ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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New Voices in Songs

Do Women in Hindi Films Have Greater Agency?

Thin voices in Hindi film music are seen to be associated with "good girls" who are obedient, innocent, and pure. Lata Mangeshkar's thin voice is assumed to have suited a particular vision of femininity promoted by Hindi films at the time. It is tempting to think that as their singing voices have thickened and acquired greater texture, female characters in Hindi films have similarly acquired greater agency, rebelliousness and independence. The reality, however, is very different.

Thin-voiced female playback singers, in particular two extra­ordinarily accomplished women, with exceptional musical virtuosity, ruled the roost in the world of Hindi film music from the late 1940s to the early 1990s, if not longer. This was also an era when the song was an essential component of Hindi movies. It conveyed what words could not articulate, it aided the cinematic progression of the plot, it allowed the expression of intense emotion—joy, love of all kinds, longing and grief; songs were exuberant, melancholy, playful, deeply romantic; and expressed sexual desire, without being explicit, in ways that stirred deep-rooted subterranean emotional responses in their listeners. For all these reasons, Hindi film songs, and the voices in which they were sung, became an integral part of our lives, our companions through thick and thin, in sickness and in health.

Times changed, and so did all the above features, albeit slowly. From the early 1990s, new female playback voices started to emerge, as Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, visibly and audibly, aged. The next two stars on the musical firmament, Alka Yagnik more overtly and Kavita Krishnamurthy less so, emulated the established and predominant form of voice production. The song continued to play a critical role in the success of Hindi films, even when its link to the plot was tenuous, at best. Fast-paced, foot-tapping dance numbers, shot stylistically like music videos, vital for film promotions, were relegated to the end of the film as the credits rolled out and the audience was walking out of the theatre. Additionally, if the years from the 1950s to the mid 1970s were the golden era of Hindi film music, the 1980s were itsnadir, marked by eminently forgettable lyrics in embarrassingly poor language set to copy-pasted, loud tunes with very low shelf life.

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