Bollywood: The Ulterior Soundtrack

30 May 2012

Someone at a musicians circle claimed that there were close to ten thousand musicians in Mumbai, circa 2004. Though the claim sounded quiet preposterous, that figure today is not really far from reality.

The IMI (Indian Music Industry), a phonograph conglomerate based in Mumbai, claims 4000 plus registered members. The Cine Musicians Union in Mumbai who recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, declares another 1000 plus members on their annual roster. There are hundreds, if not a thousand professional musicians in Mumbai outside the 'unionised' span of the above organisations; percussionists, pianists, arrangers (a very odd term used only in Bollywood parlance), guitar players, violinists, tabla and dholak players, flautists, sitarists, saxophonists, players of bongo, duff, rabab and all such instrumentalists that record and make a living on a daily basis, inside roughly 500 studios in Mumbai. Add another 500 odd studio engineers who record, mix and 'pump up the volume'.

The film industry in India, thrives and literally breathes on the music that these very people contribute to every day and night, feeding this giant mechanism; The Sound of Bollywood. Be it film songs, background scores, television adverts, radio jingles, pop music, product promos and anything that requires that 'effective and consistent' sound to convince the masses, the household audio, that the characteristic gloss, emitting from Mumbai is heard and consumed in the far corners of this nation, and increasingly across the world.

So what are we beating about here? It's definitely not about the involved talent and hit makers. Well, neither is it about the unsung heroes and heroines who didn’t make285007'i285010' down memory lane inside a giant tune machine that endlessly churns out an average of 700 songs a year (not counting regional flicks and languages). And no! It's not about how to make your mark inside the most alluring and rewarding music industry in the world right now.

Lets take a look at the funnier side of things instead. A capricious view inside Bollywood's audio galaxy. Lets get a load inside the world of hard sell. Lets go feel the loudness booming from the music director’s studio. Lets bring up the artful and foxy game between film companies and record labels. Lets meet a superstar singer who most often does not write the lyrics, nor conjures the melody. Lets hang out with the music producers who have the loudest and hippest sample tank. Lets stupefy ourselves (just for a moment) at the lyricist who has written more than 8000 songs to date, mostly about love and its unrequited status. See how a remix is 'don285952' in less than 6 hours. Lets listen to the ulterior soundtrack of Bollywood!

In Bollywood, the process of a song becoming a chart breaking hit is as apprehensive and alluring as the sheer throw of dice. Yet the masters of this art, this congress of composers, the vaudevilles creators of fat sounds and the bards of utterly basic rhymes are continuously trying to get to the top of the heap. Try and ride the apex of an industry, which has never stopped turning up or has shown any sign of slowing down. Each person in this hierarchic order of manufacture plays a pivotal yet repetitive role; each one must endure the given struggle, each one is constantly learning new tricks and skills to swim through the ever changing tastes and trends. Each one, jostling and edging themselves against the other; the successful ones, cheering and sharing accolades at the glitzy industry award nights. Each one sometimes, unknowingly or vagrantly ripping or copying a melody, harmony, beats or even words and poetry!

Take a look at how a typical Bollywood film song comes to form. What happens before you get lambasted by the latest hit song. Most often, with the much negotiated film contract drawn and signed between the director of the film, along with the producer and the film company; a hunt will ensue for the best music director available, given the budget and weight of the tentative star-cast. Wait! Did anyone bother approving or holding up the script? What’s the plot? Never mind, we need hits and we need them now!

The most bizarre convention that has continued in Bollywood for decades, is that almost all songs of the movie in question are composed, recorded and mixed even before the film crew have begun shooting. The director will contract the music director to deliver the outstanding (if not golden) songs, which in turn will be the nailing factor in committing to the future success of the film. The music director holds the key to this very challenge. Well along with his trusted crew and buddies of course. And for now, the action, drama and dancing can take a back seat.

Lets take a normal scene in a Bollywood movie plot. The girl is missing the boy; the boy is far away and lonesome. The music director and the lyricist will brainstorm in session, with pen, paper, guitar, keyboard or just a cappella, in order to arrive at an opportune melody and meter to express the feelings and mood of the above mentioned scenario. With the basic tune in place, the music director will summon the 'arranger' (an archaic term which has existed since the 60s where the erstwhile conductor was rechristened, as modern instruments crept into the old orchestra) to create the appropriate music and beats for the song to be. Today off course this is done mostly on computers, synthesizers, digital recorders and samplers as music producers do, the world over.

This is where the undertaking gets funny. The director of the film steps in further to give insight to the music director about the plot, who in tandem with the lyricist’s verse and chorus creates the much anticipated melody, which in turn must find the best suitable voice (male and/or female) to bring the song to life, closer to perfection, and further be 'pronounced, powered and pumped' by the music producer, who almost takes on the role of a cook; his job is to bring a basic melody to its greatest possible sonic results. Eventually recorded, balanced, sweetened and compressed to sound 'fa289437' and 'fresh' by the mix engineer. The producer of the film gives the approving nod inside a plush studio and the involved singer, producer, instrumentalist and the music director share the exalt. Presto! Do we have a hit song yet?

Well, not really. One final and often unnerving deal is to win the confidence or convince the heavy weight investors of the movie and the bigwigs at record labels (who will eventually purchase the music rights from the investors) about the 'Hit Factor' of the song in question. Will it reflect the time, money and invested efforts of the people involved? Screw that! Will it bring in crores of rupees via royalties, ringtones, overseas concerts, reselling rights, DJ remixes and the eventual guarantee of constant airplay on television and radio, for at least 5 weeks?

This very excruciating, twisted and often whimsical decision routine sets the performance and throbbing index of Bollywood music, on a daily, monthly and yearly basis. And what do these decision making bosses know about music? The invested capital and its might speaks for one and all. This musically inclined pot-boiler of creating popular music for Bollywood movies is virtually unknown to most of the mass consumers and the bedazzled fans. If your latest song can ride the waves for 5 to 6 weeks, you’re in business. If it can stay hot for a year or more, you’re virtually Timbaland!

Hit or shit, Bollywood's music making factory is a well oiled workhorse for creating fast consumable music and it is homogenized, hierarchical and industrialized to the core. An ever inviting core that provides not only employment to a multitude of artists, techies and artisans, to some luckier ones a complete 'life in the fast lane'. Yet, it churns, it burns, giving rewards to newer successful 'players' and in turn claiming and caging the older ones into hegemony and eventual obscurity. The music must go on; the songs must break previous records of popularity (revenue). At any cost, music and songs are the lifeline of Bollywood cinema.


Part 2 will take a look at how certain unseeing factors rule the sound of Bollywood and how technology has saved and revitalized its sound. Where is the song bird at? The quest for the elusive golden melody and the misadventures of an upstart music producer in Bollywood.

Words: Samrat Bee



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