Until the perfection of synchronized sound for motion pictures in the late '20s, Indian films employed separate recordings of classical music to embellish the action on the screen. As wondrous as the moving images were, directors of the day had little confidence in their films' ability to hold the attention of viewers, and their choice of music seemed to reflect an awareness that a large portion of the audience couldn't read the lettered dialogues. They favored compositions with brisk tempos and florid melodic lines, and sequences portraying traditional dances performed by ornately costumed actors were often worked into stories. All else aside, why would anyone want to watch a film without song and dance?
When sound-synchronization technology came to India, silent-film production came to a grinding halt as sound movies, or "talkies," quickly revolutionized the industry. The country's first full-length motion picture with synchronized audio in Hindi, director Ardeshir Irani's Alam Ara, was released in Bombay at the Majestic Cinema on March 14, 1931. Inspired by the 1929 production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Show Boat by Universal Pictures, Alam Ara is the tale of the king of Kumarapur's two childless wives, Naybahar and the wicked Dilbahar. Early in the story, a fakir predicts that the former will bear a son, and Dilbahar's jealousy leads her on a path of treachery that becomes the foundation for the rest of the historical fiction's events. The simple storyline of Alam Ara left plenty of room for composers Firozshah Mistry and Boman Irani to pen more than a few classical song-and-dance numbers to fill the epic's 124 minutes, and despite its many technical and artistic flaws, the film was a smashing success. To Irani's astonishment, huge crowds of Indians anxious to see a talking motion picture in their own native tongue mobbed the Majestic. The system of standing in line was also a new concept to many Indians of the day, and riotous crowds stormed the box office in attempts to secure tickets by any means necessary. Traffic around the theater was constantly jammed, and black-market entrepreneurs prospered as Alam Ara remained sold out for weeks at a time.
Meanwhile, the film's success caused movie moguls to rush countless new films into production. Indra Sabha, a 1932 Hindi film that contained 72 songs, is a fine example of producers' attempts to improve on a successful formula by multiplying. Directors began awarding parts to actors solely on the merits of their singing and dancing abilities, and silent-era actors not in possession of these talents were left out in the cold and faded away.
Since then, filmmakers have produced far more than 50,000 works in all of India's main dialects, and some claim that as many as 100,000 films have been created. This feat has earned the country its remarkable status as the most prolific film-producing nation on the planet; during the 1980s, the Indian movie industry was nicknamed "Bollywood." All but a few of these productions contain at least four or five musical sequences; even films based on historical and mythological events are punctuated by moments in which characters suddenly begin to sing and dance. Aside from their sporadic musical content, the prodigious length of Indian films sets them apart; most clock in around the three-hour mark. For non-Indian viewers, this can be more than a little disorienting (like watching a chimp in a dress chase a goose around a pole), but it's par for the course in poverty-stricken countries where infrequent excursions to the movies are the only diversion the common folk can afford. Indian filmgoers expect maximum bang for their rupee. The feeling is that if money is going to be spent on something as frivolous as entertainment, it had damn well better thrill the hell out of the entertainee for a long time.
"People don't really have TV's in India. I mean, it's a poor country," says Richard Pereira, an Indian-Portuguese native of Bombay who now lives in St. Louis. "It costs about 80 rupees to see a film in India, and that's about how much most Indians make in the course of a few weeks. In Bombay, I remember seeing them block side streets and stretch giant white sheets between two buildings. It happened for festivals and holidays a lot. You'd have hundreds of people sitting cross-legged in the middle of the street on both sides of the sheet, watching opposite sides of the same image. The films would break down a lot, and the crowd would always jeer until they were fixed. It was quite a scene."
The musical elements of Bollywood's visual offerings have actually taken on a life of their own, to the extent that film songs, known as filmi sangeet, are the most popular tunes in India. "The airwaves in India are completely dominated by film music," Pereira explains. "There are no pop stars who are not involved in the film industry in some way. The soundtracks are played in restaurants, clubs, everywhere."
And filmi sangeet is arguably the most diverse genre of music in existence. As the ever-encroaching influence of Western culture slithered into the Indian consciousness, Bollywood composers began borrowing and overtly stealing from everything they heard, including non-Western music that made its way to Bombay. Still, no matter how many full string sections, synthesizers, electric guitars and drum machines find their way into the mix, the roots of India's classical music traditions remain at the core of the sound.
Explains Pereira: "Indians have been absorbing elements of Western culture since the days of the Raj [a name given to the British imperialist presence in India that lasted until 1947], but the music has always retained a bit of the tradition it came from. It still does. You can listen to any pop music today in Bombay and still hear the tradition that created it."
Perhaps the best known of Indi-pop styles is the rollicking bhangra. The traditional music of weddings and festivals for the Punjabi people, bhangra also began to enjoy massive popularity in European clubs in the 1980s. "The big bhangra explosion started in London," Pereira says. "There are a lot of Punjabi immigrants there, and when they began remixing traditional songs for the clubs, the music started to take on Western pop and rock influences."
The result is a funky hybrid of disco, mellifluous Middle Eastern vocals, rock, Handsworth dance-hall toasting and a backbeat of woofer-pummeling dholaks cut with hand-claps that sound like bones being segmented with a cricket bat. After the immediate physical response of the human body to bhangra registers in the noodle, it's not difficult to understand why pop music has become a staple in all Indian films and the basis for many of them.
Luckily for us St. Louisans, Seema Enterprises, the area's premier purveyor of Indian groceries, music and videos, brings first-run Bollywood films to the big screen at Northwest Plaza a few weekends each month. Seema's proprietor, Ashwin Patel, spills the peas. "Oh, we've been presenting the films in St. Louis for about ten years now," he intones, in a voice that could cure Calcutta road rage. Hey, thanks for finally letting us know.
Next up on the marquee happens to be India's very first science-fiction film, Koi Mil Gaya, a blockbuster hit in Bombay that's reportedly a message-laden masala of E.T. and Forrest Gump, with more special effects and song-and-dance numbers than you can shake a samosa at. What else needs to be said?