Just the Same Old New: The Bollywood Palimpsest

After briskly glossing over 4,500 years of Indian history in Chapter 6 of Worlds of Music, David B. Reck introduces a fascinating idea of India as a palimpsest. He references the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru, who used this word to indicate that in Indian culture, “the new is constantly added on, but the old, the traditional, continues” (Titon, 267). Bollywood provides an excellent medium through which this development can occur. In these movies the audience experiences themes that have been recycled throughout centuries of Indian culture set to music that draws on tradition, while simultaneously forging ahead into the future by “absorbing the new, as it always has” (Titon, 272).

The following video is a perfect manifestation of this palimpsest concept. This is a song called “Munni Badnaam Hui” from the movie Dabangg, released in 2010. Instantly, the audience is introduced to traditional Indian architecture and dress (save, perhaps, the extra sparkly sequins) with lights and billboards reminiscent of a circus fair. After a minute or so, to add to the excitement, Indian police officers race to the scene in Jeeps to investigate with sirens blaring. Yet the music provides an even more interesting amalgamation of elements young and old.

“Munni Badnaam Hui” (translated lyrics) begins with a computer-generated Latin rhythm and a repetitive guitar riff reminiscent of Malean blues. Lest the audience begin to think it is in fact watching Jennifer Lopez’s new music video, the next four minutes of the song provide “cine song” staples: extravagant group dancing, a high female voice with a male counterpart, interspersed tablas, a slightly punji-esque flute and complicated romance. Yet, the song also includes parts that are certainly not traditionally Indian: a harmonium, “electro-fuzz” ubiquitous in current electronic music and a male chorus of ‘hey!’s evocative of House of Pain.

A Dance Scene from the Bollywood-inspired "Slumdog Millionaire", released in 2008

What is most fascinating and, frankly, impressive about this piece is the ability of the composers (Sajid-Wajid and  Lalit Pandit) to combine so many foreign elements into one piece and still succeed in creating something with a distinct Indian “flavor.” We have listened to music that has incorporated elements from other cultures such as Navajo country music or mbira music played on electric guitars, but neither of these genres has been able to retain their traditional flavors in the same way while introducing foreign instruments or musical styles. This piece can provide the world with hope not only for pop music in general, but also for the ability of cultures to withstand and even thrive on the effects of globalization while maintaining their unique and distinctive essences.

Click here for an extreme example of globalized Indian Bollywood/pop music.


Titon, Jeff Todd. Worlds of Music: An Introduction to the Music of the World’s Peoples. Belmont, CA: Schirmer Cengage Learning, 2009. 265-276. Print.


2 thoughts on “Just the Same Old New: The Bollywood Palimpsest

  1. Indeed. Bollywood, though it has its frequent comedic elements, has always been an impressive genre (if it could be considered its own). Media content-wise, Bollywood films have been known to successfully string together multiple genres (action, drama, comedy, romance, musical) all in to one film. Clearly, there is a musical component that all are familiar with. What fascinates me as both as a filmmaker and musician is the ability to compose something culturally unique to India. Definitely, the “borrowed”/’sampled” compositions and instrumentations is something to learn from because of Bollywood’s ability to include new sounds but remain distinctively Indian and it’s very recognizable and iconic. Something I’d like to look at is a parallel/side-by-side comparison between very early Bollywood and current works. I think it would be interesting to see how certain eras take effect in compositions (similar to how cinematography styles have changed and the different intricacies included based on current popular media).

    -David Tan

    • I have always had a unique fascination of Bollywood films and music, it’s one of my guilty pleasures. The music that is produced from this genre does compile a fascinating set of influences, just as David said. The words he used are perfect, “borrowed” or “sampled” compositions. I especially thought David’s comment on the comparison between earlier and current Bollywood works. An example of an earlier Bollywood piece is Didi Tera Debar Deewana, from the musical Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2V56f0xZNqw. It is super interesting listening and watching this video because obviously, in comparison to what Dan posted, there is a difference not only in the musical aesthetics, but also the visual appeal. The sparkles and sequins still remain, however probably with the change in the past 15 years, with the release of Jennifer Lopez and other powerful woman artists, there is a change in the sexual appeal aspect. Plus Bollywood music seems to clearly matches up with the Western popular music, plus the cinematographic technology at the time period. For instance, there is a better definition of sound and better filming quality in the more recent example. It would be interesting to look at this transgression of this music more particularly, seeing if there are specific popular songs that Bollywood songs draw their influences from.
      -Lizzy Sieverding

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: