Is Music in Bollywood DEAD?

Is Music in Bollywood DEAD?

Will our films start composing music that will live on for years and not just a few weeks, wonders Biswadeep Ghosh

Most songs from Bollywood films sink without a trace. These songs can be part of motion picture soundtracks with some musical hits that outshine and eclipse accompanying numbers. Or, they may not appeal to the audiences. Or, they might remain largely unheard since they are in films that are watched by few.

A handful of songs become chartbusters. These songs have a shelf-life that is independent of the film they are part of, and they also help films find additional audiences. Some songs that have become chartbusters in recent times are Bekhayali and Tujhe Kitna Chahne Lage from Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s Kabir Singh, Slow Motion and Chashni from Ali Abbas Zafar’s Bharat, Jugrafiyan from Vikas Bahl’s Super 30, Hauli Hauli from Akiv Ali’s De De Pyaar De and Ve Maahi from Anurag Singh’s Kesari. If you dig film music, you must have heard these songs. But will they live on in your mind months from now?

Even if they do, their strains will become faint. Powerful echoes of newer songs will replace them. Relatively old songs will gradually disappear from the mind-space since few modern-day songs have what is takes to become a long-lasting memory. These chartbusters attract the listener for a while, but their charm withers away soon.


That is in stark contrast with the musical success stories that Bollywood produced with consistent regularity for several decades. Those who are fond of film music revisit soundtracks from any time between the 1950s and 1970s even today. Songs from that period are heard and hummed in spite of the emergence of new soundtracks every week.

Just go back in time and think of the composing legends who produced these classics. The list of such individuals is a long one, but we remember each one of them with reverence.

Shankar-Jaikishan’s soulful songs for Raj Kapoor films come to mind. So do those extraordinary songs that RD Burman composed for Rajesh Khanna films. Terrific was the work of music directors such as SD Burman, Khayyam, Naushad, Laxmikant-Pyarelal, OP Nayyar and other highly accomplished directors, who created gems of all kinds, right from those steeped in the Indian classical tradition to others influenced by the West.

The number of songs influenced by Western notions of composing was, of course, very few those days. The bottom line, however, was that these learned composers put their musical erudition to great use, creating songs that could not be forgotten in a hurry.

While music directors created popular epics, hugely gifted singers with separate skill-sets gave a unique personality to the songs. There was Lata Mangeshkar whose renditions held the listeners captive. Kishore Kumar mesmerised with his spontaneity and versatility. Mohammed Rafi gave a special depth to his performances, which was made possible because of his voice and his training in classical music. Mukesh was tailor-made for gentle melodies. Asha Bhonsle, like Kumar, was spontaneous and blessed with a sublime voice. Talat Mehmood sang ghazals as few could. Manna Dey was another special talent who could sing just about any kind of song.

Hindi film music was lucky to have composers and singers whose work embellished films for decades. If one was a Manna Dey and Kishore Kumar fan, one could indulge in their rendition of ‘Ek Chatur Naar’ from ‘Padosan’, a gut-busting comedy. If one wanted to listen to emotionally powerful songs from both, one could have heard Dey’s ‘Zindagi Kaisi Hai Paheli’ from ‘Anand’ or Kumar’s ‘Zindagi Ka Safar’ from ‘Safar.’

Are contemporary music directors and singers capable of producing works of such excellence? The occasional modern-day song makes us want to listen to it a few times, but the inherent beauty in a composition that makes us remember it for years is mostly missing. That said, Hindi film music of today’s times isn’t as pathetically mediocre as the material produced in the notorious disco phase of a major part of the 1980s.


Bappi Lahiri, a music director decked in tons of gold, was the crown prince of the phase that churned out obnoxious songs with steady feet-tapping rhythm patterns. Many of them were plagiarized from Western originals, which often escaped scrutiny and criticism in the pre-internet era.

Modern times are better, and the person responsible for making that happen is the very talented Oscar-winning director from Chennai: AR Rahman.  Single-handedly responsible for the turnaround after Hindi film music had experienced an all-time low, Rahman burst into the scene as a 25-year-old with Mani Ratnam’s Roja in 1992. A gifted musician who played the keyboards, he was paid a reported fee of Rs 25,000 to compose the soundtrack.  And, what a brilliant album it turned out to be!

Just as the West had experienced Beatlemania, India was in the grip of Rahmania soon. Fine soundtracks rolled out of his studio. Bombay, Rangeela, Dil Se, Earth, Taal, Saathiya, Fiza, Zubeidaa, Lagaan, Swades, Rang De Basanti, Guru, Jodhaa Akbar, Rockstar: Hindi film music benefited from the entry of Rahman, whose work competed with the best from the long-gone past.

The Rahman story of recent years shows a change for the worse. There has been a qualitative decline in his work for Bollywood. The composer, who seldom put a foot wrong earlier, has become distinctly repetitive with time. What is known as his signature style has, therefore, failed to impress on most occasions. Had Rahman been at his peak today, the music-loving film-goer would have discovered freshly minted great songs from time to time. That’s hardly happening in recent years, which is a tragedy.
That said, Rahman has been a major influence on his peers and juniors. Vishal of the Vishal-Shekhar duo had once admitted to this writer that it is because of the Chennai-based composer that music directors like him can imbibe Western influences and experiment freely. Vishal-Shekhar are among the most significant composers working today alongside the trio of Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. Then, there is Pritam, who has been guilty of plagiarism while being comparably popular.

All these directors have had their moments under the sun. They have composed songs, which have been commercially acclaimed and helped films become more successful. What, then, is their weakness? It is the quality of their average song, which doesn’t have much to write home about. Besides, they have been unable to raise the bar and create songs of the kind that lasts forever. Considering how gifted they are, that’s a pity.


One idea that Bollywood implements repeatedly is the item number, which is not performed by vamps and is a byproduct of times in which music is seen, not heard. Item numbers are peppy, and they are set to dance performances that highlight the glamour of the dancer. 

Most filmmakers seem to believe that the average viewer loves these item numbers. Every third film has one, even two, such choreographed songs. The most popular ones among them live on in film-goers’ minds, and their remixed and non-remixed versions set dance floors on fire.

Among the biggest hit items in recent times are Fevicol Se from Dabangg 2, Kamli from Dhoom 3, Dard-e-Disco from Om Shanti Om and Ram Chahe Leela Chahe from Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela. Countless other item numbers have disappeared without making any noise.


Most songs in modern times are either ignored or forgotten soon because music directors have been producing uninspiring material with very little appeal. Here, one must remember that a soundtrack can be successful even if it is directed at a small target audience, the latest example being Gully Boy that has become popular among the youth because of its rap numbers. The concept is fresh, and youngsters won’t forget these tracks anytime soon. Freshness is what Hindi film music needs, which does not mean that novelty can be only created by young men who rap.

The average music listener doesn’t have specific preferences. What the person seeks is good songs, the reason why s/he goes back to the golden era. The enduring popularity of old songs has a lesson for music directors. The compositions must have good melodies, the biggest X factor that appeals to the average Indian listener. More importantly, good melodies cannot make occasional appearances, which is the case today. They must be composed consistently to make sure that first-rate soundtracks with a set of equally good songs get created.

As Bollywood moves ahead in time, let us hope that the film industry will produce music that will live on not just for a few days or months but for generations that weren’t born when the songs were released.

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