Friday, January 31, 2014

Redeeming the Lost Decade- 1

Remember the music from the 90s? Before you shudder from the thought of lyrics like Tu mera hero number one and Tantanatan Tan Tan Tara Chalti Hai Kya Nau Se Barah, just spend one minute wiping off all those musical atrocities from your brain and embark on a new line of thought. These days, Indian music- at least the mainstream music that caters to majority of the population- is dominated by Bollywood. There are small circles of people who listen to or perform other genres, but they remain small circles. Oftentimes, a song is primarily good just because it fits with a scene in a movie. And isn’t a movie soundtrack fairly predictable these days- one club/ party song, one folk-ish song by the Sona Mahapatra club, one Punjabi/ sufi song, one emotional and poetic song with a mixture of dialects in it’s lyrics and one ‘quirky’ song with words that appeal to today’s generation. There. That’s your soundtrack. The predictability doesn’t stop us from buying it, but it makes me wonder if any of this songs- despite claiming to defy convention- are anything but pure formula.

Believe it or not, music wasn’t so Bollywood-controlled back then. Remember the indie music? If you can’t relate to the term indie, here’s a term you are sure to find more familiar- albums. I think the last one that really became a ‘hit’ was Atif Aslam’s Doorie, and even he eventually shifted to Bollywood. Given the present scenario, you wouldn’t believe albums could ever be classified as ‘mainstream’. And yet, they used to be.

If you needed a party song, there was Gur Naal Ishq Mitha. I mean, this song could have you dancing even today.

Then there were the awesome singers- Asha Bhonsle with Jaanam Samjha Karo and Shubha Mudgal with Ab Ke Saawan. Today, a fantastic singer like Shubha Mudgal would probably be relegated back to a position of ‘classical’ singer in film songs that are only meant to add a bit of ‘ethnic’ flavor. But in the 90s, someone like her could produce her own album and (even in the absence of Internet) the general public- and not just music buffs- would listen to it. Case in point- Asha Bhonsle’s last album didn’t do as well as expected.

Then there were the soulful songs. Yaaron Dosti by KK continues to be one of his best works till date, not to mention the only anthem of friendship besides Ye Dosti Hum Nahin Todenge (‘Sholay’). I have lost count of the number of student gathering I have attended in which someone or the other pulls out a guitar and Yaaron is sung collectively.

Another great song was Tanha Dil by Shaan. The lyrics, about being alone in life’s journey and having spectacular experiences while constantly reminiscing about old friends, is beautiful. The music is original, loaded with several instruments and nothing like the ‘digital’ sounding music of today. And the video? Well, that still intrigues me, especially the shot with Shaan walking backwards with memories of his old friends walking next to him.

And who can forget the invasion of the Pakistani artists, one invasion I don’t look back upon with regret. Just listen to this song- Sayonee by Junoon. It just shows that even though movie songs were hilarious, formulaic and sometimes bordering on insane, the public’s ears were actually open to all kinds of flavors.
And let’s not forget the folk songs. Whether youre Gujarati or Rajasthani, went to a dandiya or not, there was something for everyone.

My point is that good music existed in the 90s, maybe just not so much in the movies. Now, with Bollywood aspiring to be Hollywood and movies dominating everything, the medium of indie music is lost. Artists like Sona Mahapatra are getting typecast by singing the same kind of songs again and again, instead of being like artists from the 90s who had their own identity but kept reinventing themselves with each album. And you know what? 90s indie music was just so much cooler than what music today is, so much more modern, so much more hip. Even today, if I listen to each of the 90s songs mentioned above one after the other,  it really is a stimulating experience, because they’re all just so different from each other. They represent what ‘Pop Culture’ is supposed to be- quirky, varied and colorful. You can tell by listening to these albums that a lot of time and effort has gone into making them. Today, there’s a new soundtrack coming out every weekend and I’m sure most composers (ahem…Pritam…ahem) are getting a bit overworked to really come up with something unique.

In my opinion, after R.D. Burman, it was in the 90s that some kind of ‘good’ music was finally created. Today, long after the death of the 90s indie-pop scene and way into the time of high-speed music downloads and Sheela Ki Jawaanis and mindless remixes, I wonder if the sublime magic of 90s albums can ever be recreated. I guess until it does, we’re going to have to keep singing Yaaron Dosti Hi Toh Zindagi Hai… at every reunion, fresher’s party and get-together.