January 28, 2020
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Churaa Liyaa...

The theme song of If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, is the melody line of a Bollywood 'classic'. Even middle of road pop bands like Boney M and Abba have not been spared. The lifts continue minus any acknowledgement.

Churaa Liyaa...

One of the most hyped up form of music is what is churned out by Bollywood. Simply put, it is assembly line production. The lyric rarely rises above the syrupy Moon-June love song. It is severely circumscribed by the `Happy to be in love. Lost without love' concept. The words are determined by the storyline of the film. So are the melodies, which are, more often than not, lifted.

Down the ages from the Beatles to obscure Spanish songs to rock musicals--all have been welded into stretches of melody with a little Indian touch. This is not fusion but plagiarism. In the West, that is what it would be described as. In Bollywood they call it being inspired. Even the great Bollywood composers stand guilty. It would indeed be heartbreaking for many fans if they are told that melody of that `classic' track from Sholay--Mehbooba-- was nicked lock, stock and barrel from a hit song, Say You Love Me, by Demis Roussos.

So one has heard Kishore Kumar sing a Mary Hopkin or an Osibisa tune. Mohammed Rafi has belted out an old Beatles song from their early Rock 'n Roll years. The theme song of If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium, is the melody line of a Bollywood classic. Even middle of road pop bands like Boney M and Abba have not been spared. The lifts continue minus any acknowledgement. The songs are touted as original scores by the maestros of Bollywood.

One story I've heard from a guitarist who works the studios in Chennai and Mumbai is of two music directors asking him to play a riff they claimed was specially composed with him in mind. It turned out be an old instrumental --Come September-- which he had learnt in his first few guitar lessons in school. That passed off as the hit Love You Raja.

All this is not to undermine the undisputable vocal capabilities and range of the likes of Mohammed Rafi, Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle and Kishore Kumar. It is most unfortunate that they, as well as the singers of today, are forced to operate under a system which severely limits the creative process to an extent that it cramps the compositional ability of even talented music directors. Which is the reason why one has to do a major rewind to spot flashes of excellence. For most part Bollywood music has always been borrowed bubble gum pop of the day.

Why is Bollywood short on originality? It has never provided any space to composers, lyricists or musicians. Despite the gerat Indian classical tradition of experimentation and exploration, those who play instruments in film sangeet are never given room to open up. Flute plays a line. Sitar plays a line. Some other instrument chips in with a four second piece. And then the melody takes over. If one closely hears the orchestration for violins they all have the same cliched ring to it.

Sometimes originality is stifled by the producer who brings with him the song that must be copied. Very often a composer is hired for the melodies he has in hand which have passed the test abroad. What works in the west will work here is the mantra. There have been exceptions where music directors have sought inspiration from our own roots. But the overall response to the great Indian folk tradition has been weak. Bollywood has ensured that no popular form of music ever evolves. Even the Hindi pop bands which have emerged today are rooted in Bollywood or are inspired by Pakistani sufi-rock bands.

In the 70s and 80s, critics did not rave about Bollywood music like they do today. Then too there were songs which became big hits. Melodies that an entire nation sang. But no one analysed filmi music to gave it the `classic' stamp. It was the 90s which set the trend of toasting everything associated with Bollywood. Perhaps it was linked to the rise of neo-patriotism which made it virtually mandatory to lavish praise on everything Indian including our films and our songs. This naturally necessitated an interest in old film songs since it was difficult to give a five star rating to most modern music directors whose blatant lifts were all too plain to see, thanks to the music channels on TV.

Watching the rushes of Amar Kanwar's Night of Prophecy and trying to figure the background score was an enlightening experience. The film focussed on protest music from the very heart of India. Ordinary folk singing about the harsh reality around them and how they were being exploited by the system. The lyrics were penned by them, the melody was theirs. These were not communist party activists writing a score dictated by Karl Marx. They were people of the earth and had an anger, compassion and drive absent in film music.

And what of today's film music? It's all about loops and pitch correctors. Punch in the song word by word. If the singer goes off key it can be corrected digitally. The `Spices of India' loops sourced either from London or Singapore gives you all the folk sounds from Bhangra to the boat songs of Bengal. Lift the loop, multiply it into as many bars you want on the computer and you have laid down the track. With bass loops, drum loops, guitar loops and even western classical loops easily available, putting a track down is that much easy.

"But even British and American musicians do that," would be the argument. Yes, but the better ones create their own loops. They also research their music, searching for new beats and sounds from Memphis to Malibu to Mysore. And more importantly when they use a tune or even adapt it, it is acknowledged on the sleeve note.

In addition to his day job as a senior editor, Ajith Pillai loves to sing the Outlook Blues.

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