Emotion capture

Posted on November 14, 2015


A quick trip through the nine moods – nava rasas – of the Indian film song.

Which song would you pick as a depiction of Śṛungāram (Love)? There are hundreds. Abhi na jaao chhod kar, for instance. He’s saying don’t leave me yet, the heart hasn’t had its fill of you. She protests. It’s late. The stars are out. If I don’t leave now, I never will. Tune, lyrics, star charisma – everything fuses together to explain why we, in our movies, love the musical interlude. But Abhi na jaao is still a fairly straightforward love song. Consider, on the other hand, Dhoondho dhoondho re sajana from Gunga Jumna. It’s about love, yes, but also something else. Those days, you couldn’t show sex on screen, so here’s the next best thing – the implication of sex. It’s the morning after the wedding night. The heroine’s earring is caught on the hero’s kurta. She’s looking for it, singing about it, dancing around it. It’s a marvellous example of communication through non-verbal (i.e. non-dialogue) means – between characters, between characters and audience.

That’s what a musical interlude is about, though the American critic Pauline Kael might have disagreed. Her idea of a musical was something like Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, where the numbers are mounted as stage performances, commenting on the action, instead of having people on the streets, say, burst into song. She wrote, “Cabaret violates the wholesome approach of big musicals… It violates the pseudo-naturalistic tradition – the Oklahoma!-South Pacific-West Side Story tradition, which requires that the songs appear to grow organically out of the story.” But we revel in this “pseudo-naturalistic tradition” – when done right, our songs grow organically from the script. Take Yeh dosti (Sholay) and Sar jo tera chakraye (Pyaasa). These songs come about because it’s time – in the script – to establish these characters, who they are, what they do. Yeh dosti even introduces the coin toss, which will go on to become a major narrative device. The mood in these songs? Hāsyam (Laughter).

A few weeks ago, I got a letter saying that the students of Davidson College, North Carolina, USA, were in Chennai for their Semester Abroad program. This included a series of lectures for a course titled Cognition of the Performing Arts, India. (I guess Indian Performing Arts didn’t sound forbidding enough for a college course costing tens of thousands.) The organisers asked me to present something about (their words) “creating mood through music and songs in Indian films.” I decided to take the navarasa route – showing them songs that conformed to the nine dominant emotions of Indian art, especially dance. To my mind, it was as good an accordion approach as any.

Whenever faced with a non-Indian audience, I am in two minds. Should I ease them into Indian cinema, with examples that are somewhat like the films they are used to? Or should I kick them into the deep end, with hardcore mainstream-cinema clips, to impress on them how thoroughly different our cinema, our culture is? I did the latter with a German media delegation, who wanted a whistle-stop tour of Indian cinema. I showed them clips from Benegal, Raj Kapoor, Ray, and also our amman (goddess) movies and snake-worship films (Vellikizhamai Viratham). The latter made them sit up. They’ve seen some form of Benegal/Ray/Kapoor – either the films themselves or the style of filmmaking – but they’ve never seen a cobra performing action-hero moves to save the husband of a snake-worshipper from a glass of poisoned milk. They laughed at first. At some level, it is ridiculous. But then we got talking about traditions and myths and cultural symbols, and it grew into a great discussion.

But songs pose a bigger challenge than kung-fu cobras. The musical is practically extinct in Hollywood, and modern-day viewers find it odd that an orchestra erupts out of nowhere and the singers are perfectly in sync and everyone knows the steps. Audiences find it difficult to wrap their mind around the fact that though this isn’t “natural,” it’s still “real” within the context of the film. Take Tu bin bataye (Rang De Basanti). I picked this as an example of Śāntam (Peace), because it’s a tranquil interlude at this point in the screenplay, before the students begin to wage war. I love the placement of this song. Madhavan has just proposed to Soha Ali Khan. The friends are crazy-happy. This beautiful tune comes on, making us smile with them – and we carry this emotion into the second half, only to have it destroyed, bit by agonising bit. Take this song away, and you have a very different movie.

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I had a lot of fun “researching” for this talk, which, in my line of work, means spending hours with YouTube. For Kāruṇyam (Compassion), I picked O duniya ke rakhwale (Baiju Bawra). Bharat Bhushan. Glycerine. Enough said. For Raudram (Fury), I chose Jee karda (Badlapur), which also illustrates the “promotional music video” aspect of our songs. It gives us a glimpse into what the film is about – the mood, the characters, the newspaper headline that gives away a bit of plot. For Bhayānakam (Horror), I picked Jhoom jhoom dhalti raat (Kohraa), a terrific instance of mood-creation through song. Waheeda Rehman’s terror is depicted through the piercing deliberateness of the composition, and through visuals that contrast her smallness with the enormity of the malevolent mansion. It helped that the film is a remake of Rebecca, so you can see how prose like that can be moulded to the Indian format of prose-poetry, with songs doing some of the storytelling.

For Veeram (Heroism), instead of showing songs about valour, I opted for Tattad tattad (Goliyon ki Ras-Leela Ram Leela) and Dil cheez kya hai (Umrao Jaan) – the former a hero-introduction song, the latter a heroine-introduction song. This is, after all, a unique Indian tradition, to have the hero/heroine make their first appearance in a song sequence. Adbhutam (Wonder) was easy. I chose the title song of Chaudhvin Ka Chand, where Guru Dutt gazes in wonderment at (the sleeping) Waheeda Rehman, something that people might find creepy today – as these students did. Another Guru Dutt song – Yeh mehlon (Pyaasa) – raised its hand as an instant candidate for Bībhatsam (Disgust). What is this number if not an expression of disgust for the world we are trapped in? For Bhakti (Devotion), I chose Illaadadondrum illai, the magnificent TR Mahalingam prayer from Thiruvilayadal. You may have noticed that this is the only non-Hindi number in the playlist. With reason. It’s the only one I could find with subtitles – so I’m going to end with one of my favourite rants. Increasing numbers of non-Indians are beginning to look at Indian cinema. Ignore subtitles at your own peril.

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