience had the responsibility to proactively communicate their acceptance, which they continue to follow even for Indian movies.

Indian movie has evolved in last 99 years. Several movie-makers have tried to experiment with songs. Some of them produced song-less movies, some others produced musical stories. Movies with songs always outperformed movies without songs. Legacy continues... In my next blog, I will talk about Why would songs remain an integral part of Indian movies in foreseeble future.

Bal Gandharva - biographical movie about Marathi singing legend - this clip shows on stage singing skills, coupled with interactivity with the audience. The situation depicted in the clip is extremely tragic. Bal Gandharva - protagonist, male dressed as female has lost his daughter. But he is unable to cancel the show, has to perform on stage and the audience does not seem to let him go...

Read extended short story version of Why Do Indians blogs with a few more interesting indian inscrutable ways in Why Do Indians..? – The Book

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