Long-time readers know my problem with the term “non-film”, which reduces the vast and varied forms of Indian music to just two categories, those within a soundtrack and those without.
Even the most passionate purveyors of “non-film” are aware of its imperfections. I vividly remember a conversation I had with the head of a major label who said they were desperately trying to find a new way to describe the genre. They can’t call it Indi-pop because that refers specifically to a sound and aesthetic intrinsically associated with the 1990s. I-Pop, a name inspired by K-Pop, didn’t work because it’s too vague and derivative.
To call it “independent” music, as “non-film” songs released by major or commercially oriented music companies are sometimes referred to, is more erroneous. Here, it’s the artists who are keener on an alternative. Some singers don’t like the term “indie” because it’s become synonymous with a smaller, niche listenership, they believe.
In truth, it would be easier to just call “non-film” music what it is really is: “commercial Hindi pop”. Explicit evidence of the absolute meaningless of “non-film” arrived last month in the form of “Lut Gaye”, Tanishk Bagchi and Jubin Nautiyal’s reinterpretation of a Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan qawwali, which was released by T-Series.
The song was created for a film produced by the label, Mumbai Saga, starring Emraan Hashmi and John Abraham. But there was no space for it in the movie so they decided to put it out as a stand-alone single. Although there were similarities between the character played by Hashmi in the film and the music video, there was no indication that “Lut Gaye” was part of Mumbai Saga. Instead, the MV, directed by Radhika Rao and Vinay Sapru, who also wrote the story, dialogues and poem for it, was marketed as a mini movie of its own.
In other words, a film tune was seamlessly converted into a “non-film” track. After it turned out to be a big hit, T-Series decided to tag “Lut Gaye” on to Mumbai Saga after all. So now, the “non-film” release has gone back to being a film song! In fact, it might just end up being more successful than the movie itself.
Last week, the label held a press conference to celebrate the many milestones reached by “Lut Gaye”. Going by this recording, Mumbai Saga doesn’t seem to have been mentioned at the event. The campaign for “Lut Gaye” has made it more obvious than ever before that these days, “film” and “non-film” music are pretty much indistinguishable.
With songs increasingly being used in the background, the majority of Hindi film soundtracks today comprise tunes that fit the mood or aesthetic rather than the narrative. It’s almost as if a playlist is being created for the movie rather than an OST. This is partly why the number of original compositions for films is decreasing and the number of “recreations”/remixes is increasing. (If the rights for the track being remade happen to be with the same music company, it works out cheaper too.)
Major labels function as song factories and factories need products. With the number of films being released falling over the past year, they’ve figured that “non-film” music, which they manufacture with the same set of talents they use for soundtracks, can easily fill the gap. It’s not a perfect analogy but with music companies also becoming movie producers, think of “non-film” as the store brand version of the products sold by a label as opposed to the name-brand film content it procures, packages and peddles.
Because ultimately, there’s very little difference between film and “non-film” music including how it’s marketed. The claim that “non-film” puts the spotlight on the musicians instead of the lip-synching actors has proven hollow when you see that more often than not, the promotions are focused on the television actors/reality TV contestants/social media influencers who appear in the music videos, in which the actual performers — treated as mere raw material — are relegated to the background if they’re included at all.
The only times the singers seem to be front and centre is if they or their relatives are part of the labels. The exceptions are Punjabi pop and hip-hop stars, and Hindi rappers whose personalities are seen as an integral element of the music. The rare times commercial Hindi pop singers are made the faces of their album art and videos is when they could pass off as actors and models themselves, as is the case with primarily female artists such as Akasa Singh, and the duo of Sukriti and Prakriti Kakar.
Labels using film personalities to help increase the audience for their pop albums is an old tactic, one that can be traced to Bollywood’s cannibalisation of the aforementioned 1990s Indi-pop industry at the turn of the century. The videos for Adnan Sami’s second album Tera Chehra featured Amitabh Bachchan (who also duetted with him on a track), Mahima Chaudhry and Rani Mukerji.
Now that the action has moved from music television to music streaming, labels have begun the bizarre practice of crediting the actors and dancers who star in the music videos not just on YouTube but also on audio-streaming services. Hashmi is listed as an artist on “Lut Gaye”, as is actress Nushrratt Bharuccha on “Saiyaan Ji” by Yo Yo Honey Singh and Neha Kakkar. Dancer Nora Fatehi is co-billed on both “Naach Meri Rani” by Guru Randhawa, Nikita Gandhi and Tanishk Bagchi and “Chhor Denge” by Sachet-Parampara. This trend is curious because the same actors aren’t given similar credits for their films’ songs, perhaps because labels believe those can stand on their own.
Given this bemusing state of affairs within the Indian commercial music scene at the moment, it’s perhaps a beautiful irony that “Lut Gaye”, which was No.1 on YouTube’s Global Top Music Videos and Top Songs charts for the first two weeks of March, mysteriously disappeared from its surveys in the third week because of what a spokesperson for the video-streaming service told us was “a classification error”. YouTube did not specify what exactly the error was, but maybe their chart compilers were as confused as us about where the song fits.