Hindi Film 101: A Brief History of American Musical Films, and How They Are NOT the Same As Hindi

I haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate it when people say “oh, Indian movies, they are just like those classic American Musicals I loved”. Because they’re NOT!!!! But then, at the same time, they kind of are. Which is why I hate it when people say that because it’s a really really complicated argument to prove to them that they are being inaccurate and then they start slowly backing away from me and eventually I realize I have become a person alone in a room giving a lecture to nothing.

The biggest difference between American musical films and Indian musical films is that America had a stable film industry and film style BEFORE SOUND. So there were films, established format and genres and things, and then there was music dumped on top of them. Versus India where the film industry struggled under colonialism and didn’t become really formalized and successful and industrial until post-sound. Meaning Indian films grew with music always an option.

Amazon.com: A Throw of Dice: Seeta Devi, Himansu Rai, Charu Roy, Franz  Osten: Movies & TV
And here’s where you say “A Throw of the Dice” and then I say “yes, but a few years later when they actually founded Bombay Talkies, they were doing all musical films”

Let’s go back to America and the two unrelated strands of film history and musical history that existed simultaneous with one another. Film in America replaced Vaudeville. In a very direct “open slot, remove vaudeville, put in film” kind of way. Before film, there was this massive market in rural America, small towns and small cities, for entertainment. Rural America was rich, and it was where most of the people lived. They had money to spend and the only challenge was getting the product to them. So the vaudeville circuits came into being. A company in New York or Chicago would hire on contract for a certain number of months a group of performers. They they would put them on trains and send them all over the country to the various theaters they owned (or contracted with) in towns all over America. It was all extremely centrally controlled. The local theater owner had a contract with an entertainment distributor, artists would arrive on trains, find places to stay locally, do their shows every night, then be sent off again to the next town, all controlled by New York.

There's No Business Like Show Business (Original Soundtrack Recording) by  Various artists on Amazon Music - Amazon.com
If you want to learn more about this, watch “There’s No Business Like Show Business” and go “ick, drunk Donald O’Connor is kind of scary”

The only downside to this system, from the perspective of New York, is that humans are messy. You hire someone to tour for 4 months, you have it all planned and scheduled out, and then they get sick and you need to hire a last minute replacement and put them on a fast train and send them out ASAP to take the place of the sick person. It’s a hassle. Enter, film! Now instead of messy humans, you take a film reel, you put it on a train, you send it around the country. Film never gets sick, film never complains, and film has a slight cost advantage. Film is great! Forget vaudeville, just film the vaudeville acts one time, and send that film around instead of humans!

American film went from short filmed vaudeville acts pretty quickly to a “feature” system. That’s thanks to various film geniuses like Racist DW Griffith and Amoral Thomas Edison and Awesome Alice Guy-Blache. But the “feature” system was still really close to vaudeville. The Vaudeville circuits that already existed were used as the framework for the new film distribution circuits (A towns and B towns and C towns, theater chains owned by one millionaire in New York, etc.). And then when you went to see a feature, like Vaudeville, you would get more than one thing for your money. There would be the feature film, a cartoon, a comic short, a newsreel, and maybe some live performance too.

Alice Guy-Blaché and Julia Crawford Ivers's Films on Kino Lorber Blu-ray -  Slant Magazine
An early film pioneer who was NOT racist or a sociopath. Yaaaaay!!!!

And meanwhile, musical theater was chugging along and entering a golden age of it’s own. In the teens and 20s and 30s, there were two kinds of big musical shows, the sort of shows that resulted in hit songs being printed up on sheet music and sent all over America. The first kind is the kind we still know about, the kind invented by Kern and Hammerstein (and Wodehouse, woot-woot!) with Show Boat. It took a strong serious narrative and added songs to it. The other kind is the kind we tend to have forgotten, the variety shows. Broadway used to be very big on what was essentially high price vaudeville. Original songs, big hit songs, performed by big deal performers, but no narrative tying them together. Just song-song-song-song-song. After Show Boat, there were more and more big hit narrative shows, the kind with stories people remembered as much as the songs. They weren’t all serious, you had plenty of stuff like Anything Goes that was just silly farce. But it had a real narrative, the songs were there to support the story. And it was modern and edgy and catchy. Think of it like Hamilton now, before Show Boat the narrative Operettas had a particular sound that made people go “oh, show tunes”. After Show Boat, musicals suddenly became hip new modern music, not just trapped in the past old style stuff.

