Simple to exorbitant: journey of the Bollywood song(The first of a two-part series on Hindi film songs)

June 5th, 2008 - 10:10 am ICT by IANS  

By Jivraj Burman
Mumbai, June 5 (IANS) Songs became an integral part of Indian movies ever since the talkies era started with “Alam Ara” in 1931. Released on March 14 that year, it had seven songs. As the early Indian movies were all based on dramas, songs came to be an inseparable part of talkies.

Singer-actor Master Nisar who, along with Jahanara Kajjan, appeared in India’s second talkie, “Shirin Farhad” - released just two months after “Alam Ara” - was such a hit with the audience that in his subsequent talkies he sang 30 to 40 songs.

Nisar, one of the first Bollywood actors to hit stardom, however, died in penury. At the later stage of his life he survived on the munificence of the Good Samaritans from Bollywood, including actresses Nargis and Nadira.

When this correspondent visited his house at a nondescript locality on Grant Road in central Mumbai after his death in the late 1970s, it had not even a chair for anybody to sit on.

In those days it was mandatory for actors to be singers. Many with acting talent could not make it because they could not sing.

Since the introduction of the playback system was still a few years away, the songs had to be sung live by the artistes in ’single system sound’, which required the sound to be recorded simultaneously with the picturisation of scenes.

This meant that the musicians, keeping themselves out of the camera frame, had to play their instruments following the movements of the artistes when they sang. Neither the artistes nor the musicians could afford ‘re-takes’.

It was a very cumbersome, if not costly, process. But the artistes, musicians and the technicians perfected it gradually.

“The musicians had to carry their ‘baja’ (musical instruments) to the sets and to the outdoors when the shootings were held there,” the late actor Ashok Kumar had once told this correspondent, recalling his days in the earlier talkies era.

“Before ‘double system sound’ was introduced, separating the sound from picturisation of scenes or songs, the movies used to have all the extraneous sounds, including the caws of crows, creeping into the film, spoiling most of the romantic and intense scenes.”

Cut to 21st century Bollywood.

The format of the movies has not changed much, though technology took a giant leap. Like earlier, songs continue to enliven Hindi movies, but at a very heavy price. Today just one song can entail a cost of Rs.10 million and even more.

An average music director today demands and gets Rs.2.5 million to compose music in a movie. If the composer is in the class of A.R. Rahman, the price goes up to Rs.10 million per assignment.

The fee of a song-writer or lyricist varies from Rs.50,000 to Rs.300,000, depending on his eminence and popularity.

Before a song is penned, composed and recorded, a producer needs to loosen his purse strings to arrange a series of all-expenses-paid ’sittings’ among the lyricist, composer and movie director, often at a hill station near Mumbai.

It takes three to four days to record a song and the hiring charge of a recording studio is between Rs.1,000 and Rs.3,000 per hour. Assuming that about 25 to 30 musicians are required for the recording, the producer ends up spending Rs.200,000 to Rs.300,000 on them daily.

A popular playback singer gets Rs.25,000 to Rs.50,000 for lending his or her voice to one song. The fee is four times over if the singer is Lata Mangeshkar or Asha Bhosle.

Once the song is ready to be picturised on artistes, the cost escalates at an unpredictable scale.

“Up to the recording level, all expenses are mostly regulated. But once the song is ready to be picturised on artistes, we are not only at their mercy but also at the mercy of a host of external factors, involving a plethora of people from divergent fields,” said producer Pahlaj Nihalani.

Nihalani is currently making the musical “Khushboo”, which has singer Adnan Sami scoring music for the first time.

Cost apart, it is indeed a very tiring process to have a song picturised.

(Jivraj Burman can be contacted at

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