Sun, 23 Mar 2003

Songs and dances in Indian movies: Love `em or hate `em

Fransiska Anggraini, Contributor, Jakarta

Let me down easy/No big song and dance. (Tell Me on a Sunday from Song and Dance, a musical composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber.)

That would describe what would happen to an Indian audience if they did not find a bit of song and dance in their biggest form of entertainment ever, AKA Bollywood movies, which are never complete without loads of singing and dancing. In fact, movies without those two elements would surely flop with an Indian market.

Singing and dancing are essential elements that make up Indian movies and determine their success in the local market. Like a habit that is hard to break, they distinguish between Indian and non-Indian movies.

Indian movies have become a global phenomenon, loved and hated by millions of non-Indians.

In Indonesia, ever since Kuch Kuch Hota Hai played in high-end cinema chain 21 Cineplex reached an unexpectedly huge success in 1999, local TV stations have aired more and more Hindi movies.

Nowadays, whenever you turn on your TV, whether in the morning, afternoon or during prime time, there would be a three- to four-hour Indian movie that never fails to include a number of love songs and colossal choreographed dances involving large numbers of dancers.

Some cynics opine that watching an Indian movie feels like having seen them all, for they all carry similar storylines. Only the casts, costumes, choreography and the song lyrics are different.

Indians, however, are crazy about love stories (aren't we all?) and that is what their movies are all about. In fact, though being generously forgiving about repetitive storylines, Indian viewers will likely reject movies that have no originality in music composition.

Scenes where lovers all of a sudden appear in completely different settings with different costumes doing theatrical acts like running between trees or rolling in flowery meadows with some snowy mountain in the background are common in Indian movies. All the songs and dances in a movie are either part of the plot or represent emotions or dreams.

This song-and-dance trademark can be traced back all the way to their ancient culture.

Indians have enjoyed stage plays called Harikathas and Naatakas for centuries. Performed with lots of dancing and singing, Harikathas and Naatakas were based on historical or mythological themes and had the principle actors singing verses taken from classical texts.

Naataka means "to dance" and in ancient India, dramas were meant to be played out in dance form, not merely acted out. Dances were best accompanied with music every now and then. And music turned out to be even better with touching lyrics to be sung. During the rise of the film industry, they adapted the pattern of the plays onto the screen.

Indian movies may never get away from their trademark. This is because songs and dances have become great anchors to a Hindi movie. There are even people who go to an Indian movie only to watch the choreography and listen to the songs.

People may forget the stories, but the songs will forever remain etched in their minds. Songs in the movies have in fact become an industry in their own right. To promote the movie, the songs and clips taken from a movie are first aired on radio and TV stations, sometimes even long before the movie is actually released.

In Indonesia, Indian movies used to be looked down upon, as at that time they were only shown in sleazy cinemas for moviegoers from the lower classes. Not to mention the fact that the dangdut is the music of choice for that same socio-economic class.

Nowadays non-Indians can no longer ignore the existence of Indian movies, especially those living in a country whose local TV stations air Bollywood programs on a regular basis.

Compared to Indonesian soap operas, the so-called dream factories, Indian movies with their songs and dances are better dream sellers. If you want to dream the real dream, watch Indian movies. Forget about reality. You are watching a movie, and that's a dreamland. On the other hand, if you seek realities on the screen, keep away from Bollywood products or you will end up cringing for three hours.

If you are curious about Indian movies, here is a list of top five must-sees:

1. Kuch-Kuch Hota Hai (1998): The Indian version of Sleepless in Seattle, in which a daughter tries to fix up her widower father with an old friend of his. You don't have to understand Hindi, and you would agree that the songs are groovy, even for non- Indian ears.

2. Lagaan (2001): A bunch of farmers in a rural village bet on a cricket game against the British to avoid paying taxes. Set during the colonial era and with no wedding scenes, this is a bit different from other Hindi movies. The cinematography is worthy of praise.

3. Devdas (2002): A classic, tragic love story between childhood friends adapted from Sarat Chandra Chattopadhye's novel, which claims to be the most expensive movie ever produced in Bollywood history. Great cinematography.

4. Dil Chahta Hai (2001): A story of three friends exploring the ups and downs of relationships and of life. A good show to watch with buddies.

5. Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994): A celebration of Indian tradition, with its splendid and joyful appreciation for wedding ceremonies. Two lovers' devotion to each other is put to the test when the girl has to marry her brother-in-law after her sister dies.