Here’s an assignment for you: Ask anyone what’s the first thing that comes to mind on hearing “Bollywood”. 9 times out of 10, the answer will be “the colourful song-and-dance numbers.” Songs are usually the identifying characteristic of our films. And, on a certain level, the practice makes sense. There’s a reason why almost all Bollywood films are musicals. The same reason is why most of our films were 3 hours long and why they were a mixture of drama, melodrama, comedy and action.
Cinema has long been the most popular form of public entertainment in India, and films were invariably a way of escape & enjoyment. And of course, there are few more things more escapist & enjoyable (the latter, only if done well) than seeing a man randomly break into song-and-dance, with a hundred other people joining him – elaborate costumes, snazzy steps & pretty locations in tow.
Yet, today, Bollywood films are breaking away from the conventions of runtime and the fusion of genres. Hence, it’s not exactly “revolutionary” to get a sharp social satire which doesn’t have a superfluous romantic/action subplot or a masala entertainer which is barely 2 hours long. However, the third vertex in this triangle (the “musical numbers”) is still prevalent prominent.
On a commercial basis, the inclusion of songs can be justified. The music of a Bollywood film is very influential (and often, responsible) for its fate at the box-office. Great music can turn the buzz around on a bad film and many otherwise-exceptional films have been hampered by tepid response to their soundtracks. However, on a creative basis, songs still stick out like a sore thumb in films on umpteen occasions. And there’s no respite in sight.
I recently saw Dum Maaro Dum. Two things about the film (which is breezy fun) stuck with me: (a) It’s 15min too long and (b) This is, in large part, due to the songs. The film has 5 songs, and the adjectives “extraneous”, “misplaced” and/or “debilitative” can be used to accurately describe all of them.
Nowadays in Bollywood, filmmakers try to legitimize people bursting into songs by giving them the necessary impetus/skillset to do so. This frequently translates into making a character a musician, singer or some such (*). Dum Maaro Dum does that too (with Rana Daggubatti’s character Joki). Early on, Joki sings “Jiyein Kyun” – a really melodious track which is, unfortunately, misplaced in the film. The song oh-so-aptly describes the state of Prateik Babbar’s character Lorry, but I find it baffling why the entertainment at a party celebrating an extremely happy occasion (with lots of dancing) would perform such a melancholic song. Doesn’t scale.
Moving on, most Bollywood screenplays don’t just need to juggle multiple genres or cater to starry egos… they must also make space for songs at regular intervals (needed or not). It’s not hard to imagine a writer being held to ransom (figuratively obviously), trying to fit in a 5min colourful dance sequence only because The Higher Powers demand so. 3 songs in Dum Maaro Dum, “Te Amo”, “Thayn Thayn” & “Jaana Hai”, bring the momentum of the narrative to a grinding halt (when it’s actually flying high). The first two occur just after attention-grabbing revelations and the third begins the second half of the half in the most sluggish way possible. All this & more are why the film is a structural mess and has horrible pacing, moving only in stuttering bursts.
But none of these trends are as annoying as “The Showstopping Musical Number That The Plot Incessantly Builds Up To”. It’s a pretty common practice, with Band Baaja Baaraat being the most egregious culprit in recent times (**). What begins as a throwaway line turns into increasingly unsubtle hints which finally end with said Showstopping Musical Number. Dum Maaro Dum partakes in this with shameless abandon, and in the film’s third act we get Deepika Padukone gyrating to “Mit Jaaye Gam”.
A few years ago, Filmfare held a Directors’ Roundtable Conference. Rajkumar Hirani, one of the most successful filmmakers in Bollywood today (he has directed 3 films, all of which have received commercial & critical appreciation), was a part of that conference. Karan Johar, another filmmaker, said that he didn’t see any particular need for songs in Hirani’s Munnabhai series and wondered why he had included them. In his reply, Hirani said that as a child, when he saw Hollywood films, he was confused why they didn’t have any songs in them. He said that, for him, imagining a Bollywood film without songs was just impossible. If it’s not clear already… I am not a fan of that logic.
In an ideal world, a Bollywood filmmaker would only have to place songs in his film because s/he wanted to… not because tradition implied so or because commercial success necessitated so. That utopia doesn’t seem to be nearing anytime soon, what with news like this. Apparently, Shah Rukh Khan’s fantasy superhero epic Ra.One will have Kareena Kapoor dancing in minimal clothes to a song named “Shake Your Booty”. Gee, I am absolutely sure that will be vital to the plot.
(*) – A really funny example of this is Mimoh Chakraborty’s debut vehicle Jimmy. In the film, Mimoh’s character is a DJ but I don’t think anyone working on the film knew what a DJ does. As far as I know, his sole task is certainly not to visit the nightclub where he works and start dancing on the floor.
(**) – Shah Rukh Khan is wanted for performing in wedding. Shockingly, Shah Rukh Khan is unable to perform. In a totally unexpected turn of events, our protagonists end up performing in the wedding. Groan.
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