CinemaScope: James Bond theme music and its India connect

Ian Fleming’s James Bond and his fictional characterisation has always been a big inspiring source for Indian film writers and directors since its first cinematic adaptation in the early ’60s. Investigative spy thrillers were occasionally made in our cinema in the 1950s too, but the genre got its due attention and momentum, after the release of the first James Bond film in 1962. Post its universal success, the concept, characters and styling got their cult following, and we witnessed several films made with the similar vision having titles like Spy in Rome, Spy in Goa, and many even using Bond and codes similar to 007 like Golden Eyes Secret Agent 077, SOS Jasoos 007, Bond 303, Mr. Bond and more.

The concept was initially adapted in Tamil and Telugu Cinema in films like Vallavan Oruvan and Gudachari 116 in 1966. The latter got remade in Hindi as Farz featuring Jeetendra in 1967. The very next year we had Ankhen with Dharmendra enacting the spy and the big success of these two made way for a chain of films in the ’70s and ’80s featuring Dharmendra, Jeetendra, Mahendra Sandhu, Mithun Chakraborty, Amitabh Bachchan and more. As a matter of fact, the most prominently Bond-inspired film in both style and characterization came in the 1980s as Shaan, introducing a stylish villain Shakaal. The film also had its opening titles inspired from the famous James Bond films. Seven years later, a similar kind of ambience was again witnessed in Mogambo’s den in Mr. India (1987). 

However, moving over the major impact of Bond movies on Indian cinema, this is actually about how its widely famous cult theme music had the basic inspiration coming from a melody based on Indian music composed by Monty Norman.

The amazing fact was revealed by Norman himself during his interview, post 50 years of the cinematic phenomenon created by an exceptionally talented team. While recalling the time they assigned him the task of composing the theme music for the first Bond film, Norman expressed that taking up the project, he honestly had no idea what it would be, whether a hit or flop. And therefore, just happened to pick an old work of his (he always liked), composed for a shelved stage musical based on the acclaimed novel A House for Mr. Biswas written by V. S. Naipaul. Published in 1961, it was a reputed novel, rated as the author’s best, revolving around an Indian living abroad struggling for success. 

Interestingly, one of the songs he conceived for the play was Good Sign, Bad Sign sung by an Indian character talking about his ‘Sneeze’. The same notes of the song were later used to compose the famous ‘James Bond Theme Music’ introduced with Dr. No.

In the words of the composer, “I suddenly remembered this little tune, that was in my bottom drawer from A House of Mr. Biswas called Good Sign Bad Sign. I dug it out and thought, this is very Asian (in its sound and feel). So, I suddenly had the idea of splitting the notes. Now, the moment I did that, the whole feeling of the song changed. It became sinister and really worked for the character of James Bond, having the atmosphere, the ambience, and then I developed it from that.”

The original song had its key music played on the Indian traditional instrument sitar accompanied by the tabla. Hence the whole theme required to be re-conceived keeping in mind the aura around James Bond.

Post the basic composition got approved by the makers, they got another musical genius on board as John Barry, to orchestrate Monty Norman’s composed theme. Barry took over from there, added more into the basic composition, did a mesmerising musical arrangement, and roped in rock guitarist Vic Flick, whose guitar magically replaced the sound of the original Indian sitar giving it a re-birth, resulting in the cult James Bond theme.

Many years later, there also was a dispute between the creators for the credit of the original composer. But the fact remains that where Monty Norman composed the basic notes, John Barry added a lot of his own in the form of orchestration, and Vic Flick played the magical notes together, creating an immortal piece of art.

Today, after more than half a century, no doubt it is quite unbelievable to think how a composition dipped in Indian classical music played on sitar and tabla was so intelligently reworked into the ‘James Bond Theme Music’ in the early ’60s.

(The writer is a critic-columnist, an explorer of cinema and author of ‘Did You Know’ series on Hindi films also active at bobbytalkscinema.com)

(To receive our E-paper on whatsapp daily, please click here. We permit sharing of the paper's PDF on WhatsApp and other social media platforms.)

Free Press Journal

www.freepressjournal.in