The Most Imaginative Song Sequences in Hindi Film in Recent Years

Well, I’m having a rumpled start to the week!  Karan sent out an embarrassingly sycophantic tweet this morning, there’s a final warm spell hitting Chicago which is making me not able to sleep, the elevator is broken (again) at work so I have to keep running up and down the really abnormally steep stairs, and my boss gave Dog Hazel some food she shouldn’t eat which wasn’t a big deal except that I had to tell my boss not to do that, which was an awkward upturning of our usual power structure (he’s in charge of me, but I’m in charge of Dog Hazel).  Anyway, time for a soothing interesting post with a lot of great things to watch in it.

This is partly inspired by this excellent, clear, thoughtful, and well-made youtube video:

 

Someone in a comment posted it over a year ago I think, and it was very thought provoking and well made and generally interesting.

But it also it bothered me then, and then it came up again recently and it still bothers me.  It’s a very clear and accurate analysis of what is wrong with song sequences in Hindi films today.  But what is irritating is that the maker spent so long focusing on the worst of Hindi films and the best of Hollywood (best and only. Hollywood doesn’t do song sequences any more, so be default everything they do is unique, since it is the only one), and ignored the amazingly original and inventive song sequences that have come out of Hindi film in recent years, sequences so well done that you don’t necessarily notice them.  And from films that weren’t necessarily big hits, people might only have seen and appreciated these numbers if they were like me, watching every single film.

 

First, I have to save one of the numbers he picks out as repetative.  “Tu Meri” from Bang Bang is hardly unimaginative.  Yes it uses quick edits and flashing lights and all the rest of that.  But it edits together multiple images and multiple back up dancer groups with one lead dancer (Hrithik) pulling it all together.  There is hardly a repeated dance move in the whole thing, this is not lazy choreography.  Plus the quick edits are perfectly synched with the beat of the song, they aren’t just there to be lazy, they are to help build the tension.

 

Moving on the more clearly different songs.  The first that springs to mind is “Gallan Goodiyaan” from Dil Dhadakne Do.  Almost a single take, filmed using actors not back-up dancers, including lipsynching so they had to be aware of which of them was supposed to be “singing” each line, the camera moving up and down stairs and around obstacles, this is extremely technically challenging, and artistically challenging as each actor had to stay in character the entire time along with performing the steps.

 

And that wasn’t the only unique song in that movie.  There was also “Pehli Baar”, which used just two actor/dancers moving together, and consciously lip-synching (the music was diagetic), and building up their love story over the course of a single song.

 

So long as we are on Ranveer Singh, let’s look at another of his recent songs, from Befikre, a movie almost no one saw which had one remarkably simple and imaginative song sequence.  Lovely simple choreography, and seamless mingling of two images into one frame.  Oh, and almost entirely showing the full body, one of his main criticisms, that we can’t see the full dance.  Not a problem in this sequence.

 

And it wasn’t just that one.  Along with the usual montage style songs which are pleasant but unremarkable, there is another straight forward dance number, with the camera moving and dancing with the stars. “Nashe Si Chadh Gayi”.  This is one the original youtube video picks out as not showing the full body, but that is just in a few edits, the majority of this song is handled at mid-distance, we can see what is happening perfectly well.

 

I’ve been doing a lot of two person songs with unique camera movement.  But that’s not the only kind of innovation Hindi film songs have had in recent years.  There’s also, for instance, “Raabta” from the song of the same name.  There aren’t many straight nightclub number style songs, this one put together Deepika at the center lipsynching the lyrics with back-up dancers leaping around her, strictly diagetic (have I defined that term?  It means music/sound that happens within the plot of the movie, not the background soundtrack of the film), and simple and yet intriguing to watch.

 

Or how about this?  A song all in one large space, with the dancers serving as stage crew, moving furniture and other obstructions back and forth as the camera and lead dancers move through it all.  With multiple minor interactions between the leads and the back-up dancers taking place in a way that makes sense with the lyrics. “Bom Diggy Diggy” from Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety.

