Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The pause that recharges…”

Like we take breaks in life, shouldn’t films be allowed to take breaks through songs? Um, yes and no..

In my review of the Tamil film Maattrraan, I complained about the songs that were squeezed into inopportune moments. “Imagine this situation. You are in a country where you don’t speak the language. The person who was assisting you in your quest has just become collateral damage, blown to bits by a car bomb. Would you duck, soon after, into a nightclub and shake a leg with a few dozen belly dancers?” And one reader wrote in: “Why should movies settle on a mood when life doesn’t seem to? Let me give you an example — suppose you are a writer or a researcher working on something really important to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t take breaks in between and browse a couple of websites etc. In fact, the very act of taking that pause might help you to rechargeyour energies and avoid burnout. In my own experience as a researcher I take a break every 15 minutes or so… Why can’t you view a song for what it is… just a pause — an entertaining pause, where you can relax and recharge your energies.”

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There are two categories of people who complain against songs in our cinema. The first kind of audience doesn’t care for songs at all. They would like nothing better than to see musical sequences abolished, like in Hollywood. Their logic is that we don’t sing and dance in real life – at least, those of us who aren’t singers and dancers – and so it’s “unrealistic” when these stretches appear on screen. The second type of viewer likes musical sequences, but flinches when they kill the mood of the movie. A lot of Hindi films, these days, feature a song over the closing credits, and this is usually an exuberant number – because this is the song that’s used in the promotions, and no one wants to promote their film with a dirge. This is fine if the film is a comedy, or even a drama with a happy ending – but a problem in a delicate relationship triangle like Cocktail, which ends on a bittersweet note. The infectious Second hand jawani number comes up as we’re walking out of the theatre, and the earlier ending is rendered meaningless. We feel sorry for the screenwriter who must have struggled to arrive at a balance between the various emotions of the characters, only to find that the muted mood he wanted to leave us with, by the film’s end, is not the mood we’re walking out with, thanks to this bouncy music video shot in vibrant colours.

And as I stated in my review of Maattrraan, there’s the problem of songs within the film too. Another reader, in response to the first reader’s comment had this to say: “Perhaps a Western heavy diet of films makes it that much harder for me to switch tracks when an abrupt tonal change takes place.” The point isn’t about being weaned on the Hollywood (i.e. songless) model of filmmaking, but about the tonal change taking place. Had the same song, in Maattrraan, been presented as a dream – maybe the heroine’s – it may have been slightly more palatable. At least, we wouldn’t have to make the tonal leap between a tragedy from a car bomb to a seemingly callous hero, who has, so quickly, shed memories of his friend and is now dancing in a nightclub. His ostensible reason for slipping into this nightclub is to interrogate a dancer, so couldn’t the number still have taken place, as shown, while this simmering hero sat a table, waiting for a chance to corner this dancer?

That way, we have the big, splashy song, and yet, we haven’t violated the hero’s mental trajectory and made him look ridiculous. This is all I’m saying. The first reader says something very true when he points out that we take breaks in life, and that songs should be treated like a break. But there’s a difference between taking a break with a cup of tea or a stroll on the beach, after a couple of hours at the computer, and opting to go bungee jumping. That’s the level of mood-switching we’re talking about here, and that’s the problem – not the song itself. It’s the same with comedy. It’s an invaluable tool to relieve tension in a dramatic narrative, but the comedy should be organically woven into the story, maintaining the same mood. Movies are a highly compressed form of life, so maintaining a mood becomes all the more important – because you’re selecting only those parts of the story that you feel are relevant to the audience. You’re not showing it all, like how it happens in life. So the “breaks” have to come naturally.

I keep coming back to this word – mood – because the job of a film is to evoke an emotion, and that emotion is evoked through mood. Unless, of course, the film isn’t to be taken seriously at any level – and some may argue that, despite all the heavy-duty drama and message-mongering, something like Maattrraan isn’t to be taken seriously at all – or the film is something arty and experimental, where playing around with mood is the whole point. But in mainstream films, a song has to be led up to, both in terms of the story (i.e. what was the event that led the hero to find himself inside this musical stretch?) and in terms of emotion and mood (i.e. what was he feeling just before the song, and does this song change this mood, or does it just play on around the mood he’s in?). Too often, we hear something like “oh this is all just masala anyway, so we shouldn’t take it so seriously.” But that’s just settling for less, refusing to acknowledge that even art has accountability.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2012 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

26 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “The pause that recharges…”

  1. That was a great piece, I loved it. I wish we could do away with song and dance sequences from our movies. They are ridiculous and I hate them. Hindi movies are slowly moving towards that but Tamil movies can’t seem to do without them.

