Bollywood: Moving past its signature style

Cannes Daily Spotlight 2012: Indian Cinema

Ever since the birth of Indian cinema 100 years ago, songs have been one of the reasons for Indians to watch a movie. India’s ancient Sanskrit-language dance dramas, which were succeeded by folk theater, liberally used songs and dances in message-driven narratives, as a means of keeping the audience engaged, and it was a natural progression into cinema. Bollywood elevated this approach into an art form. Long before MTV was launched in 1981 and simultaneously with the heyday of the Hollywood musical, Bollywood heroes and heroines were lip-synching songs (professional singers sing, not the actors) and dancing in elaborately choreographed sequences.

But the song-and-dance sequences with which Bollywood is equated the world over are changing. “Indrasabha” (1932) featured a staggering 70 songs across its running time of 211 minutes, but today the norm is five or six songs.

Anjula Acharia-Bath of Desi Hits, a multiplatform media company that produces and distributes music to South Asian auds, says she’s been told that song and dance doesn’t sell well internationally and just adds to the running time.

“Personally, I don’t think that’s the case; the dances add a lot to it,” she says. “Things like ‘Glee’ show it works — good songs move the story along.”

Fewer songs in movies hurt her company. “We are about the exchange of music,” she says.

Such financial considerations are why Bollywood still includes songs. In India film-song albums are far more popular than artist or group releases and account for 70% of all music revenues. Though sales of physical music declined 19% in 2011, this was offset by the 24% growth of digital music, according to a KPMG report. In an era where global music revenues are dwindling, the film-driven Indian music industry grew 5%, registering revenues of $169 million.

The album is released a few weeks before a film’s theatrical release. “Songs are a powerful tool during the film’s promotional period,” says producer and distributor Pravesh Sippy. “They get heavy airplay on all the popular radio channels and are in constant rotation on television.”

An important innovation occurred in 2004, when Aditya Chopra, producer of “Dhoom,” decided to shoot a musicvideo featuring Thai pop star Tata Young as a television promotional tool. The phenomenal response to the song prompted him to include it in the film’s end credits. Today, it is standard operating procedure in the industry in pics such as “Slumdog Millionaire,” where “Jai ho” ran with the end credits, and “Singh Is Kingg,” which included a tune with Snoop Dogg.

Like music delivery systems, the songs seen in the films have changed too. Due to shorter running times and audiences with reduced attention spans, many filmmakers opt to shoot snippets of songs or just use them in the background. Anurag Kashyap’s Directors’ Fortnight selection “Gangs of Wasseypur” has 25 songs spread across its two parts, but they are largely in the background. Kashyap is also a producer along with India’s National Film Development on multihyphenate Q’s “Tasher desh,” a “Rocky Horror Picture Show” style reimagining of Rabindranath Tagore’s opera with psychedelic songs.

This year’s sleeper hit, thriller “Kahaani,” has six background songs.

“I’m battling with the audience’s global standards,” says helmer Sujoy Ghosh, “In a way I’m competing with ‘The Bourne Supremacy’ or a French thriller. For, today’s audience has access to everything right now. Even in India. So I can’t make a film longer than two hours because the audience is fickle. If I include songs, the tightness of my film goes. It just doesn’t feel right to me.”

Ghosh says he likes to keep his audience on their toes and not interrupt the narrative with songs. “It’s a strategy for me. I use music and songs in the background,” he explains. “It doesn’t interfere with my storytelling; rather, it helps.”

The helmer doesn’t advocate doing away with songs altogether in Indian cinema. He points out the two distinct classes of audiences. The older demographic is used to escapism, while the younger audience in an overwhelmingly young country like India is impatient and used to more sophisticated fare. Ghosh says that as long as both audiences need to be catered to within the parameters of the same film, songs will always remain a part of the Bollywood fabric.

Shalie Dore contributed to this report

Cannes Daily Spotlight 2012: Indian Cinema
Bollywood: Moving past its signature style | Regional films feed India’s need for more films | Bombay bazaar
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