Is Bollywood still wary of ‘song-less’ films?

While some analysts say songs remain integral to Indian films, others feel it depends on the kind of movie

Trade analysts say ’Fan’ suffered, among other reasons, due to the absence of songs, and in particular, the massively promoted ‘Jabra fan’ anthem.
Trade analysts say ’Fan’ suffered, among other reasons, due to the absence of songs, and in particular, the massively promoted ‘Jabra fan’ anthem.

New Delhi: The Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Fan, which released last Friday, performed below expectations with opening weekend collections of Rs.52.35 crore. Trade analysts say the film suffered, among other reasons, due to the absence of songs, and in particular, the massively promoted Jabra fan anthem.

In its 103-year-old history, songs have been an integral part of Hindi movies ever since the first talkie, Alam Ara, released in 1931. Over the years, apart from their cultural and aesthetic significance, songs have added tremendous business value to films.

“There is a way of storytelling that Indians are used to which is more or less in line with the idea of a musical. For them, a wholesome film is a film with a thali and a masala,” said filmmaker Sudhir Mishra.

A conventional Hindi film used to feature at least half a dozen songs tailored to specific genres, like a dance number or a romantic number. But as filmmakers look to stave off the challenge from Hollywood for the domestic market, the duration of an average Hindi film has been trimmed to about two hours. And in the process, the number of songs has been reduced as well.

A film without songs, a norm in most other cinema cultures, is frowned upon in Mumbai even today. The industry believes that songs become the identity of films in India, especially due to a marketing culture that relies on film stars and little else.

“At one time, music companies would offer Rs2-3 crore for the music rights of a film. Now they offer promotional slots on television instead. And producers are more concerned about digital platforms (number of shares and downloads) than the revenue from physical sales,” said trade analyst Atul Mohan.

Filmmaker Mahesh Nair, however, argued that songs have become redundant for a film’s box office draw, unlike a few years ago.

“Last year, there was a film called Roy which was a disaster at the box office even though it had three huge chartbusters. It’s a classic case of a film with chartbuster songs which are promoted well but don’t help at the box office,” said Nair. Roy made a measly Rs.44 crore at the box office, according to movie website Bollywood Hungama.

“It depends on the kind of film it is—Neerja didn’t have songs (except for promotional use and towards the end credits). The film runs on its own merit, you can’t just have songs for the sake of it,” said Mohan.

Easy availability of music content over the digital space has made it difficult for makers to draw audiences to the theatre. In the context, the massive success of a film like Aashiqui 2, with little critical acclaim, remains a mystery.

With increasing diversity in subjects and inspiration from global media content, the sanctity of the narrative has gained prominence.

“If you look at a film like Titli, it’s so gritty and naturalistic that you wouldn’t expect musical interludes. If you set out to make a film in which songs don’t fit, then it’s not a challenge,” said film critic Jai Arjun Singh.

Mishra harks back to the past. “A long time ago, Yash Chopra made a film without songs called Ittefaq. Now it may not have done the business of some blockbuster kind of film of that period, but it did well and we still remember it. So there have been films like that. They were fewer then, now there’s more,” he said.

Nair added that the sensibility of the director is crucial. “A Sanjay Leela Bhansali has a manner of shooting his songs. The grandeur of the songs in Bajirao Mastani was such that it was exciting to go and see it.” Mishra includes filmmaker Rajkumar Hirani in the list of directors who choose to have songs in the film but do it rather well.

Independent films, though, are a different category as most lack resources required for promotion in the present scenario. “Most independent films take a different route in promoting themselves. Margarita With A Straw has some excellent songs in the background but they were hardly promoted because the concept is different. The USP (unique selling proposition) of an independent film is not songs, which is why it doesn’t need any,” said Nair.

Nair sees a future where Hindi filmmakers will gradually look towards recorded music pieces like their Hollywood counterparts. Lack of original music content outside of the film industry, though, remains a key challenge.

Mishra added that films like Fan are a step towards the future, where mainstream cinema will be more accommodative with respect to genres and styles of filmmaking. “Change will happen but it will be slow,” he said.

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