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  2. ah.. Writing about Cinema. This is where you’re home at. I guess reviews sort of cramp your style.

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  3. Sometimes I really appreciate how songs blend into movies like a background score(English vinglish).. The lyrics convey the emotions and help the movie propel forward without being dramatic… But a song like venpaniye in KO is rubbish. It cannot be justified as a break because we have invested in the mood and the song comes a slap in the face..a distraction..a deviation which kills the plot!
    I think for a director to be successfull commercially he has to acknowledge the crucial placement of songs in the screenplay. Calling it a meaningful pause is a excuse and a lame one at that.

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  4. Do you remember Charlie Chaplin doing the nonsense song (mime) in Modern Times? He was in dire straits but he broke into a song. A vulgar, witty, wordless, belly-shaking funny one at that. If you ask modern commercial film makers whether it was necessary there, they would have said, hey no, how can a man sing so well when he is hungry and broke? The girl’s song was enough. Just make him a manager, a very sharp one with great acumen while you are at that. But Chaplin sang. And was then was liked by the audience. Standing ovation!, he just HAD to run away from the cops, though.Ahhh, thats cinema then. You take some, you leave some. :)
    And what would we have done…”ye duniya ke rakhwaale, dardbhare………………….???!” Indian sensibilities can also break into a song-dance, cant we?

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  5. But there’s a difference between taking a break with a cup of tea or a stroll on the beach, after a couple of hours at the computer, and opting to go bungee jumping. That’s the level of mood-switching we’re talking about here, and that’s the problem – not the song itself.

    ah,,,you hit the nail there, B. Songs wedded to portions of a movie in the most unlyrical way so as to spoil the mood of the film might as well be the mighty common trait of the masala template. But getting that right alone wouldnt render anything fruitful for the viewer to stay invested to the mood of the film i think. 99.99% of our masala films, atleast the vijay,surya kind, doesnt have any “mood” to speak of

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  6. I belong to the second group of audience you described – I love love love songs in movies, but, they need to come at a correct time or ‘mood’ as you so correctly mention. My reason for wanting them in movies even if ‘we don’t have them in life’ is: But we do have them in our lives – in our heads when we are happy, in the community during festivals, in a group when friends play Antakshari or make up parodies for teasing, in a social function as in a party or a marriage when they are either played as background or performed by family members…really, if we say songs don’t happen in ‘real life’, especially for Indians, we are probably shutting out a big part of the way we experience moments. And there is so much that is conveyed through a song the way a dialogue would make it sound kitschy – for e.g. the ‘Dilli’ song in No one killed Jessica, or the ‘Are re Are’ song in Dil Toh Pagal Hai, either by the visuals as in ‘Kun Faya Kun’ or by the lyrics.
    I think Hindi movies are slowly moving towards correct placement in a way, but they slip up once in a while, and now that slip up is mostly with the end credit song, especially when they feature ‘dead’ characters dancing. I like it when extended song sequences are rightly broken in with dialogues and the movement of the story is not made to ‘wait’ till the song gets over – for e.g. when a shooter at a bar waits for the Hero to complete his dancing before he is fired at :D.

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  7. It’s rare to find an Indian film where it is clear that the filmmakers have looked at the film as a whole, rather than a collection of elements. This idea of sustaining tension or a mood, or building to something hardly seems to exist!

    The typical masala films are usually less than the sum of their very disparate parts. Hindi cinema has mostly gotten rid of comedy tracks, but they persist in the South. I’ve given up on the idea of songs as an indispensable extension of dialogue. I’m resigned to the fact that they’ll mostly be well-produced bits of a movie during which it is perfectly safe to take bathroom breaks or, if you are at home, hit the “next chapter” button on your remote. Sorry, filmmakers who travel to Thailand and Switzerland to shoot songs, you just made me an expensive pee break :-)

    The way most films integrate song/comedy breaks is like a surgeon grabbing a beer in the middle of an operation. Not only inorganic, but completely wrong.

