Is Bollywood Still Producing Musicals? (Has It Ever?)

Curator's Note

The Bollywood film industry is often distinguished by its having produced films that have almost always been "musicals" since the 1930s. As Sangeeta Gopal and Sujata Moorti note, associating the American "musical" with Hindi popular films can be misleading because many Hindi popular films elude the generic category of musical melodrama evoked by the term "musical" in its contemporary usage in other contexts.

The typical Hindi popular film blockbuster through the early 2000s was characterized by its inclusion of spectacular "song sequences," musical numbers that featured characters singing and/or dancing. The songs featured have long been used to promote the films outside the cinema hall through commercial recordings and radio broadcasts, and today they also circulate via both audio and audiovisual formats including Internet streaming, digital downloads, television programming, and DVD and VCD compilations. Song sequences often featured inventive choreography, scenic locations, and extravagant costumes alongside compelling lyrics and memorable music that made them the highlight of most commercially successful films.

The production standards of song sequences, already one of the most expensive parts of a film's production, were further enhanced by the unprecedented financing enabled by india's economic liberalization policies during the 1990s. During this era the Bombay film industry transformed into the globalized industry now known as Bollywood and attracted new international audiences. (Just last month, Richard Corliss from TIME cited Sanjay Leela Bhansali's 2002 film Devdas, a film defined by its extravagant sets and costumes-- especially in its song sequences, as one of the "10 greatest films of the millenium.")

Several recent films, especially those associated with the wave of "indie" films, have however begun to feature songs in a manner more familiar to Hollywood conventions, namely, in the background. This move away from the song sequence is motivated at least partly by their expense and the fact that their inclusion lengthen films' duration in relation to shorter length media from Hollywood and television. In its twilight, the spectacular song sequence today most often appears in self-referential contexts such as parodies that emphasize its aesthetics of excess, homages that reiterate its history, and in the case of the following sequence "Main Agar Kahoon" from Farah Khan's 2007 film Om Shanti Om, scenes that simultaneously construct and deconstruct its nostalgic appeal as the rapidly disappearing foundation of Hindi popular films. 


Hi, Nilanjana.

I'm interested in your point about "song sequences" and their difference from Musicals usually associated with films in the American context, especially the associative contrast you make between musical melodrama and spectacle.

As I was watching the clip, I was reminded of a kind of 50s Sirkian style of melodrama in its use of a dramatic, colorful mise-en-scene. In the clip the characters are aware and in on the artifice whereas the characters in a 1950s melodrama seem too internalized emotionally to notice. So much seems to be externalized in the clip. Even things that are already surface/natural, like conversation. (I was also reminded of the Shall We Dance? sequence from the King and I, which starts from conversation and builds to song).  It seems almost like a sequence style song - style of singing that is continuous and mobile, reflecting the narrative form of sequencing by which it is contained. 

I'm also reminded of early silent Melodrama narratives that were much longer and drawn out.

I guess, I'm wondering if the difference between song sequencing and contemporary musicals is related to the difference between melodrama and spectacle? Is the contemporary Bollywood musical becoming more melodramatic if it is becoming more like Hollywood? Is the form of popular song beyond musicals changing in India as well?

Thank you!


Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments. You have a number of questions! Although most Bollywood films attracting significant international audiences in recent years correspond to the (romantic) melodrama, they reflect only a portion of films that are (and are still being released)-- which are just as likely to include horror, mafia thrillers, and mythological/historical dramas as the standard romantic comedy. While the staged (spectacular) song sequence from a horror film or mafia thriller may evoke melodrama at times at least in parts, I suspect that most American audiences who are familiar with the Hollywood "musical" film (Disney films, films based on Broadway productions, Footloose, etc.) would be disoriented by their narrative and emotional trajectory. 

