Filmi is Indian popular music as written and performed for Indian cinema. The various Indian cinema industries produce thousands of films a year, most of which are musicals and feature elaborate song and dance numbers. There is constant work for pop music composers — or music directors, to use the Indian term. Movie soundtracks are released as tapes and CDs, sometimes even before the movie is released. They dominate pop music.

This may be partly due to widespread music piracy in India. Songs released only on CD may be popular, but they will not necessarily make any money for the artists, thanks to illegal copying. A composer makes more money as a music director, due to up-front payments by film-makers, and also gets free publicity. This is also true of singers and musicians. Filmi thus attracts some of the most talented Indian artistes.

Why musicals? Some say that the long tradition of Indian temple spectacles, sacred dramas danced and sung, still shapes Indian tastes. Others point to the linguistic diversity of India. Many languages are spoken and there are a number of regional cinemas. Only films that transcend language barriers have any hope of being all-India hits. Music, not being tied to any one language, expresses the feelings of the characters even to people who can't follow the dialogue.

Indian cinema does not require that its performers act, dance, and sing — they must merely act and dance. They only pretend to sing, lip-synching songs sung by professional playback singers. Playback singers need not be beautiful or photogenic; they need only be supremely good singers. They tend to sing for many films, have long careers and be adored by their fans.

(One might usefully contrast the forthrightness of Indian practice with Hollywood's assumption that musical stars should be actors, dancers, and singers. When Hollywood does use playback singers, the practice is buried in the end-of-film credits and ignored as much as possible by the publicists. Perhaps one reason that Hollywood does not produce as many musicals as India is that it is harder to find performers with the multiple talents required.)

Filmi is often said to have begun in 1931, with the release of Ardeshir M. Irani's Alam Ara and its popular soundtrack. In the earliest years of the Indian cinema, filmi was generally Indian (classical and folk) in inspiration, with some Western elements. Over the years, the Western elements have increased, but without completely destroying the Indian flavour.


Music Directors

Naushad and Khaiyyam were noteworthy music directors of the 1940s and 1950s, writing scores redolent of the elegance of Northern India's Moghul and Rajput courts. As Indian cinema segued into the go-go years of the 1960s and 1970s, pop artists like R.D. Burman and duos like Nadeem-Shravan and Jatin-Lalit gave filmi a stronger western flavor. Ilayaraaja became phenomenonly successful during the 1980s especially in southern India. In the 1990s and 2000s, the dominant force in filmi has been the phenomenally successful A. R. Rahman, who vaulted from fame in the Tamil film industry to success in Bollywood and finally to hit musicals in London and New York.

See: Indian film music directors

Playback singers

According to an interview that Lata Mangeshkar gave the author Nasreen Munni Kabir (Bollywood, Channel 4 Books, 2001), the Indian film industry at first refused to credit playback singers. Like the Hollywood producers, Indian film producers tried to pretend that the actors and actresses were singing in their own voices. After several of her songs became hits on records and radio, Lata demanded that her name appear in the film credits too. This was first done in 1949, in the film Barsaat. Producers and directors soon found that Lata's name helped sell films. Lata and other playback singers became pop idols.

Lata had a high, pure, piercing soprano voice that survived all the indignities of bad sound reproduction and background generator noise from traveling movie shows (long the only source of entertainment for many Indian villages). She and her sister Asha Bhosle dominated female playback singing for decades. As Lata's voice has aged, she is singing less and less. Other singers have gained fame, like Alka Yagnik and Kavita Krishnamurthy.

Well-known male playback singers include Mohammed Rafi, Mukesh, Kishore Kumar, Talat Mahmood, and Manna Dey. Younger singers include Udit Narayan, Kumar Sanu, Abhijeet, and Sonu Nigam.

See: Playback singer


In the 1950s and 60s, lyricists like Shailendra, Hasrat Jaipuri, Sahir Ludhianvi and Raja Mehandi Ali Khan wrote lyrics still fondly remembered today. Lyrics tended towards the literary and drew heavily on contemporary Urdu and Hindi poetry. The pop lyrics of later years are deplored by filmi traditionalists.


Instruments played as background to the vocals include:

Unlike music directors and playback singers, instrumentalists do not get film credits and are less likely to use movies as a springboard to popular success.

Accusations of plagiarism

Because popular music directors score a great many films over the course of a year, there is always a tendency to cut corners and speed production by plagiarizing. The usual target is a catchy Western tune with proven audience appeal. For example, one production number in Dil (1990) is based on Elvis's Blue Suede Shoes, sung with Hindi lyrics. Of late the Indian film industry has been gaining visibility outside India and now there is real legal risk in plagarism. Some producers have actually paid for the musical rights to popular Western songs. The Indian audience is also much better acquainted with Western music and films these days and more apt to notice the imitations. It would be hard to measure musical plagiarism with any exactness, but it is probably diminishing. Accusations of plagiarism in filmi music are discussed at this site, [1] (

Wider success for filmi

Filmi is also making converts and exerting influence beyond the usual desi audiences. Western music stores carry Bollywood compilations. Baz Luhrman showcases the song "Chamma Chamma" from China Gate in his 2002 movie Moulin Rouge. A. R. Rahman, one of the most popular current music directors, now has a musical, Bombay Dreams, playing in London and New York.

Non-Indians interested in sampling filmi can listen to several Internet radio stations. If local music stores don't carry filmi, CDs can be purchased online or at local Indian grocery/spice/video stores. Some CDs are simply movie soundtracks; others are compilations of favorite songs by popular music directors or playback singers. Consult those Wikipedia articles for lists of popular artists.

Internet radio stations playing filmi

See also


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