Indian Film Music Discussion

Hi folks,

I want to kick off some discussion on the vast film music industry in India, with over a billion fans listening to music old and new in over 20 official languages. Hindi film industry (dubbed Bollywood) and Tamil film industry remain the most prolific and popular.

While there is a hundreds-of-years-old Indian classical music tradition that’s still popular and growing, this discussion is not on that. Most music coming out of India continues to be composed for feature films (the vast majority of which have been musicals), and this discussion will be focused on excellent audiophile recordings in the film music industry.

Indian film music ranges from old “evergreen” melodies to heavy metal to electronic to straight up trip-hop. Through the generations, there have been stalwart music composers who have been both transformational and wildly popular. Some of them, in addition to creating some of the best music I have heard in my life, have also put out some of the most immaculately engineered music. Whether they do the mixing / engineering themselves or employ some of the best in the industry (e.g. H. Sridhar), these composers have the final say in how a record sounds.

Today, I wanted to highlight two composers who I feel consistently produce some of the best sounding records, one famous around the world and the other who has only gained popularity in this decade: A.R. Rahman and Santhosh Narayanan.

A.R. Rahman

If you’re from India or know anything about Indian Film music (or really love Slumdog Millionaire), you know about A.R. Rahman. He composes music in all popular languages, with Hindi and Tamil being the most prolific. He had his debut in 1992 with the film Roja (simultaneously released in both Tamil and Hindi), and it remains one of his best and most popular works.

He created some of his best recorded music with sound engineer H. Sridhar (who unfortunately passed away in 2008). Rahman continues to compose to this day, and while I personally feel the quality of his compositions / recordings has waned in the recent years, you can never ignore him.

Here are some of his best sounding and well mixed records to this day (and musical masterpieces, to boot):

Pudhu Vellai Mazhai - Tamil - Roja (1992) — one of the earliest songs that made me realize that good stereo recording was a thing:

Veerapandi Kottayile - Tamil - Thiruda Thiruda (1993) — fantastic dynamic range; he really explores western classical here:

Hai Rama - Hindi - Rangeela (1994) — holy shit, this one is well mastered. Fear the dynamic range on the first drum punch:

Ottagatha Kattikko - Tamil - Gentleman (1995) — one of his best songs and best recordings, period:

Antha Arabic Kadaloram - Tamil (Humma Humma in Hindi) - Bombay (1996) — Another one of his iconic hits, and a great mix again. Every song from this movie is gold:

(or if you prefer the movie version with vocalization layered on top)

Mustafa Mustafa - Tamil - Kadhal Desam (1996):

Dil Se Re - Hindi - Dil Se (1998) — One of his best songs from one of his best albums:

Thaniye - Tamil - Rhythm (2000) — A favorite of mine for the complex layering in the composition:

Evano Oruvan Vaasikkiraan - Alaipayuthey (2000):

Enna Solla Pogirai - Tamil - Kandukkondain Kandukkondain (2000) – yeah, 2000 was an insanely good year for Rahman. One of his best and most complex compositions. Love the instrumentation:

Sanda Kozhi - Tamil - Ayitha Ezhuthu (2004):

Azeem O Shaan Shehenshan - Hindi - Jodhaa Akbar (2009):

Nadaan Parindey Ghar Aaja - Hindi - Rockstar (2011):

Smitaangaran - Tamil - Sarkar (2018) — His latest movie, not his greatest song, but still very well recorded and produced. Very staccato style:

I will stop here with Rahman. There are hundreds of hits, and I’m not going to be able to link them all.

Santosh Narayanan

Santosh has been on an absolute tear in recent years, with film after film of incredible music. He almost exclusively composes for the Tamil film industry, but his recording quality is really second to none. He even makes “typical popular beat songs” sound fantastic.

He composes for a lot of off-beat / satirical movies, and his music matches the overall edginess and irreverence of these movies. A lot of his songs really feel like a breath of fresh air and feel really down to earth and accessible, despite being so complex. There is so much space in each of his recordings, with immaculate imaging and instrumentation. He debuted in 2012, and I feel he still has decades of great music to come.

Here are some of his best:

Kaasu Panam Dhuttu - Tamil - Soodhu Kavvum (2013) – one of his earliest hits:

Vaadi Rasathi - Tamil - 36 Vayathinile (2015) — Really folksy song that feels like something you’d hear in a village. But the mixing, production, and instrumentation makes it entirely modern:

Ey Sandakkara - Tamil - Irudhi Suttru (2016) — A song about a girl who grew up as a fish vendor, now learning to be a boxer, falling in love for the first time:

Neruppu Da - Tamil - Kabali (2016) — Basically a mix between rap and heavy metal. Loud, full of distorted guitars, and completely in your face. Still very well produced and imaged. One of a kind song:

Nirkathey - Tamil - Server Sundaram (2017) — A composition that spans multiple genres from Indian classical to Rock. Just really well put together, could do with a bit more dynamic range.

Semma Weightu - Tamil - Kaala (2018) — This is one of the best recorded rap songs I’ve ever heard, in any language. The entire soundtrack and song list from the movie is great:

Gointhammavala - Tamil - Vadachennai (2018) — One of the best audiophile movie soundtracks out there, and every song is incredibly well mixed. This one is my favorite:

Basically, every one of Santhosh Narayanan’s movie albums has been superbly recorded, with Kaala and Vadachennai being the best engineered to date IMO.