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  8. Raj Balakrishnan: Reg. “Hindi movies are slowly moving towards that…” Why do you say that? Maybe they use them well (most recent example being the excellent “Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana”), but when was the last time you saw a Hindi film without a song?

    Apu” “But we do have them in our lives — in our heads when we are happy… if we say songs don’t happen in ‘real life’, especially for Indians, we are probably shutting out a big part of the way we experience moments.” Ah, lovely. Exactly how I feel about music/songs in general :-)

    Ravi K: In my book “Conversations with Mani Ratnam”, I’ve devoted a lot of space to discussions about songs — how they’re shot, how they’re conceived, how they’re “philosophised”…

    And ROFL at the surgeon/beer bit.

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  9. B, thanks for expanding on this theme. Count me as one of those who wants to do away with songs in (Indian) movies entirely unless it’s in the background to set a mood as opposed to what it does today which is kill it entirely. Another recent example for me was Ayan which I watched because I was too brain-dead to see anything even remotely stimulating mentally. A movie breathtaking in it’s mediocrity, heralding the arrival of yet another Hack Extraordinaire to join the hallowed pantheons of K.S.Ravi Kumar and Hari. The SOLE interesting feature in this snooze-fest was the subversion of the traditional comedy relief/sidekick character who comes to a rather dark and gruesome end here with his corpse incinerated by the hero who is subsequently arrested. When hero is released, his reunion with his lover, who happens to be the sister of his now deceased and charred friend, a moment fraught with tension, anxiety and heartbreak is then beautifully rendered….via an instant cut to a dream duet somewhere in the mountains. Ah, L’Amour!

    Or, as you say, if you’re gonna use songs in a dream sequence, it should come with the type of inventive choreography that makes the tune memorable (Shivaji’s Athiradi Kadhal number with it’s wild and inventive riff on Desperado is what filmakers should be aspiring to. Ironically, it’s a song I can’t stand listening to as a CD track but whose picturization I can re-watch many times) .

    Which brings me to the second reason why I’ve almost completely gone off song scenes in Tamil movies: the lacklustre choreography with done-to-death steps and movements. When even so-called romantic duets require the sudden apparition of 25 back up dancers to underscore a loving pair’s intimacy (Baby, all I wanna do is be with you and you only, and the 2 dozen half naked white chicks gyrating seductively behind us will attest to that fact), then it’s time for this circus to pack up it’s tents and leave town.

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  10. I have always felt that Rajeev Menon has been deft at handling songs. All his songs, either dreamy or a conversation (Strawberry Kanne) or both (Sutrum Vizhi Chudar), are always without exception are very well made. When such a thing happens, it helps the audience in getting into the mood better. Whereas things like the “Ayan” moment that Kay Kay describes are on the opposite side of the spectrum – bad clothes, randomly scenic locations and terrible choreography!

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  11. Baradwaj, I meant there are at least couple of them like Kahaani which don’t have song and dance sequences or use songs in the background. Maybe going forward the market for such movies may expand. Whereas in Tamil cinema, even the realistic ones cannot do without song and dance sequences.

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  12. A good example of songs fitting in organically is Nayagan….be it Née our kadhal, Nee sirithal or Andhi varai. Even Nila athu fits in quite well, given that its supposedly an item number.

    Generally, I love to listen to music seperately, preferably in the confines of my car. It allows me to appreciate the intricacies. As for music while watching films, I do pay attention to the background score and its impact to a scene. But I’m pretty ambivalent about songs in films. I know most directors botch it up, so why even expect then? Just my 2c.

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  13. And also Hindi movies are moving towards intelligent placement of songs like in vicky donor, band baja baraat, etc. I haven’t seen chicken khurana yet.

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  14. “In my book “Conversations with Mani Ratnam”, I’ve devoted a lot of space to discussions about songs — how they’re shot, how they’re conceived, how they’re “philosophised”…”

    Baradwaj, I ordered the book a few days ago and I can’t wait to read it. I’ve felt that for a while now, Mani Ratnam has included songs as a necessary evil, and in a film like Guru he seems to not really want them there at all. I look forward to reading what he has to say.

