Hindi film songs are immensely popular throughout the length and breadth of the country and appeal to people of all age groups. Such was the popularity of Hindi film songs as far back as 1952 that when All India Radio (under B. V. Keskar) banned the airing of film music, ‘Binaca Geetmala’, which was broadcast from Radio Ceylon, became a major success across the country. This forced AIR to rethink its ban and, in 1957, it introduced ‘Vividh Bharati’ to cater to the tastes of the radio listeners. What makes Hindi film songs tick? How do they cut across all boundaries and appeal to such a wide variety of people from diverse backgrounds? These questions probe sociologists, musicologists, ethnomusicologists and scholars of popular culture and cinema studies to study this uniquely Indian phenomenon.
As one of India’s leading ethnomusicologists, Dr. Ashok Ranade undertakes an analysis of the composers and voices working behind the Hindi film song noting historical developments and discussing aesthetic issues in an attempt to trace its complete musical profile. Ranade carries out what he chooses to call ‘middle-level research’ in Hindi film music – rising above analysis and interpretation of individual songs yet not excluding concrete evidence for want of big theories to explain everything.
The structure of the book makes it accessible to the scholar as much as to the lay reader. It has been divided into three sections: landmarks in Hindi film music, early amd later composers and major and minor voices broadly spanning the period 1930-80. The three distinct phases which have been covered in this period are the talkie phase, studio phase and finally the industry phase. The methodology employed is the analysis of the styles and contributions of individual composers and playback singers – the two pillars of the Hindi film song – and using them to reflect upon each other to create a clearer picture.
The historical and theoretical moorings of the subject matter have not been left unexplored by Ranade. He undertakes an analysis of the principles of Bharata’s Natyashastra and goes on to put forth the aesthetic principles which govern the relationship between the auditory and the visual in film music. In this regard, one is truly surprised to read about the foresight of Bharata when he said that the ‘song’ could either by sung by the actor himself/herself or by another – in light of this evidence, it is truly tempting to trace the notion of playback singing back to the early aestheticians! Ranade’s approach to the subject is clear and systematic. Thus, the parent category of popular music has been analysed thoroughly outlining and detailing its chief characteristics before he delves into the specific genre of the Hindi film song. Notable among the features of the genus are willingness to borrow from other musical cultures and genres, inclusive approach to music-making, exploitation of musical conventions, noticeable topicality and limited shelf life. How all of these features apply to the Hindi film song becomes evident during the course of the book. In light of the chief roles played by film music, Ranade invokes the views of the famous composer Aaron Copeland which are worth reproducing as a bird’s eye-view into the genre. Film music: (i) establishes a convincing atmosphere of time and space; (ii) underlines unspoken feelings or psychological states of characters; (iii) serves as neutral background filler for action; (iv) provides a sense of continuity to editing; and (v) accentuates dramatic build-up of a scene and rounds it off to finality. However, these points do not encompass the entity which is unique to the Hindi film – the film song. Its varieties and characteristics are not easy to pin down in light of the various ways in which it has been (and continues to be) employed and moulded by various music composers over the years. Ranade credits Naushad with meaningfully tightening the musical concept of a ‘film song’ as distinct from ‘singing in a film’. For Ranade, it was Naushad who made the Hindi film song a unified entity with a musical introduction, followed by a refrain, a musical interlude, about three stanzas, and perhaps an end-flourish. Meticulous planning, rigorous rehearsals and resourceful recording characterized Naushad’s work-ethic and ensured this long-lasting contribution to the genre. Later in the book, Ranade adds that if Naushad helped the process of crystallization of the format of the Hindi film song, it was S. D. Burman who extended the scope of its content. Numerous anecdotes regarding various music composers and playback singers abound in these pages. For example, it is interesting to note that, in 1937, J. B. H. Wadia’s film Naujawan was hooted out of the theatres in Delhi because it did not have a single song. The public hurled stones shouting, “Wadia ne loot liya”. Such is the hold of the Hindi film song over the cinemagoers! Madan Mohan fans would be surprised to know that much before he became an ace composer and a force to reckon with in the industry, he used to be in the army and was due to be made Lieutenant but did not make it because he was late in saluting the Union Jack!
However, there are a few inconsistencies in the book. The section heading on Naushad gives his date of demise and the text below speaks of him as being with us to throw light on the various phases which Hindi film music has passed through. Another noteworthy point is the scant bibliography. Barring a couple of recent works, most of the literature which has been referred to is from the 1970s. This seems rather surprising considering the amount of work being carried out in the field of popular culture and cinema studies. Similarly, the statistics cited come up to 1995 whereas the textual analysis hardly goes beyond 1980 introducing a mismatch. A sore point regarding the layout is the excessive usage of exclamation. For example, 9 out of 12 sentences on the first page of the opening chapter end with an exclamation mark bringing down the seriousness of Ranade’s endeavour. On the part of the publisher, the index has been poorly done with chapter names featuring in it.
In any case, the aforementioned points are small glitches in a splendid journey on which Ranade takes his readers. All lovers of film music would find something in the book which appeals to them – whether it is the short biographical sketches of the composers and playback singers, the analysis of individual styles and contributions or just a trip down memory lane! All of these elements become even more pleasurable because of Ranade’s clear and lucid use of language and intelligent organization of the material presented. It remains to be said that Ranade fully succeeds in his task to carry out middle-level research and, as in the past, has shown the way to researchers in the field of popular music. The book would be a treat for movie buffs, film song lovers and of course, scholars of popular culture and cinema studies.
Irfan Zuberi is currently engaged in working on an M. Phil thesis on the subject of ‘Sociology of Indian Music’ from the Delhi School of Economics.