Singing India


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RUSHDIE called Hindi cinema a love song to India’s mongrel self. Regardless of where one comes from, and away from the feverish hype of nationalist politics, Indians are Indians through the way in which Hindi film is part of their being. Snatches of dialogue; fashions; dance moves; ways of expressing love and hatred, and of being in the world – there is an enormous encyclopaedia and archive that exists as a supplement. One may turn to one’s parents, teachers, or gods, but when it comes to the crunch, the answer is clear. Nothing happens that has not happened before in cinema.

No emotion exists that has not been rendered with filigree detail in lyrics of preternatural wisdom. Sirf ehsaas hai yeh / rooh se mahsoos karo – This is just an indescribable feeling, experience it with your soul. The world with its relentless contingency cannot be explained, there is only the possibility of coming to terms with it, graciously and with the knowledge that one is not alone.

Time wounds; waqt ne kiya kya haseen sitam – its passage inflicts pain on everyone. Life is unpredictable, love and death intervene. What one needs is equanimity in the face of an enigma that causes one to exult and at times to weep: zindagi kaisi yeh paheli haaye / kabhi yeh hasaaye, kabhi yeh rulaaye. One’s heart soars, dips, pirouettes in the sky like a pigeon taking wing from an urban roof: masakali, masakali / ud matak kali, matak kali. Or in the depths of one’s sorrow, bereft of love or of any certainty, one’s heart hums with despair: dil hoom hoom kare / ghabraye – my heart thrums, is anxious.

Yet nothing is new. It has happened before and will happen again and we are reassured as those remembered lyrics bubble up inside us. Our mongrel, indestructible selves exult as we are carried within the time and space of songs that are there; for us.

Now we live amidst death, an infinitesimal virus keeps us at home, away from work, from chance encounters, and from friends and lovers. Our heads replay lyrics from the past as we go about our mundane routines: duniya banane waaley / kya tere man me samai / kaahe ko duniya banaayi – God! what was going through your mind when you made this world! And our woes are compounded by a world gone mad, affronted at imagined slights and wounds and led by men who treat nations like their fiefdoms. Is this the India that we wanted to live with, in sickness or in health, till death do us part? And is it sheer nostalgia that makes us imagine that there is another world that lies behind us, the space of our first love? Koi laute da mujhe voh beete hue din – give back to me those days gone by.


These days even nostalgia isn’t what it used to be. The Muslim socialists who imagined India for us in their prescient and intense lyrics saw only too clearly that in the beginning was our end. We remember Sahir Ludhianvi’s songs for Guru Dutt’s films asking what if indeed we had the world at our feet: yeh duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai. But in Phir Subah Hogi (1958), he riffed on Iqbal’s Taraana-i Milli of 1924. In the afterglow of independence, with a charismatic leader, we had imagined India at the head of a comity of nations from East to West, Cheeno-Arab hamaara / Hindostan hamaara. Lines gently undercut by the betrayal of hopes; no homes to live in, our caravan traipsing on the city streets, adrift. Rahne ko ghar nahin hai… sadakon pe ghumti hai / ab karvaan hamaara.

As we sit with the overheated rhetoric in the social media, in a nation without a principled hand at the rudder, we are reminded that looking back will get us little. In a nation increasingly defining itself as Hindu, we are reminded that it was a handful of idealist Muslims who sang an India into existence: Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Jan Nizar Akhtar, Kaifi Azmi…

So we dream beyond the nation. We rejoice in an Indian diaspora that sings I love my Indiyaa but also despair that it funds Hindu hatred. There are other stories, of the ascension of Indians to high office in countries that are the objects of our adulation and desire. The kamal in India, Kamala in the USA. Some of us think of other times, other affinities, wider geographies, the oceanic… Amitav Ghosh invokes for us an India that was connected to Egypt, a Bangladesh inter-linked with Venice, and a Burma, once part of Indian lives. Arundhati Roy imagines a larger geography of radicalism, our lives linked to the forests of India and the Amazon, and our selves beyond male and female. Here nostalgia feeds on our desire for a world that connects without borders, where there is only movement, no citizens, refugees or people out of place.


