Dreamful of Asha


Movies are daydreams, more or less. And Bollywood musicals—with their obligatory context-obliterating production numbers dropped like bursts of more nocturnal pleasures into three-hour films—are dreamier still. (Even next year’s Planet Hollywood invasion of Mumbai won’t diminish that.) Violinist David Harrington’s Kronos Quartet begin You’ve Stolen My Heart, their dreamy and ecstatic contemplation of quintessential filmi composer Rahul Dev Burman (1939–94), with a deep inhalation introducing “Dum Maro Dum” (“Take Another Toke”), a song from the 1971 hippie drug classic Haré Raama Haré Krishna that advises listeners, “Let your sorrows slip away.” The music is an electric curry of sweeping overdubbed strings playing a blend of devotional music and action film motifs. The high, heavenly Urdu vocals belong to Asha Bhosle, 72, both the most prolific “playback” singer in Bollywood history and R.D. Burman’s widow.

Asha’s voice has thickened and deepened over the years and now resembles viola more than violin. One imagines Bhosle, who provided the singing voice of countless actresses who’ve remained forever young while she ages, approaching this classic material—think deeply poetic Cole Porter meets deeply eclectic Bernard Herrmann—with an inevitably contemplative spirit. The oneiric ambience continues on “Rishte Bante Hain,” where her overlapping phrases float like clouds over Kronos’s swelling strings, Indian percussion master Zakir Hussain’s tablas, and an electric sitar played by pipa virtuoso Wu Man, whose Chinese lute fills in for Burman’s original Indian dulcimer and lute.

Kronos signaled their appreciation of filmi with the rendition of Burman’s “Aaj Ki Raat” that appeared on 2000’s Kronos Caravan. You’ve Stolen My Heart contains both hits like “Piya Tu Ab To Aaja”—with its panting steam engine vocals and echoing cries of “Mo-nee-ka!”—and wonderful obscurities like the sassy “Koi Aaya Aane Bhi De.” Four instrumentals give each Kronos member an opportunity to strut his or her respective stuff, with cellist Jennifer Culp’s “Nodir Pare Utthchhe Dhnoa” a heartbreaker. Dozens of previously unheard tonal colors, sonic details, and subtle vocal inflections emerge with each new spin of this rich confection, making Kronos and Bhosle’s mash-up more reimagination than replication.

While no other filmi composer’s work quite equals Burman’s scintillating ’70s masterpieces, he has at least one formidable successor in Allah Rakha Rahman. Still in his thirties, Rahman has been writing hit film scores for a decade, and in interviews decries the decline in quality film songs. His music for the recent musical-historical epic Mangal Pandey: The Rising, however, proves he’s not just Jack White to Jimmy Page. Rent the movie, a rich, controversial, and often cartoonish history lesson (Pandey has been mythologized as India’s first anti-colonial martyr) punctuated by cannabis-infused bhang swigging and dancing nautch girls (courtesans); then buy the album at your favorite appliance store around Lexington and 28th. Dig the rusticated Punjabi beats, the smooth mujra numbers, and my favorite, the groovy qawwali track “Al Maddath Maula,” where Rahman (as Burman sometimes did) makes a rare vocal appearance.

Less demo-driven than elsewhere, mainstream Hindi films strive to entertain the whole family. And I don’t gather that young desi audiences are altogether dismissive of the older likes of Burman and Rahman, at least not yet. Indeed, the star music-direction team of the moment is Vishal Dadlani and Shekhar Ravjiani, whose soundtracks from two recent hit films demonstrate the pair’s knack for juxtaposing old Bollywood’s folk-pop-classical blend with the high-NRG dance beats the latest generation of kiss-kiss-bang-bang films demand.

Even a high-style thriller like Dus has an opening dance sequence, and Vishal-Shekhar’s score contains a half-dozen Hinglish-language bhangra and techno-rock variations (including “Dus Gahane” and “Adrenaline Nitrate”). However, I sense Indian fans would dismiss the tracks I like most: Kansas-Karnatic psychedelia such as “Saamne Rati Ho” and the oozingly sensual “Jaaniye Ve.” Vishal-Shekhar’s pop aesthetic is even more highly pronounced in Salaam/Namaste, a superslick sex comedy shot in a hyper-MTV style, with an unexpectedly transgressive twist. Infectious indeed, and don’t be surprised when the sweet science behind dancefloor sizzlers like “What’s Goin’ On” and “My Dil Goes Mmmm” bounces right back to its Western source material.