Consider Ghost World one of those shots heard ’round the block. The film’s opening sequence — a bespectacled teenage outcast dancing in the privacy of her bedroom to a manically twisting number from a musical flickering across her tiny television screen — incorporated a colorful slab of celluloid to establish the protagonist’s offbeat personality. While the camera pulled away from the TV to focus on the twisting Thora Birch, the film inadvertently left an indelible mark unrelated to its story on its overwhelmingly Western audience: a first impression of one of the world’s largest film industries. That short snippet of “Jan Pehechan Ho” from Gumnaan single-handedly introduced many of the signature elements of Bollywood (Mumbai’s film industry): color, drama, and an unabashed use of song and dance in cinema. However, the sight of masked South Asian mods and a petite woman in a gold lamé cocktail dress doing the twist was mostly taken out of context and hardly captured the extent of Bollywood’s stylistic achievements.
A litany of Bollywood compilations followed Ghost World, but few have explored the genre’s multi-strand approach to music or truly captured its aesthetic like the Bombay Connections series. The compilation’s producer, record collector Edo Bouman, may not have a particularly unusual story (he has immersed himself in the soundtracks of the genre for the past ten years after randomly discovering the soundtrack to Hare Rama Hare Krishna and being struck by its fusion of “fast tabla breaks, screaming horror horns, vintage synthesizer sounds,” and more). However, he has assembled two volumes that discuss the spirit of Bollywood in an unprecedented manner.
Volume 1: Funk from Bollywood Action Thrillers explores the most familiar strand of Bollywood from the ’70s and early ’80s. The collection focuses heavily on the music of the period’s (mostly) urban action flicks — funky jawns and jams that echoed the spy thriller, action-adventure, and mystery themes and scores heard around the world at the same time. What makes Funk from Bollywood exceptional is that it drops the “greatest hits” approach in favor of selecting nuggets that demonstrate the broad range, incomparable technique, and sheer fun of the genre. As such, mainstay playback singers like Asha Boshle and Mohammed Rafi are featured on lesser known tracks, like Heeron Ka Chor‘s “Yeh Jawani Hai Meri Jaan”; the mish-mash track pairs the iconic voices with a bluesy violin solo, a tango-ing accordion, and a stomping break. The relative obscurity of some of these tracks is not so much for impressing collectors, so much as a fact of Bollywood life. In Bouman’s detailed liner notes he makes an important distinction between songs and background music, noting that songs (frequently used as a marketing jump-off for a film, “the whole idea being to score a big hit before the film was released in order to secure its success”) often reflected popular tastes, such as rock and disco. Funk was never as popular a form and was subsequently more prevalent in scores and background music. As such, Bouman has gone to great lengths to collect some true nuggets for beat heads.
Volume 2: Bombshell Baby of Bombay: Bouncin’ Nightclub Grooves repeats its predecessor’s concept and focuses on another strand of Bollywood films: the vamp. Explaining the history of serenades in Hindi film and its musical permutation with the rise of rock ‘n’ roll and swing, Bouman collects mostly songs from a variety of Bollywood’s great songwriters, or “music directors.” With each director pulling from a different set of influences, ranging from mambo to boogie woogie, rhythm and blues to tango, the songs significantly broaden the Ghost World conception of Bollywood music (although “Jan Pehechan Ho” is also included here).
The coup de grace for both collections is the packaging and liner notes. Rich with colorful poster reproductions, film stills, and record-sleeve images, Bouman fills out the booklet with detailed liners that explain much of the history, technique, and players behind each of Bollywood’s facets. To top it off, he also includes notes about each song’s film origin, the synopsis from the song booklet (handouts that moviegoers could receive that allowed them to sing-along during the movie and could be taken home as a souvenir), and lyrics (in both Hindi and English) for the songs. While Ghost World played a healthy role in spreading Bollywood beyond its already expansive reach (particularly in South Asia and South Asian diasporic communities), Bouman’s Bombay Connections series raises the bar considerably for exploring one of popular music’s most fascinating strands.