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The consumption of Hindi cinema with its integral components of song and dance often seems to reflect national unity. Cutting across demographic lines, Hindi films have entertained kings and paupers, the powerful and the powerless, alike. Hindi film songs too have often found such wide acceptance that some scholars and thinkers were led to declare that Hindi film songs were truly the national songs of the 20th century Indian state.

Of the many accounts that provide valuable information about the impact of Hindi film songs, one of my favourites is the incident mentioned by sociologist Ashis Nandy in his article “The Discreet Charms of Indian Terrorism", which refers to the 1984 hijacking of an Indian Airlines flight by young Sikh hijackers. Reportedly, one of the teenaged hijackers would sing “melancholy love songs from Hindi films"! Since this is obviously not the routine behaviour displayed by hijackers, it is believed by scholars that the humaneness displayed by the hijackers, including the singing of popular film songs, led to the establishment of a bond between the captors and the captive passengers and crew of the hijacked flight.

Most of us would have observed, at some point in our lives, the mass appeal of Hindi film songs, albeit in less dramatic situations than incidents of hijacking. For some inexplicable reason, Hindi film songs have found acceptance even in the most hostile of conditions, such as in regions known for having led anti-Hindi agitations. Most Indians will hum the latest Bollywood hit with gusto, without so much as pausing to think of the parochial affiliations that have so often torn apart the composite fabric of the nation.

As Indian cinema celebrates its century, it may also be the right time to try and assess the influence of caste, community and regionalism among the music makers of the film industry. This is in itself a complex theme, and one that demands rigorous scholarship far beyond my reach and the scope of this column. And yet it would seem that in many ways the world of film music mirrors the complex nuances of kinship and community considerations that influence Indian society and politics so significantly.

On the one hand, the cult following of great singers and music directors from the film industry has time and again transcended parochialism, making a celebrated figure like Lata Mangeshkar a national treasure, loved and revered by people not only in her native state Goa, or neighbouring Maharashtra, which she made her home, but across the country and the world. In the studios of Mumbai where some of the greatest film hits were recorded, large orchestras comprising musicians from diverse corners of the country would converge to record songs that became mega hits.

In being an ensemble form, a single film song could carry the creative DNA of diverse contributors from different faiths and regional associations, such as a lyricist from Uttar Pradesh, a music composer from Tripura, an arranger from Goa, a sarangi player from Rajasthan, a sitar player from Madhya Pradesh, and so on and so forth. And yet, the studios of Mumbai witnessed and continue to witness kinship patterns that brought together musicians in cliques and clusters determined by considerations of caste, community, creed and region.

For example, composers from Bengal often preferred to work with Bengali artistes. Similarly clusters of musicians hailing from Rajasthan have also been observed in the film industry. Goan musicians too formed their own cliques, working with composers as and when the opportunity presented itself, but often nursed a grievance that they had not received their just due. Groups loosely bound by a common faith are also evident in the film industry.

How could it be otherwise in a nation where caste, community, religion continue to drive both society and politics? Thankfully, in the 100 years of its existence, the film industry has often been able to transcend these barriers even if it has not been able to do away with them entirely.

This is the first in a series of Shubha Mudgal’s columns on Hindi film music.

Also Read | Shubha’s previous Lounge columns

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