On 1997’s Homogenic, Björk made one of those mind-melting tracks that proves how much smarter she is than the Hollywood types who don’t like her clothes. Throughout “Bachelorette” ‘s symphonic elaboration, voiced as lucidly as if the tune were a simple folk plaint, a woman with Aretha-sized passions floats feverish arguments to a man thinking of leaving her. “I’m a fountain of blood,” she admits; “I’m a path of cinders.” Nonetheless, she maintains—as life-and-death strings sweep around her—”loving me is the easiest thing.”
If you’ve never heard any so-called Indian filmi music, the fluorescent songs that, for the last 30 years, have graced the immensely popular soundtracks for the 800 or so feature films produced annually by the Bombay film industry—you might think Björk even more resourceful than she is. But in fact she adapted the basic rhythm-and-strings explosiveness of “Bachelorette” from filmi. With her prodigious ears, Björk knew that Indian film music tunes offer emotional and formal options wilder than any of the different styles of Anglo-American orchestration normally tapped to render pop songs more cinematic.
Despite filmi’s place in the hip international pop conversation, Indian soundtracks have long been hard to find—even in New York or London or L.A., or at Indian grocers. Videos of the movies were somewhat easier. As for the tantalizing albums, more often one might round up a few cassettes: items such as the 1990 Tips release of Indra Jeet, or the EMI India collection Romantic Duets, which selects ’80s work from the field’s two leading singers, Lata Mangeshkar and the late Kishore Kumar. Over the years, a few world-music-keyed compilations have turned up, typically distancing themselves from any threat of glitter. Now, though, as part of a massive, top-drawer reissue program that is currently laying waste to the incompetencies and oversights of the provincial, incurious, and rock-biased reissue industry, Universal has offered The Best of Bollywood: 15 Classic Hits from the Indian Cinema, a stupendous one-disc shot of filmi compiled by Shivaji Gupta and Sunil D’Sa of Universal Music India.
So what’s all the fuss about? It’s about Indian singers, songwriters, and arranger-producers inventing, refining, and varying the imperative of tunes and orchestrations for homegrown movies in ways influenced but never determined by non-Indian pop forms. Moreover, these singers and musicians break free of the Indian classical tradition, a long ancestry of ragas and sitars that ’60s rockers played around with but which has been for centuries equally strict, in actual Indian practice, as is the European classical tradition U.S. pop fans love to regard as irrelevant.
What differentiates filmi from Anglo-American orchestrated movie tunes is not just the kinetic sung presence of various Indian languages, or how Lata Mangeshkar, at work since the ’40s and by some estimates the most recorded singer in the world, established her high quivery soprano as the female Indian norm. Nor is it the rhythms—sometimes now synthesized although never outright duplicates of ’70s disco or dance music—or the partial casting of specifically Indian instrumentation. No, the difference is the soulfulness, the almost tangible passion of a crackerjack Indian soundtrack.
Maybe filmi musicians and arrangers originally sought to reproduce the plummy surges of dramatic ’40s and ’50s Hollywood soundtrack music, itself often based on the romantic songfulness of folk-influenced Russian composers such as Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. Instead Indian arrangers such as the father and son S.D. and B.R. Burman arrived at something else, a kind of ongoing visceral grab not unlike a U.S. Top 40 hit. In contrast to the great Sinatra songs, James Bond hits, and Aimee Mann moves of California movie hits, Indian film tunes cultivate no cool remove, either from everyday radio hits or from the film content itself. Imagine the visual magic of the movies and the sonic passion of a ’60s Memphis soul session somehow bursting to life simultaneously.
The Best of Bollywood selects songs that range from the early ’70s to right now. Singers include Kumar and Mangeshkar, as well as Kavita Krishnamurthy, the field’s most popular contemporary female singer, and others. Song highlights include “Ye Raatain,” a ’70s Mangeshkar turn from the film Julie that demonstrates definitively the feral interlock of beats and strings and singing, and “Do Pyaar,” sung by Sonu Nigham and Sunidhi Chauhan, a more modern and shadowy duet from 2000’s Jungle. The set opens with “Pyar Do Pyaar Lo,” a rockin’ piece sung by Sapna from the ’70s film Janbazz. The Austrian beatmaster Richard Dorfmeister once told me that he disliked people dismissing all rhythm- or orchestral-based music as “lounge” because, as he correctly said, “you can lounge to anything.” But not, as Björk knew, this.