Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images
The Evolution Of Bollywood Music In 10 Songs: From "Awaara Hoon" To "Naatu Naatu"
Bollywood music has been thriving since the 1950s, and continues to evolve. Chart its growth with 10 songs that employ everything from orchestral strings, high-pitched female vocals and traditional instruments to rock 'n' roll.
2023 has proven to be a historic year for the music of Indian cinema. The hyperkinetic "Naatu Naatu," off the period drama RRR, won both an Academy Award and Golden Globe for Best Original Song.
This moment of global recognition is perfectly fine, of course, but Bollywood music has been thriving — and winning the hearts of millions of fans — since the 1950s. At that time, India's film industry experienced a golden era thanks to a generation of brilliant directors, producers, actors — and, of course, singers and composers.
Concurrently, playback singers — the actual performers recording vocals that are later mimed by the actors — became international household names. Prolific and multifaceted, artists like Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle (Mangeshkar's younger sister), Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh recorded at a breakneck pace; the warmth and passion in their voices became ingrained in the DNA of Indian popular culture.
The tunes themselves adopt a different cosmovision from the typical harmonic progressions of Western pop. Instead, they obsess on melody and rhythm, favoring swirling orchestral strings, high-pitched female vocals, and traditional instruments like tabla and sitar. Bollywood songs often have plenty of breathing room, with extended passages that generate trance-like moods. Outside stylistic references have included everything from mambo, disco and psychedelia to rock, hip-hop and reggaetón.
This selection of golden standards and underrated gems of Indian cinema traces the evolution of Bollywood music through seven decades.
"Awaara Hoon" (1951)
The splendor of Indian cinema began to shine in earnest with Awaar, a wistful slice of social criticism directed, produced and starred by Raj Kapoor, Bollywood’s own Charles Chaplin. His version of the idealistic tramp character shares his cosmovision in this song voiced by Mukesh (1923-76), a playback singer with a gift for melancholy undertones.
Both song and movie were hugely successful in Asia and Europe (local covers were recorded in Greece, Turkey and Romania, among other countries.) It was only the early ‘50s, and the world was already beginning to pay attention.
"Bahut Shukriya, Badi Meherbani" (1962)
Boasting the luminous presence of actress Sadhana Shivdasani, the romantic spy thriller Ek Musafir Ek Hasina ("A Traveler and a Beauty") includes one of the most delicate duets from the Bollywood golden era in the 1950s. Punctuated by busy harmonium lines and influenced by Indian folk, "Bahut Shukriya, Badi Meherbani" was written by master composer O. P. Nayyar, known for the sweetness of his melodies.
Most of the song is taken up by the honeyed singing of Mohammed Rafi, but when the legendary Asha Bhosle joins in, the track feels complete and revelatory.
"Chura Liya Hai Tumne Jo Dil Ko" (1973)
A playback singer of mythical status, Asha Bhosle — now 89 years old — followed in the footsteps of her sister Lata Mangeshkar and became, according to Guinness, the most recorded vocalist in history, with over 12,000 songs to her credit.
A personal favorite of hers, this track from the film Yaadon Ki Baaraat may be her very best. It begins with the clinking of glasses, like a mystical ritual, and moves on with the majestic swelling of strings, giving way to Asha’s perfectly controlled pitch. She navigates the difficult melodic line with exquisite ease.
"Mehbooba Mehbooba" (1973)
Directed by Ramesh Sippy, Sholay signified a before and after moment. Initially released to lukewarm reviews and low ticket sales, it became Bollywood’s biggest grossing film for decades, and is considered the golden paradigm of the emerging masala genre: a mosaic of thrills and romance, humor and music.
The soundtrack, by visionary composer — and Asha Bhosle’s future husband — R. D. Burman includes this impossibly catchy tune vocalized by the maestro himself.
