Over the last twenty years, Hindi film music, or filmi music, has gained increasing recognition with beat diggers. Producers as diverse as Dr Dre, Madlib and Rishi Rish have all incorporated, been influenced by or sampled Bollywood artists. However there is a wealth of Indian music that is a better reflection of its originality which is ignored by crate diggers. Filmi music by its nature is epic in scale, often with rich strings, a multitude of sound (and colour) and soaring vocals and it is this sound which is often missed out by beat diggers looking for a five second funky lick.
India’s rich history and culture has always embraced the arts, (introduced by many invaders including the Aryans and Persians). Film started around1913 and was a way to promote self- identity during centuries of foreign rule.
Film and music go side by side in India, nearly all albums of any merit are film soundtracks featuring the top singers and composers of the day.
Western producers first lent an ear towards India during the mid-nineties, after exhausting sampling the James Brown catalogue. Once jazz became the sought after breaks of the day, it wasn’t long before Indian music would feature on a digger’s list, due to its strong association through the years with jazz (from artists as such as Joe Harriot, Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter).
Secondly the large Indian diaspora in the U.K and U.S has a strong affiliation towards Black music.
Southall, in west London, with its large Punjabi community, was a hotbed for Black music in the seventies and eighties. And numerous London pirate stations, DJs, soundsystems and record labels (Streetsounds and Upfront), have strong Indian connections.
It wasn’t going to be long therefore before Indian music made its way into Black music, and it is no surprise that a particular period of Indian cinema would be most prominent. Ask any forty plus Indian music lover and they will talk nostalgically of films made in the early seventies to mid- eighties, arguably when Indian cinema was in its hey day.
The Golden Era
In my opinion Namak Halaal was the last great film of the golden era, (1971-1983). Released in 1981 before the term Bollywood was branded, the film is a perfect reflection of Indian cinema, a cocktail of a love story, good versus evil and slapstick comedy (heavily influenced by Peter Sellers’s The Party). As with all Indian films of the era (and still mostly true nowadays) its songs stand out in their own right, and the film’s principle track Pag Ghunghroo Bandh is a magical mix of chugging tablas, sweeping strings, horn blasts, disco licks, even electro – all over 11 minutes. In its scale and ambition it has never really been matched.
Amar Akbar Anthony
From the same era and released four years earlier in 1977 is the all time family favourite, Amar Akbar Anthony. The film is a comedy-drama with again screen might Ambitabh Bachaan as one of three main protaganists getting into all sorts of mischief the twist being though they are brothers they are separately Hindu, Muslim and Christian. Its catchy title song is long remembered for its infectious chorus but beat diggers will delight in the accordion playing which is crying out to be sampled.
Sholay rode both a critical and popular ticket. Released in 1975 and heavily influenced by Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns the film is the most successful Indian film of all time, playing in cinemas for over five years and still remains popular. The track Yeh Dosti is the standout track from the R.D Burman produced soundtrack, and is an on screen duet between Amitabh Bachaan and Dharmendra (in reality a duet between the two big playback singers, Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey ,singers who provide original vocals for actors to mime to on screen).
Tere Mere Beech Mein; Here Comes Britney
Filmi music moved even closer towards Western ears in the mid-Nineties through clubbers opening their ears to Asian artists such as Zakir Hussain and Nitin Sawhney, mainly through support from DJs such as Gilles Peterson and Patrick Forge. Once clubbers were atune to Eastern sounds they were ready for the likes of Talvin Singh, whose groundbreaking club Anokha, was built on a filmi soundscape.
Moving from clubland to the charts, it wasn’t long before Hindi film music immersed itself into the pop mainstream. One of the most well known examples is Britney Spear’s Toxic whose Indian sample was lifted from the song Tere Mere Beech Mein from the R D Burman produced soundtrack Ek Duuje Ke Liye. Away from the whirling, hypnotic string loop, the song is very good in itself – a beautiful love song with a riding tabla and some soaring strings.
Back in the Day; When I Was A Boy
Film and music is highly valued in Indian society and coupled with the fact that most Indian immigrants to the U.K (the first wave was in the late Fifties, the second wave in the early Sixites) were on the bottom of the socio-economic ladder it was no surprise that a cheap ticket to the likes of the Liberty cinema in Southall ( a majestic, white pillared, film institution which was recently revived) was for many their only chance for a little escapism. Cinema trips were coupled with the legendary ABC music centre and some mathai (Indian sweets) at the ‘A Sweet’ shop. ABC music centre was a nirvana of Indian records ( now only CDs) – the sight of its mass of vinyl when I was two foot high was I am sure a major reason for my love of music. ‘A Sweet’ shop, was equally legendary, and an army of Indian Dad’s, including my own, would assemble here to compare their music purchases. Soundtracks at this time included Shalimar and Dum Mera Dum which are now highly sought after and command big prices.
1942 and Mother India – The Classic Era
These two films are close in cinematic scope to Orson Welles’s epic Citizen Kane. 1942 includes the long treasured Ek Ladki Ko Dekha which is a touching and warming song, with soft, understated vocals. On a similar tip, vocal wise is the memorable Chalte Chalte from the film Pazeekh where serene vocals by Lata Mangeshker and a mid tempo funky sitar hold hands over delicate tabla beats. Lata Mangeshker is a superstar playback singer, with almost deity status in India. She is the nation’s biggest artist by far and has recorded more albums than any other artist globally. Lata is famous for being the artist sampled/stolen/lifted by Dr Dre for Truth Hurt’s Addictive. Her song Thoda Resham Lagta Hai was used as the backbone of the song. Originally it was thought Dr Dre used the uncleared sample and claimed ignorance in its origin. This would be laughable considering Lata (like Brazilian football legends, Lata is only referred to by one name) has Beatles type popularity in India. On closer inspection Dre was being honest, the track is actually a straight cover of Kaliyon Ka Chaman by UM110 which itself sampled/stole/lifted the Lata sample.
The New School; All Is Not Lost
Dil Se and Bombay
I made reference earlier to 1973-1983 being the golden era of Hindi cinema but this is not to say there have not been quality films and soundtracks since. Dil Se was released in 2005 and was a huge hit. Produced by uber producer A R Rahman, who in his time has produced some absolute works of genius (and some absolute rubbish as well). The main song Chaiya Chaiya was hugely successful, being a wedding tune favourite and turning up (in different versions) in Spike Lee’s Inside Man and originally (and bizarrely) in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Bombay Dreams (whose soundtrack was also produced by Rahman). What is there to say – simply brilliant. From a quietly sung vocal, to the pitter patter of the dhol (large tablas) and a heart lifting melody, Chaiya Chaiya brilliantly is a pop tune and an underground club tune. The song definitely veers towards a Western arrangement but in this instance is all the better for it.
Bombay broke the mould with Indian cinema in going against the grain and exploring the serious topic of communal violence. The soundtrack was a mix of instrumentals and vocals and again produced by A R Rahman. The vocal tracks are a bit hit and miss, too poppy for me, but the instrumentals show at least two gems. One of these is the theme tune, which was featured on Talvin Singh’s Anokha compilation, and is an epic seething mix of sweeping strings and ethereal flute.
So on your next visit to India, or when visiting Indian friends or if catching the Hindi film on Channel 4, listen a little deeper to the film soundtracks and discover some sonic nirvana.
A version of this article was published in Shook magazine