Psst… The Secrets of Romantic Songs

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Namaste, Dear Music Lover,

Most great Bollywood movies have at least one romantic scene as part of the story. Often, the leading characters either have a “magic moment” (such as when they first meet, or when a relationship takes a turn, e.g. the couple endures some shared experience—like a fright, struggle or other plot complication) or two characters who find each other attractive wend their way into a romantic tryst, usually in a lovely outdoor pastoral (rural) or festive indoor (urban) setting.

In some films (as in life), the pretext preceding the launch into romance mode can be flimsy. Who can predict with any accuracy the probability of “chemistry” between two actors or film characters (again, as in life)?

The song or songs helping to tell these types of romantic cinematic moments often drive the plot (at least somewhat; they can be incidental to the plot or pivotal in it).

Please note that the romantic era of western classical music (circa 1830-1900) is NOT what this post is about. It’s about singing romantic songs for Indian movies (and what that involves, how to do one’s best performance, etc.). Love songs, friends, are what this is about! Hopefully, great ones by masters like Pritam, Ajay-Atul, etc.

In a typical scene, the enfatuated potential lovers dance, entwine and whirl around a green pasture or some carefully-planted garden or crop rows, exchanging furtive glances and playful teasing. Importantly, not every romantic scene (in life as in film) ends with the couple happily partnering up for a productive future together, so there is no one-approach-fits-all-love-songs way to sing them, either!

The courtship scene noted above proceeds like it’s divinely inspired (and perhaps in some instances it is), in the basically “perfect setting” combined with two leading actors in their best colorful outfits, glowing eyes and skin complexions, with toned physiques as (thanks to their skilled playback singers!) polished singing voices chase and tease each other along their merry paths (toward or away from even more intense romance).

Ah, romance! An impressive part of life.

Ah, love—and passion! Many more experienced lovers among us contend that romance isn’t all it’s claimed to be. Yes, a lot of romantic songs are duets, so I will share some ideas about duets here, and one unifying feature of romantic songs is that rhythmically they tend to be a bit slower-tempo and hence more conducive to the idea of relaxation, although arguably, nearly all lively dance songs have some flirting, which is certainly related to romanticism. We often idealize love and love songs. That’s a good thing! Go with it and prosper, Dear Music Lovers. ;)

The star-crossed film lovers usually wind up in each others’ arms, anticipating more feverish moments and the ongoing excitement of their (new) love. The vocals soar, and the music swells to a grand apotheosis. The audience can only imagine where the scene leads or ends. But obviously, there is no foolproof formula for love. Some of my lady friends point out that this is because there is always at least one fool involved. Rumor has it that more often than not, the fool is of the masculine persuasion. 

Indeed, I am oversimplifying the scenario, and in practice no two stories/scripts and relationships are identical. Not all men/actors are or play fools. So there is not only one or two “best way(s)” to perfectly interpret every romantic song. However, one can definitely plot a measured course to achieve what one feels are apt takes to best tell one’s characters’ (and the songwriters’) tales.

Honing in on that right take may require some direction from the production team (actors, directors or producers), but as I often suggest, the singer should have a strong idea before her recording session how to perform the song in order to support both the overall story and the integrity of their character.

I wanted to set up the mise en scène in order to be better able to explain about how to prepare or to practice romantic songs…

First, as I’ve suggested in an earlier post here, not every cinematic moment requires an over-the-top interpretation. This is because not every love story is fraught with passion and intrigue (some would say that fixed marriages can even be devoid of romantic love). Finding the right measure of emotionalism can be easy, or not. That’s because some characters (and by extension virtually all love story narratives) are complex, and how they play out in the stories of the film often involves subtle (or may exist within certain [usually comical] characters’) nuances. Now, whether these things are meant to be obvious enough to ‘colour’ the song lyrics and melodies to the extent we sing them differently (than how we sing less-romantic numbers) is often a moot point. 

By this, I mean that a vocal performance has some degree of emotion and what could be called the character’s POV (point of view), and I’ve found that these things have significance (but not so much impact that they completely overtake the meaning of the lyrics). In this regard, the folk wisdom of keeping some sort of balance between emotion and logic can be a healthy way to keep one’s vocals fitting well within the movie’s context. To once again reiterate the idea that will serve to prevent the unfortunate tendency of new-to-moviemaking staff to “try too hard” when portraying emotional content: don’t overthink (hence, don’t overdo) it!