"In Ankhon Ki Masti" (1981)
Performed by Asha Bhosle, the songs of the critically acclaimed literary adaptation Umrao Jaan showcase the most mournful aspects of Bollywood music. Set in the 19th century, the film tells story of a young girl who is kidnapped from her family, sold to a brothel and trained as a sophisticated courtesan. "In Ankhon Ki Masti" is appropriately tragic, but infused in the intoxicating melodies of Punjabi composer Khayyam. Bhosle used her lower register, adding gravitas to such classic tunes as "In Ankhon Ki Masti."
"Chaiyya Chaiyya" (1998)
Known for his award-winning soundtrack to the British film Slumdog Millionaire, A. R. Rahman wrote some of his best music for the politically-charged thriller Dil Se..
Symbolizing the reckless adrenaline of love at first sight, the rollicking "Chaiyya Chaiyya" sequence finds actors Shah Rukh Khan and Malaika Arora dancing together with dozens of performers on top of a train that moves along the Indian countryside — a sequence shot on the Nilgiri Express with no added digital effects. To this day, it stands as one of Bollywood’s most breathtaking sequences. The song itself was recorded by playback singers Sukhwinder Singh and Sapna Awasthi.
"Kuch Kuch Hota Hai" (1998)
Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is an extraordinary film in several ways. The directing debut of industry heavyweight Karan Johar (who was 26 at the time), the production was made possible thanks to the support of mega-star Shah Ruck Khan and ended up being the year’s biggest grossing film.
Shot in Scotland, the title track sequence underscores the formal beauty of the song, which was written by brothers Jatin and Lalit Pandit. From the angelic choir in the intro to the powerful use of tabla as rhythmic backdrop and the soaring modulation of singer Alka Yagnik in the bridge, this is aural candy for the ages.
"Chotta Chotta" (1999)
The world of Bollywood music is so extravagant and richly layered that even the lesser-known commercial disappointments feature compositions of dazzling beauty and depth. Such is the case with this gorgeous track from the Tamil film Taj Mahal.
"Chotta Chotta" combines tribal backbeat with traditional instrumentation and a stately, existential mood. This combination is unsurprising when you consider the pedigree of its creator: the prodigious A. R. Rahman. "Chotta Chotta" is the kind of tune that can ignite a lifelong obsession with Indian music.
"London Thumakda" (2013)
The exuberant wedding scene with family members of all ages dancing together is a staple of Bollywood productions, and this bubbly number from the Vikas Bahl hit Queen gets every single detail right — including the occasional power cut.
Written by Mumbai composer Amit Trivedi, the buoyant score complements the story of Rani, who decides to spend her honeymoon in Paris and Amsterdam alone after her fiancé dumps her one day before their wedding.
"Naatu Naatu" (2022)
Besides being the third highest grossing film in Bollywood history, action drama RRR underscores the globalization of Indian culture, with its biggest hit, "Naatu Naatu," bringing home an Academy Award and Golden Globe.
Drawn from stories of revolutionaries fighting for freedom during the British Raj, RRR shows how far Indian film has evolved in the new century. Written by veteran composer M. M. Keeravani, the track thrives on spectacular vocal harmonies and slick production values.
Photo: Michito Goto
Global Spin: Japanese Rock Band MAN WITH A MISSION Tear Up The Stage With An Electric Performance Of "Fly Again"
The half-man, half-wolf Japanese metal band MAN WITH A MISSION throw down on stage in this live performance of "Fly Again," a track from their 2011 self-titled album.
Japanese rockers MAN WITH A MISSION don't reveal their aesthetic in dribs and drabs; within mere seconds, you know what they're all about. And that's getting hyped — in the wolfiest of ways.*
Donning their signature canine headgear, the heavy Japanese collective gets throngs of disciples turnt up as they absolutely lay into a rendition of "Fly Again." The feeling is so new/ Believe in what you do," goes one verse. "Don't you ever be afraid in losing/ That's the clue." A wolf's creed indeed!
In this episode of Global Spin, raise a glass to AAPI month with this hair-raising live performance by a group at the vanguard of Japanese heaviness. And if you'd like to join the thrilled masses in this video, MAN WITH A MISSION are in the midst of a North American tour.
