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First let us make peace with a painful truth - the Golden Age of Hindi film songs is dead, well and truly gone forever except from our memories. And every time we hear a much-loved classic we will be reminded afresh that no one will ever compose a Thandi hawa or a Naina barse again. "It would be sad to ignore our great musical history altogether but we have to reconcile to the fact that there is no going back to the Naushad era. It was a different time, different mindset and place, " says guitarist Ehsaan Noorani. Is that a tragedy? Certainly, it is. But hark! Listen to some of the new music coming out of Bollywood recording studios.
A lot of it can stop you in your tracks, catch you by your collar and persuade you to stay with it till the end. Chances are that you have never heard the name of the composer before. Noorani has a pet joke - in 20 years, the music of Rock On will count as a classic. There is actually a fact lurking in that quip because Bollywood is suddenly flooded with new names, new sounds, fresh ideas and music. So much so that even those who entered the film industry a decade ago like Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy (SEL), Vishal-Shekhar, Vishal Bhardwaj, Pritam and Salim-Sulaiman appear to have acquired veteranhood. And Dil Chahta Hai (2001) has become a point of reference for the best of contemporary Bollywood.
Amit Trivedi, Sachin-Jigar, Ram Sampath, Krsna, Mithoon, Harshit Saxena, Sneha Khanwalkar, Sohail Sen, Atul Raj, Abhishek Ray and a bunch of rank newcomers - you hear a new name almost every week - are all making music lovers sit up and take notice.
Their music is fresh, eclectic, edgy, and most important, original. Add to this the output of 'seniors' like SEL, Salim-Suleiman, Vishal Bharadwaj and Pritam (who has finally lost his tag of an 'inspired' composer after some superb work in films including Love Aaj Kal and Once Upon a Time in Mumbai), and you have something that can at least aspire to the Bronze Age of film music.
The best part of the new music is not just that it produces chartbusters and hits - after all even in the bleakest of creative droughts during the '80s and the early '90s we had those - but that these songs display originality of thought, ingenious detailing and an ability to surprise the listener.
Many of the composers who are parachuting into Top 10 lists were names no one knew till a couple of years ago. This is not to say they don't go through the mandatory struggle in Bollywood - the mortifying years spent looking for a break, knocking at doors, doing ad jingles, playing for dandiya, composing for small Malayalam movies and so on. But Bollywood today is a different place, it is younger, more adventurous and more open to new ideas.
Take the example of Sachin-Jigar who worked for eight years as music arrangers in the industry with other composers like Rajesh Roshan and Pritam. After a couple of desultory films, the Gujarati duo shot straight to the top shelf with two recent hits - the exquisitely mellow Saibo which can be altered to fit in any format from folk to pop from Shor in the City and the very unique Char baj gaye from F. A. L. T. U.
"With Saibo we wanted to break the format of a typical love song with lots of flute and pretty verse. The word means 'beloved' in Gujarati and we kept the influences very natural by using little instrumentation - just a bit of piano, cello, some dry woodwind. After all a singer is like an actor behind the curtain and our song had to convey the unusualness of the love between the characters in the film, " says Sachin.
Bollywood has seen a shift from formulaic soundtracks to scores that revel in rebelliousness. This change, of course, rode on the fact that film-making itself is now the domain of the young. Low-budget, off-beat films made for cineplex audiences give composers room to experiment.
Prashant Pillai who put together a jagged, noir bunch of songs for Shaitan says director Bejoy Nambiar - who took a tremendous gamble by plonking a remixed Khoya khoya chand into a bleak scene in the film - asked for good music without worrying about its commercial viability. In fact, his brief did not even include the script, just the instructions to stay 'crazy' and 'trancy'. "These are promising times for those who know music and what sound can do to storytelling in a film, " he says.
A sound engineer by training, Pillai says that music software has really made the whole technical process of creating a song far more doable for a small composer. He describes the new breed of softwaresavvy composers as 'smart musicians' who use technology to their advantage to showcase themselves at the least cost and with the least time. "Many of my sound engineering batchmates are now sitting in 2 foot by 2 foot studios with just a computer, composing and creating music in the hope of creating something to convince a filmmaker, " he points out.
Any of these hopefuls stands a decent chance of finding a break in many of the new arthouse movies. They will get the one chance to make a mark which they have to grab and deliver their best. That toehold which came with great difficulty in the closed Bollywood of the '90s is much easier to find now.
Amit Trivedi, who is probably the most talented and respected in the young league, did his share of slog work before he hit the big time with Aamir. With Dev D and Aisha, he has established his position as a dependably brilliant composer. He plays with a variety of sounds, including traditional classical and folk, to come up with songs that you can hear again and again and discover something fresh each time.
"He is not just giving hit music but music that educates people in new genres and risking rejection with creative courage, " says Shankar Mahadevan who believes that Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara is yet another breakthrough score. "That is a trend we set 15 years ago and after DCH we have been doing something new every once in a while. After all I was known first as the singer who sang Breathless. "
Director Anand Rai, who invested in newcomer Krsna for his film Tanu Weds Manu and reaped a rich and surprising harvest of hit songs like Jugni and Rangrez, describes the bunch of young talents as a "good rainbow" of varied music. "The great thing about a young composer is that he is hungry for success and has nothing to lose. And if you are doing a small-budget film, your producer can't afford A R Rahman. Then I would rather have someone who is as passionate as I am to give my best, " says Rai.
The real change in musical aesthetics was in fact ushered in by Rahman with Roja (1992). As many contemporary composers point out, Rahman gave them reason to dream - by making it possible to be different and successful at the same time. What remains to be seen is how many of these youngsters have Rahman's staying power. "In many ways the music market has opened up and become more accessible for new talents but for the same reason it has become a tough place too, " says veteran flautist Naveen, who is a staple in Rahman and Pritam songs and has seen many composers come and go from the scene. As Mahadevan puts it, pulling off a big hit is easy. "Composers are a dime a dozen but how many are just plain lucky and how many will continue to make a mark?"
The melee, exciting as it is, had one sad fallout. It has sent into premature retirement some of the older more established voices of Bollywood. You simply don't hear Sonu Nigaam, Udit Narayan, Alka Yagnik, KK, Kumar Sanu or Kavita Krishnamurthy on the airwaves. Quick to sense the change in mood, some have moved to television and stage.
Ironically, this is a total unpending of the old monopolies that once made Bollywood a terrifying circle to break into. Industry legends are full of stories of very talented singers and composers being simply shut out by the reigning voices of the day - Vani Jayaram and Suman Kalyanpur for instance. "In my grandfather's time giving a newcomer a chance was a no-no, " says Mithoon. "Today we are not willing to give the veterans a chance. "
Harshit Saxena, a promising new composer with a superhit to his credit, Hale dil tujhko sunata (Murder 2), is remarkably sensitive to the plight of the oldies. "Shaan was the last of the singing stars. Today, all the big names are sitting at home with no work, " says Saxena who was a reality show prodigy.
The flip side of the boom is that the limelight is available to you for a much shorter time. As Saxena puts it: "There was a time when you could reign for 20 years. Today two years seems huge. "
The pressure on the youngsters is immense. Trends are changing at a manic pace as musicians try to satiate audiences hungry for anything different. But for those with tenacity and supreme self-confidence, Bollywood recording studios is where all the action is.
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