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Mdeii Life - Anand Krishnamoorthi's blog

Saturday, September 04, 2004

How to Do It to a Book, or How to Trip on Music, or How to Define Songs in Indian Films

The usually peaceful British Council Library was swarming with people today; especially school kids, who somehow have a penchant for making high pitched shrieks and trampling noises all the time. Today must have been some sort of �invite-our-little-readers-day�. Amidst the bustle, I was surprised to see one section of the magazine rack that had been left non-vandalised. The latest issue of the BFI�s Sight and Sound was sitting there pretty, fresh, and untouched�almost waiting for me to pick it up, spread it out and consume it.

It is very hard to �make out� with a book when there are screaming kids running around. But this issue had the sort of special incentive that could help me enter and engross myself in it, and shut out the rest of the world. A little corner tab on the cover said that it was the biggest issue of S & S ever. And it was about film music�lip-smacking stuff.

Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Zbigniew Preisner, and so many other stalwarts of cinema, (including AR Rehman) had voiced their opinion on film music. Apart from the regular �aesthetic and critical study� wordiness of S & S, this issue also had some nice things to say about my favourites as well. Nino Rota was almost declared king of composers; Stanley Kubrick was often referenced as a director with �sound� sensibilities. I trip on Rota�s music; and like Kubrick, I too use a lot of classical music, �dropping in the needle�, as they say.

Ennio Morricone, Vangelis, Bernard Herrman and other legends were felicitated along with the great filmmakers who had unique aural talent. AR Rehman�s favourite score seems to be Morricone's work in Guiseppe Tornatore�s Nuovo Cinema Paradiso. My favourites would include that, and many others, especially those by Rota and Preisner. The Godfather (I & II), 8 �, Trois Couleurs, among others and a movie like Gangs of New York for its musical irony.

For, as many filmmakers have stressed in their opinions that while film music, in its traditional role tries to underline the visuals, it finds more relevance when it acts as a counterpoint to the images. Another interesting point I took from the write-ups was the assertion of the notion that in the Hollywood movie, the music remains subservient to the visuals, while the music video makes the visuals subservient to the music. This is dealt with in terms of which of the two forms the storytelling, editing and rhythmic core, and which moulds itself around the other to complete the audiovisual piece. What actually interested me in this observation, even though it is not an entirely new one to me, is that, never is the Indian film referenced when talking about this. I would, and would not credit the Indian film for certain contributions to the art and theory of film music�for various reasons.

But before I go into them, here is a brief taxonomy of Tamil film music. I could identify three distinct types of songs (not exactly an innovative effort): 1. The Synchronous Song, i.e. a song that is there because it is actually sung by the characters on screen as part of the story; 2. The Background Song, i.e. a song that sets the mood to a scene, essentially a drawn out, worded and sung piece of musical �score�; and 3. The Surreal Symbolic Song, i.e. the song that exists only in the realm of imagination, a fantasy orchestration. These days, almost all film songs conform to type 3.

Before I discuss the �why� of songs in films, I need to say a little more about the �what��the structure of songs. The grammar of the Tamil film song is almost formulaically strict. It comprises of an opening stanza, followed by an orchestral piece, followed by the second stanza, a repetition of the orchestral piece, a third stanza based on the second (just the words are changed), the third orchestral piece, and finally the closing stanza based on the opening. I am not too knowledgeable in classical music theory, so I really cannot comment any more about it, but I can say that such a structure makes the song lengthy enough for it to be devoted separate screen time�an abstraction that is unique to the Tamil film narrative. (For more about what an �abstraction� is, go here)

This also increases the length of the average Tamil movie, pushes up budgets, redefines the film-music / soundtrack industry (from how it is known elsewhere in the world), makes music direction a different profession, and most importantly, gives a whole new insight into the old music-vs.-visual-and-which-dominates-which-debate. While S & S praises Baz Luhrmann for his work in Moulin Rouge as unique for having created the right balance between music and visuals, I felt like shouting all the time that this is exactly what every director does in Madras. But I have to add that while Baz Luhrmann does it as a deliberate and thought-out artistic device; our chaps do it out of reflex�unthinkingly.

