Bombay the right way

Bollywood sounds finally get U.S. release

There are 1.7 million Indians living in America, a number that's more than doubled in the last 10 years. And those 1.7 million people are among America's best educated (67 percent hold advanced degrees) and most financially solvent (their average income rests around $61,000 a year). Suffice it to say, they're a "marketing niche" that could yield substantial rewards.

So why is it, given the massive popularity of Bollywood films (and, more notably, the filmi music within them) among these affluent folks, that it's taken so long for an American label to issue any sort of comprehensive Bollywood soundtrack compilation? Indeed, "The Best of Bollywood: 15 Classic Hits From the Indian Cinema" is the first such CD.

A few other discs -- the beat-accentuated reworkings of Kayalnji Anandji's '70s cuts called "Bombay the Hard Way," a "Rough Guide to Bollywood," a handful of kitsch-amplified collections of older tracks -- were easily obtainable imports, while David Byrne's native Luaka Bop label put together an excellent assortment of Vijaya Anand's songs. But with the exception of the "Rough Guide" set, all previous collections were less concerned with providing an overview than in presenting a condescending, irony drenched approach to a form of music that is pop bliss to over a billion people. And if there's one thing Indian cinema is short on, it's irony.

Thankfully, the corporate monolith that is Universal has stepped in to remedy the situation with this 15-track compilation. Slimmed down from a three-disc, 41-track U.K. box set (where, by the way, there are "only" 1.5 million Indians that the country's record labels cater to with regular compilations and releases), the Herculean task of compressing 60-plus years of Indian soundtracks into an hour-plus of music is one at which this Best Of doesn't quite succeed. After all, the disc (as well as the box set from which it was culled) only mines the Universal India catalog. And though that catalog is deep and extensive -- Universal and its subsidiary companies have been in the Bollywood soundtrack business since the early '70s -- the exclusion of nonlabel soundtracks means dozens of important songs are missing. So groundbreaking soundtracks like A.R. Rahman's Taal (1999) or the all-time classic "Yaadon Ki Baraat" (1973) aren't represented.

Nonetheless, positioning songs from classic films like "Sholay" (R.D. Burman's legendary "Mehbooba Mehbooba") and "Johnny Mera Naam" (the giddy "Pal Bhar ke Liye" sung by Kishore Kumar) alongside more recent smashes like "Bombay" (yes, it's possible for a movie about race riots to yield love songs and dance numbers ... but only in India), does provide a balanced look at a misunderstood genre.

Though the stylistic embellishments get cosmetic updates every five years or so (the quasi-disco groove of "Laila O Laila" from "Qurbani" sounds as dated now as the saccharine synth-pop of the title track from 2001's "Chori Chori Chupke Chupke"), many of the fundamental elements have stayed in place. The careening, high-pitched female vocals providing counterpoint to the comparatively restrained "introspection" of their male duetting partners; the tabla-flecked rhythm patterns that owe as much to Western dance-pop as they do to the centuries of Indian drumming tradition; thick, syrupy string sections; arrangements that are as overbearing as they are infectious. The songs are carefully constructed popcraft, blatantly designed to evoke specific emotions, unencumbered by self-awareness or the burden of irony. The same visceral thrill that American audiences experienced from the broad, in-your-face brush strokes of "Chicago" is one that Indians have never abandoned. Perhaps now, with this long-overdue release, it's time to share the secret.

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