If one looks at complete soundtracks, and not individual songs, one can think of only three Hindi film’s music that clicked in 2019 – Gully Boy, Kabir Singh and Kalank. Remakes flooded the scene, and music director Tanishq Bagchi didn’t spare the unthinkable.
Flash back to 2010, and people still came up with originals. Yes, there was the item song wave, thanks to ‘Munni Badnaam’ in Dabangg and ‘Sheila Ki Jawani’ in Tees Maar Khan. But the music lasted a while in the public mind, and Dabangg, Om Shanti Om and I Hate Luv Storys did well in CD sales.
The common refrain is that current Hindi film music has little or no shelf life. Songs come and go, their popularity lasting a few days till the next temporary hit takes over.
To keep the industry’s hopes alive, the focus shifted from a complete emphasis on hindi film music to experiments with popular non-film music, primarily branded under the ‘Indie’ umbrella. Many new artistes sprung up – some were talented, some not. Unlike Indipop of the late 1990s, there were no superstars with a pan-India appeal, attracting different age groups. This year, special emphasis was given to promote Indian hip-hop, but as it takes three or four years for a genre to settle in, it’s early to say whether it will be a long-term fad.
As we enter the 2020s, it will be interesting to look at some of the trends and important developments one noticed in the decade gone by. We shall thus divide our observations into two broad categories – Hindi film and non-film, with the latter including niche genres too. Each category will mention the five main trends. In this part, we shall talk of film music, and concentratate on non-film music in the subsequent episode.
1 The shifting balance
At the beginning of the decade, the top music directors were A.R. Rahman, Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy, Vishal-Shekhar, Pritam and Amit Trivedi. Though Pritam faced many accusations of plagiarism, he came up with some brilliant soundtracks like Barfi! (2012) and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016).
Till around 2015, these composers were prolific, some even working on over 10 films a year. However, with time, they started doing fewer projects, and even took up work in regional films. The tendency was to have multiple music directors, and at one awards ceremony, seven of them shared best music for Sonu Ke Teetu Ki Sweety (2018).
The biggest name in south Indian music besides Ilaiyaraaja, Rahman delivered a series of hits in Tamil, and had the successful Hindi film score in Rockstar (2011). After 2014, however, he has lost his sheen in Hindi cinema, relying on guest projects like Avengers Endgame, Blinded By The Light and ‘Ahimsa’, a collaboration with Irish band U2, to stay in the news this year.
During the last two years, Rahman had only three hindi films, and so did Vishal-Shekhar and Pritam. Amit Trivedi did two, besides nine regional films, and Himesh Reshammiya only one, though he’s also released some songs from the much-hyped 2020 movie Happy Hardy And Heer.
Compare this to Bagchi, who’s done 23 films in 2018 and 2019. Obviously there has been a shift in balance and a change in priorities. Does this make Bagchi the leader today? For a very obvious reason, it doesn’t.
2 The remakes fad
Believe it or not, Bagchi has remade 35 songs in 2018 and 2019. From ‘Aankh Maarey’ in Simmba to ‘O Saki Saki’ in Batla House to ‘Chamma Chamma’ in Fraud Saiyan, he’s just been on a not-so-welcome roll. The singers he works with often – Neha Kakkar, Atif Aslam, Asees Kaur and Jubin Nautiyal – are getting good streaming hits for these songs, but whether it’s helping them in reputation for originality is a moot question.
Bagchi isn’t the only Remake PhD. Vishal-Shekhar have also done remakes – but with a twist. Instead of blindly lifting old songs, they have just taken the popular hook to create ‘The Jawani Song’ in Student Of The Year 2 and ‘Ghungroo’ in War, both films being released this year.
If Sufi-inspired songs were popular the previous decade and item numbers were a fad at the beginning of this one, the preference these days is towards remakes. Plagiarism has existed in Hindi films for decades. But we’ve moved from rehashing western tunes to massacring our own ones. Most listeners don’t want them but filmmakers and music directors are using the easy way out.
3 Melody works
The majority of Indian film music listeners go in for dance numbers or love songs. However, by and large, one has noticed that dance tunes fade away fast, whereas ballads have a longer appeal. Sadly, the emphasis on the latter has reduced, and though the films have situations to place such songs, there has been inconsistency in terms of quality.
Yet, much after their release, we still hum the songs of Barfi! and Aashiqui 2 (2013), and prefer to hear them at live shows. Songs like ‘Bahara’ (I Hate Luv Storys, 2010), ‘Raabta’ (Agent Vinod, 2013), ‘Yeh Moh Moh Ke Dhaage’ (Dum Lagaa Ke Haisha, 2015) and the title track of Aye Dil Hai Mushkhil (2016) are popular even today. Even this year, the Kalank title track and ‘Bekhayali’ (Kabir Singh) have clicked.
Thus, on the one hand, the audience wants something new (like Gully Boy). But give them an emotion-filled song, and the chances of acceptance are always higher.
4 No new supersingers
The 1990s hindi film music pretty much belonged to Udit Narayan, Kumar Sanu, Alka Yagnik and Kavita Krishnamurthy. The 2000s saw the rise of Sonu Nigam, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Shreya Ghoshal and Sunidhi Chauhan. The 2010s is led by Arijit Singh and Shreya Ghoshal, both of who have been around for a long time.
Though Singh has been criticised for being repetitive and generic, in that he’s sticking to a proven formula, the fact remains that he’s getting the best songs. For her part, Ghoshal has preferred to be selective, and rightly so.
That leaves us with a whole bunch of singers trying to make a mark. There are too many to name. Most of them have potential, but are somewhat lost in the clutter. Some of them are trying to gain attention by releasing independent singles, and one expects that to happen more often over the next year or two.
5 New release strategies
Till the early 2010s, filmmakers had a standard approach towards releasing a movie’s music. They would sell the rights to a music label, and both of them worked towards releasing CDs a month or two before the film entered the theatres. The actors would attend the launch party and get written about or grab television bytes. Snippets from a couple of songs would be hammered on TV channels and on the radio. This would continue till a few weeks after the film’s release.
Three developments in the music industry forced filmmakers and labels to change their strategy. The first was the collapse of music television channels and the decreasing attention towards countdown shows. The second was the shutting of major music retail chains and stores. And finally, with smartphones becoming a rage, the option was to make music available digitally through online streaming apps.
The whole process changed slowly but surely. Today, a few songs – and not the entire soundtrack – are put out on streaming apps, and songs making popular playlists are pushed. A bit of radio support is taken, but this often ends a week or two after the film’s release. In many cases, listeners don’t get access to new songs as easily as before.
Priority is given to social media marketing, with YouTube links of songs being plastered on Facebook, with the hope many people will share it and spread the word. The more the views, the more successful a song is considered to be. Artistes themselves create clips of them singing the songs, and in some cases, they overdo this. However, a lot of this goes down as free publicity, as ultimately, the industry isn’t making any money through these blind forwards. If the film flops, even a great song is forgotten.
The net result is that the marketing strategy for film music is a very confused affair these days. But then, as the trends mentioned above are an indication, this uncertainty exists across the Hindi film music scene. The need of the hour is some serious thinking and a sound gameplan. Though film music will continue to exist as a genre, it’s time the industry works together to improve is quality.