ONE of my fondest memories from childhood, one that my family remembers whenever this song comes on, and old neighbours still bring up when they see me, is that of me spontaneously breaking into dance to the song ‘Sundari neeyum sundaran nyanum’ from the 1991 Tamil film Michael Madana Kamarajan. It was in the early ’90s, at a new year’s gathering. Something instantly lit up inside me when the song came on that day. It still does whenever I hear it on the radio, snaking through Chennai’s traffic in my car. In many ways, for me and the people who’ve known me all my life, it’s ‘my’ song. They say, ‘Hey your song is on’, whenever they hear it.
When I was in class four, my entire batch, all of us boys and girls, dressed in hideous, shiny, silk, white ghagras and kurta pyjamas, danced to Ottagatha kattiko from the Tamil film Gentleman during our school culturals. Those were grand affairs. We had Kollywood choreographers and make-up artists and rehearsals for months, with huge seating arrangements. Ottagatha kattiko, a song I didn’t even like, became ‘my’ song in this manner.
There are so many ways, subtler than dancing in front of dozens of strangers, in which one can make a song their own. For years, my caller tune was Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh. I was constantly admonished for picking up my phone too early, and among my colleagues I was the Ajeeb Dastan girl. Later, my ringtone was Beatles’ Love Me Do. My family identified the sound of that iconic harmonica in the beginning of the song with me.
My late grandfather worked in the movie music industry, and so our lives were always touched by the film music world. It didn’t matter what else we did not have access to, growing up, film music was never out of our reach. The latest music player, the latest song cassettes, the latest film lyrics books… they were always around, and we took it for granted that like provisions and clean water, film music too was our right. We needed it and we had it.
When my grandfather passed away in the ’90s, the lyrics books stopped being a part of our home and lives. There were roadside stalls in our neighbourhood as well as our bus stop that sold these little booklets. Soon the stalls too disappeared, and if I wanted to know a song, I needed to do what others not fortunate enough to have a grandfather that was mad about movie songs and was buying them these books were doing: listen to a verse, write the lyrics down, rewind, check if I got it right, make edits, and go to the next verse. It feels like a lot of labour today, what with the easy access we have to everything, but somehow it didn’t feel like that at all back then. It was what I did for fun.
I remember how I would wait feverishly for my brain to catch on, to memorise the words. I’d play songs all day long until I no longer needed to look at the words. I wrote down the words to Tamil film songs in Tamil always but wrote the words to Hindi songs down in English, so I could read faster.
I still remember the thrill of opening a cassette sometime in the late ’90s and discovering that its cover was a folded booklet that could open out. Album covers of prominent films suddenly came with the lyrics to all the songs, as well as the names of everyone who’d performed, even the instrumentalists.
The excitement of waiting for a cassette to release, buying it, and opening the plastic wrapper, and listening to a brand new A.R. Rahman album over, and over again until one knew every little detail vanished when we moved to CDs, and then Winamp players that seemed made for piracy. For a while it appeared, through the CD and DVD years, that we would never pay for music again. Even if I wanted to set a new song as my phone’s ringtone, I simply had to go online to download it.
Today, my music comes from Apps, I have three different ones.
My mother, the musician’s daughter, wanted to be a playback singer growing up, naturally. Her idols were P. Susheela and Vani Jayaram. But her father was adamant. He made sure none of his three daughters had anything to do with the movie business. He thought it was not a healthy workspace nor would they have access to steady income. And so instead, my Amma would go on to become her family’s first female graduate. She then joined a government department and worked there until she hit retirement age.
A few years ago, she enrolled in a keyboard class and now spends her afternoons learning to play old Tamil and Hindi songs on the keyboard. She’s at last found someone that is encouraging of her need to sing and be heard. Her teacher, Julie Madam, not only got her to sing with a group of senior women – all of them dressed in matching pink chiffon sarees and accessories too – at a Women’s Day celebration in Chennai, she also asked my mother to participate in a music competition during this lockdown.
My mother won a cold-pressed oil bottle as a gift in the entirely Whatsapp-run contest. She picked a song I’d never heard before and sang it perfectly. I heard her on Whatsapp and was truly thankful for Julie Madam just then. My parents now sing duets on Smule. The App seems to have understood something about us all. Our need to sing, sound good, record and share music. To listen and to watch good music.
So, nothing disturbs me more than hearing an aspiring filmmaker say, ‘Songs are holding Indian cinema back’. And nothing excites me more than seeing a spunky new filmmaker embrace music and dance, and film song sequences in ways that make watching cinema, Indian cinema in theatres, the rewarding experience that it really is. After all, we may grow up and learn to appreciate world cinema, but our earliest introduction to this make-believe world comes from songs. Heck, even our early world cinema had enviably terrific soundtracks and videos.
Look at music in Satyajit Ray’s Charulata; as Charu hums Tagore’s Phoole Phoole, Ray and Subrata Mitra (the cinematographer) work magic with the camera, swinging it up and down, and sideways. How can anyone even think after watching this scene that song sequences cannot make for brilliant cinematic moments?
