The first two albums in a series of six collecting the best music from the various genres of Bollywood cinema, The Bombay Connection, Vol. 1, Funk From Bollywood Action Thrillers 1977-1984 and Bombshell Baby of Bombay, Vol. 2, Bouncin’ Nightclub Grooves From Bollywood Films 1959-1972, are as much about music as they are the movies these song compilations come from. Record label, Bombay Connection, spared nothing to uncover long-forgotten gems from Bollywood’s past to include in this series, also throwing in more well-known songs from successful films. The final result is two distinctly different, yet astoundingly good discs.
India’s cinema industry, often referred to as “Bollywood” (a combination of “Bombay” and “Hollywood"), turns out the largest number of films of any nation in the world. Between 1947 (the year India declared its independence from the British) and 1970, 4,334 films came from Bollywood, containing some 36,000 songs. Even more remarkable, much of the background music of these films (in addition to the featured songs) were recorded live and in single takes. A testament to the superb musicianship of Bollywood orchestras, the tremendous collaborative effort combined traditional Indian instruments with newer elements of Western music which had recently been introduced on the subcontinent.
Music and musicals are as intrinsic to Bollywood (past and present) as much as they were a part of American cinema in the Technicolor ‘50s when Debbie Reynolds and Donald O’Connor dominated the box office. Music and film are so intertwined in India that to tell of Bollywood’s history is to also tell the history of its popular music. Music was such a major part of India’s cinema experience that “song booklets” were sold in movie theatres containing the lyrics to the film compositions for their accompanying theatrical release.
Many of the songs on both discs were sung by Asha Boshle. Boshle, a playback singer whose vocals were dubbed for many of Bollywood’s leading ladies, has sung in over 925 films. Whereas many other playback singers took on the “good girl” roles, Boshle’s claim to fame was giving voice to the vamps of Bollywood cinema, most notably as the longtime playback singer for actress/dancer Helen, one of India’s most famous femme fatales of the ‘60s and ‘70s. On the production end of things, Rahul Dev (R.D.) Burman got his start as an assistant to his father, scoring films from the 1950s onward. Liking her style, Burman frequently collaborated with Asha Boshle, who he later married in 1980. Having a reputation as a mellow guy open to suggestions from his assistants, as well as studio musicians, Burman was a beloved and popular figure on the Bollywood music scene. Quite a number of songs on both Bombay Connection discs feature his touch.
The first disc in the series The Bombay Connection, Vol. 1, Funk From Bollywood Action Thrillers 1977-1984 is evidence that the Western world had not cornered the market on funk. Proved by the saxophone laced “Na Na Na Yeh Kya Karne Lage Ho” from Bombay 405 Miles, its risqu? recitations in both English and Hindi featured vocals by Hemlata, another prominent playback singer whose singing voice stood in for actress Zeenat Aman in the film. Reading the English translation from the original Hindi, the lyrics are poetically beautiful and erotic; not what you would typically expect of dance music. On “Yeh Dhuaan” (translated as “This Smoke"), from the film Dil Aur Deewaar, Asha Boshle’s versatile vocals sound like an Indian Shirley Bassey. While Dil Aur Deewaar wasn’t an overt nod to the 007 series, another Boshle-sung track, “Main Hoon Lily” from the film Bond 303, was. Several instrumentals on the first disc happen to be standout tracks that combine the best of East and West. The “Dance Music” from Ghamandee is full-on disco with its creeping bassline, frantic drumbeats and mix of synth and sitar.
While most of the album is enjoyable, it can’t all be gold. “Sote Sote Adhi Raat” from Siskeyan is performed by actress Salma Agha. Agha sang it in film herself without the aid of a “stunt voice” and unfortunately, it really shows. Similarly, vocal distortions make the “Title Music” from The Burning Train sound like Peter Frampton got a hold of its opening moments before launching into a freaky, trippy soundscape. With a horn and violin section straight out of a spy thriller or blaxploitation flick, the cacophony is interesting and striking at first, but repeats itself too often before the song winds to its close.
Bombshell Baby of Bombay, Vol. 2, Bouncin’ Nightclub Grooves From Bollywood Films 1959-1972 showcases Bombay’s thriving jazz scene in the 1940s and ‘50s as reflected in film. Asha Boshle is at it again, performing vocal scatting that would make Ella Fitzgerald proud on “Mera Naam Hai Shabnam” from Kati Patang, as well as a hot saxophone arrangement by noted Bollywood studio musician, Manohari Singh. Even more so than Volume 1, Volume 2 manages to incorporate a very American sound into many of its pieces. Priya‘s “Pretty Pretty Priya” expertly blends elements of such American music staples as the Beach Boys, Louis Prima, Buddy Holly and the Beatles with scintillating sitar playing by both Kartik and Jayaram Acharya. In fact, nearly all of the songs on the second disc combine traditional sitar and drums with a jitterbugging big band sound. Some songs even toss in an awesomely Indian take on surf guitar, particularly “Jan Pahechan Ho” from Gumnaam.
The collection offers some great mood music, but it may not for everyone. The beauty of the series is that the selections are carefully compartmentalized by genre to ensure that listeners get something in the vein of whatever style of music suits their fancy. If Indian music, big band, jazz and/or funk aren’t your cup of Darjeeling, both compilations may wear thin midway through. However, if you are a fan of these genres, the compilations deliver a refreshing listening experience. If neither of these discs appeal to you, rest assured, one of the other four Bombay Connection releases will.