Since the earliest talking pictures, songs have been the heart and soul of Indian popular movies, and for the Indian audience too, a large part of the movie-going experience.
Most Indian moviegoers are not as preoccupied with the story itself, as they are with the way the story is told. They largely accept being presented to the same themes and characters over and over again, but they expect the music, songs and dance moves to be original and innovative. The soundtrack for a new popular film from Bollywood (Mumbai), Kollywood (Chennai / Madras) - or one of the other production centres for "song & dance films" - are often marketed several months before the film has its premiere. It may have become a hit before the movie even goes into distribution. The audience does not just buy tickets to see a new movie, but to see how the songs they already know, have been "picturized".
Song and dance sequences are included and used in different ways. After India's independence in 1947, it was forbidden to show kissing on the mouth on screen. Today there are no provisions that directly prohibit kissing or intimate bodily contact, but both are considered taboo in Indian mainstream films. However, there is no lack of kiss references in song and dance numbers and moves are often very sexually explicit, not to mention "wet saree" songs, that are a whole genre of their own. In song and dance
numbers, the director can "go further" than in the
The most prominent contemporary Indian film composer, is undoubtedly the Tamil A. R. Rahman (b. 1966), who has been nicknamed "The Mozart of Madras" and has provided music for over 100 films. In his collaboration with Indian directors, the music and songs are not just used as erotic teasers. Rahman received two Oscars for his music for 'Slumdog Millionaire' - for best score and best song ("Jai Ho"). He broke through to a wider audience with the music for Mani Ratnam's film 'The Rose' ('Roja', 1992) and especially the song "Dil hai chota" ("Little Desires"). It is a fine example of how Rahman combines classic Indian folk music and western rhythms and musical styles in his scores. Accompanied by a pan flute theme and reggae rhythms, (together with jazz, bebop and traditional Indian sitar) the main character Roja, moves around in an idyllic village in Tamil Nadu, while she sings a song with the chorus "This country is like heaven." The song's function is to characterize Roja as a person - an innocent village beauty, who later will have to go through much ado.
Rahman has provided music for all Mani Ratnam's later films, including 'Bombay' ('Bumbai', 1995) and 'From the Heart' ('Dil se ...', 1998). The song "Thaiya Thaiya" shown at the beginning of 'From the Heart' was reportedly the number that prompted Andrew Lloyd Webber to hire Rahman to compose the music for the musical "Bombay Dreams". An over-crowded train is traveling through beautiful mountain landscapes and tunnels, while mega-star Sharukh Khan and over 30 other dancers, are moving around on top of the train to Rahman's catchy pop music.
One of Rahman's most recent great successes, is the beautiful award-winning music, which totally dominates Imitiaz Ali's movie 'Rockstar' (2011), which is showing at the Indian Indies festival. Here, the songs are used not least to shorten periods of time - especially in the second half - but also to convey the main character's emotional development. A. R. Rahman has naturally also provided the soundtrack to Mani Ratnam's latest film 'Raavanan' (2011), which is also showing during the Indian film festival. The film includes four outstanding song and dance sequences, including "Thok de Killi", where Raavan and his men are dancing in the rain and mud, among ancient ruins in the Indian jungle, to Rahman's fantastic "world music". This song and dance sequence, realized through equilibristic slow motion footage, contains everything that makes popular Indian films so pleasing to the eye and ear, and makes it a very special experience.