This was the “not gonna miss my shot” of it’s day

Sound came to America in 1929 and immediately film started experimenting with how to include music. But remember, this was still in the era of 90 minute movies. So there was kind of a quandary here. On the one hand, the film shorts were over, you could just film someone singing a song with no context. But on the other hand, trying to recreate something like Show Boat was impossible, you needed more time and seriousness and so on to a film in order to equal that level. So American musical found a middle ground. They took the variety show style, and wrote a very very VERY light narrative to tie it all together. This is the “let’s put on a SHOW” kind of movie. You can have all these big spectacular numbers that really have nothing to do with the plot, because you can say “oh, well, these are the things they are doing in the show within the show”. The Broadway Melody series of movies and the Golddigger series of movies were very much about this. The title told the audience what was happening, just like the Broadway shows that were “Follies of Whatever Year”, this series came out almost yearly, had a similar group of performers, and would provide a bunch of awesome musical numbers unrelated to any plot.

This song, for instance, is only slightly related to the “plot”, but is the reason people saw the movie and the reason people remember it today. Also, highly HIGHLY influential to Indian film to this day in terms of images, but in Indian film, the emotions those images evoke are more directly related to the narrative of the film. Think of the dream scene in Awara, versus this random “show within a movie that is suddenly about the depression and the Bonus Army and stuff out of nowhere”.

It was after those musicals became hits that film started doing slightly more complicated plots. We still aren’t talking Show Boat, but we are talking things like Fred Astaire’s first hit movie, The Gay Divorcee. It was a remake of his hit Broadway show, same songs and sort of the same plot. It has great dialogue, fun farce, and some excellent dancing. But it’s very very light. The songs are small, it’s two people dancing, one person singing, kind of thing. The only really huge number is a new one created for the movie and focused on trying to create a Dance Craze (“The Continental”, dance moves anyone could do). At the same time Fred was doing The Gay Divorcee, all light light light, you had Broadway shows like Of Thee I Sing which won a Pulitzer Prize, and you had movies like Vanity Fair. The challenge was figuring out how to do a serious plot, plus songs, all within the standard 90 minute length. And the answer was “it’s not possible”. So Broadway kept doing Broadway and movies kept doing movies, and American movie musicals existed as something separate from both of them.

This song is so terrible in every way. Totally just put in to sell sheet music.

Things began to change with the arrival of Big Bands. Big Bands were ultimately a product of technology more than anything else. They had a weird different new sound that people HATED. You couldn’t replicate it on sheet music, you couldn’t ask your local band to play it, it was all unique that those particular performers, and they only had one 2-3 hour show to sell you on it and convince you that this new sound wasn’t as horrid as you thought. But then, records became a thing. And radio. And suddenly these genius performers could record their unique sound, and those recordings could spread out across America and find the audience who actually liked them. It’s the same as youtube stars now, this huge leap in reach. There’s a story about Benny Goodman’s band, they started out on a road trip performing from New York to California. It was horrible, they were squeezed into falling down cars, sleeping next to the road, no money, and of course the audience didn’t like them (as usual). But things started to change as they got further and further west and finally they did their LA show and the audience went INSANE for them. Because as they were traveling, their record was being released and softening the ground ahead of them. They started in New York as starving artists, and arrived in LA as the hottest new thing, without even knowing it was happening.

Okay, I love my big band record, I memorize all the star musicians who make these crazy sounds, I really really want to see them onscreen. And Hollywood was right there with you. There was this little phase of Band movies in the late 1930s which, if you are a big band fan, is amazing to watch. There’s Benny Goodman just being a character in a movie, there’s Gene Krupa on film, there’s everyone doing their crazy genius good performances recorded forever in a movie. And what this said to Hollywood was “wait, we don’t have to take Broadway music and put it into movies, we can do something even better than Broadway”. And now movie musicals got a new thing, they were light films with songs purchased from Broadway, they were also original films with songs written straight for them and music recordings that could be hits all over the US. And then it just takes one more little leap to say “wait, if we have songs written for films, we could also have plots, real plots, written for musical films”.

If you ask me what is the best American made musical film of all time, I’m gonna say “Orchestra Wives”. The way the film interacts with Benny Goodman’s music is just stunning. It’s not a dance film, it’s about the music purely.

