Lata Mangeshkar and the Evolution of the Bollywood Song

India entered a period of mourning when it was reported that Indian playback singer Lata Mangeshkar passed on Sunday the 6th of February. A playback singer is a singer whose voice is recorded for use in films – the actor or actress essentially lip-sync the words, so that the singers voice can be dubbed over. A cultural icon, sometimes referred to as the ‘Nightingale of India,’ Mangeshkar recorded thousands of songs for films in over thirty six languages, and for her services to film was awarded India’s highest civilian award, the Bharat Ratna in 2001. Due to her status, she was awarded a state funeral.

Born in 1929, Mangeshkar began her music career in the 1940s, and also took on several small acting roles before deciding that she was ‘happiest singing.’ For decades she was the most in demand singer in Bollywood cinema. She also performed with her sister Asha Bhosle, on several occasions. Bhosle also noted that the two sisters never sought to compete with each other. Aside from this, her other passions included, the Beatles, Mozart, Cricket, the Sherlock Holmes novels and she was also a James Bond fan. She also had nine dogs, and confessed that she enjoyed the slot machines in Vegas!

Mangeshkar also took up composing in the 1950s and also experimented with producing. She collaborated with Yash Chopra on many occasions, and sang for the acclaimed film ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’ in 1995. Unsurprisingly, she went on to say that romantic films were the most popular in Bollywood. Upon her death, Chopra stated that Mangeshkar had ‘God’s blessings in her voice.’ Mangeshkar rose to prominence during the golden age of Bollywood, and part of this was the evolution of the Bollywood song. Not all music that comes from India is from Bollywood, 80% of it is. The Bollywood industry in general is much bigger than Hollywood, as the former has a greater film output.

Songs are common staples of majority of Bollywood films, regardless of genre and plot. This has been the norm since the Indian cinema industry began in the 1930s. Songs can be written in different languages, but most common are Hindi and Urdu, but Panjabi has been used. Urdu poetry has previously had a strong influence on Bollywood songs. Critics recognise that Hindi songs in Bollywood films incorporate and draw inspiration from various traditional folk dances and songs, like ‘Ramleela’ and ‘Nautanki.’

More recently, Bollywood has been influenced by the West. English has been incorporated into the songs, examples being 2010’s ‘Sheila Ki Jawani’ and 2007’s ‘Deewangi Deewangi.’ The idea that the Bollywood song should also reflect the mood of the scene in the film has also been explained as the influence of Hollywood films. This can be seen in one of Mangeshkar’s best known films, ‘Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.’ Simran’s (Kajol) first song ‘Mere Khwabon Mein Jo Aaye’ reflects her desire to find out more about the man she has been dreaming about. Interestingly, villains do not sing in Bollywood films, as the arts are considered to be a mark of humanity, a quality which villains do not possess.

Genres of the Bollywood song include Bhajan, which refers to songs that have spiritual or religious meaning. The Disco genre became popular in the early 1980s, and since then there has been a greater focus to incorporate an electro feel to Bollywood songs, with the inclusion of instruments such as synthesisers. Again, the West can be credited with the rise in Bollywood songs that have incorporated this theme, especially in the 60s, when psychedelic rock was popularised by bands such as the Beatles.

Ghazal refers to Urdu poetry, which was instrumental in influencing early Bollywood music. This influenced lasted until the 1980s, but then was revived in the following decade with the 1990 film ‘Aashiqui.’ Qawwali, refers to devotional Sufi music, a good example of that being ‘Pardah Hai Pardah’ as seen in 1977’s Amar Akbar Anthony. This genre has also evolved, and more recently qawwali has taken on influence from Western culture, focusing on the genre of Techno. This can be seen in the 2005 song ‘Kajra Re.’ ‘Kajra Re’ was an ‘item number’ in the crime comedy film ‘Bunty Aur Babli.’ An item number is a song that is present in the film, but does not actually further the plot. Another example of this is the song ‘Chikni Chameli,’ as seen in 2012 film ‘Agneepath.’ The song is placed merely to build tension between warring drug lords Kancha (Sanjay Dutt) and Vijay (Hrithik Roshan). An item number typically features an alluring female dancer, and suggestive lyrics, as if to distract the main protagonists from the plot. Due to the subject matter of item numbers, they have come under scrutiny and criticism for their objectification of the female body. Although it is rarer, item numbers have featured men in the past, such as Abhishek Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan.

It will be interesting to see how Bollywood music continues to evolve over the coming years, without the likes of trailblazers such as Mangeshkar.

Thanks for reading!

Published by harpalkhambay

I am an English Literature and History graduate, and wanted a space to explore topics within those fields that interest me.

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