Hindi Film 101: The 6 Kinds of Film Songs

Procrastinatrix just mentioned a helpful post I wrote on this, and I looked and looked and I don’t think it was a post, I think it was actually in my book.  So if I were mean, I would make this headline and then the post would just be “ha ha, buy my book!”  But now I kind of want to write the post!  And it will be better than the book (although you should still buy the book) because I can use video link examples.

You know the color wheel?  You know how there are 3 primary colors, and then they mix together in different ways to make 3 secondary colors?  I’m going to try thinking about film songs the same way.  The primary first, so we fully understand the basics and how they changed over time, and then the mixed up secondary.



Straightforward dream song.  Everything is imagined, it explains the internal feelings of the character through how they imagine the world and the other people in it.  In the early years, these were elaborate psychological fantasies, revealing the hidden fears and desires of the characters, like in the big ambitious “Ghar Aaya Mera Pardesi” from Awara:

But as the years went by, these became less about exploring deep internal turmoil and more about an excuse for amazing special effects that would get everyone talking.  Like in the title song from Dream Girl.


With the arrival of the MTV style in the 90s, not to mention cheaper filming techniques and increased editing abilities, they became more just simple sequences shot abroad showing a man and woman in love, nothing more spectacular or deep than that.  And they became the most common kind of song for a while, men and woman were constantly chasing each other through fields only to return to “reality” as though it never happened.  Like in “Hum To Deewane Huye” from Baadshah.


Today, the new version of the fantasy song is the promotional song, the one that captures the spirit of the film and the inner lives of the characters but may never be played during the film itself.  Like “Tareefan” from Veere Di Wedding.



This could also be called the “diagetic” song.  The song and dance performance that is supposed to actually be happening in more or less real time within the film.  Originally it was to showcase the truly talented dancers of Indian film, allowing the rest of the movie to stop dead so we could admire their performances.  Like “Honton Mein Aisi Baat” from Jewel Thief.

It didn’t have to be classical, Helen’s cabaret numbers would also qualify, or even the dance numbers between hero and heroine in a club, like “Aaja Aaja Mein Hoon Pyar Tera” from Teesri Manzil.

Or the gypsy camp type numbers, like “Hum Banjare Dil Nahi” from Parampara.

Straight through to today’s club songs, like Imraan Khan seducing some poor girl in the title song from I Hate Luv Storys.


Or of course the item song, like “Kamariya” from Stree.



Originally, an excuse to use a bunch of b-roll or stock shots.  A singer’s voice would tie it all together and then you can just edit together a bunch of images.  For instance, an introduction to Calcutta in “Yeh Calcutta Hai” from Howrah Bridge.


It wasn’t a very popular song form, not terribly interesting to watch, but it was useful if you wanted to show multiple things happening over great distances, like in the epic dam breaking title sequence Satyam Shivam Sundaram.


And they were useful if you needed a pleasant way to indicate “time passing”.  For instance, in “Aye Mere Humsafar” from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak.


Starting in the 90s and rapidly accelerating to today, the montage style gained popularity as quick edits became a sign of modernity.  And dance and fantasy became old-fashioned. The best of these were pleasant little stories in miniature, like one of my favorites “Pehli Baar” from Jungle.


The recent versions have elevated these to a high art, at least the best version of them.  Songs like “Dhaakad” from Dangal which perfectly match the visuals to the rhythm of the song.



These are easier to define because we already understand the primary sections (right?) so it’s just understanding how they can mingle together and make something different sometimes.


You wouldn’t think this would be a common genre, but it really is!  The heroine is dancing and the hero is watching her.  Or, the hero and heroine are dancing together.  Or, less often, the hero is dancing and the heroine is watching.  And suddenly it splits into a fantasy inspired by the beauty of the dance.  And the song goes back and forth between the dancing that is really happening in the reality of the film, and the fantasy that it has inspired in the minds of one of the characters.

(Check out 4:30 about for when Amisha suddenly starts fantasizing while Hrithik is still singing and dancing in “reality”)


The other way around!  A fantasy song, but the fantasy is dancing.  Usually the woman dancing.  Usually Madhuri.  Like in “Dhak Dhak” from Beta.



Again, a bit odd for this to be so common.  But it is!  The dancers dance and meanwhile we cut to other things happening elsewhere.  The dance keeps our attention and sets the mood (usually frenetic and sexual) for how we should react to the other things shown.  This is an increasingly common style, somehow making the “dance” song less old-fashioned by mixing them with the newest style.



I think these are really cool and I wish we had more of them.  A montage of different dances either over time or all happening in different places.  For instance “Piya Tose Naina” showing Waheeda’s rise through multiple performances in Guide.



The MOST CONFUSING genre.  At least, for me.  You have a montage of real things happening, the hero walking down the street singing his internal monologue or whatever.  And then suddenly it cuts to something else, a fantasy of the hero and heroine together on a mountain top.  Real to unreal with a flip of the switch and it is up to the viewer to try to scramble and catch up.