Enjoy MAN WITH A MISSION's electrifying performance of "Fly Again" above, and check back to GRAMMY.com for more episodes of Global Spin.
pHOTOS: RYAN LIMAFP via Getty Images,David Talukdar/NurPhoto via Getty Images, Prabhas Roy/Hindustan Times via Getty Images, Satish Bate/Hindustan Times via Getty Images, SUJIT JAISWALAFP via Getty Images
5 Bollywood Stars To Discover: Shreya Ghoshal, Badshah & Others
A new generation of Bollywood singers and composers are bringing a fresh approach to the music, embedding their creations with influences from hip-hop and electronica, and fusing Indian folk and classical traditions with the pop mainstream.
For many decades, the lush soundscapes of Indian film music were dominated by a select group of singing legends: from Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle to Hemant Kumar, Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi. A change of the guard was inevitable, and it began during the last years of the 20th century.
As the film industry in India became more globalized and diversified, and reality shows opened up doors for young performers, it was only natural that talented playback singers — the actual performers recording vocals that are later mimed by the actors — would appear in all corners of the vast country.
The Bollywood standards that captivated the imagination of millions from the ‘50s to the ‘90s are still timeless. But a new generation of singers and composers are bringing a fresh approach to the music known as filmi — embedding their creations with influences from hip-hop and electronica, and fusing Indian folk and classical traditions with the pop mainstream.
Here are five young stars of Bollywood music who are ready to be discovered by the rest of the world.
One listen to “Kesariya,” the lilting ballad from the 2022 fantasy blockbuster Brahmāstra: Part One – Shiva is enough to understand why 36-year-old singer and composer Arijit Singh has been the most streamed Indian artist on Spotify for the past three consecutive years. Singh’s velvety inflections demonstrate the influence of mainstream pop, while remaining faithful to the film masters that he grew up listening to — particularly golden era maestro Kishore Kumar.
Born in West Bengal, Singh was raised in a musical family. Everybody sang around him in childhood, and he was also exposed to both Western and Bengali classical music. Singh has been criticized for lending his voice to too many Bollywood productions, but a prolific output has defined playback singers since the very beginning of India’s movie industry. His association with composer Pritam is already legendary. This year, the team delivered an instant classic: the atmospheric “O Bedardeya,” from the romantic comedy Tu Jhoothi Main Makkaar.
This 34-year-old vocalist from the northern city of Rishikesh (also where the Beatles studied meditation with the Maharishi in 1967) wasn’t alone on her path to Bollywood stardom. Neha is the youngest sister of playback singers Tony and Sonu Kakkar, and the entire family initially moved to Delhi in order to further their musical careers. At 16, Neha was a contestant in the second season of the reality show "Indian Idol," but was eliminated early — she would return to the show as judge, and gain notoriety for her empathetic reactions to the performances of aspiring stars.
In 2014, she collaborated with famed music director Amir Trivedi on the rambunctious “London Thumkada,” which accompanies an unforgettable wedding scene in the award-winning film Queen, about a young woman’s path to personal freedom. Since then, the self-taught Kakkar has recorded a number of soulful duets for Bollywood productions. In 2020, the groovy “Dil Ko Karaar Aaya” became one of her biggest hits.
It makes sense that the integration of hip-hop into the Indian music mainstream would generate some controversy, and the wild success of rapper and film producer Banshah has polarized critics.
Born in Delhi, Badshah studied civil engineering before turning into music full time. In 2020, his smash duet “Genda Phool” (Marigold Flower) with playback singer Payal Dev was met with hostility by the Indian press because it openly lifted lines from a classic Bengali folk tune. Badshah’s musical ambition, knack for bouncy beats and clever rhymes has transcended his critics. He continues to enrich filmi music with rap and novel ideas: Check out the darkly hued, sinuous melodic lines of “Bad Boy,” which he contributed to Saaho, the second highest grossing Bollywood film of 2019.
