A study of songs in movies that live long - Part 1

Songs in Indian movies have an interesting story to tell. They represent a very phenomenal link in the way music has travelled across the subcontinent over space and time. The character of music is ever changing, with very complex social forces at play. For example, the amount of time along with resources invested, human capital and social capital is very crucial in creating a musician, as much as the skill he or she may have. Such a convergence doesn’t happen automatically. There need to be conducive conditions and also a socio-economic atmosphere that values and nurtures talent. All these, along with ample amount of luck come together to create a musician.

Musicians alone, however, doesn’t create music that resonate with a large number of people. For that, you need a vessel that could transcend social barriers, economic handicaps and also it should negotiate the political landscape. Cinema to India was such a magnificent vehicle. To me, Cinema is no less than any majestic religion that India has produced. The glittery world of Indian cinema was the true melting pot of Indian culture. Over last century, it has brought together nitid personalities from the farthest corners of our culture universe. They were thrown into the grind of commercial cinema where they were burnished by the ringmasters as well as unassuming masses to produce the stars that they become. And so, they went on to light up the skies - as actors and actresses, ace directors, mellifluous Gaana Gandharvas, sentimentalist script writers with fantastic success and so on. There were a breed of Music directors and lyricists who caught popular imagination and reigned as stars over the phantasmagorical movie universe. My focus in this article is on the great minds that created songs that resonated with Indian masses. The immediate trigger was watching a few videos of Gireesh Puthenchery on Youtube and wondering how the songs they created has made such a lasting impact on our culture. I have put together - a Youtube playlist hereYoutube playlist containing videos in which Gireesh Puthenchery talk about his craft. The focus here is Malayalam movie industry, but the study is easily extendable to other languages - Hindustani as well as vernacular.

The most important question was why these songs had such an important role to play in Indian movies. It is not very difficult to discern. Performance art forms of Indian subcontinent are always tightly integrated with the music systems. All performance art forms - from the ones like Kathakali and Ottan Thullal in Kerala to Sattriya in Assam or Raas Leela of Manipur or Kathak of the North or Bharatanatyam or Kuchipudi - all of them shared a very deep umbilical connection with the classical music traditions. As such, these performances sought to achieve a deeper connection that resonated with the cultural sensibilities of being Indian. Sure, there was no one right way to describe an “Indian mind”. But if you throw in some common elements, blended well with local perceptions and sensibilities, you could develop a musical as well as visual language that will captivate the masses. To put it together formulaically would be impossible, but our vast landscape has had no dearth of natural geniuses who had an inexplicable urge to connate differing cultural expressions into an organic performance. The musicals in Indian movies depended upon a galaxy of artistic talent with diverse modes of expression to achieve this.

The two greater musical systems - the Carnatic and the Hindustani - are the bedrocks over which the musical language of Indian movies was built. It wasn’t just about how an assortment of Ragas came to represent deeper human feelings. To fully appreciate the beauty of Indian filmy music, one should start from the way they are connected to the classical traditions. Both Carnatic and Hindustani musicians have very strong opinions on how a certain human emotion should be evoked through music. This raga for the pensive mood; that raga to evoke a sense of fulfilment; an ode to a long-lost love should use this particular raga and so on. A composition of lust and shame with a subsequent call to action - the ragas got you covered. But that is only part of the story. The lyrical universe that the movie songs conjured up was only amplified by these musical systems. They existed in conjunction with the other. Independent of the other, one would find it hard to figure out congruence. For example, if a composition is for ratcheting up the melancholy humour of the viewer, it would be set in a suitable raga. But that alone wouldn’t do the trick. One need to write matching and striking lyrics. The composition, along with the lyrics form an indelible image in the mind of the viewer. The composition alone doesn’t do that. Outside the musical, the lyrics would hardly evoke the same feeling. Just like different spices come together in Indian cuisine to create something extraordinary, this final result is not entirely fortuitous. A seasoned musician and lyricist come together to cook up magic, that is consumed across the populace through cinema, radio and later through television. In a world where streaming dominates content consumption, their recipe might produce a very different outcome. Still, the songs live on. We will come to that later.

