The quality of Indian films can be debated through the years, but if there is one things fans of Bollywood are sure about, it is that the music has always been great. Indian musicians have been exploring and learning all kinds of music across the diaspora. They've bought a lot of it to bear on Bollywood's traditional music scene. And in doing so, they are tearing up the rule book and charting new territory.
2008 was a great year for music. But there were some that entertained me more than others. Those CDs stayed either in or around my changer. Here are the Drift Entertainers of the Year (Bollywood Music Edition).
A. R. Rahman (Jodhaa Akbar, Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na, Ada, Yuvvraaj, Ghajini, Slumdog Millionaire)
By any standards, Rahman has had a prolific year. Judged by his own, its been a veritable deluge of music. This year two Rahman's seem to take shape before our very ears. One was an old-school Bollywood stylist - a sophisticated throwback to the music directors of yesteryear. His music here was dreamy, massive, almost epic. Sometimes it collapsed under its own weight (Yuvvraaj). Often it soared to great heights (Jodhaa Akbar).
But there was another Rahman - a composer of compact FM-ready confections - genuine melodies with smart production. And by tuning in to the needs of the commercial market, Rahman surprised us and scored at the cash registers.
First Rahman found the pulse of a nation with a jangly mid-tempo call to good cheer - Kabhi Kabhi Aditi and a beat-heavy farce Pappu Can't Dance from Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na. Both songs played a large part in making JTYJN one of the first genuine hits of the year.
Later, the same Rahman delivered a curious mix of songs for Ghajini - his collaboration with Aamir Khan. Ghajini has six tracks - they are wildly different compositions. Yet Rahman has integrated them into one single soundtrack that sounds coherent. On display again was his tendency to create a bellwether single (Javed Ali's buttery smooth Guzarish). Rahman mixed it up with a swirling dance anthem with a muted tribal feel (Shreya Ghoshal's Latoo), a power pop song (Suzanne's Aye Bachchu) and a Brat Pack composition (Behka).
Rahman also docked major international points by scoring the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire. If Slumdog can match its critical acclaim with box office success, Rahman will finally get the serious international attention he deserves.
Listen to the music of Jodhaa Akbar
Listen to the music of Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na
Listen to the music of Ada
Listen to the music of Ghajini
Listen to the music of Slumdog Millionaire
Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani, Loy Mendosa and Farhan Akhtar (The Music Team of Rock On!!)
Tasked with creating a hit soundtrack for a genre fast running out of steam in India (rock), music directors Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendosa started by recruiting someone who had never recorded commercially before. Heck, Farhan Akhtar wasn't even known as a singer. To top it, they gave six of the nine tracks to him.
Four days in a studio yielded a soundtrack full of hook heavy, tightly composed tracks that captured a lost sense of fun by staying true to old fashioned rock structure. Against all odds, Farhan delivered focussed and raw vocal intensity. Most importantly, others also joined the party with their A-game: Suraj Jagan, Caralisa Monteiro and Dominque Cerejo recorded some of their best work on the CD.
The music of Rock On was a runaway hit - instantly igniting the rock scene in India. Scores of rock musicians dusted off their guitars. Clubs suddenly couldn't book enough rock gigs. The movie fed off that energy and met with box office success - pleasing mainstream audiences, converting skeptics and evoking (somewhat) envious eyerolls from the guardians of counter culture.
SEL had only one major release this year. But boy, did they make it count!
Listen to Rock On!!
Vishal & Shekhar (Tashan, De Taali, Bachna Ae Haseeno, Dostana and The Unforgettables Tour)
Epitomizing the new breed of music directors in India - fully aligned with the director's vision, armed with a rolodex of high quality musicians, willing to tear up old Bollywood mores - V-S delivered more hits this year than anyone else, save AR Rahman. In 2008, they fine tuned their style - a cleanly produced, melody driven sound with neatly constructed percussion. Yet they were able to span quite a range.
They matched Tashan's hyper-violent needs with a jagged pill of a soundtrack. They lightened the mood and deepened their beats on De Taali. On Bachna Ae Haseeno, they delivered a more rote soundtrack, but adorned with some killer songs (Khuda Jaane, Jog Mahi). They hobnobbed with the Bachchans on their Unforgettables tour. But V-S still had time to squeeze out a final soundtrack. On Dostana, they created a breezy set of catchy songs - delicate, soulful, energetic in short bursts.
Listen to the music of De Taali
Listen to the music of Tashan
Listen to the music of Bachna Ae Haseeno
Listen to the music of Dostana
Suzanne D'mello (Singh is Kinng, Kidnap, Drona, Golmaal Returns, Ghajini)
Forget Shreya Ghoshal's enroachment on Sunidhi Chauhan's territory - the new heir apparent of club tracks in Bollywood is Suzanne D'mello. And its happened so quietly, you could be forgiven for saying Suzanne who? (It probably doesn't help matters that Suzanne is often credited with or without her last name and sometimes under the pseudonym Suzie Q)
Regardless of the name she used, Suzanne's voice powered an impressive list of hits this year. She accompanied Labh Jhanjua on Singh Is Kingg's ubiquitous Jee Karda (nice rap, Suze). Singing for Pritam again, she delivered one of my favorite tracks of the year - Hey Ya (Kidnap), built on a ridiculously catchy R&B framework.
She Meow'd on Golmaal Returns, smoked her way through Na Dekho (Rubaru) and brought spunk and attitude to Rahman's Aye Bachchu (Ghajini). Suzanne has been singing in commercials for years and she's a veritable fixture in several studios. This was the year Bollywood was able to explore her fresh, sexy voice.
Listen to Jee Karda (Singh is Kinng) with Labh Jhanjua
Listen to Hey Ya (Kidnap)
Listen to Khushi (Drona) with Shaan
Listen to Na Dekho (Rubaru)
Listen to Meeow (Golmaal Returns)
Listen to Aye Bachchu (Ghajini)
Nitz'N'Sony (Money Hai to Honey Hai)
Musically, a Govinda movie is to be laughed at - no, literally. The music is treated as a lark. But a pair of music directors who met while working in a hotel (Nitin was a Hotel Manager, Sony was a chef) came together to deliver such a wonderful sucker punch with the soundtrack to Money Hai to Honey Hai, that I still can't stop listening.
Full of seductive, inventive and alarmingly risky beats, MHTHH was irresistibly catchy. Nitin Arora and Sony Chandy (Nitz'N'Sony) used a delicious mix of talent that had never been brought together on a soundtrack (Harshdeep, Suraj Jagan, Kunal Ganjawala, Rekha Bhardwaj, Adnan Sami, Shruti Pathak, Daler Mehndi, Master Saleem, Sunidhi Chauhan, Shaan, Labh Jhanjua, Sivamani) and because they were willing to use voices instead of names, their tracks won big.
Listen to the music of Money Hai to Honey Hai
Sneha Khanwalker (Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!)
Given an assignment to compose a Punjabi CD is sure to elicit groans from any music director. How do you take an overplayed genre and reinvent it? Surely all the mundiyas and mahis have been done to death and can't be reinterpreted.
But Sneha Khanwalker took a deep tour of the land and sat in on numerous grassroots singing jashans. She came back armed with ideas and composed a soundtrack so innovative, lilting and fresh that it took everyone by surprise. (More on Sneha's work in this excellent interview with Anita Iyer)
There are plenty of pleasures worth checking out on Sneha's CD - but start with the seductive beat of Superchor and the brilliant pacing on Hooriyan, then listen to the Clinton Cerejo arranged Punjabi reggae of Tu Raja Ki.
Listen to the music of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!