Bollywood song and dance sequences Lagaan and the role of music in Bollywood cinema by Christian Hayes
Clearly one of the most distinctive aspects of popular Indian cinema is its music. In this
essay I will look at the function of music in Bollywood cinema, using Lagaan (Ashutosh
Gowariker, 2001) as an example and exploring how the device of the song-and-dance
reveals illuminating aspects of Bollywood cinema culture, such as Bollywood cinema’s
relationship to its audience as well as its wider position within society.
The music industry in India is firmly bound to the film industry since the songs
and music from Bollywood’s films makes up 80% of the music sales of the entire
country.5 As a result, cinema infiltrates the cultural and social spaces of India through its
music. Its music shops are filled with a myriad of music from cinema, indexed via
director, star, films, genres, and decades (amongst other categories). India’s music shops do not favour present from past, instead representing the entire history of sound film in music recordings.6 If sold alongside a large selection of video and DVD, this must
represent a historical treasure-trove of Indian film in one location. Outside of such
consumer spaces, music is just as much alive: in the streets, music comes from market
stalls, taxis and auto-rickshaws. It is even used for more organised occasions such as
weddings, elections and religious events.7 In India, therefore, cinema plays beyond the
cinema screens and television sets which on the whole constrict films in the West, and
inadvertently is transported through its music into its homes, streets and cities.
It was with the innovation of sound, reaching Indian cinema in 1931, that allowed
the fusion of cinema and music to occur from the very beginning.8 That since then almost every film has contained songs sung by its characters makes India’s silent cinema seem like a dark-age that only served to delay the natural transition from the folk music of pre- cinema to the merging of music with film in the all-singing sound era.
A film without music in Bollywood is seen as conflicting with the mainstream, whereas in contemporary Hollywood musicals are scarce and serve to remind filmgoers of what was a once popular genre. In this respect, the comparison between Hollywood and Bollywood presents us with oppositional industry practices, and, as we shall see, different kinds of audiences.
I will now look at the function of music within the films themselves, using Lagaan (2001) as an example. Lagaan is a particularly high-profile Bollywood film that
received a kind of acceptance in the West when it was nominated for Best Foreign film at the 2002 Acadamy Awards and was a huge success in domestic and foreign markets. This film contains six songs along with a composed score that appears regularly throughout. In an attempt to define the function of songs in Bollywood cinema, Tejaswini
Ganti tells us that, ‘To those unfamiliar with popular Hindi cinema, song sequences seem to be ruptures in continuity and verisimilitude. However, rather than being an extraneous feature, music and song in popular cinema define and propel plot development.’
According to this definition, then, songs have a narrative function: to aid the story on its
course. I would argue that this definition would apply for certain examples but that songs serves several different functions at once. Firstly, the songs do not always aid plot development. In Lagaan, The villagers of the film are experiencing a drought and are unable to grow enough food unless the rains come. The first song, which appears about thirty minutes into the film, occurs when the villagers see heavy clouds coming in the distance and they break into a celebratory song and dance. It would seem as though a significant plot point is occurring: that the drought is ending and their situation, and the film’s plot, is changing direction. Yet as the song ends, the skies clear and it becomes apparent that the villagers sang too soon. The arrival of the clouds, therefore, is a kind of bluff for both the villagers and the audience. The coming of the clouds and the celebratory song suggests that the story is moving forward, but by the end of the song, their situation has not changed for the better nor for the worse.
This song must have other functions, then, if it is not aiding the narrative. There is
a sense that this song occurs for its own sake, almost because this is a Bollywood film
and this is what is expected. It would therefore be a celebration of song and dance itself,
an uplifting and joyous indulgence. Yet it has further purpose than this. If it does not have a narrative purpose, then it does serve to define character; in this case, of the villagers as a whole, as a close-knit and passionate community and the passion with which they sing reaffirms the sheer importance of the coming rain and how essential it is for the villagers. The story makes sure to position the rain, food and lagaan (the tax they are forced to pay) as life or death situations for the villagers.
Talking about the difference between Hollywood and Bollywood musicals, critics
Gokulsing and Dissanayake write that, whereas Hollywood filmmakers strove to conceal the constructed nature of their work so that the realistic narrative was wholly dominant, Indian filmmakers made no attempt to conceal the fact that what was shown on the screen was a creation, an illusion, a fiction.
This suggests that Bollywood cinema is self-conscious, aware of itself and its audience.
The song and dance sequences, then, break from the realism of the film and exists within a different set of rules. This shift between different modes of realism causes the film to become aware of its own illusionary machinations. The audience must by now understand this break in realism, causing a relationship between the film and the audience that differs from the Hollywood norm. In the second song of Lagaan, for example, the actors line up as though on a stage, clearly performing directly for an audience: the audience sitting in the cinema. At another point Amir Khan’s character Bhuvan looks directly into the camera while singing. This reveals a direct relationship between the film and its audience, a sense of the audience being explicitly shown something by the actors on the screen.
It is Rachel Dwyer and Divia Patel that make the connection between Bollywood
cinema and Tom Gunning’s theories of the cinema of attraction. However, they do not
explore this connection in any detail. In relation to Gunning’s theory of the cinema of
attractions, Bollywood song and dance sequences are temporally very interesting.
