Like we take breaks in life, shouldn’t films be allowed to take breaks through songs? Um, yes and no

In my review of the Tamil film Maattrraan, I complained about the songs that were squeezed into inopportune moments. “Imagine this situation. You are in a country where you don’t speak the language. The person who was assisting you in your quest has just become collateral damage, blown to bits by a car bomb. Would you duck, soon after, into a nightclub and shake a leg with a few dozen belly dancers?”

And one reader wrote in: “Why should movies settle on a mood when life doesn’t seem to? Let me give you an example — suppose you are a writer or a researcher working on something really important to you. That doesn’t mean you can’t take breaks in between and browse a couple of websites etc. Why can’t you view a song for what it is... just a pause — an entertaining pause, where you can relax and recharge your energies.”

There are two categories of people who complain against songs in our cinema. The first kind of audience doesn’t care for songs at all. They would like nothing better than to see musical sequences abolished, like in Hollywood. The second type of viewer likes musical sequences, but flinches when they kill the mood of the movie. A lot of Hindi films, these days, feature a song over the closing credits, and this is usually an exuberant number. This is fine if the film is a comedy, or even a drama with a happy ending — but a problem in a delicate relationship triangle such as Cocktail, which ends on a bittersweet note. The infectious ‘Second Hand Jawani’ number comes up as we’re walking out of the theatre, and the earlier ending is rendered meaningless. We feel sorry for the screenwriter who must have struggled to arrive at a balance among the various emotions of the characters, only to find that the muted mood he wanted to leave us with, by the film’s end, is not the mood we’re walking out with, thanks to this bouncy music video shot in vibrant colours.

And as I stated in my review of Maattrraan, there’s the problem of songs within the film too. Another reader, in response to the first reader’s comment had this to say: “Perhaps a Western heavy diet of films makes it that much harder for me to switch tracks when an abrupt tonal change takes place.” The point isn’t about being weaned on the Hollywood (i.e. songless) model of filmmaking, but about the tonal change taking place.

Had the same song, in Maattrraan, been presented as a dream — maybe the heroine’s — it may have been slightly more palatable. At least, we wouldn’t have to make the tonal leap between a tragedy from a car bomb to a seemingly callous hero, who has, so quickly, shed memories of his friend and is now dancing in a nightclub. His ostensible reason for slipping into this nightclub is to interrogate a dancer, so couldn’t the number still have taken place, as shown, while this simmering hero sat a table, waiting for a chance to corner this dancer?

That way, we have the big, splashy song, and yet, we haven’t violated the hero’s mental trajectory and made him look ridiculous. This is all I’m saying. The first reader says something very true when he points out that we take breaks in life, and that songs should be treated like a break. But there’s a difference between taking a break with a cup of tea or a stroll on the beach, after a couple of hours at the computer, and opting to go bungee jumping. That’s the level of mood-switching we’re talking about here, and that’s the problem — not the song itself.

I keep coming back to this word — mood — because the job of a film is to evoke an emotion, and that emotion is evoked through mood. A song has to be led up to, both in terms of the story (i.e. what was the event that led the hero to find himself inside this musical stretch?) and in terms of emotion and mood (i.e. what was he feeling just before the song, and does this song change this mood, or does it just play on around the mood he’s in?). Too often, we hear something like “oh this is all just masala anyway, so we shouldn’t take it so seriously”. But that’s just settling for less, refusing to acknowledge that even art has accountability.

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