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Excerpt from Cassette Culture by Peter Manuel:

The film/music industry is not the primary creative source of melodic material in India, upon which most other amateur and professional musicians are parasitically dependent. Innumerable film tunes have in fact been borrowed from various kinds of folk music, and in general, many features of the mainstream light-classical music (e.g., dadra). Moreover, film-music composers have also found usable melodies in Western music, from nursery rhymes to Mozart's G-minor symphony. Finally, film composers often base new songs on prior Hindi film hits.

The amount of plagiarization within film music has greatly increased since the early 1980s, incurring repeated denunciations by critics like Subhash Jha, who see such parodies as reflecting the decadence of the genre. By far the leading offender, and the primary butt of criticism, has been film-music director Bappi Lahiri, who is regarded by some as largely responsible for the entire trend. Lahiri is a highly popular disco-oriented composer, who invites controversy and elitist disdain by boasting of the quantity of his output ---scores for roughly 30 films a year, totaling over 360 films by January 1990, thereby earning mention in the Guinness Book of World Records, and the contemptof reviewers like the ever-quotable Jha:

Off goes the composer, hunting for pop-rock tunes to pilfer from English, Swedish, African and Pakistani charts ... This, then, is the tragedy of film music today. A tragedy engineered by Bappi Lahiri almost single-handedly. (Jha 1989b)

In response to such criticism, Lahiri has no difficulty in citing familiar cases of plagiarism by other directors. Table 1 below shows a few of the better-known parodies of recent years. While Lahiri's name is certainly prominent in this list (which is by no means exhaustive), the extent of the practice in recent years suggests a trend too broad to be "single-handedly engineered," and indeed, other factors may be seen as responsible. One factor contributing to plagiarization from Western pop is that much Indian film music has moved stylistically closer to Western rock since the mid-1970s. The aforementioned turn to acton-oriented masala films has been one cause of this development. Another may be the inevitably increasing exposure of the Indian middle class to Western pop music, in conjunction with expansion of the bourgeoisie, of international communications, and of ties to NRI (nonresident Indian) communities in the West (including Trinidad). Thus, the increased introduction of rock style by R. D. Burman, Lahiri, and others is better seen as a response to the internationalization of Indian pop music rahter than as a result of the predilections of individual composers.

Plagiarism from the West raises some of the same issues of appropriation and local creativity as does the use of parody in film music, albeit on a different scale. Some critics complain that film-music directors are forsaking Indian music in obsequious and opportunistic imitation of Western pop. One music director complains:

As for lifting Western tunes, I think it is bad because rhythmically and melodically, we have such a deep musical culture. What makes the whole situation worse is that we're lifting the most superficial branches like disco and ABBA [Swedish rock group] when Western music is actually like a mighty tree.

Meanwhile, defenders like Lahiri argue that they are Indianizing the elements they borrow in creative syntheses, and that, moreover, modern Indian culture in general borrows liberally from the West. One could further add that, paradoxically, in plagiarizing Western pop tunes, Indian film-music composers are continuing the hoary and time-honored tradition of parody in Indian music, dating back to the Sangit Ratnakar.

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More exerpts from Peter Manuel's Cassette Culture

Book review of Cassette Culture