The clip I included does as you note refer back to classic Bombay films that recall similar scenes from classic Hollywood films. At the same time, there seems to a vaguely formulated resistance from South Asian audiences to calling even Bollywood films with such sequences "musicals." (In fact, the film Jaan-e-maan (2006) at the time of its release somewhat brazenly proclaimed itself to be the "first Bollywood musical"; it explicitly refers to past Hollywood musicals in one sequence.) Some audience members went on to claim that the "musical" part of the film was that its musical numbers helped to propel the action forward-- unlike the average Bollywood movie, where mediocre writing often inserts irrelevant song sequences that awkwardly suspend and/or slow the plot to a fault.


Given that most everything that would visually surprise or stun audiences in a song sequence has probably already been attempted at this point, most recent song sequences retrace what has been done in more or less innovative ways, or as I mentioned at the end of my discussion, do away with the traditional song-and-dance structure altogether. In a thoughtfully constructed film, the songs and their lyrics will still provide information and content that is crucial to enjoying and understanding the film-- whether that be character developmentnarrative progression, or emotional enhancement-- but it's no longer a given that actors on screen in Bollywood film will "suddenly break into song and dance" in the middle of the film.

Lastly, the music (and film) industry, long dominated by "filmi [song and dance sequence] songs," is rapidly expanding to accommodate more diversity in style and genre, so yes-- films songs and popular music are changing in both style and strcture.

Hello, Nilanjana -- enjoyed your post on Bollywood! I just finished teaching a section on Indian cinema(s) in my modern film history course, and it was, from what I can tell, the students' favorite lecture/screening. =) 

I'm curious to know if another potential reason the industry is "mov[ing] away from the song sequence" is the growing NRI audience (which is becoming more and more familiar with Western films) and diasporic filmmakers who are noticeably (and perhaps necessarily?) excluding such numbers? Thanks!

number of scholars are writing on how the advent and expansion of the multiplex is affecting the culture of Indian cinema. The multiplex's ability to offer viewers more variety directly leads to Indian films' competing against Hollywood films; there's also the fact that one can show and sell more tickets for two-hour movies than three-hour movies in a given day. That said, your question about NRI audiences becomes especially interesting. One might guess that non-resident Indian audiences may be more likely to sit through a three hour movie with song sequences because they are seeking something "Indian", but given the popularity of "shorter" (as well as longer) Indian films abroad in recent years, this isn't a given. It seems that more of us, whether NRI/diasporic/2nd and 3rd gen, or Indian, are watching more of the same all across of the world. The younger generations' tastes in film in India are now being shaped by multiplexes as well as their exposure to online streaming videos, music video channels, and satellite television more generally-- which includes television shows and films from other countries alongside more local programming. I don't know if you've found that fewer students watch entire movies on their own these days, but my own students' apparent preference for shorter-length media in my mind suggests a broader international trend. (And even our students are recognized as potential future Bollywood consumers.)To this end, many hit songs from recent films generate a video that is entirely independent of the film's narrative, yielding something closer if not identical to our standard music video from a film soundtrack-- as opposed to a song sequence.

Diasporic filmmakers are for the most part working with vastly different budgets, and as a result, have for the most part only released their films in limited distribution on the "art film" circuit. Unless they're referring to the tradition of Bollywood explicitly (e.g. Gurinder Chadha's Bride and Prejudice, Deepa Mehta's Bollywood/Hollywood, etc.) within the film, they've usually not included song sequences, which in many cases would be prohibitively expensive. In this way, they more closely follow the Indian parallel/ art cinema tradition (Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, etc. ), which has almost never featured song sequences.


Nilanjana, I much enjoyed your post. I was surprised by your claim that Bollywood song numbers are waning and that the recent ones tend to be nostalgic. When I was working on Bollywood seven or eight years ago that didn’t seem to be the case. Your reasons for the shift are interesting. My sense is that Bollywood styles and genres seem to be splintering and recombining. Since I work on music video, I’ve had an interest in one subgenre that includes directors Mani Ratnam and Ram Gopal Varma, who’ve worked in a music-video-like intensified style (note clips from Yuva and Naach). I hope this strand continues.