Growing up in Panipat, a city north of Delhi, Asees Kaur obsessively studied cassette tapes of Gurbani — the compositions of Sikh Gurus. It is not surprising that the 34-year-old playback singer’s best Bollywood moments are infused with a subtle spiritual vibe, a benign tranquility.
Her first big hit was “Bolna,” a duet from the 2016 family drama Kapoor & Sons. She recorded her vocals separately, and was pleasantly surprised to find out that the finished product also involved the voice of Anijit Singh. Kaur’s popularity skyrocketed in 2021 with “Raaraan Lambiyan,” the moving opening track to the Shershaah soundtrack — a stirring war biopic.
At 39, Shreya Ghoshal is already a legend among contemporary playback singers — her prodigious output and notorious versatility providing a link to the golden era of Indian cinema. Tonally, Ghoshal also evokes the spell of singing icon Lata Mangeshkar, one of her greatest influences.
Classically trained in Hindustani music, Ghoshal was a teenager when she won the reality show "Sa Re Ga Ma," attracting the attention of the film industry. Her auspicious debut as playback singer happened on the 2002 romantic drama Devdas, one of the quintessential Indian films of the past three decades. Mimed by actress Aishwarya Rai, the song “Silsila Ye Chahat Ka” made for a spectacular dancing sequence with lavish wardrobe and sets. Ghoshal's honeyed soprano has served her well, with a gallery of hits that includes recent tracks such as the gorgeous “Pal,” a duet with Arijit Singh from the 2018 film Jalebi.
Photos: Chris Saucedo/Getty Images for SXSW; Robert Okine/Getty Images; Scott Dudelson/Getty Images for Coachella; Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images; Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images
5 Artists Showing The Future Of AAPI Representation In Rap: Audrey Nuna, TiaCorine & More
A growing number of Asian American and Pacific Islander artists are exploring how hip-hop can help them meaningfully express their multiculturalism — and they're being embraced for doing so.
At that point, some firsts for the community turned out to be false starts: In the ‘90s, Mountain Brothers was the first Asian American rap group to sign to a major label, but left just two years later. In the early aughts, MC Jin lost critical career momentum he gained from his impressive winning streak on "106 & Park’s" Freestyle Fridays, when Ruff Ryders delayed his debut album release by more than a year. As [Miley Cyrus](https://www.grammy.com/artists/miley-cyrus/18384) sparked a national conversation about [cultural appropriation in hip-hop](https://www.complex.com/music/a/khal/miley-cyrus-appropriating-hip-hop-culture), *[Bad Rap](https://www.inverse.com/article/14637-asian-american-rappers-discuss-stereotypes-and-struggle-in-bad-rap-documentary)*[’s subjects](https://www.inverse.com/article/14637-asian-american-rappers-discuss-stereotypes-and-struggle-in-bad-rap-documentary) faced [questions](https://borrowingtape.com/interviews/bad-rap-qa-director-salima-koroma) regarding whether they’re just as guilty as Cyrus, or whether their music was helping break the “model minority” stereotype.
Since then, hip-hop, a Black music tradition, has spawned countless global scenes, bringing contemporary rap across the Pacific and beyond. Rap taking hold in Asia can still seem contentious, whether dissecting K-pop's use of the genre or revisiting the viral songs that landed Awkwafina [in ](https://twitter.com/its_willyu/status/1162522897589477378)*[Bad Rap](https://twitter.com/its_willyu/status/1162522897589477378)*. But, there is also a growing number of artists who are figuring out how hip-hop can help them meaningfully express and explore their multiculturalism — and are being embraced by the music industry for doing so.
In 2013, Kanye West’s jarring Yeezus changed Audrey Nuna’s music tastes for good, encouraging her to check out hip-hop artists like A Tribe Called Quest and MF DOOM. From there, she "started making what I wanted to hear," as she told Pigeons and Planes.