We call an overly-obvious approach to a screen moment “on the nose” (meaning too obvious or “in one’s face”/blunt). I’m offering this insight to those wanting to sing Bollywood songs. I suppose there isn’t an equally apt phrase for a too-little-emotion approach (but obviously, any watered-down romance is very unlikely to inspire or to impress anyone).

As playback singers, we only get a song or two per film to aurally define our leading characters (mostly via good lyrics).

There is a key point that I’d like to convey to you here, dear music lovers: we need to quickly establish a balance between too much and too little emotion, for if we miss the mark, the entire film suffers. Perhaps the only fix for such a big gaffe is a better film sequel, and it’s not the fix the producers want, I assure you! Even audiences tend to regard every movie as its own entertainment zone with concomitant expectations that by the closing credits they will be fully satisfied with the overall experience.

Also, for movies set in present day scenarios, cliché love stories are less common. Men and women can be dominant or submissive. One OR the other may be the sole source of income, may be an outcast or renegade, or may play the dominant role in the love story of the leading-role partnership. Traditional gender roles are not always found in the most modern tales. What I mean by all of this is: the story may have a twist to some unexpected roles or outcomes. In order to bring our vocals with just the right qualities and tone, we must defer to the overarching ones shaping the overall movie experience.

Also, a profound mismatch between lyrics and melody very likely cannot be surmounted. We can always struggle and fumble toward a goal or approach to any song (that is perhaps little more than our career-informed conjecture). Or we can commit to what could be too intense or too miscalculated of a take. My advice here is: go for the greatness!! Life is too short to half-step forward.

I don’t pretend to have the definitive batch of advice to prepare you to master the art of interpreting a song for a film in order to be “most befitting” the plot and characters. Also, there is no master list of character types covering every conceivable role (and vocal implications). How dull that would play out, anyway! These matters are the stuff of playback singing from the first song, and should you find the process too much to manage to feel good about your singing, playback may not be your thing. Which is fine. There are many jobs that I would find unpleasant or even impossible (for me), too (I’ll spare you the long list, lol)!

Again, because a single approach cannot cover all of the many stories to be told and actors and their characters’ life experiences, dreams and hopes, we need a certain willingness to remain nimble and flexible (and trust me: audiences will recognize your unique voice; that won’t be lost because your take is especially informed by the character or its actor). I’m told that actors don’t fear losing their identity from one strong part or song, so why should singers fear losing our identities simply by association with one (or a few) impactful song(s) or especially-impactful skilled actor(s)?

Also, many stories are told in vignettes or stages—not necessarily in a single neat narrative flow. While the movie’s directors for action, dialogue and music can give us notes and suggestions for shaping our interpretations to best mesh with the movie’s story arc and (that of the back, present and future story) moments, only the singers (and the actors picturising the vocals) portraying the emotions fully express what is otherwise presumably their characters’ untold thoughts.

Regarding duet singing, my advice is to keep in mind that it’s a sort of push-pull, with both singers sort of taking turns, but not a contest to determine who is the better singer. Duets give characters space to express themselves, and for well-written numbers, both singers (characters) are winners.

This is also a feature of Bollywood movies: the lead characters tend to have rare gifts for a turn of phrase (thanks to well-written lyrics), giving the audience a glimpse of near-perfection. When the lyrics are some combination of profound and artful, often in the final edit when all of the elements are combined: magic happens. Or it should, lol.

Tackling a great new romantic song? As my dear relatives have advised me: leave the audience wanting [to hear] more! No one song can express every aspect of a person any more than any one film can tell the story of civilization, although it seems that “Lord knows we do try!” Your vocal prowess (one hopes) should exceed the parameters of any one great song, or perhaps if it does not, that could be your “swan song.”

With the lengthy semi-philosophical discussion above, this post is now a wrap! All the best in your own efforts to bring the romance across the ether (air)! I for one cannot wait to “duet it again” with Nakash Aziz and others to “bring the mushy stuff” into another on-screen situation; here’s wishing you only enduring successes in your vocal career.

Namaste, AM

PS: Wonder why there are no or so few images/photos to go along with my text above? It’s because I strove to be evocative in words, implying some sort of imagery. The fact that I’m not always able to coordinate with my web team is a harsh reality that we face with increasing frequency—as my schedule fills with recording sessions, concerts and other endeavours.

I simply don’t have time to create a new photo essay for each post (and apparently neither does my web crew). I’m not looking to dazzle my readers with pictures. My goal is to serve the playback community with my sterling wit and ageless wisdom (lol). I also had a wish to “crank this post out” prior to Feb. 14 (Saint Valentine’s Day, an anniversary dedicated to enduring affection), so the romantic among us get a taste of where I’m coming from.

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