Playback Singers, the Unseen Celebrities of Indian Cinema

The Indian film industry is the largest in the world. It is the source of most Indian popular music these days. In the 40s, 50s and 60s it was also the source of popular music, but they took a more semiclassical or classical approach to style and instrumentation (Titus 276). Since the music took a more classical approach they had to use musicians well trained in the classical style to sing all of the music.

“The actors and actresses always lip-sync with words, which are actually sung by “playback singers,” who along with the “music director” (composer/arranger) and lyricist are the true stars of India’s pop music scene.” (Titus 273).

Playback singers are highly respected and honored for their distinguished contribution to society, the real celebrities of film.

Lata Mangeshkar and Manna Dey

In this video, Manna Dey and Lata Mangeshkar are the playback singers, both regarded as being two of the most respected classical singers in India, and each having recorded thousands of songs in their lifetime. In this particular video they are singing a Darbari Kanada Raga, which is considered one of the most difficult styles of Indian classical music to master but it also as the ability to be the most emotional (Parrikar). Like any typical story, the man is trying to win over the woman with his singing ability. He is “employ[ing] all manner of rhythmic intricacy, speed, technique, dramatic gesture, loudness, and sheer self-assertiveness” in order to impress her, but she not does not move a single inch whereas all of the onlookers are shown thoroughly impressed by his abilities (Booth 60). Once he finishes singing, the closed lotus flower, which the camera kept switching to while he was singing, opens because of his singing and a bee flies out. This is a symbol of his musical prowess being so impressive that he is able to move nature. This scene helps to further illustrate Booth’s first point about the instrumentality of musical virtuosity’s effect on the physical world.

But the difference in this video from Booth’s analysis is that Booth hardly mentions a woman as the star. In response to his virtuosic singing trying to woe her, she shows her own musical ability by matching his virtuosity if not outdoing him. After she finishes singing the bee flies back into lotus and the flower closes back up. This is unique since the women is not trying to impress the man with the ability to move nature, but instead trying to prove that her musical ability is just as impressive in that she can undo his work with her own abilities. But this clip helps to strengthen Booth’s idea that  the

“filmmakers must visually represent that heroism in ways that will allow their viewers to admire the heroic powers of their protagonists, whether or not those viewers understand or even like classical music.” (Booth 64).

The fact that a woman can outdo a man trying to show off his valor on equal terms certainly impresses the audience. This short clip, even though fictional, shows that women playback singers are on par with men’s singing abilities and they are both outstanding musicians.


Booth, Greg. “Pandits in the Movies: Contesting the Identity of Hindustani Classical Music and Musicians in the Hindi Popular Cinema”. Asian Music, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Winter – Spring, 2005): 60-86. Web, 30 Nov. 2011.

Parrikar, Rajan P. “The Kanada Constellation (Part 1/3)”. South Asian Women’s Forum. 11 Dec. 2000.  Web. 4 Dec. 2011. <;.

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.

Tripathi, S.N., dir. Rani Rupmat. Ravi Kala Chitra, 1957. Film. Online Posting. Ud Ja Bhanwar Maya Kamal Ka.” YouTube, 7 Sept. 2008. Web. 4 Dec. 2011.

Image Citation:

“Lata Mangeshkar & Manna Dey’s pictures: Lata Mangeshkar & Manna Dey.” Photo. 4 Dec. 2011 <;


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