Gunning, talking about the mini-spectacles of early cinema, writes:
“In effect, attractions have one basic temporality, that of the alternation of
presence/absence that is embodied in each act of display. In this intense form of
present tense, the attraction is displayed with the immediacy of a “Here it is! Look
“Here it is! Look at it” is exactly what Amir Khan is doing when he looks into the
camera, willing the audience to watch the spectacle unfolding before them. There is also a sense, however, that temporally, these songs do not ‘unfold’ but occur in the ‘intense form of present tense’ that Gunning mentions.
The forth song of the film demonstrates this. In this song the love triangle between the hero, Bhuvan (Aamir Khan), Gauri (Gracy Singh) the village girl, and Elizabeth (Elizabeth Russell) the English sister of the villainous Captain Russell, is emphasised. The narrative does appear to halt for this sequence to be carried out. Within the sequence, we witness a temporal, as well as spatial, freedom, as the film cuts between Bhuvan and Gauri in the daytime, and Elizabeth in both the day and night time, as well as to fantasies of Elizabeth as one of the villagers, and Bhuvan as one of the English aristocracy dancing with Elizabeth at a ball. Within this, the location and the characters’ costumes change between shots, making clear that the rules and logic of realism that govern the narrative sequences of the films are not adhered to. This turns the sequence into a fantasy that merges the psychological perspectives of three different characters at once. Cutting between different locations, costumes, and possibly even different perspectives, would not appear out of place in a Hollywood montage or even a European art film. Yet the fact that the characters are singing diegetically to non-diegetic music whilst moving across disparate locations fuses contradictory temporal logic together. This contradicts the temporal rules of the narrative
sequences, and since the narrative stops for this fantasy (which freely commands space
temporarily frozen and has no say, in other words, in the ‘intense form of the present
tense’ that Gunning talks about. Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan, discussing the relationship between Indian audiences and the films on-screen, says that the audience fully understands this break in reality and it is openly accepted that they must suspend their disbelief. The filmmakers too, then, fully understand the liberties of song and dance sequences. This translates into the film itself wherein it becomes self-conscious of itself as a film, inadvertently commenting on the illusionary nature of cinema in an almost playful way. One would not expect to find such self-reflexivity in a cinema so intent on creating pure entertainment. Many respected auteurs of world cinema have attempted the same kind of self-reflexivity in their films, such as Godard’s turning the camera in on itself in Le Mépris (1963) or characters discussing the very scene they are in and looking at the camera in Pierrot leFou (1965), or even Abbas Kiarostami’s video epilogue to A Taste of Cherry (1997), showing the crew on set making the film we have just seen. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5LPMtTdaJM&feature=mfu_in_order&list=UL)Except that Bollywood cinema does not achieve this in such a self-conscious, purposeful way; it is a byproduct of a system that has been established over time. Bollywood, then, is positioned some way between the realism and continuity that Hollywood maintains and the extremes of the avant-garde.
This direct relationship between the screen and the audience extends to outside of
the films themselves. Sutanu Gupta, a Bollywood screenwriter, talking about how much
harder he believes it is to write a Bollywood screenplay than a Hollywood screenplay,
said in an interview that, audiences have a very set belief that the kind of entertainment which is given in cinema should be containing everything – they should see part of family life; they should see romance; they should have songs; they want everything! Which becomes very difficult. At the same time they hate hodge-podge films. They want
to know what is the emphasis – whether it’s an action film, a thriller, a revenge, or a ghost or a love story.
There is certainly a sense that Bollywood is quick to appease the demand of the audience, that their desire is translated by the filmmakers directly to their cinema screens, suggesting a communicative relationship between audience and filmmakers. Yet this discerning of what the audience wants must have been established over many years, and, like Hollywood, it appears as though it is their main priority to make sure the
entertainment they produce fulfils every desire and in this way makes the experience as
purely entertaining as possible. It almost seems appropriate to mention Richard Dyer’s
article ‘Entertainment and Utopia’ here, as though Bollywood cinema fulfils every
incomplete desire that their audience has and presents it to them on-screen over and over again. Yet in light of this, cinema in India serves a very vital purpose. Director Aditya Chopra tells us about the importance of cinema in society:
Here, the common man, his ultimate dream, is escapism, is to watch films…
That’s his ultimate, because you’re dealing to a country of have-nots…people
here who work throughout the day, earn daily wages, and probably skip a meal to
see a film! So he has the right to take his films very seriously and he does take his
films very seriously, so that’s why [the filmmakers] need to take it very
The intense popularity of the cinema in India, then, stems from the vital position of
cinema in people’s lives. Cinema functions as an escapism, as an entertainment and as thedominant cultural form (in place of theatre or opera), and as we have seen, the very
reason for this is the pleasure and spectacle that the audience derive from its musical
sequences. It is this vital position of cinema in people’s lives that lead to the popularity of music outside of the cinema since it reminds its listeners of being back in the cinema;
they are going to the movies vicariously through the music. This also explains why even
though, as screenwriter Sutanu Gupta mentioned earlier, audiences demand genre films, the genre is always also a musical. With the audience’s appetite for musicals, diversity in Bollywood cinema can only go so far.
Cinema also takes up much television air-time with a variety of film programmes,
mainly centred around the music. Shows that, for example, play only the musical scenes of films, and even film-music game shows It would appear, then, that Bollywood