 

A recent song that is delightfully imaginative in production, “Dhayaanchaand” which moves from fantastical imaginings of dancers following our heroine, to diagetic reality as the hero sings to her.

 

A song video that is unique, because it is supposed to be bad!  Aamir’s wonderful “Sexy Balliye” from Secret Superstar which simultaneously makes fun of those unimaginative sexy party songs, and the youtube song phenomenon that is trying to challenge them and not always succeeding well.

 

Something completely different, which consciously avoids obvious visual firewords, the title song from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil.  I wish I could find a better youtube video, which is perhaps part of the problem, brilliant song sequences are edited down into easily digestible bland little music videos that are the only thing you see unless you watch them in context in the original film.  In the original, there is one long close up shot on Ranbir’s face to start, which very slowly moves back in a smooth uncut tracking shot to reveal an entire auditorium with musicians as the song continues.  And then, only at the very end, does it start intercutting with his journey around Europe to different performance venues.  So basically, watch this and then imagine it far far better.

 

Another one re-edited for youtube tastes with the magic removed, “Ikk Kudi” from Udta Punjab.  In the original, Shahid sings it straight, acapella, in a hospital room with people banging on the door who slowly stop as he keeps singing.  And then the film cuts to him riding his bike with the song still playing in his head as he goes to try to do the right thing and help Alia.

 

Possibly the most original use of song sequences, Mirzya in which the Greek chorus style village of blacksmiths runs and leaps and acts out the emotions of the characters.

 

 

And finally, my favorite and I think also the most impressive song sequence in recent years, “Radha” from Jab Harry Met Sejal.  The choreographer Vaibhavi Merchant has them dance up and down stars, going from the high terrace to the ground and back and forth.  The lyrics dance between the two, mixing a classical Radha hymn with a wild Punjabi folk song until they merge, just as the two dances merge together.  And there are no special effects, no fireworks, no back-up dancers, nothing but the two of them.  Oh, and it also perfectly captures their individual character journeys and the meaning of the film, all in one song.  I must not be the only one who realizes how great this song is, because Sony (thank goodness) posted the entire thing unedited on their youtube.  Although, no subtitles.  We can’t have everything.

 

(Perhaps a hidden problem here, music rights and music videos are now owned by music companies in most cases, not the original film company.  They are edited down to be advertisements for the music sales, rather than the original artistic vision that existed within the film.  In most cases the song available in the original film versus on music channels and youtube has noticeably different visuals and is far shorter)

 

I know there are others I am not thinking of, let me know if there is something I missed that you think is worthy of inclusion!

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21 thoughts on “The Most Imaginative Song Sequences in Hindi Film in Recent Years

  1. Maybe the corporates have been trying to shift our taste away from song and dance so as to reduce time, budget, and manpower to bring a film to market. And thus perhaps currently, song and dance numbers aren’t justifying their ROI.

    Also, by focusing on talented actors rather than “double threats”, they can potentially increase the pool of actors, thus bringing down the price of actors, as well as increase the kind of stories they can tell to include the kind that might require better actors and where song and dance might be an odd fit. Many of today’s lead stars cannot dance well, so choppy dance edits make up for that.

    In general I think when the actor is uber talented as a dancer, we still get the long shots and the good lighting and the inspired choreography to make the sheer dance the highlight. Hrithik and Tiger are still shot this way, and I’d argue that Katrina & Malaika in ther solo (I.e. Non-duet) numbers are too.

    To answer your question, SLB has bucked this trend and consistently stuck with his commitment to song and dance and choreography and backup dancers – especially back up dancers that are (or at least pass for) Indian! When is the last time you’ve seen an Indian backup dancer in BW film outside of an SLB film lol. SLB commitment is a big reason that his films are still popular. You look forward to the choreo numbers when you go to see an SLB film – either overtly so, or subconsciously, as in, you know you are going to get an “Indian” film, and part of being an Indian film is well staged choreography. So it’s like comfort food. Plus he sticks with folk, kathak, and Bharat Natyam as his primary influences in his choreo, thus also giving the feeling of Indian-ness, but also lending nostalgia by respecting our traditions. Bollywood dance is increasingly not Indian dance, it’s a fusion of many modern international styles – salsa, hip hop, edm, jazz – but with increasingly little Indian dance left in it, but not in an SLB film. Devdas was his only example of really authentic choreography, she all his other movies might have fusiony choreo, but at least it’s a fusion of only classical and folk Indian styles of dance.