Carol, thanks so much for your comments. What stands out to me in the two clips that you've mentioned is that the actors do in fact "perform" the song sequence-- that is, they do sing (lip-sync) and dance. This doesn't seem to happen so often in current Bollywood  films, especially those that would fall outside of the romantic comedy genre. The fact that Mani Ratnman and Ram Gopal Verma are the directors in these examples is also interesting, because neither is known for their work in the romantic comedy genre that most typically is associated with Bollywood by audiences outside South Asia.

In many recent films, I've noticed what I believe to be a transition from the conventional song sequence that would feature its stars singing and dancing-- particularly in scenes that take place in nightclub settings. In the eagerly awaited title song from Aditya Chopra's Dhoom (2004), for instance, we witness one ensemble character transform into a spectator as he gawks at a performance on stage by led by a minor character, and we witness another who uses the performance as a means to perform police work. In a more recent example from Anurag Kashyap's Dev. D. (2009), the director (somewhat cheekily I think) features a dance performance by unnamed actors and a song without actually giving us the conventional song and dance sequence.

It would be wonderful if someone would write a historical study of the cultural exchanges around musical numbers between India and the West. Your "Main Agar Kahoon" sequence seems to echo the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers number "Let's Face the Music and Dance" as well as Moulin Rouge’s “Your Song.” The car and the green-screen is not only a film trope, but also, particularly, a music video one. (The joins between scenes, miniature figurines, and the play with the set remind me of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”!).  You might like to see the Snow Patrol link in my post. Elsewhere I’ve argued that Hindi and American music videos possess some features that may be less resistant to assimilation. For Hindi films these include 1) a particular feeling of bliss, which may derive from traditions in theater, painting, dance, music, and art 2) winding melodic lines and rhythms built on long cycles 3) a way of working with the sari, and women’s hair and gesture, that extends the visual line 4) a sense of commitment and high stakes between the lovers 5) the prevalence of lip-sync 6) sharp cuts between disparate locations, particularly between nature and more populated settings 7) an iconography which includes shots through two columns or an archway, overheads, and framing along the diagonal bias or dolling circularly past a phalanx of dancers moving in contrary motion. Your sequence seems to have most of these elements. Of course there has been much cross-cultural borrowing. I’ve always attributed Baz Luhrmann’s circular patterns in Moulin Rouge’s Diamond Dogs number to Devdas' Dola Re Dola. I've read Indian filmmakers got this from Busby Berkeley.

Carol, I absolutely agree on the need to discuss these cultural exchanges in more detail. (You'll surely recognize some even more explicit allusions to past Hollywood musical productions in the sequence I refer to above from the "musical" film Jaan-e-maan!) I've always made the exactly same link between Devdas and Moulin Rouge that you have, and I'd be interested in looking at the ways in which Danny Boyle (and perhaps some other South Asian diasporic filmmakers, outside Bollywood) refer to the song sequence convention as something recognizeably Indian without necessarily offering us a "musical" film. 

Your outline of Hindi films' essential features makes complete sense to me; yet as I wrote above, I'm noticing that these formerly defining features are disappearing in many successful films-- not even just the edgy "indie" ones. (While watching the opening of We Need to Talk About Kevin a few weeks ago, for instance, the only thing I could think of was the following song from the Bollywood blockbuster Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara from last year. Tomatoes.) I'm about to embark on a project that more closely examines more recent films by directors such as Anurag Kashyap, Dibakar Banerjee, and Vishal Bhardwaj as films that reconfigure the song sequence-- and may be argued in some sense to do with away with any conventional rendition of them; at the same time, I also note the significant (and I'd argue, essential) role of songs (melody, genre conventions, lyrics, etc.) in each of their films-- which suggests that the _song_ is still an essential feature of the Bollywood film, even if the song sequence is not.


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