We say yeh duniya, yeh mehfil mere kaam ki nahin – this world as it is, is of no use to me. And we hear the voice of Shamshad Begum from Patanga (1949) singing mere piya gaye Rangoon / kiya hai vahaan se telifoon – my love has gone to Rangoon and has called me on the telephone. There was a larger world once that slowly shrank into the space of the nation we call India. A world of subaltern movement that saw the world as its oyster while yet longing for home.

The Hindi film addressed this easy lived cosmopolitanism lived within and besides a space created by empire; borders that were slowly congealing into the shadow lines between nations. There were Indians everywhere who saw themselves as Indian rather than as people separated by language, religion, ethnicity calling back and saying tumhaari yaad sataati hai / jiya me aag lagati hai – your memory haunts me and sets my senses afire. At least that was what the lyrics tried to teach us; singing an emotion into existence. And of course, the music of C. Ramchandra, infused with the rhythms of the world, straining at the demands of classicism with the bongo, castanets and guitar.

The nation came into existence looking forward to a modernity with cities, factories, steel, and atomic power plants; the village was sentimentalized. Gandhi had romanticized a true India living in its villages with happy, smiling, satisfied peasants self-governing and robust. It was India’s version of Marx’s vast rural idiocy. What lay hidden behind this was the idea of the village as fodder for the emerging vision of an industrial modernity. Mother India would pull the plow herself with her children and that sacrifice would be drowned in the swelling waters of the dams – the new temples of India. Duniya mein ham aaye hain to jeena hi padega – if we have come into this world, we must survive. Na mai bhagwan hoon… I am neither god nor devil, just a plain man.


These honest, bluff rustics would, in the end, have to make their way to the city, and recreate community in that space of anomie and trickery. They would not swarm the cities in defiance as we are seeing now; the betrayed villages at the gates of the city, raising their pennants. At the heart of the emergent nation was the myth of the city as the space where the rural subaltern would find magic. In CID (1956), Badruddin Jamaluddin Khan aka Johnny Walker sang that glorious paean to Bombay, the city of cities – yeh hai Bombay meri jaan. It was a vision of the city as opportunity, dream, and destination for the modern Indian.

Of course, it was also an ironic take on the delusion of the city. Alongside phrases like kahin daakey, kahin phaankey – there is violence and there is trickery – the song also cautioned against a naïve idealism (bhola tu na ban – don’t be a simpleton). And it ends on the ambiguous note, of following a line on ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahan with another saying ae dil hai aasan jeena yahan – My heart, it is easy to live in the city. However, it inaugurated the song of the city which would work on two registers: the city as utopia and the city as dystopia: seene me jalan, aankhon mein toofan sa kyun hai – why is there a burning in my heart, a storm behind my eyes? A city of harassed individuals. Both were emotions that sit alongside each other in India’s modern.


Now here we are in the city with our ambivalent longings, confined to our rooms, our apartments and our ‘colony’ buildings. We are no longer enamoured as an urban middle class about the city given its dust, pollution, and anomie. Ek akela is shahar mein – solitary in the city, I am. While romance is possible, across classes and at times across religions, we are too knowing, too cynical of lives that pass by each other without touching. However, our disillusionment with the idea of India, takes us to larger geographies or reimagining the geography of our city. Nostalgia comes together with desire: the romantic vision of the city as destination is thought together with the idea of the city as a space of harmony and peaceful coexistence.

