Indian Background Music

Film movie production equipment

Music and epic song-and-dance numbers are crucial to Bollywood movies, with the soundtrack often released before the movie to capture and create an audience. As a result, Bollywood soundtracks and Indian background music account for nearly 80% of the country’s music revenue.

Indian cinema, also known as Bollywood, is one of the world’s biggest film producers, with more than 1,000 feature titles a year (Hollywood produces roughly half that.)‘Bollywood’ is usually used to describe Indian cinema as a whole, but more precisely it refers to Hindi language movies only. The name comes from combining Bombay (now Mumbai) – where most Hindi movies are made – and Hollywood, the centre of American movie-making.

Looking for inspiration for Indian background music? Here’s our top 5 picks:

'Bhangra Pauna Ve’ by Sidhant Kapoor

'Wonder of the World’ by Marc Jackson Burrows

‘Rangeeli Holi’ by Ruhan KapoorSidhant Kapoor

‘Enchanted in Time’ by Pete Lockett

'Saraswati’ by Michael Tedstone & Glenn Sharp

What was the first Indian movie?

The first movie by an Indian film-maker was shot in Mumbai’s Hanging Gardens in 1899 – a wrestling match captured by Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar. However, it was mainly imported films that gave Indian audiences their early experiences of cinema.

The Guardian revealed in its retrospective of a centenary of Indian film that inspiration struck Dadasaheb Phalke, a stage magician and photographer, as he was watching an imported film based on the Bible. ‘While the life of Christ was rolling before my eyes, I was mentally visualising the gods Shri Krishnu, Shri Ramchandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya,’ he wrote. ‘Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?’

Raja Harishchandra, released in 1913 was the result – now celebrated as the first Indian feature film – and by the 1930s the industry in India was producing over 200 films a year.

Filmi sings and Bollywood background music

‘Bollywood’ as a term was coined during the 1970s. The popularity of modern Bollywood films is often dependent on the quality of their musical numbers, and with a normal Bollywood movie lasting for about three hours, audiences definitely get their money’s worth. Songs and dances, love triangles, action, drama, melodrama, comedy and thrills are all mixed up in masala movies – the Hindustani word for a spice mixture.

Bollywood songs are known as filmi songs and are generally pre-recorded by professional playback singers, with the actors then lip syncing the words to the song on-screen, usually while dancing. Globalisation has had an effect on modern Indian background music, with lyrics increasingly mixing Hindi and English – while the music has incorporated salsa, pop and hip hop influences.

The biggest Bollywood music directors - masters of Indian audio

Bollywood cinema is unique, in that the majority of songs are sung by the characters themselves, rather than being background music. In Western films, a music director or music co-ordinator’s job is usually to select existing music to add to the soundtrack.

A Bollywood music director, however, has a much broader role – both composing music and songs specifically for the film, and if needed, securing additional music.

Some of the biggest music directors in Bollywood include A.R. Rahman, whose music for Slumdog Millionaire (2008) earned him Oscars for the Best Original Score and Best Original Song. Rahman is also acclaimed for his Indian background music – trained in classical music, he often brings in guitars, cello, flute and keyboards, as well as traditional Indian instruments.

Nadeem-Shravan are a duo who were the most successful Bollywood music directors of the 1990s, famous for using the bansuri, sitar and the shehnai in a modern way. Their breakthrough soundtrack album was 1990’s Aashiqui, which sold 20 million units in India, becoming the bestselling Bollywood soundtrack album of all time.

Jatin-Lalit are brothers, and were among the first composers to write songs performed by Bollywood stars, rather than playback singers. Their soundtrack for Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge was judged the top Hindi soundtrack of all time by voters on the BBC Asian Network (the brothers also scored the number two and three positions in the poll.)

The best Asian background music to license

If you’re looking for Indian and Asian background music to license for film, TV, video or commercials, then check out our Asia playlist from our World Lifestyle Series. Our artists include global superstars such as Sidhant Kapoor, who bring together everything from traditional sitar to tabla drumming and Bollywood dance fusion.

This page was first published 21/08/2015 and updated on 16/04/2020

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