Montage Fantasy

Also confusing!  A fantasy told in montage style.  A whole story imagined and told in quick flashes. For instance “Bol Ne Halke Halke” from Jhoom Barabar Jhoom.

Those are the general categories, there are also slightly variations on them.  For instance:


Shared Fantasy

Very confusing to understand!  A straight individual fantasy makes sense, one character and one inner fantasy.  But what about when it is two characters who both seem to be dreaming of the same thing?  It means they have a deep bond and sharing that fantasy is almost like it happened for real.  The classic example, “Tujhe Dekho” from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.



Fantastical Dance

The dance song that really truly happened, but also seems very unlikely to have happened.  The heroine who suddenly reveals inexplicable dancing talent.  The waiters who burst into perfect back-up dancing.  That song that everyone somehow knows and sings along with.  Different from your usual religious song or festival song or even wedding song, where we can assume there was some kind of preparation and rehearsal.  Like, “Desi Girl”.  How does everyone there suddenly join in the dance?  It’s an art auction, not an night club!  And yet, it also “really” happened, they are in the clothes they were wearing before the song started, they are interacting in character, and after it is over they behave as though it happened (the fought that was just occurring is now made up).


Intermingled Montage

My least favorite, we get little bits of song, then dialogue, then song again.  Just give us the whole freaking song!  Why break it up like that?  And if you are going to break it up like that, if that is the vision for the song, why is it then edited all up again for the official song video?  Grrrr! Like in “Gilehriyaan” from Dangal, which is a lovely song with great images, and yet they didn’t trust the song alone to carry the sequence and had to keep through in dialogue scenes.



And that’s it!  That’s all I can think of!  And I am sure there are other variations and situations I have forgotten, but hopefully this should be a good start for a discussion, right?  At least, I would enjoy talking more about it.  After I get some sleep and my brain wakes up.


15 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: The 6 Kinds of Film Songs

  1. For some reason I’ve never had any anxiety over whether a song is “really” happening or not. I grew up watching Hollywood musicals and even though they are different than Bolly songs it’s still the same suspension of disbelief and understanding how the song operates within the universe of the film.

    Another good example of dance-fantasy is Jo Haal Dil Ka from Sarfarosh


    • Yes, and a really good example of pure fantasy. We know it is only happening inside the mind of one character, we know that it is telling the audience about his inner most feelings, and there is no blurring between fantasy and reality.

      What I had the hardest time with was the shared fantasy songs, and the fantasy-reality mixed songs. The shared fantasy ones, because you could see both characters were changed and even seemed to remember the same things from the song, so did that mean it “really” happened or what? And the fantasy-reality songs because you knew some of it happened, but then some of it seemed like it couldn’t possibly have happened, so what was up with that?

      On Wed, Sep 19, 2018 at 9:08 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



      • Oh and a great example of fantastical dance is Tu Meri which is diagetic and completely implausible.

        I think that some of this concern with real vs. not real is cultural. For example, American critics call Latin American literature Magic Realism but don’t quite understand that in the culture ghosts and portents and fated outcomes and so on are not perceived as fantastical but simply a part of everyday life.


        • I love Tu Meri! They even establish that there is a dance festival going on, that’s why there are all these different dance groups in different costumes in the town square. But none of that explanation can possibly explain a massive dance number in the town square with everyone somehow knowing exactly what to sing and what step to do and so on.

          On Wed, Sep 19, 2018 at 10:32 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:



        • I think you are right on the money with this, and “anxiety” and “concern” are great words to describe how I (Midwestern US born and raised) respond sometimes to blending of fantasy and reality. Additionally, watching Indian movies, there is “concern” with following the plot, which can be bewildering thanks to missed contextual clues and bad subtitles.

          I have tended in the past to avoid literature that is branded “magical realism”. Maybe now that Indian movies have made me a bit more comfortable with that ambiguity I should try some again. Who are some good women “magical realism” authors?


    • Ooo! I think mostly “dance” with a little bit of “fantastical dance” and “montage” thrown in. No wonder it is such an overwhelmingly elaborate dance number! It’s every genre combined!!!!!

      On Wed, Sep 19, 2018 at 2:40 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      • Karan sure, doesn’t put limits on his imagination e.g Suraj Hua Madham. It’s fantasy song, but with other (shared?) fantasies inside and with protagonists watching those fantasies. It was so confusing!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes! Especially the moments of them watching themselves within the fantasy. And the best part, we the audience got to see the shared fantasy and the individual fantasies and feel the “doom DOOM” as we realized how very different their visions for their future together were, Shahrukh thinking they would be all elegant and perfect and rich with his family, Kajol dreaming of them staying in Chandni Chowk.

          On Wed, Sep 19, 2018 at 3:53 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:


          Liked by 1 person

    • Yes! You are now in my mental list as a Good Person who Pays for Content.

      Also, I am glad I got an excuse to write this post! It was super fun.


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