Nuna prefers to call herself a singer, to better reflect the stylistic versatility throughout her 2021 debut *a liquid breakfast*. Still, the "Robitussin flow" in "Comic Sans" is undeniable — to where Jack Harlow responded to her cold email and hopped on the song’s remix.
The making of *a liquid breakfast* made Nuna realize that she never has to search far to find inspiration. On "Blossom," Nuna’s grandmother laughs as she tells her about how, while fleeing the Korean War, she woke up from a nap on the migrant trail to find that her travel group — including her family — accidentally left her behind.
In the future, Nuna hopes to feature [more Korean instrumentation](https://djbooth.net/features/2022-05-30-audrey-nuna-interview-audiomack) as she channels [her current influence, Radiohead](https://theface.com/music/audrey-nuna-interview-rapper-singer-bobblehaus-space). As Nuna [told ](https://www.wmagazine.com/culture/audrey-nuna-new-ep-liquid-breakfast-interview)*[W](https://www.wmagazine.com/culture/audrey-nuna-new-ep-liquid-breakfast-interview)*, "We’re sitting here, living, because our grandparents were able to survive."
"She fell in love with the lifestyle of a pop star," pH-1 raps in "Yuppie Ting," the third track off his 2021 album *But For Now Leave Me Alone*. As he boasts of the Louis Vuitton he wears and the Michelin star meals he eats, pH-1 alternates between rapping in Korean and English with impressive precision, his flow skating over BlackDoe’s garage-inspired production.
Behind the scenes, pH-1 has felt more torn between the Korean and Western music industries than his music lets on. Even Jay Park, who has followed pH-1 since he moved to Korean and competed on rap talent show "Show Me the Money," [once told him](https://youtu.be/1jdrkHBwVqk) to write more in Korean. But for pH-1, to write exclusively in Korean would be to deny his Stateside upbringing in Long Island and Boston, and how he, [like so many Korean Americans](https://www.shondaland.com/inspire/books/a36178058/crying-in-h-mart-michelle-zauner/), naturally alternate between Korean and English in conversation.
"If I want to ‘financially succeed’ in Korea, I would have to make a song that’s very Korean-style. But that’s not me," pH-1 [said to fellow artist Eric Nam in 2019](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jdrkHBwVqk). Instead, the more glittering spots of *But For Now Leave Me Alone* showcase pH-1 to be the experienced globetrotter he is.
In *Bad Rap*, Rekstizzy films a music video where, at a cookout, he squeezes picnic condiments not onto hot dogs, but the backsides of dancing Black women — for a song called "God Bless America." In his larger quest to become the ["Korean rapper"](https://koreanamericanstory.org/written/the-new-model-minority-profile-of-rekstizzy/) he dreamed of in elementary school, he figured that outrageously offensive visuals were a must." "Whatever we do, people are gonna talk shit about us ‘cause we’re Asian," he says in the documentary.
Straddling the Asian and American aspects of one’s identity can seem impossible. But now, years after *Bad Rap* and after guest appearances in *Adventure Time* and *Beef*, Rekstizzy seems to have figured out an ideal balance. Mostly, he doesn’t seem nearly as pressed over proving that he’s American.
His own pop culture references, crude as they may be ("May cop a lewd body pillow on Etsy"), speak volumes. His music’s debaucherous nature recalls a wide swath of [U.S. regional rap styles](https://hiphopdx.com/en_asia/news/id.63712/title.the-music-that-shaped-rekstizzys-killer-smile), from the Bay Area ("요리 (Yori)"), to the Midwest ("Mal Do An Dweh") and Atlanta ("Hentai"). As for his attempts to rap entire verses in Korean for the first time, apparently the jokes write themselves. As he and *Bad Rap* co-star Dumbfoundead realized while recording "Mal Do An Dweh," their takes on Korean slang sound hopelessly out of date, [because as the latter realized](https://youtu.be/FZOJPLrppIA?t=517), "We communicate in Korean more with our parents than our friends who speak in Korean."