    Nice call out to the SkTkS Bom Diggy song and dance. It’s infectious to listen to and to watch. And chorei with that many people doing different things isn’t easy to pull off.

    Befikre is also chock full of great song and dance numbers shot well… which might be in a weird way why it flopped, because that makes it feel dated, like a mid-2000s film from 10-15 years ago. Think Salaam Namaste to Race 1.

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    • Now that you mention it, the actors and dance training is part of a bigger shift, I think. If you are making a a film for the NRI audience that is going to have a NRI heroine, you want someone who can wear tiny clothes and stuff, not someone who studied Bharat Natyam. So that’s the pool of talent they are looking for, the fluent in English western looking ones. The trained Kathak and Bharat Natyam dancers, even the back-up dancers from Shiamak’s troupe and people like that, they are less likely to get their shot than the ones who have only danced in nightclubs. The same way that the ones who are fluent in Hindi are now less likely to get their shot than the ones who are fluent in English.

      And then in the same way you end up with directors and producers and so on who are trying to make their films look Western, trying to sell the music videos and songs to clubs and stuff, and there is just this general feel that songs should be simple and bouncy and unambitious.

      I consciously didn’t include SLB because I am petty and don’t like him. And also because he feels, to me, strangely different and the same. He makes songs unlike what everyone else is doing, but exactly like what he has always done. But it is strange that after all his big hit movies recently everyone is making more big historical epics, but aren’t necessarily doing big traditional style dance numbers.

      Oh and with actors who are also good dancers, the thing that really surprised me is that I couldn’t find an example of a “good” song with Varun Dhawan. Wouldn’t you think he would have a song that really showed off his dancing? Either directors are stupider than I thought, or Varun isn’t as good a dancer as I thought.

      On Mon, Sep 17, 2018 at 3:47 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Not even from the ABCD movies?

        Then yeah, Braun isn’t as good as you thought.

        My guess is that he learns choreo easily, is reasonably flexible and athletic, and exudes energy, but that he has no artistry or singular style. In salsa terms, I’m a good Follow, but I have no Styling. Does he have any dance training from childhood?

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        • My impression is that he has the Shiamak Devar type training, so more than someone who came in with no background at all, but nothing like true classical dance training.

          He is easy to watch and can do big leaps and stuff, but really I may just think he is that good because he is so much better in comparison to everyone else. In the ABCD movies, there’s a lot of fast editing and light shows and leaps and stuff, but not necessarily a lot of grace. And besides, he’s competing with Prabhudeva, so it’s no competition. This is my favorite of his dances, and Shraddha comes off as good if not better.

          On Mon, Sep 17, 2018 at 5:18 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. Fwiw I’m probably the person who posted the Cinema Beyond Entertainment video about choreography in your comments a year ago, in the context of a discussion we were having then. It’s among my favorite YouTube channels, he does in depth focus on individual films -both BW and HW – as well as commentary on cinematography, editing, storytelling, and themes across industries.

    In turn, I’ll be sure to post this post in the comments section of his video.

    I think he was speaking to trends and degradation broadly, I don’t think he meant to suggest that there no longer existed any good choreo, dancing, or respectful filmmaking around that. I have to agree that almost every song nowadays is either an MTV-style party sing designed for the nightclub and thus shot for you to get inspired to dance to it at the nightclub (as opposed to beng inspired to copy its moves for your next wedding choreo) or fits into the diagetic universe do well that it’s more like a background score or montage score, with no dance required.