After the dystopia of the death of the Bombay mills, the riots of the 1990s, the increasing presence of the underworld, the city can no longer be imagined innocently. The cheerful ambiguities of Yeh hai Bombay meri jaan have been replaced by hard cynicism: goli maaro bheje mein – put a bullet through my brain, there is a din in my head. But the city has to be reinvented, because utopia has to be imagined here on earth: that is the raison d’etre of popular cinema. So in Delhi 6 (2009), the capital city becomes the site of nostalgia but also of not-yet-lost community; where Hindu and Muslim, old and new, NRI and desi coexist. It presents an India that reincarnates the village in the city, as a site of harmony. Yeh Dilli hai mere yaar it begins, echoing Yeh hai Bombay but the tone is sentimental: bas ishq, mohabbat, pyaar – only love.

But there is a startling segue into French rap Imagine l’éclat d’un paysage qui te submerge Imagine the splendor of a landscape that overwhelms you and Delhi’s cosmopolitanism suddenly transitions from the medieval to the postmodern: an India au fait with metropolitan modernity. And we know through the Tamilian composer, A.R. Rahman, of another history: the history of the Tamil diaspora in France dispersed by the civil war in Sri Lanka to the suburbs of the Gare de Lyon in Paris. This is a unique song that brings together the trauma of the postcolonial South Asian city into cinema while at the same time imagining the whole damaged world.


What of the village, then? While a certain style of realist cinema had engaged with the grit and oppression of the village, popular cinema always had to retain it as a site of return. However, in post liberalization India, the village was more the site of return for the NRI than for the worker and migrant. It was a call to the diaspora to return, to find its roots, to invest in the new India. Yeh des hai tera – this country is yours. As the lyrics in DDLJ went, Ye mitti tu aakar choome / Toh is dharti ka dil jhoome – When you come and kiss this earth / the Earth sings for joy. The village was the space where the alienated urban expatriate would find wholeness again, through love and marriage with a woman-Indian in her values and sensibility. Modernity and tradition would meld.

And here again, it is Rahman who does the act of metissage: the innocent village girl Roja prances in the pristine Tamilian countryside to a reggae beat. It is as if in the search for the virgin countryside, when one gets there, there is no there. This trope of romantic visitation is reprised often, displacing the earlier trope of the shahri babu – the city slicker who cannot be trusted with the gaon ki chhori – the village wench, and who will forever remain a pardesi – a stranger to the affect and values of the rural. In a strange way, the hero’s entry into the village is imagined as a return, though in fact, he had never belonged to it.


In Jab We Met (2007), modelled piquantly on the Clark Gable starrer It Happened One Night (1934), Shahid Kapur, urban citizen, encounters Kareena Kapoor a village belle 2.0, from Bathinda and through a set of circumstances lands up with her in her city-village. He slips into the relationships and rhythms of the village in the song Nagada Nagada baja – sound the drums – with inordinate ease. The village is the dreamspace of the urban here, the always already familiar. One can move between these two worlds as a modern, wealthy, Indian male. Gandhian sentimentality regarding the village as the space of harmony enters its second avatar where the village becomes the space of relaxation and affect from the hustle of the city.

The village is neutered; no dirt, no violence. This has become necessary so as to create a space of authenticity into which Indian values can be decanted. The urban and rural constitute each other through affect; the latter is a space of longing for the former, sullied as it is by corruption and a sleazy politics. Liberalization proliferated spaces of degenerate urbanity; small towns which prospered as spaces of production but lacked either the coherence of the village or the rapid mobility of the metro. However, as a frontier space, betwixt the two poles, it was a space of a violent making. Lives, careers, masculinities were being forged through an intense sense of speed: one made it, or was ground under.


The village was a site of ruins, or of relations of great stasis sustained by force, and the city was unattainable, even incomprehensible with its opaque and impenetrable politics. So the small town became the half way station where one suborned oneself to men on the make and displayed loyalty in explosions of violence. A new aesthetic had to be found for this world of foul-mouthed, intemperate men and their desires; and a new music.

