Thursday, May 3, 2007

Our Films, Their Songs...

"Tere Bina Beswaadi Beswaadi Ratiyaan, Oh Sajna"

"Without you my nights are tasteless, Oh Darling"- Gurukant Desai was supposed to sing this about his wife, Sujata who had left him following a squabble. Gulzar's words portray the husband's mind explicitly, taking it to the heights of what is called "vipralambha sringaaram" (romance at separation). The earthy touch in A R Rahman's rendering elevates the desperation of the lover. Your hopes would naturally rise when the situation is picturised by a director who is considered, by many, as the best of his clan. But alas, what you see on the screen is just another Bollywood dance sequence (of course, beautifully choreographed, richly lit, elegantly shot and sleekly cut). You search desperately across the frames for the emotion in the song and the poetry in the words. You wonder who transplanted the parted couple to this fairytale castle and from where on earth so many extras came in between them.

I am not accusing Maniratnam of any grave mistake. He hasn't done anything worse than his peers have been doing for years. Nor has he done anything which disagrees with the usual mould in which his films are made. Only, this time he has erred in more calculations, succumbed to more pressures and made more compromises, which qualifies 'Guru' as the worst film in his career. The film received criticisms for weak characterizations and deviations made when adapting a real life personality into reel. But it made me muse over a different aspect- the way songs are being dealt with in our films. I believe 'Guru' represents the nadir of it. Coming from a director many consider as the best in India, it epitomizes the sad plight of the film songs of our times.

I am aware of my ‘dangerously heroic’ and much vulnerable position- that of the kid in the crowd shouting, "The King is naked!!!", since for a generation of film geeks, "Mani Sir" is no less than God. A strange fact I have noticed about Maniratnam is that he has very few admirers. Most of us, including me, are his 'devotees'!! But now, I prefer to move away from that fanatic crowd. I know I will be inviting the wrath of many for my blasphemy- for throwing stones at their idol, and that too for something which he is best known for...

I couldn't appreciate the songs in 'Guru'- neither the places where they were crammed into nor the way they were picturised. The songs 'Barso Re' and 'Jodi Jodi' has nothing to do with the narrative. 'Mayya Mayya' has more obvious and almost vulgar market intentions. The other songs, including the one I mentioned at the beginning, were also poorly shot, I am inclined to say, considering their lyrical beauty and the potential they offered.

Looking back, I find Maniratnam has always followed this pattern for the songs in his movies. (I am talking about post-'Anjali' days) His films have had the greatest hit songs. Their picturisations have been trend-setters in their times- be it in choreography, lighting, locations, art or cinematography. They look fresh even now, because Mani Sir had always been ahead of his times. But when I look at them as a part of the films, to my surprise, I find many of them quite distracting. For instance, Kuchi Kuchi Rakkamma (Bombay) and Snehithane (Alaipayuthey) takes you to different settings that has little to do with the rest of the film which, I think, disrupts the concentration. A notable exception, though are the songs of 'Aayitha Ezhuthu' ('Yuva' in Hindi).

In an interview after the music release of 'Guru', Maniratnam said that for him a song is "a kind of celebration; it is a liberty that a filmmaker gets in a film" and that it "gives you a kind of freedom to be away from being conventional, being logical and dramatic." What he didn't mention was the economic equations behind songs- how he has been using songs as crowd pullers. Years before the whole Indian film industry went for what they call "item numbers", this Jamnalal Bajaj alumnus had made such songs his films' USP. Remember 'September Matham' (Alaipayuthey), 'Chaiyya Chaiyya' (Dil Se), 'Humma Humma' (Bombay), ‘Rukumani’ (Roja)...

All these songs fitted well to the narrative, though. We should agree that they have helped in either underlining the mood of the situation or moving the story ahead. Another thing to note is the impact they make on the viewers and filmmakers. It's a surprising thing- Maniratnam makes films once in 2 years or even less frequently. But it would be this film that remains a benchmark for filmmakers for the following years, maybe till the release of his next film!!! That's what worries me more about 'Guru'. Because what he does is being aped by many, he should have been more careful with his craft.