Spence Lee is the child of a first-generation Chinese American and a Vietnamese refugee. But for much of his earlier material, his ethnic origins were hard to discern on record alone.
Spence Lee’s previous moniker, Shotta Spence, honored the ["Dirty Jersey"](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vjd79d7-ggI) that raised him — more specifically, the Caribbean supporters he gained before he relocated to New York, modeled for Yeezy, and gained producer Mike WiLL Made It as a mentor. That influence also appears all over his last full-length, 2019’s *1012*; on songs like "Bounce," his cadence is equally inspired by reggae and trap.
Spence still shouts out how he came up with "shottas" and "rastas" on the autobiographical single, 2022’s "On God," one of his first under a new moniker bearing his family name. But that fact makes up just one chapter in his larger journey to capturing both the attention of Mike WiLL and 88rising, who jointly released the single. Mike WiLL explained to [Joysauce](https://joysauce.com/spence-lee/) how he and 88rising founder Sean Miyashiro saw "how Spence could be the bridge for many cultures, being from Jersey \[and\] into fashion, understanding his history, having principles and morals."
But Spence perhaps puts his new direction best in "On God," when he raps, "I do all this s— for my mom."
TiaCorine (whose father is Black and Japanese, and whose mother is part of the Shoshone Nation) ends her 2022 breakout album, I Can’t Wait with a breakup anthem dedicated to the poor music exec who counted her out. In "You’re Fired," she raps to keep from crying and sounding completely helpless: "You never listen to my songs, I’m always doing something wrong."
Today, her sly single "FreakyT" has 21 million Spotify streams and a Latto remix, it’s impossible to imagine how the situation in "You’re Fired" must have played out in real life.
TiaCorine’s music is Southern rap by way of Hatsune Miku — and it makes perfect sense, in an age where streaming has turned both hip-hop and anime (two of her biggest influences) into Stateside juggernauts. Her music captures the zeitgeist, though it also comes from an authentic place: While her father played formative ‘80s and ‘90s hip-hop in his Range Rover, her mother blared pop-rock instead. "That goes into my music — of me, just being free. Me just being confident in myself," TiaCorine told *[Preme](https://www.preme.xyz/blog-2/from-the-desk-of-tia-corine)* [magazine](https://www.preme.xyz/blog-2/from-the-desk-of-tia-corine). Thanks to that confidence, mainstream success not only seems possible, but inevitable.
[10 Must-See Exhibitions And Activations Celebrating The 50th Anniversary Of Hip-Hop](https://www.grammy.com/news/50th-anniversary-hip-hop-museum-exhibits-events-activations-fotografiska-baltimore-museum-of-art-1520-sedgwick)
Photo: Courtesy of Henry Lau
Press Play: Henry Lau Shows Off His Musical Prowess With A Dynamic Performance Of "MOONLIGHT"
Genre-bending singer Henry Lau uses a loop station to perform his single "MOONLIGHT," incorporating the violin, cello and both electric and acoustic guitar.
With his single "MOONLIGHT," Henry Lau refuses to be burdened by his past relationships. Now, he's turning a new leaf, dancing carefree under the night sky, regardless of the negative emotions he might feel.
"I'm waking up in a daze, get it out of my face/ The sun is shining on every move that I make," the singer reveals in the second verse. "So, let's get to forgetting everything that went wrong/ Everybody here, we been crying too long/ We can dance about it to our favorite song."
In this episode of Press Play, Lau performs "MOONLIGHT" from a mansion rooftop during sunset. He constructs the entire song using a loop station, playing a violin, cello and electric and acoustic guitars — one of his signature performance techniques that prompted his nickname, "one-man band."
Lau released "MOONLIGHT" in January — marking his first single in two years — via Monster Entertainment, the label he founded alongside his brother Clinton. He released another single, "Real Love Still Exists," two months later; the track features Malaysian R&B singer Yuna.
Watch the video above to watch Henry Lau's impressive loop station performance of "MOONLIGHT," and check back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Press Play.