Are Bollywood musical numbers in-story or fantasy?
January 12, 2013 7:00 AM   Subscribe

In Bollywood films, should I think of the musical numbers as something that exist in-story -- that is, the characters literally stop talking and break into a dance number, then return to normal -- or as fantasies that exist only in the lead actor's mind? Or would the best way to parse them be as kind of a Greek Chorus meta-comment?
posted by Shepherd to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Probably both, depending on the film and the plot. The term for sound that exists in the world of the film is diegetic sound.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:09 AM on January 12, 2013 [5 favorites]

Both. But parsing them is probably contrary to the key theme, which is simple entertainment.
posted by pomegranate at 7:31 AM on January 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

As ocherdraco said, it depends. There are some songs that are an escape and a way to see beautiful landscapes and saris and dances. Others help tell a story (or multiple stories) and are used to help further the plot(s). Sometimes it is a device used to propel the story forward in time as well.
posted by frizz at 7:31 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

I'm no Bollywood expert, but these explanations make sense to me, given that American movie musicals are the same way. Some are fantasies (the ballets in Oklahoma and An American In Paris, to name two), some are completely and logically diegetic in the sense that people are in a situation where they'd be singing so they are singing (Judy Garland doing "Get Happy" at the end of Summer Stock, for instance), and some are in-story situations where people just start singing for whatever reason (most of West Side Story, for instance). And in many/most shows, there's a combination of all of these.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 7:41 AM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

They're both. You can often (note: not always!) tell by the costumes whether it's supposed to be in-story or whether it's in one character's mind, or two, as a kind of joint-fantasy. So if there aren't any costume changes it's in-story, and if there are, then it's fantasy.
posted by Ziggy500 at 7:51 AM on January 12, 2013

You see this in a lot of earlier American musicals, part of the appeal is the spectacle so sometimes you'd have a totally out of nowhere huge set piece that bares on the plot not a whit or just slightly (or they have a fashion show in the middle of the movie, like in The Women, which isn't even a musical). Chicago, for example, is staged basically like a revue, a series of musical numbers that form a rough plot connecting them.

It's kind of like how modern action movies will sometimes have a completely pointless but amazingly choreographed fight sequence, it's part of the spectacle appeal and genre and sometimes it relates to the plot, sometimes it's all fantasy, and sometimes it's "We've hired Daler Mehndi and he's going in the movie dammit." and sometimes it's all of them.
posted by The Whelk at 7:53 AM on January 12, 2013

The film Aalavandhan (or Abhay) mixes this -- some of the musical numbers seem to happen in the real world, some seem to be characters' daydreams, and some are clearly hallucinations brought on by mental illness. So, even within the same film, the "reality" of the scene can change.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:56 AM on January 12, 2013

Does something happen in the song? Does time pass? Does something important to the plot happen in the song? Do people react to events in the song after the song is complete? If the answer is 'yes' to any of those, then that was in-story. Otherwise it was fantasy, exposition, etc.
posted by Ookseer at 10:11 AM on January 12, 2013

I think of musical numbers as meeting the same need as either a soliloquy or a montage of some sort. So, either pausing to illustrate the internal state of one or more characters, or else providing a "and here's stuff happening" way of advancing the setting for subsequent action.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:17 AM on January 12, 2013

Both, or sometimes a mixture of both. In older films the backdrop of the song would be metaphorical. A couple dancing, carefree in a field of tulips? They're falling in love. A woman dancing in the rain or pool of water? About as erotic as you'd get back then, but more like extended foreplay. Newer films are less stereotypical and more varied. (Sadly, the music is terrible now, but that's another topic.)

Life in a...Metro is refreshingly not quite Bollywood, so I wasn't expecting it to have songs. It bridges the gap between nonmusical independent Hindi films and typical Bollywood, with a twist. It includes rock songs (which is an atypical style for the film industry) performed by a band. The band itself is featured singing in the real world (though no one but the audience seems aware of them), and their performances are cut into montages of the plot, sometimes even interspersed with dialogue from the characters.
posted by mayurasana at 12:37 PM on January 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

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