Starting in the late 1940s, we get the American movie musical in the way that people picture when they say “musical”. Original songs, original plots, original movie stars (not stage stars), and songs that are embedded in the plot far FAR more than they were before. Before, you would have a random stage show, or a solo song that serves as a character monologue, but now you have songs that do what Broadway songs were doing, that actually move the plot along by showing a couple falling in love, or friends having an adventure, or whatever else it is. Lots of “I got drunk and did wild things” songs, and then the next morning you have to face actual consequences because that thing you did ACTUALLY HAPPENED, and now you are in trouble, and the rest of the plot moves along. It wasn’t just the Gene Kelly movies in this era, you had Esther Williams, Doris Day, Tony Martin, Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell, Ann Martin, and on and on and on. All these stars who were movie musical stars, with films and songs written for them and built around what they could do.

In the 1960s, as we all know, Hollywood lost it’s mind and decided that what would save it was recreating Broadway, but onscreen. Maybe it was a sort of unconscious memory of the last days of vaudeville? When the only successes in live performances were the big broadway shows? Anyway, 1960s Hollywood went bonkers and we got Dr. Doolittle and The Greatest Show on Earth and all kinds of nutty musical options. And then came Cabaret. Cabaret was already a great stage show in the Show Boat tradition, very deep and very complicated with excellent songs that supported the very deep and complicated plot. But what Fosse did (Fosse, by the way, started as a film choreographer. Some of his early stuff, especially in The Love Affairs of Dobie Gillis, is MINDBLOWING) was say “I am making a movie, not a stage show. I am going to take this plot and these songs and do them totally different because it is a MOVIE”. And it kind of killed the American movie musical as it had been since the 1950s. Made people go “oh right, this is a movie, not just a filmed stage show, it should be something different from what we get on Broadway”.

can you spot Fosse?

Movie musicals have continued since Cabaret, but people no longer think of them as “musicals”. Which is DUMB. If you say “movie musical”, folks say “La La Land” or “Chicago” or “Mamma Mia”. But they forget about Fame, and Barbra’s A Star is Born, and of course the Step Up series. Movies that have music in them, in all kinds of ways, are everywhere. But somehow the rigid definition of American Musical Film that was born just in the 1950s and 60s is where our mind stops.

And this is why the “Indian films are just like American musicals” makes me so ANGRY. Because they are, in that American films have experimented with combining music and visuals in a whole variety of ways and a whole variety of genres since sound first arrived. But they are not, in that they have almost nothing in common with the 1950s and 60s musicals people mean when they make that statement.

You want the simple answer for why Indian films are not like American musicals? It’s a nice fancy technical language impressive thing, you just say “No, they are not the same, because American musicals use diegetic song sequences and Indian films use non-diegetic songs”.

What that means when it’s at home is that in American musicals, the songs are always actually happening. Whether it is a stage performance the character is doing, or a love dance duet in a part, it is ACTUALLY HAPPENING. Within the film within the plot. In Indian musicals, the songs for the most part are non-diegetic, they are not REALLY happening. They are emotional fantasy moments, expressions of internal longings. Even when you see the character really singing for real, we are supposed to understand that the singing we see them do onscreen represents a generalized feeling or sense of their life. This is also one of those exceptions-that-prove-the-rule things. In American film, the Dream Sequence in American in Paris is held up as something unique and amazing. Because we don’t usually get dream sequences. In Indian film, the performances in Umrao Jaan and how the character is actually writing and singing original music within the plot, is held up as something unique and amazing.

Non-Diegetic, Unusual for America:

Diegetic, Unusual for India:

There’s no real reason for this difference. It’s just how it happened. Two separate places in the world, two separate groups of artists, two separate influences. In India, films had music almost right from the start, and thanks to cranky technology forcing non-sync sound recording and stationary cameras, and Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt being freakin’ GENIUSES, they ended up having these elaborate sets and planned out fantasy song sequences instead of the stripped down flexible camera real life song sequences in American film. Plus a whole bunch of other random influences. Think of it like The Butterfly Effect. So many variables, of course the two industries wouldn’t be identical.

This was the same year as the “An American in Paris” ballet. Similar concepts, but simultaneous, neither influenced the other. Raj Kapoor took his life stage experience, the Busby Berkeley numbers like Forgotten Man that he had seen, and the existing Hindi Film musical number traditions, and created his own thing. And then Hindi film went on from there.

America had a musical performance tradition because that is a human need. Once sound film came in, it was natural to start thinking about how to record those musical performances and put them on film. India also had a musical performance tradition because that is a human need. Their film essentially started with sound so the musical performances were woven into the fabric of it from the beginning. THERE IS NOTHING ELSE IN COMMON BETWEEN THE TWO.

