I remember the first time that I saw a Bollywood movie. When I used to live in Toronto, every Saturday morning on the Multicultural Television Station they would have a double feature of classic Bollywood pictures. At first I thought it was some kind of joke, Monty Python on really strong hallucinogenics or something.
But when the movie seemed to be going on longer then any joke I had seen before, I realized I just didn't understand or appreciate what I was watching. I've never been all that thrilled with musicals, and not only did the actors in these productions burst into song at the drop of the hat, it seemed that the sound quality was awful.
It wasn't until a couple of years ago when Indian directors started making movies in Britain and North America geared towards more Western audiences, that I began to see the fun in the dancing and the music. Perhaps because concessions had been made in the rest of the movie, with the plot line being more accessible and the women treated less like objects and more like people, the occasional song and dance number didn't seem so out of place.
But I still didn't understand the attraction to those older movies with their over bright colours and nearly distorted music. What is it about these movies and in particular the music that made them so popular? Obviously, I was missing out on something important.
I guess it was with people like me in mind that the folks behind the Rough Guide travel books in partnership with the World Music Network came out with a new CD called The Rough Guide To Bollywood Gold. Chock full of information about the genre in an informative booklet, and featuring almost seventy-five minutes of some of the best music from the era, it takes you on a guided tour of the people, the songs, and the atmosphere that ensured its popularity.
It's hard for most of us to imagine a world where Indian culture is not a feature. The Beatles and Ravi Shankar made the sitar a commonplace word in our vocabulary, and probably everyone has heard it played at least once – whether they know it or not. But in the early 1960's when the first wave of Indian immigrants landed in Great Britain, and to a lesser degree North America, there was nothing of home there for them.
At the same time the Bollywood film industry was introducing two new elements to its product that would increase its popularity: Technicolor film and Playback Singers. Having another voice overdub singing for an actor is not unique to Bollywood, but they are the only industry that made an art form out of it.
When the actor is flailing about on the screen, gesturing and emoting all over the place, the men and women Playback Singers are supplying the vocals. There were very specific conventions that had to be followed by the singers; women had to sing in high-pitched, girlish voices (the sound was deliberately recorded to distortion to indicate heightened passion) while the man's was deep and strong.
Playback singers became so identified with the actors who they sang for, even the screen stars recognized the contribution they were making to their careers. When a famous Indian actor was told the man who sang the majority of his songs had died, he said very concisely: "My voice has died".
With Bollywood's rise in popularity coinciding with the establishment of the early immigrant communities in England and North America, the music from these movies became beloved reminders of the home they had left behind. It was bright, cheerful, and full of hope in a cold, bleak, and strange new country that didn't really welcome them.
Listen to the music on the disc and you can hear all the different styles of music that have been incorporated into their production. Everything from sixties electric guitars, yodels from Country and Western, and James Dean and Elvis like rebellion are all part of the mix. Underpinning it all is the steady rhythm of the tabla (a set of two drums) and a sitar acting as the heartbeat of India below the surface of Western slickness.
I still can't understand the lyrics at all, but I have more of an understanding of why it is the way it is. Although one of the oldest cultures in the world, this period was the beginning of the reawakening of a sleeping giant. India had been in British chains as part of the empire for years and independence had come close to tearing it asunder. By the 1960s she was just starting to spread her wings and have reasons to celebrate.
The joy and the exuberance expressed through the music might as well have been the new energy that was starting to flow through the veins of India. The children of the West might have been trying to overthrow their society at this time, but in Indian communities around the world they were rebuilding or starting fresh. It was a bright new colourful world to be experienced as avidly as possible and with as much enthusiasm as could be mustered.
One of the features of the The Rough Guide To Bollywood Gold is the inclusion of a CD Rom data track. If you load the disc into your computer you get bonus features like an interview with the compiler of the disc, extracts from the travel guide book Rough Guide To India, and much more.
What's best about this collection of music is that it gives you a context for the music and a better appreciation of what it is and it's significance. After reading the booklet and absorbing the information supplied in the data track I listened to the music a second time. While it still sounded slightly strange to my ears, I definitely didn't find it quite so alien as before and I had an understanding of what motivated it.
The Rough Guide To Bollywood Gold is a great place to start for anybody wishing to learn more about the music of Bollywood. Just be careful where you listen to it; it can be pretty infectious and you may find yourself dancing down the street instead of walking. Sometimes life does imitate art.