This turned into quite a long post, but I wanted to highlight some incredible work being done from the other side of the world and invite others to contribute their favorites as well.

P.S. Apologies for only youtube links. A lot of these are not on spotify or tidal, so Youtube is the best you get outside of CD’s.


I used to work in a company owned by Indian-Americans and Indians, so I’ve had some exposure to the Bollywood vibe. I think that one of the things that makes it difficult for those of us who are steeped in U.S. culture is that most of them are clips from a longer movie, or have been put together in the Bollywood movie style.

Once I read that there was some cultural, legal, or tax reason that so many Bollywood movies have several song and dance routines in them. I’m not sure if this was true, or is still true.

My question to you is - are most of these in a “pop” - popular genre? If not is there some sort of recognized grouping? I am fond of some classical Indian music - Debashish Bhattacharya’s work, for example, or Jazz/Fusion/World like Tabla Beat Science - Zakir Hussain is fantastic.

You point only to You Tube renditions. What is out there on CD and DVD?

(side note, Hussain and Steve Smith used to teach drumming master classes at the same time and in the same drum camp in Germany. Steve learned the percussion language of Indian drumming and is strongly influenced, not just in his Journey solos, but more importantly in his Vital Information work).

The above is available on CD and DVD in addition to TIDAL


This one is very nice, and is audio only. Thanks for sharing. I see you have marked Hindi or Tamil - is that only to let us know the base language?

Yup, just the language that the movie (and by extension, the song) is in.

I should probably explain the significance of music in film when it comes to India. Basically, songs are considered as much a part of a movie as anything else, sort of how you’d expect a Broadway musical to break into song. Whether you consider this a vestige of the industry’s roots in stage drama or just the Indian culture of wanting to express everything in music, it’s likely here to stay.

The main difference here is that unlike western musicals and Broadway, the actors often do not sing or perform the music. This role is filled by professional “playback singers”. The music in each movie does not adhere to exactly one genre, and the creative license is left almost entirely to the music director. The music director, in addition to composing the theme music and background score, is tasked with composing a set of songs (usually 5 to 6) that will be part of the movie.

There is a tremendous amount of collaboration and effort that goes into this creation, involving music professionals of all sorts. Generally, a music director has a troupe of instrumental musicians they like to work with, but the main “stars” of each song (the singers, the lyricists, and the music director) don’t necessarily stick together like a traditional band would.

Oftentimes, when a movie is announced, the music director associated with it will garner a lot of interest. Similarly, if a famous singer is going to sing one or more songs in the movie, that also lends a lot of credibility. And finally, the songs are released to public usually before the movie, and if they’re good, that alone will drive ticket sales and revenue. There are countless movies that frankly sucked, but the songs were so good that the producers recouped their investments easily. And of course, if both the movie and the songs are good, then you’re golden.

Imagine Steven Spielberg announces a musical with John Williams as the music director, lyrics by Bob Dylan, and songs sung by Freddie Mercury and Adele. Before you even care what the story of the movie is, that lineup of musical talent alone will be enough to interest a lot of people.

In fact, the overwhelming majority of popular music in India comes from movies. Movie songs are our childhood memories and favorites. When you hear an Indian person humming a song to themselves, you can mostly bet it’s a movie song. That’s how it is in India. Songs are as much a part of a movie as the plot, and movies are the de facto source of popular music.

All of the songs I linked above are available on CDs and are in no way “youtube renditions”. This is a straight upload of the original song on YouTube and not a cover. You just have to search for the CD of the movie’s songs, and you’ll find it. The “Album” in this case is the title of the movie itself. The album artist will be the Music Director, and each song will be credited to the singers.

You can’t really classify it into a single genre like you can with Western music. One movie can have both a rap song and a soft bluesy one. For example, that rap song I liked above (“Semma Weightu”) is from a movie that also has this song in it composed by the same music director, but with different singers and songwriter.

To add to this, though, you’ll see popular trends that movie songs tend to adopt from generation to generation. Just like in any field, there are a few pioneers at a ton of copycats. Usually, truly new styles will be attempted by less popular artists (e.g. Trapp). Then one particular song (e.g. White T-Shirt) will go really popular and others follow suit. Then the established popular artists (e.g. Rihanna) will start releasing songs in that style, and now if you DON"T do that, you’ll be the odd one out. Popular hip hop now, by default, follow the staccato trapp style.

Indian film music tends to do the same. For a while in the 2000s, every Bollywood movie, regardless of how appropriate it was, HAD to have a disco beat party track in it. Back in the 90s, it was the “large wealthy wedding song”. Today, every Bollywood movie needs a “Sufi-style love song.” And so it goes.

The video you linked is what you’d call “Indie music” in India. There is a huge indie music scene with a lot of talent, and many of them do a fusion of western and Indian classical / traditional music. But that’s NOWHERE NEAR as popular as film music. I’m talking like 1 : 100 in fame / budget / ubiquity.

Hope this helps to add context.


Oh that’s really fascinating to hear. I love Journey!