Oh, I feel better! That’s the long lecture I’ve always wanted to give people and couldn’t because they started to politely excuse themselves after 5 minutes.

26 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: A Brief History of American Musical Films, and How They Are NOT the Same As Hindi

  1. Thank you for this write up! I did not know the history, so that was fascinating to read. To me, I like both but they were never the same because as you put it, most American musicals use diegetic song sequences, or in other words, it is part of the narrative, while Indian films mostly use non-diegetic songs or even songs that are staged diegetically in the narrative (e.g. songs at parties or clubs) but not exactly essential to narrative. For example, if you really wanted to, in most cases, you could fast forward through a song you don’t like in an Indian movie and not really miss anything related to the plot. I don’t know if that makes any sense.

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    • That makes total sense! A nightclub number in an Indian movie, which is not essential to the plot, is “diegetic” because it actually happens in the narrative, it isn’t a fantasy. But it also does not move the plot along.

      I would also argue that Hindi film songs are not essential to the plot, but they are essential to the narrative. You can follow what is happening if you fastforward all the songs. But you miss how the characters are feeling about what is happening if you fastforward the songs. Does that make sense? If I fastforward a song in a Gene Kelly movie, I don’t know that this couple fell in love. But if a fastforward a song in a Raj Kapoor movie, I don’t know that the hero is wracked with internal doubts and guilt over falling in love.

      Also, should I do a “Margaret Recommends” list of American film musicals? Not like the classics, but the ones I really like and would recommend to the DCIB group? Would that be fun, or would that just be self-indulgent?

      On Fri, Mar 5, 2021 at 10:36 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • YES! Indian songs are essential to the narrative. They help you see the internal dialogue!

        Please do a list of American film musicals that you think DCIBer would like. For example, off the top of my head, I’m thinking of stuff like the Greatest Showman, which was so good! But also is it super embarrassing to admit that I would also include High School Musical on the list? Oh, would you also include aminated movies in there? This is already so much fun to think about!

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        • I would include the Weird Movies From Before 1960 that I watched exclusively for the first 19 years of my life, before I met Shahrukh and fell in love.

          On Fri, Mar 5, 2021 at 10:52 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • YES! Indian songs are essential to the narrative. They help you see the internal thoughts of the characters.

        Please do a list of American film musicals that you think DCIBer would like. For example, off the top of my head, I’m thinking of stuff like the Greatest Showman, which was so good! But also is it super embarrassing to admit that I would also include High School Musical on the list? Oh, would you also include aminated movies in there? This is already so much fun to think about!

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    • Oh also, to me, someone saying “Indian movies are just like classic American Musicals” is as irritating as when people say “naan bread” or “chai tea” or people who say Vindaloo is a curry with potato in it because of the “aloo” in its name! All WRONG!!!

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  2. There were silent musicals! I don’t know enough about them to say how they influenced the 1930s and 1940s musicals though because I’ve only seen one and I don’t think it had the original score. Silent operas and operettas are nothing like talkie musicals.

    I wonder if German film musicals (and operas) were an influence, since Hindi silent film was very German-influenced. Viktor und Viktoria has some songs of which it’s unclear if they are diagetic or not and I’m sure other Weimar era movies do. Later Soviet musicals do, too, and I know they were very influenced by Soviet film too, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Soviet musical from the 30s (disappointing, I know).

    That dance book I bought has a section on 1930s Hindi film dances though so I will soon know more.

    I always compare Hindi movies to opera, not American musicals. It’s weird how people who look down on non-diagetic song sequences have nothing to say about opera.

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    • I would also disagree that there was no real film industry before sound. You don’t really see an industry like in the US in other countries during the silent era, and I don’t think a film industry has to resemble that to be considered stable or legitimate.

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      • I said! I said you would say “A Throw of the Dice”!!!!! I don’t care, this is the hill I will die on and have stuck with my whole Indian film analysis career. There is colonial Indian film and post-colonial Indian film. Yes, film existed in the colonial era, there were even studios and stars and songs, but it didn’t fully come of age and flourish and be what we know it is today until after 1947. Margaret’s Theory of Indian Film: 1947 is the start, everything else is the prequel.

        On Fri, Mar 5, 2021 at 11:16 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • I haven’t seen A Throw of the Dice and I don’t know why I’d mention it.

          You can feel that way but I’ve never seen a silent film historian say that Indian silent film is somehow less than other silent film or than post-colonial Indian film. Yes, very little of it survives, and even less of it has been restored partly because of this idea that because it’s colonial it’s somehow less, but we have that problem for many countries. It actually started very early and had feature length films very early, and if more of it had survived it would have really taught us a lot about film history.

