Bollywood music: A decade of highs and lows

From unwanted trends of multi-composer soundtracks and remixes, to breakthroughs by indie musicians: the last ten years have showcased considerable talent

Updated - December 31, 2019 03:14 pm IST

Published - December 30, 2019 09:30 pm IST

Teen tunes: (clockwise from left) Bajirao Mastani, Bombay Velvet, Gully Boy, and Gangs of Wasseypur,

Teen tunes: (clockwise from left) Bajirao Mastani, Bombay Velvet, Gully Boy, and Gangs of Wasseypur,

Gresham’s Law in economics states that bad money drives out the good over time. What Bollywood music has witnessed over 2010s is a living musical embodiment of this law – a decade that started with so much hope and promise, comes to a close with a situation where each year has been competing with the previous to churn out poor quality music; and winning. It’s not all bleak of course. Here are some of the highs and lows of Hindi film music over the last ten years.

Remix it all

There was a time when the word ‘remix’ used to evoke fond memories of song adaptations from the 90s/ early 00s Indipop scene, ones that gave artists like Ehsaan/Loy (Instant Karma), Neeraj Shridhar (Bombay Vikings) fame . Not any more, Bollywood labels have managed to drive out all affection for the term by first using it to refer to needless dance-y versions of songs within the soundtrack. In more recent times, this barrage of mindless template adaptations of older songs that almost always feature the same set of singers over a cacophony of electronic sounds and rap – and the trend shows no sign of abating any time in the near future. There have been notable exceptions of course – the handful of trippy makeovers done by Mikey McCleary instantly come to mind – but by and large this is a practice that needs to disappear.

Too many cooks

Multi-composer soundtracks have many positives going for them – for starters, they have acted as the vehicle for many promising musicians to make their Bollywood debut. The number of industry debutants this decade would easily outscore the past, and several have happened via multi-composer soundtracks. Some of the decade’s most experimental soundtracks have featured multiple composers. The problem has been labels (T-Series leading the pack, unsurprisingly) in recent past using this format, like with remixes, to generate template soundtracks (which often feature remixes as well, no surprises there) where the composers hardly retain any identity. Several composers can pull off entire soundtracks on their own – Amaal Mallik proved it with Noor and Tanishk Bagchi, the remix man everyone loves to hate, has produced some quality original stuff with Vayu, but these are rare instances.

The age of experimentation

The one positive aspect has been a thankfully consistent presence of experimentation. Filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap who, after extracting that incredible melange out of Amit Trivedi in Dev.D , went on to repeat the act in the jazz extravaganza Bombay Velvet . Kashyap has also worked with the other firebrand composer, Sneha Khanwalkar, creating the absolutely outlandish 27-song soundtrack for Gangs of Wasseypur . Another director who hit the scene was Bejoy Nambiar, giving us Shaitaan and David – though his most ambitious project, the 19-track Solo , never made it to Hindi. I have always maintained that multi-composer soundtracks turn out best when they feature indie musicians. Films like Detective Byomkesh Bakshy , Gully Boy , Akarsh Khurana’s High Jack and Karwaan bear evidence to this fact. A few other soundtracks that deserve a nod in this category Ram Sampath’s career best, Delhi Belly ; Sachin Jigar’s Go Goa Gone , Amit Trivedi’s Aiyyaa , Karan Kulkarni’s resounding debut earlier this year, Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota all delivered brilliantly on the lines of irreverence and spoofiness. But the biggest musical experiment of the decade was without a doubt Pritam and Anurag Basu’s Jagga Jasoos , one that missed out on a lot of plaudits due to sloppy marketing and the movie’s performance.

Indie day out

A key outcome of the earlier-mentioned taste for the unconventional, has been the number of indie musicians who ventured into Bollywood, albeit for short soundtrack stints in many cases. Some like Raghu Dixit and Nucleya managed to maintain a steadier run. This was also a decade that saw a lot of healthy film-indie collaborations away from the big screen. It started with an Indian Coke Studio series – after a widely panned first season, the show improved by leaps and bounds in the second and third seasons – featuring many mainstream Bollywood musicians in the process – before dwindling out.

Around the same time, MTV also kicked off two other shows. The part travelogue-part documentary, The Dewarists , and Sound Trippin’ , headed by Sneha Khanwalkar for a season and a half, and Karsh Kale for a half season. None of these shows survived till the second half of the decade, however, and MTV appears to have gone back mostly to non-musical stuff, barring MTV Unplugged which launched in 2011 and ran its eighth season in 2019, though with diminishing levels of popularity.

The last few years have been more about the streaming platforms, and web series. Music for series like Sacred Games (Alokananda Dasgupta), Family Man (multiple composers) and Made In Heaven (multiple composers) have all featured some fine music. Amazon Prime even ran a music-centric mini-series in 2018 that had A R Rahman travelling to different parts of the country, collaborating with musicians from the region.

The old and the new

It would be unfair to end without a quick scan of how some of our leading composers did overall in the 2010s. While nobody was consistent with their delivery through the whole period, pretty much everyone had at least one work that would rate among their career-best. With veteran director Mani Ratnam, Rahman had just one work in Hindi, Raavan . But it was in his newly forged partnership with Imtiaz Ali, that he hit a triple whammy – Rockstar , Highway and Tamasha . Shankar Ehsaan Loy’s previously solid association with the Akhtars turned out a mixed bag – it was with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra that they had their two best works; Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and the underrated Mirzya . Vishal Shekhar hit their peak right at the start of the decade, producing three back to back winners in 2010 – Anjaana Anjaani the best of the lot. Two years later they produced another whopper, for the man who gave them their earliest big break – Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani . Pritam too had his older partnerships bear fruit spectacularly, Barfi and JJ with Anurag Basu, and his reunion with Imtiaz Ali in Jab Harry Met Sejal ; but also a new one in Nitesh Tiwari’s Dangal . Vishal Bhardwaj had, well, himself to deliver his best music to – and had Kaminey , Haider and Saat Khoon Maaf to show for it.

Another director who decided to follow Bhardwaj’s footsteps and start composing was Sanjay Leela Bhansali, delivering his best with Bajirao Mastani . Two other biggies from the last decade, Salim Sulaiman and Shantanu Moitra, had a relatively quiet time. The former had Band Baaja Baaraat early on, but have since then been largely restricted to low key movies (albeit still delivering quality music). Moitra on the other hand turned his focus outside of Bollywood – delivering for TV shows and Bengali films. The one that sits right on top though is his indie project with Gulzar, adapting Rabindranath Tagore’s poetry, titled Gulzar in Conversation with Tagore . Marathi composers Ajay Atul, after a lot of cameo appearances, finally hit the big time with Agneepath , and Sachin-Jigar had the most success with the Yash Raj stable, in Shuddh Desi Romance and Meri Pyaari Bindu . Other promising debuts were Krsna ( Tanu Weds Manu ), Shashwat Sachdev ( Phillauri ), Clinton Cerejo ( Jugni ), Rohan Vinayak ( Nil Battey Sannata ), Vishal Mishra ( Saand Ki Aankh ) and Rochak Kohli (Music Teacher ).

If there is a composer of the decade award, it truly belongs to Amit Trivedi. After debuting at the cusp of 10s, the man was literally flying in the first half of this decade, from Udaan to Aisha to No One Killed Jessica to Ishaqzaade to Kai Po Che to Lootera. The last five years have seen a drop in quality and an increase in repetitiveness, but the Trivedi still comes up with a winner every so often.

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