Now to go on to the why of songs in movies. There have always been film �musicals� all over the world, where music and songs are essential storytelling devices; and so it is /was in our case, but there is this whole different type of song in our film (type 3) that could, if anyone wanted to, be defined as a post-modern, post-sturucturalist, experimental-surreal narrative device. (Even bullshit can be nerdified as post-digestive, post-intestinal, expelled-untreated matter!) While surrealism was defined as a consciously pursued and identified film movement, we have reflexively and unconsciously been practicing actually very-theorisable nerdy stuff ourselves.

One can also talk about how the origins of our film culture lent its proto-filmic and stage aesthetics to our mainstream cinema. One can also talk a lot about the simple economic sustenance of this system by the total absence of a non-film, pop-music industry. But mostly it exists out of habit, convention, superstition, and the very Indian tendency of reticence to change�while it works, why shake it?

Many others consider this unique aesthetic of Tamil / Indian films to be its strongpoint, and an almost sacred virtue that gives the Indian film its identity. For a while, Indian �musical� films were a fad on the international film circuit / circus, simply because some romantic souls actually went and sold our films as uniquely constructed narratives. While Bunuel can be understood, can�t Sanjay Leela Bansali? But the point is, Bansali is not Bunuel, and Devdas is as much a habitual happening as conditioned morning defecation. The point being, there is no real reason for songs to exist in our narratives. They simply are there by convention. They don�t seem to help tell the story better; they don�t seem to add value to the narration, they don�t pace the telling, heck they even destroy pace. But they are there because one cannot imagine a film without songs; and more importantly because of the things they do accomplish. They pioneered the aesthetic of the music video, they contribute as much to the anti-diegesis as TV commercials (a whole new discussion of whether such a thing exists), the sell tapes, they offer eye-candy, and they employ a lot of people.

So there is actually nothing wrong with having songs in films, they really help do a lot of things, but the problems lies in defining Tamil / Indian film aesthetics only on this line. There can be Indian films that can remain uniquely Indian and yet, not have songs. We actually need not fear the loss of all relevance by losing the one thing unique to us. For me personally, songs cramp my style of storytelling and therefore don�t figure in my design of things. I am also a partial iconoclast who wants to not conform sometimes. Why should I do it just because it has always been done, especially when I don�t find it relevant, more so, when I find it to be intrusive?

So what started off as a discussion of my �quickie� with a book in a library has turned out to be another rant. I, being an aspiring sound-designer, can afford to go on such a lengthy trip. Yet, as those conditioned to lengthy Tamil films with tangential-musical-narrative-elements, some of us should find this absolutely understandable.

11:54 pm


Comments to How to Do It to a Book, or How to Trip on Music, or How to Define Songs in Indian Films

A huge change of events.
And got to know a lot of hows and whys of Tamil music, even though I seem to have stopped listening to them.

posted by Anonymous Anonymous 

3:27 am, September 06, 2004

The use of music in a movie at it best according to me - A Clockwork Orange. One can watch the movie just for the score......of course I also happened to like it for n other reasons....It was just mind blowing -

and I agree with Godfather - but you missed a better use of music in the same genre - "Once upon a Time in America"....

posted by Blogger Nilu 

3:40 am, September 06, 2004

Anon person: Tamil film music is actually very enjoyable isn it? Just that it is beter on FM than on the screen sometimes.

Nilu: 'Singing in the rain' in The Clockwork Orange is actually another excellent example of musical irony... Thanks for bringing it up. Also, the best use of good music with editing is in a sequence in Once Upon a Time In America. When the litle boys are hopping back home somehwre in the vicinity of Brooklyn bridge, and are suddenly confronted by the cops for a shootout, where the little guy gets killed. Sergio Leone, cuts from 24fps to 60fps, and on that cut comes Morricones lilting wind piece. Fantastic stuff. Thanks again Nilu for bringing that up.. of course, I not only left that one out, but a lot of other great stuff as well...!

posted by Blogger Anand 

8:25 am, September 06, 2004

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