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          • A Throw of the Dice is a silent film, and was the first big hit of Bombay Talkies teaming with Franz Osten. So yes, it proves your point, of course there was Indian film in the silent era and of course there were silent Indian films. The Indiancine.ma website has a lot of them.

            My argument, which is possibly unique to me I don’t know, is that Indian film didn’t really start going until post-colonialism. It existed before, but because of the censorship, industrial restrictions, lack of funding, and competition from foreign films, it was a whole different thing than what it became post-Independence. It’s not just the number of silent films that have survived to the modern era, it’s the number of films that were even made pre-Independence as the British tried to limit production so harshly. So, I draw a line between the two eras. Not that they didn’t influence each other, but the same way I would draw a line between American and European films. Yes, they influenced each other, they watched each other, but the development is different. It’s very different to be making a film under enormous restrictions and lack of money and competition during the colonial era, from making a a film during the post-Independence era when the market is almost all in your favor.

            On Fri, Mar 5, 2021 at 1:13 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I know, but why that one and not Shiraz or the other one?

            Silent film is not really seen as proper film by many, depending on what the reigning idea is at any given point in time. Plus it also suffered in many countries from various governments who decided the stories it told didn’t agree with their version of history, and who destroyed it deliberately. Just look at the extreme mess Chinese silent film is. And I’ve seen that with Indian film too, because it doesn’t agree with their idea of a “true” Indian cinema.

            Sure it’s different, but it was still an industry. It produced more movies than all of China did, where the silent era lasted ten years longer.

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    • Yes! Opera! I am sure we have read the same Hindi film history books that all say that Hindi film came out of the Parsi theater tradition, which sounds way way more like Opera’s than like musicals. Big sets, big spectacle, big song and dance, plot not super connected.

      On Fri, Mar 5, 2021 at 10:52 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Funny! The one time I actually went to the opera, I was sitting with another Hindi film fan. And when Figaro started measuring out his apartment or something, we both looked at each other and thought: SRK in Paheli! The experience very much reminded both of us of Hindi movies. I just tend to like the Indian music better.

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  3. Reading about how the movies developed independently of broadway, but then “lost it’s mind and decided that what would save it was recreating Broadway, but onscreen.” I can’t help thinking of how it then went full circle with the Disney cartoon movie musicals being adapted for stage and running for years on Broadway.

    In the before times we had a surprisingly active local theater group, and they would put on one to two musicals a year. I remember being shocked when I saw a local production of The Wizard of Oz, somehow I had this idea that the play and the movie would be different. But nope, they faithfully re-created the movie on the stage. It was like watching the TV, except no close-ups. And even after that, when I saw our Chicago, I was shocked, that it was the movie Chicago, not ya know, anything different. I now know that is what I will see when I go to a play, I will see the movie, on stage, and yet I keep hoping for something different.

    Indian movies clearly give me something different. The only people I know who refer to them as musicals, are people who have never watched them.

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    • Ha! that is funny! you are right, it went from movies stealing Broadway shows to Broadway shows stealing from movies.

      We had an active local theater group in the town where I grew up, but it was really a small city. Which meant the group was big and serious enough to think it was better than it was. I would have far preferred a small unambitious “we know what we are” kind of group.

      Also, have you watched Waiting for Guffman?

      On Fri, Mar 5, 2021 at 10:56 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  4. Oh oh, I have a question. Even though silent films weren’t musical, they were accompanied by music, though not songs, but more like using music to emphasize emotions and punctuate scenes. (Thinking about this because in Watchmen one character’s mother is the pianist in the family movie house in 1921 Tulsa, and we’ve gone to see a couple of silent films with the kids – Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd – that had live piano or organ accompaniment.) Did silent era films in India have musical accompaniment? Where do you think that music fits in the lineage?

    Anyway, thanks for sharing the lecture in your head with us. Perfect use of the blog, flexing your film history cred to a non-captive, self-selected audience :). Now I want to show There’s No Business Like Show Business to the boys.

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    • I honestly have no idea if silent films in India had accompaniment! I would assume yes because they played at theaters that 90% of the time were showing Western films, and Western films had accompaniment.

      My sister and I watched There’s No Business Like Show Business when we were about the same age as your boys, and Donald O’Connor drunk scared us, and Marilyn Monroe sexy scared us more. So yes, show it to them! And then tell me if they have the same reaction!

      On Fri, Mar 5, 2021 at 11:28 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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