Sneha Khanwalkar, who had learnt her rhythms by travelling and recording the sounds of the mofussil came into her own with the gritty small town classic, The Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). Chi cha leather with its pulsating beat and its use of small town vocabulary: mera joota fake leather / dil chicha leder – my shoes are fake leather, my heart is a mess, created a soundscape that became the sound of the first decade of the century. The song was sung by a then unknown sixteen year old, Durga; a break with the traditions of classicism in Hindi film. Quentin Tarantino and gratuitous violence came to stay in a piquant use of Hollywood tropes to summon up the badlands of eastern India. The world of the Hindi cinema produces its own sense of the local.

Urbanity in the Hindi film has been about the very wealthy middle caste deriving an income from industry. Commerce was frowned upon – the moneylender in the village and the merchant in the city were on par. The hero is an indigent afloat in the alienated world of the city; an artist unwilling to sacrifice his ideals; a good bloke trying to stay honest. Feudal life is characterised by baroque excess: brooding mansions, heads of hunted animals, and alcohol. The rich in the city have mansions but they are touched by grace and the presence of a grand piano. Or they used to be.

While there was for a brief moment, the cinema of the middle class hero and everyday romance: Rajnigandha phool tumhare – you, scented like the tuberose; Aaj se pehle aaj se zyaada – before today, more than today, the urban film worked with cross class love – pardesi pardesi jaana nahin – or love fulfilled after the necessary travails.

Dev. D (2009) brought together the village, the small town, and the city with an outrageous riff on the classic Devdas.


In a film soaked with drugs, excess and quirky romance, the central character floats in a haze of intoxication through an urban landscape of seedy bars and garishly lit spaces where sex is sold. It brings together contemporary urban cool with the sounds of house, trance, Rajasthani rock, mofussil melody, and an unforgettable sequence of Open Hand dance. And amidst this range the haunting beat of Pardesi – Stranger – speaking about the intensity of love. Dil ki takhti pe naam likha tera gehra / katil aankhon pe julf ka saje hai pehra – your name is scored on the slate of my heart / your eyes kill from behind the shield of your hair.

Urban decadence, the culture of drugs and casual sex, the inheritors of rural wealth who see the city as a space of hedonism; a new paradigm with its own musical intensity. The village and the city are no longer the cliches they were but the space of a new churn.

This new space is not only one of dark tragedy. It is also the arena of new sexualities and not merely heterosexual longing. Maa da laadla bigad gaya – mother’s boy goes over to the dark side. Metrosexuals, playing at being gay, even the desi girl is no longer the devout and chaste creature that she used to be. But as with Hindi film, there are decorous limits, playing at being, trumps being itself. Pushing boundaries is done in a comedic mode that allows transgression without challenge. In Desi Boyz (2011), economic downturn leads the protagonists to explore the world of male escorts leading to a comedy of errors. The sheer exuberance of the dance numbers as the heroes, bodies fully waxed, toned and muscular, dance for women who pay for their services reflect a shift in the perception of the idea of a male protagonist.

The male as an item, Humko kehte superman / On karlo handy cam / From AM to PM / Bande at your service mam – we are supermen, put on your handycam’s and record us day and night. Voyeurism and the male body as an object of lust; a new world of viewing has opened up. The Hindi film hero was always an object of chaste desire, until Salman Khan, Sanjay Dutt, Amir Khan and Hrithik Roshan bared their six packs. Desi Boyz ramped up the lust; the hero was there for you, and it did not matter whether you were male or female or of unspecified identification. Whatever you were, there’s a song for you.


The Hindi film song has captured over the years the changing scene of India, and provided a vocabulary for being in the world. From the high lyricism and deep longing of an earlier era to the demotic and ephemeral rhythms of the present everyday they have forged in the smithy of their imagination the conscience of our nation. And in the time of Covid, these songs are our prophylactic against despair: Geet gaata hoon main, gungunata hoon main, maine hasne ka vaada kiya tha kabhi – I sing my songs, I hum my tunes, Because I once promised myself that I would keep laughing.