Film songs cutting across cultures and languages

A few days ago, an unlikely song resurfaced and quickly gained a lot of listeners. The incredulous song was from a Telugu movie, 1987, wholly in English and set to western instruments and style, sung and composed by SP Balasubrahmanyam; and it features the famous drummer Sivamani (who plays the lead in the movie!), and in this movie debuted the American actor Thomas Jane (The Expanse). If you haven’t already, listen to (and watch), Life is Shabby from Padamati Sandhya Ragam. It is a wacky track, highly experimental nonetheless. Was it a natural inclusion in the film narrative, a fascination, or a whim? The context and the question also inexorably evokes the western composition ‘Sing Swing’ by Ilaiyaraaja for the Tamil film Moodu Pani (1980).

Cross-cultural and cross-linguistic compositions have always been a part of Indian film music. Compositions using traditional lyrics (such as Thyagaraja Krithis) fall squarely in this domain – like ‘Mari Mari Ninne’ from Sindhu Bairavi (1985) or most recently ‘Swagatham Krishna’ from Agnyaathavaasi (2017) and ‘Saajan More’ from Solo (2017). However, a song epitomising the very notion of transcending linguistic barrier dates back to 1949 from the Tamil movie Apoorva Sagotharargal. A wonderful article that appeared in the Hindu last year on this film carries very pleasing anecdotes: The film draws inspiration from the famous Hollywood movie The Corsican Brothers (1941) as well as from the eponymous Alexandre Dumas novel. Two leading artists at the time, one from Tamil and the other from Kannada, played the lead, alongside one of the most versatile actors in Indian cinema, Bhanumathi; thereby rendering a momentous crossover in the Indian film scene. A testimony to the clout and prowess of Bhanumathi, who juggles five languages (Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi) within a single song ‘Laddu’:

An equally amusing song from Avar Enakke Sondham (1977) composed by Ilaiyaraaja employs an ingenious mix of ‘Kabhi Kabhi’ to a comical effect. Here is another instance of Bhanumathi acing the famous Doris Day song ‘Que Sera Sera’ in the Telugu movie Thodu Needa (1955).

When the film narrative transcends cultures and regions, often so does the accompanying soundtrack. A stellar example of this is the Tamil film Bharatha Vilas (1973), and this song on national integration has diverse performances in Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Malayalam and Hindi.

Very pertinent to this train of thought is the infusion of regional folk in Hindi cinema. Amit Trivedi mixes Gujarati folk to a gratifying effect in ‘Shubharambh’ from Kai Po Che (2013). The popular Rajasthani folk number ‘Kesariya Balam’ has been re-purposed on many occasions, including this one from the film Dor (2006) with music by Salim-Sulaiman, where the lead lady is Rajasthani.

As the screenplay of Imtiaz Ali’s Highway (2014) takes us through the beautiful terrains of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Kashmir, the full-fledged Punjabi number ‘Patakha Guddi’ composed by AR Rahman dutifully reflects the sentiment musically. The symmetry is equally splendid in the ‘Journey’ song with Bengali verses from the film Piku (2015).

Perhaps less known is the case of Nandu (1981), with a superb soundtrack by Ilaiyaraaja. The Tamil film is centred around Lucknow and Chennai, and the soundtrack includes two Hindi songs featuring the brilliant S Janaki. Hum Hain Akele is a composition utterly belying the soundtrack it actually belongs to — and rightly so; there was a different version Hum Hain Jawaan that did not make the cassette. It is impossible to not fall in love with ‘Kaise Kahoon’ on the first listen:

By now, ‘Jiya Jale’ from Dil Se (1998) must have crossed the reader’s mind. The song choreographed in the backwaters of Kerala, where the narrative takes us to, features enchanting stanzas in Malayalam. AR Rahman also composed a full-fledged Malayalam song ‘Aaromale’ in the Tamil movie Vinnaithaandi Varuvaaya (2010) in a similar setting.

This segues into the Malayalam movie soundscape, that has embraced the admirable trend of packaging diverse songs, linguistically, for the sake of music and variety. The soundtrack of Nee-Na (2015) is a cogent example. As is that of the Tamil-Malayalam bilingual Solo (2017) that necessarily packs an extraordinary soundtrack of sheer diversity, with songs in Tamil, Malayalam, Hindi and English. Other examples include ‘Andha Naalil’, an endearing Tamil song from Pattam Pole (2013), and ‘Sajna Sajna’, a groovy Hindi song from Oru Indian Pranayakatha (2013). Javed Ali renders a moving Allahu Akbar in the Malayalam movie Gangster (2014), composed by Deepak Dev. Acclaimed thriller franchise seeder Manichitrathaazhu (1993) required a Tamil song in a crucial moment in the film; and when this movie was remade in multiple Indian languages, the song in point was written in a language different from the film, each time.

There have been influences and crossovers internationally too. Look at a thin slice of films from the archives, where English-lady-falls-in-love-with-Indian-man-in-the-pre-independence-era. The act of falling in love is set to tune and lyrics beautifully by Ilaiyaraaja in the song All the Time from Nadodi Thendral (1992). A few years later, in 2001, AR Rahman composed O Re Chori for Lagaan that juxtaposes emotions of the English lady falling in love with that of the village girl; and again in 2004, he composed My Wish Comes True in the same context for the film Kisna: A Warrior Poet.

This age of streaming music is evidently catalysing exposure to a breadth of diverse aural content. The preparedness of audiences for pan-Indian and global music and that of the creators for inclusive sounds is on the rise, in equal measure.