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    • Oh dear, now I feel bad at the thought of this person potentially reading this post. It really is a remarkable video, and really great in how it edits together examples and so on, I don’t want to come off like I am saying “he’s totally wrong!” but more like “let me add on some additional information to his argument”. I will just assume that is how it sounds and try to stamp down my Margaret urge to rewrite my post in order to never hurt anyone’s feelings or be critical ever.

      I was thinking there could easily be a separate post focused on the well-done montage songs. There’s so many of them lately, and some of them feel like music videos, like little single moments that encapsulate a feeling. “Tanhaiyee” from DCH, for instance. Or the title song from KANK. But then there are soooooooooooo many lately where it is just like a background score, weaves in and out and you don’t really notice where it stops and starts. Manmarziyaan had that one great full song moment, and over the opening credits a montage that tells a whole story, and then everything else (and it is a wonderful soundtrack with a lot of good songs) is just 30 seconds and then back to the rest of the film. Mani Ratnam’s last few movies felt the same way to me, quick little snippets of songs rather than separate sections. Maybe if you are a director with a strong visual sense and firm grasp of how you want your story to be, it is harder to break totally for a separate song sequence. But as a viewer, I really appreciate it when the song I enjoy as a full separate section telling a story based on the lyrics, it isn’t just buried under the rest of the film. You know?

      On Mon, Sep 17, 2018 at 4:01 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. JHMS had a lot of really good songs, just really strong throughout, and none of them night clubby. I feel the same about Jab Tak Hai Jaan – Jiya Re and Challa and Heer, all good songs filmed effectively, telling a story without distracting lighting or camera tricks. And the Haule Haule video melted my heart and is the only reason I decided to watch Rab Ne Bana di Jodi. (You can see a theme to my background music…)

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    • yeah, I should do a second post that focuses on the montage songs that tell a story more than on the long shot dance songs. Because they are so easy to do poorly, but when they are good, they are very very good.

      On Tue, Sep 18, 2018 at 12:20 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Befikre in general was a very clean well made film with no wasted space. It also featured two very stupid and unlikable lead characters, but the film surrounding them was excellent. If only Adi had put all the work to a more substantial story!

      On Tue, Sep 18, 2018 at 12:44 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. I agree with the videos you’ve called out (the ones I’ve seen), for the reasons you’ve stated. When I have more bandwidth (literally and figuratively) I’ll watch the others. I saw Varun dance at the IIFAs in 2017, and he can certainly dance for real, but yes, it’s the more athletic, hip-hop style dancing than anything else.

    I can’t think of any to add. I’m glad the full Je T’aime song includes the Vaani-centric version from later in the film as well. I like those male part/female part songs, like Tujh Mein Rab Diktha Hai from RNBDJ. As you say, part of the genius of Radha is the way it combines those traditionally separate “call and response” type ideas into one song.

    I really wish that Piku would have indulged in one full song. Being greedy I’d ask for two–one on the road, and one when Deepika and Irrfan are exploring Calcutta. Sigh. And a third one could be when they are all drinking wine together in the Calcutta house after the aunt arrives. But they just kept teasing us. As an aside, last time I checked they didn’t have the Piku soundtrack on Amazon. Is it on Itunes?

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    • It might be on itunes? It must be somewhere, because I bought a few songs from it. It’s a really good soundtrack, but yeah, they let the songs get blurred in and out of the background instead of being full song sequences. Very frustrating!

      And now I am back to thinking I want to do a complimentary post focused on well done montage songs, the ones that mix in fantasy dancing with reality telling the story seamlessly, all in one music video. That’s what would have been perfect in Piku, I don’t want to see those characters doing a grand dance scene, but I could have enjoyed one full song playing in the background and setting a particular mood.

      On Tue, Sep 18, 2018 at 1:01 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • The more seamless ones, like Titli and Tera Rastaa… in Chennai Express, were confusing for me when I first started watching. Others like Suraj Hua Maddham or Tu Mere Samne are pretty obvious breaks from reality. 🙂

        I think you did a “types of songs” posts in which you helpfully spelled out the ones that are 100% fantasy and the ones that are partially real and partially fantasy. It helped me be less confused and just go with the flow.

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