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Reviewed by:
  • Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema
  • Gregory Booth (bio)
Anna Morcom, Hindi Film Songs and the Cinema (SOAS Musicology Series) (Ashgate, 2007), 281pp.

The commercial Hindi-language cinema of Mumbai offers unique perspectives on India’s cultural and industrial responses to the technical and aesthetic challenges of producing sound film narratives across much of the twentieth century. These include India’s enculturation of the separation of sound and image, the persistence of ‘live’ studio recording through the 1980s, and its distinct aesthetic conventions around song versus background music, as well as (more generally) its response to foreign (and especially Western) influences. This volume is the first full-length study by a foreigner that makes any attempt to address these complex issues; as such it is a valuable contribution to the literature on Hindi cinema.

This study is based on ethnographic research undertaken during the later 1990s, largely among the elite of Mumbai’s film and film music production world. Morcom was fortunate to have access to some of these individuals, who contribute an insider’s view to this often non-transparent industry. In addition to this valuable material, some of Morcom’s subsequent research was web-based, especially on matters of reception. Her work thus calls our attention to the wealth of information available on the many fan- and media-based Bollywood websites. Overall, the book adds much to our understanding, especially of the industrial and aesthetic processes of song and film production.

More specifically, Morcom’s fundamental contribution is her argument for a narrative and cinematic model of song in the Hindi cinema: ‘Although film songs are widely dubbed as “Indian popular music” this is rather misleading … It must be emphasized that the audio-visual relationship of film songs and non-film pop songs (Indian and Western) is fundamentally different: film songs are always written around a forthcoming narrative and visual situation’ (199). Her initial chapter sets this argument out convincingly.

In Chapter 2 Morcom addresses narrative/music production and the creative interactions between music directors (composers) and film directors and/or producers. Readers may be disappointed by the lack of [End Page 123] detail on the technological and systemic aspects of Hindi film song production; but there were admittedly few written sources addressing this issue at the time of publication. Technology and actual production of film sound do appear as issues from time to time; but a reliance on secondary sources weakens Morcom’s conclusions – as, for example, when she proposes that ‘around 1950, the quantity and scale of background music in Hindi films significantly increased, with many aspects of Hollywood scoring entering Hindi films, such as large symphony-style orchestrations. This is easily traceable to direct Hollywood influence and also to technological advances around 1950 that made the recording of large ensembles more feasible’ (138). The advances are vaguely defined in terms of improved quality and availability of microphones, a minor matter in comparison with the development of permanent music recording studios (to say nothing of the increased availability of trained musicians) that occurred at this time.

Each of the book’s chapters is, in many ways, a standalone study (indeed, Chapter 5 has been published, with minor alterations, as a chapter in Gopal and Moorti’s 2008 volume on the Hindi cinema); but commonalities of topic or focus do create two pairs within the six chapters. A concern with industrial matters unites Chapters 5 and 6. Chapter 5 expands our understanding of the ways in which Mumbai’s film music industry operates by examining the crucial commercial relationship between songs and films, and the commercial value of film songs as popular songs. This chapter provides valuable statistical information on sales and profits. In Chapter 6, Morcom reports on the popularity of Hindi film songs as measured by various ‘Top Ten’ and other listings of movies and songs as found in the Indian press and broadcast media, as well as on Bollywood websites. In this chapter she also tracks the processes and contexts of listeners’ contact and interaction with Hindi film song. Significantly, Morcom traces the importance of cassettes in building consumption of film music and emphasises the competitive: ‘cassettes revolutionized the [music] industry by...


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pp. 123-126
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