Before we go there, one could sample how lyrics draw a picture in the hearts of viewers here. Please watch the song above. Here, the movie is opening at a country side, where the river, the agricultural way of life immersed in natural beauty and the family values of the protagonists etc have a very important role in the story line. As the song progresses, a lot is communicated to the viewer. The three sisters grow up. They grow up in an atmosphere of peace and harmony - where there is ample music and dance - symbols of a fuller life. The idyllic beauty of the village is superimposed with the warmth and virtues of a straight living. The song starts at natural beauty, describes in length the virtue of village and how music and art embellish that is shown in the visuals. As the girls become young women, the lyrics shift into a space where their pristine, untouched (rather, unpolluted - I am not going into the undertones) lives are highlighted. By evoking the fasting on Mondays that virgins are supposed to undertake in pursuit of good husbands, the lyricist giving you a sample of the unblemished and idyllic peace that mark their lives. The song visuals end by letting us know that the parents are dead and the three young women are going through an uncertain stage. You have seen them grown up; and you already have feelings for them. You know how beautiful their childhood was, and how peaceful it was with the music, the dance and the pristine family values that Malayalis (arguably, these symbols belong mostly to only a segment of Malayalis by portraying a dominant caste, but that’s a discussion for another day. Even then, the aspirational Malayali looked up to this way of life.) cherish. From there, the mood is set for the rest of the movie.

Now, the effect achieved by the above song was carefully composed by the music director and lyricist working in tandem with the director. The director, much like an orchestrator, arrange the cinematographer and other artists to achieve the visual effect. The musical effect comes from the combined effort of the music director, singers, musicians and the lyricist. But the images they create are transmittable only because of how the constituent elements of their work resonate with the larger cultural space that Malayalis inhabit. The images from the larger literary world, everyday life and aspirations work together with the musical composition to create the desired effect in the mind of the viewers. Just like the movies address certain cultural aspects, desires and aspiration in the larger society, the songs form a microcosm of assorted emotional space that subconsciously transmit the desired emotions into the minds of the viewer. Rather, they attach themselves into the mind of viewers and work towards creating a circuit in which the desired emotions resonate. The desired emotions oscillate in the minds of the viewers till they strike a chord; and stay there vibrating strongly. Without this, the motive of the movie is never achieved.

This process of creating a song is thus pregnant with the meanings that the director wants embedded in the larger emotive province that the movie is. How compositions form meanings were shown beautifully here:

Hence, the songs are a field of study that could yield a lot of insights about the way emotions are formed and distributed across the larger society. This distribution of meanings happens through channels that depend upon the technology of the times, political structures and zeitgeist of the times. Here, lyrics form the literary interface that carry images in the language onto the mental space of the viewer. If these images are not carefully crafted, stacked and sent into the mind of viewers, they attain a completely different end result. So, it is very much important that they are described well, sent in the correct order and followed up with an animated sequel in the form of references to the real world that the protagonists as well as the viewers inhabit.

For example, the amount of nature and quantity of vocabulary that is found in the lyrics is of paramount importance. It exists in conjunction with the general ‘cultivated vocabulary’ in the populace by the larger world of literature. But if the populace is greatly removed from the natural habitat where they routinely interact with such elements of nature, such a vocabulary would not be possessed by the larger population. Here, the relevance of the exposition of natural beauty may pass over the heads of the audience. The references to mythical figures, precious stones and other material objects and materialistic pursuits etc all are connected to the literary province in which the target audience inhabit.

The way lyrics is stacked in the song above needs to be studied. Here, beauty of the night is mystically mixed with the longings of the main characters. How their desire is entwined with the geographical elements - river, sand, a temple festival, night, relevance of music in their lives - and also the deeper thread of how music is the real thread that brings the hero and heroine together. The movie also touches upon the “honest brute”, who is no competition to the urbane hero and pristine heroine who seeks sophistication trope that we see often in stories. The song reflects this too, explaining through images how the heroine could have fallen in love with the hero only and no one else. Creation of lyrics is no mean feat. In this series, we study songs fishing for larger meaning inside them. My focus is on lyrics and general music. I am no authority to describe how the music impacts story telling. But as I have already mentioned the choice of ragas for a particular mood comes from a large body of work that existed in the way classical artforms utilised music. As the filmy music grew out of these traditions - they made use of musicians, artists and elements orchestra that was produced by centuries long practice of classical music in the country. The admixture of folk elements into this culture merits another detailed study.

To be continued...

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