    WRT South Indian films, the songs in Aadukalam were integrated fairly well, and not lip-synched. “Otha Sollala” has Dhanush dancing in the streets, but it feels spontaneous and is emotionally motivated.

    Guru Dutt did away with the musical preludes to most of his songs, so that the characters jumped from dialogue right into song. A reintroduction of this technique could reinvigorate the usage of songs in films so that they’re not just music video speedbreakers.

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  15. Talking about organically blending your songs into parts of a story, Virumandi is the movie that first comes to my mind which i think, with no slightest exaggeration, is the pinnacle of placing songs in the most realistic sense, among many many other things it is a pinnacle of.

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  16. BR – Since you have mentioned ‘Kaal Mulatha Pove’ from Maatraan as a song that was an apt example of song placement gone wrong, I thought you should have cared to mention ‘Naani Koni’, the ‘dream song’ from the same film picturized in exotic locations as an instance done right.

    I thought it was a welcome distraction on the lines of Amali Thumali from Ko. A pleasant foreign song. Some of the locations were breathtaking. The way they incorporated Akilan’s character constantly in the background was interesting. Did you like it?

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  17. Mambazha Manidhan: No, I didn’t care for that picturisation. I liked the IDEA very much though. What would it be like if they were two people? And how would one of them react as the other one went about romancing this girl? Fantastic idea. But the minute you do “dance steps” choreography, the song becomes something else. You can’t take it seriously. This sort of emotion — to be truly expressed — needed “mood moments” choreography.

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  18. Tried searching for a discussion on Pizza in some of the comments-to-posts, didn’t find it. So, am assuming there isn’t one … yet.

    But, if you haven’t watched it yet, you definitely should – brilliant movie!

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  19. Rangan, another angle here is the expectation from songs for a first time listener(you??) i.e. when watching the movie versus someone already who has already had repeated hearings of the album(me) and is eager to watch their picturisation. In the former case it could be an unpalatable intrusion whereas in the latter scenario, I didn’t really care for the way the song blends, I was eager to see how the song is going to be presented to the extent that I wasn’t concerned much with the rest of the movie itself and I was happy seeing Naani Koni or Kaal Mulaitha Poove on the big screen.

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  20. I was wondering how you would respond, if at all, to that guy’s comment about songs being like real-life breaks. Thought that he had a totally different perspective.

    “But getting that right alone wouldnt render anything fruitful for the viewer to stay invested to the mood of the film i think. 99.99% of our masala films, atleast the vijay,surya kind, doesnt have any “mood” to speak of”
    And that’s why a lot of our makkals just treat it as a rejuvenating break I guess. I mean, they probably already know that it is just around the corner while watching the film.

    To me songs are more irksome in a movie like Vinnaithaandi varuvaaya, especially the first half, most of them picturized in the same way with Simbu and a bunch of dancers in some foreign locale doing the same steps over and over again and pretty much stalling the film.

    But then on the other hand the music fan in me feels for a guy like Rahman when he makes something like Rehna Tu and it is used as just a bit in a background piece

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  21. Sir, can we have a blog about your thoughts on ARR’s unplugged performance that have captured the imagination of all his fans…

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  22. I am like the commenter who says that our lives are full of songs – I remember a quote (most probably from a movie) – we have songs for all situations from birth to death. One of the best placement of songs was Poo Pookkum osai – peppy number that reflected the character and placed naturally in the movie.

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  23. Actually i’d love to see songs in hollywood films. Maybe in an item song in an irish tavern or even something like the small jig di caprio and winslet did in titanic. Or even if it really has to be an iconic journey song. Actually absurd songs would do as well.

    It means i can go out to take a leak during them or take a break and catch a breath, especially in a film like INCEPTION where i was clueless from beginning to end.

    Of course the reason i hate songs in our films is because i dont see the point of it (for me, personally). I dont need to wait for a song to walk out of a theatre for a popcorn or a phone call. I can do that during a fight scene, a villain monologue, the tacky heroine cajoling moments or even a forced comedy placement. Hell, i can even arrive 10 minutes late just in time to see the establishment shot of a temple with “directed by” appearing next to it with the sound of bells in the background.

    And even in a hindi/tamil film sans all these options, i can walk out, come back and understand what’s going on.

    And im still someone who doesn’t possess the intellectual capacity to comprehend an INCEPTION on the first watch.

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