Maniratnam films were path- breaking in many ways- their sensitivity, social concerns, technical perfection… Most of us were drawn to him because of all these. He always got the best songs one could get in India. But the way he used it- well, I prefer to disagree. "Mani Sir, You are still my Guru. But, thanks, I shall direct the songs myself"

The purpose of this note was not at all Maniratnam bashing. Honestly, I accept the fact that an average Indian viewer may not have found anything wrong in 'Guru' or its songs. He may, perhaps, have appreciated and enjoyed it- because he had been conditioned so- not to think much about art, not to care for the lyrics… Only a few, very few indeed, will find those songs out of place, illogical and underutilized.

Let me make it clear that I am not a hard-core critic of 'mainstream' cinema or an exponent of 'art' cinema. If anything, I am a die-hard fan of film songs. I guess that is why all these are bothering me so much. I feel offended when songs are mishandled by our filmmakers. Songs should not be accessories. A film should have a song only if it is inevitable for the situation. Sadly, nowadays songs are just vehicles for marketing the film. They may be 'value- adding' to the producers, distributors and TV channels, but not to the film.

I always cherish those good old days of film music in India. I have a long list of favorites in black and white and Eastman colour. I haven’t seen most of the films. But the songs tell so much about the story. Most of them are dialogue- based. The protagonists conversed through songs, as in musicals. They were not suddenly transported to alien lands nor encircled by myriads of dancers. They didn’t sport fancy costumes and changed them in every shot.

Even later, there were mainstream directors like the legendary Hrishikesh Mukherjee, who were able to successfully blend songs into their narrative. Of the present day directors, I admire Ashutosh Gowariker, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Kamal Hassan in this regard, for shooting songs realistically. Since songs are so much a part of films, these directors work for their perfection from the composing- writing stage to picturisation, rather than leaving it to assistants or choreographers. This ensures that the songs don’t stand out from the rest of the film. I would sincerely wish to add Sanjay Leela Bhansali in my list, but not doing so because of his unnecessarily lavish ways of dealing with songs. The money he spent on the sets and costumes in the songs of ‘Devdas’ has helped only in reducing the classic to a mushy Bollywood romance. Otherwise too, the good majority of the film songs churned out by the world’s biggest film industry has become just marketing gimmicks. The main reasons for having songs in a film now are the sale of audio rights and the film’s promotion.

One of the set patterns in Indian cinema is making the hero and heroine sing a duet and leave them with a whole troupe of dancers making gawky moves. But the last few years witnessed a number of changing trends. The so- called "item numbers" are not new to Hindi films. But now it has become a norm for every film. The trend has got upgraded to the heroine herself dancing in skimpy outfits, to a hip thrusting number. Nowadays, every other Hindi song happens to be shot in a discotheque, so that if you are watching a music channel, you hardly notice where one song ends and the other begins. There is nothing wrong in showing a dance bar if situation in the story demands it. Sadly, in most cases, it doesn’t.

Another genre of songs involves protagonists who live in modest Indian surroundings, transported to exotic foreign lands for the five minutes of a song. The location can vary from snow clad Europe to Egyptian pyramids or a tour across the world as in Shankar’s ‘Jeans’. These dream sequences signify nothing but the filmmaker’s deficiency of imagination and his lusty eyes on big business. It made sense in the beginning when most of the foreign locations were fresh to Indians. But now, Seychelles is more familiar than Kovalam to them. Still, established directors, even from Malayalam go to foreign locations spending lakhs, while discussions about soaring production costs and lowering returns go on. Many of these songs are shot in front of historic monuments. These magnificent structures form just backdrops for the actors’ pelvic gyrations. But here also, there are beautiful exceptions. When I visited Delhi, I wanted to be at the Qutab Minar, because of the song, 'Dil ka Bhanwar Kare Pukar' from ‘Tere Ghar Ke Samne’ rather than due to any of its historical significance. I wanted to climb those stairs where the handsome Dev Anand and beautiful Nutan shared their private moments despite mischievous stares from passersby. Seeing the monument shut to the public was a great disappointment.

I am disturbed when I hear about mediocre music albums getting translated to full-length films (Aap Ka Suroor) and a whole galaxy of Bollywood stars dancing in a single film song (Om Shanti Om). At the same time, I am relieved to find more people around me who find today’s film songs annoying and who mourn over the lyrics getting filled up wholly with synonyms of ‘love’, ‘betrayal’ or ‘pain’. And I believe, their tribe is increasing. To make my position safer, I shall do a take on how Brutus justifies his stand against Caesar. ‘Not that I love songs less, but that I love cinema more’.

[Thoolika- May 2007]