This pandemic, the lockdown, and the resultant lack of access to movie theatres has made me realise how movie-watching is made more joyous when it’s a collective experience. No offense to Netflix but the comfort of lying in your sofa and watching a movie is nothing compared to the pleasures of listening to someone from the front rows crack a stupid joke when something very serious is on, or when some fan of the hero’s heckles the villain, or when groups of college girls launch into giggles and hoots as the hero takes his shirt off in a fight or when a close-up of his smile comes on in a song. Or when fans start dancing and singing along on the First Day First Show (FDFS) of a star’s film release.
The culture of FDFS: the drums and the dances outside single-screen theatres, as well as inside, that feeling of being in a mela, the frenzy and the fun… are inextricably linked to the culture of song and dance of our cinema.
As a film critic, I spent week after week, alone in theatres, before Covid-19, watching brilliant as well as banal cinema, alongside strangers, allowing the large, dark room to transport me elsewhere. It was bizarre at first, because I had never watched a movie alone in my life, until I had to for work. So, I got into a routine for these morning or noon shows. I’d skip breakfast and go in a bit early, with an empty water bottle and fill it in the theatre’s water cooler, buy myself a medium-sized popcorn before the movie began because it’d get too chaotic during the interval, and settle into my seat. Sometimes I’d spot a friend, a fellow-critic and swap seats with someone to watch a movie with them, but most days I was alone.
If the movie was bad, the songs gave everyone in the hall a moment to relax. People went out on smoke or bathroom breaks, or to buy snacks, some others attended to messages and calls. You didn’t have to sit there stewing in your own exasperation. And if the movie was good, the songs almost always added to its charm. As I recall, it did just that in the 2015 Malayalam film Premam. In the film, director Alphonse Puthran creates what we South Indians call a ‘mass’ moment for one of the female-leads of the film, Sai Pallavi, using just music and dance.
Sai Pallavi plays Malar, a teacher in a college who falls for her student, George (Nivin Pauly). Malar appears totally ‘normal’ initially. Alphonse Puthran hides his arsenal well until we are committed to this George-Malar romance. Malar then offers to coach George and his friends for an upcoming dance competition. While his friends are sceptical, George wants to try. Malar listens to the beat. Rewinds the tape recorder. Plays it again, and then walks around casually …and then she breaks into an unbelievable Prabhu Devaesque dance routine. (Sai Pallavi was the runner up of a Tamil reality show, Ungalil Yaar Adutha Prabhu Deva, that wanted to find the next Prabhu Deva).
One had to be in the theatre to believe the kind of response that scene evoked. The hooting and the whistling and clapping, the laughter, as the men on-screen looked gobsmacked... I should know, I watched the film twice at Sathyam cinemas. (The film ran in theatres in Chennai for an entire year.)
And now you ask anyone who loves naach gaana, even those who don’t speak Tamil or Malayalam, across South Asia, and I am sure they’ll know of Sai Pallavi, as the star of another ‘set the stage on fire’ number. A little song called ‘Rowdy Baby’, in which Pallavi does a full body flip in mid-air, as the Tamil star Dhanush plays a supporting role in the video. (Rowdy Baby has a billion views on Youtube and has comments from fans across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.) Pallavi posted an iconic photograph from the sets of the song with the man who choreographed the song, Prabhu Deva. ‘…This pic was taken 10 yrs later in the same set in which we shot Ungalil yaar adutha Prabhu Deva.’
In both these song sequences, there’s an element of power that the female actor has in the song-dance routine that goes way farther than what’s expected of filmy ‘dancing-girl’. It comes as a moment of wonder, even catharsis, seeing a woman push the boundaries of what’s expected of her just then.
Over the years, the songs that I’ve come to truly love, have had this in common. They appeal to both the cinema paithiyam (crazy) as well as the critic-writing-about-women-on-screen parts of me. They offer pause from cliché. They feature women.
Among these songs that feature feisty women, there’s this one further narrowed down category that I find myself returning to, for these songs seem to be existing despite all the odds stacked against them. They shouldn’t even exist and yet they do. These are songs in which women show an emotion that is always reserved for men in films. Rage. The angry young man could be singing for various existential reasons, from beating poverty to seeking revenge. In fact, the angry young man is so valorised and is so much a genre unto himself, that he’s now a tired old cliché.
But the angry woman? She is one to watch. It is a different matter that once these songs are over, more often than not the female character is punished on screen for showing this emotion, it’s almost as if the writers are afraid of female rage. Nonetheless, however brief her incandescence, the angry young woman makes for a compelling watch. She’s righteous, but there’s also something unexpectedly seductive about her. It’s a pity that when I went on Youtube and searched for angry heroine songs, I got a depressed Alia Bhatt asking her dil to go to hell. She wasn’t even angry in the video. I knew better than Youtube’s search engine clearly. I went on to look for the songs myself.
In the 1958 Tamil film Vanji Kottai Valiban, directed and produced by S.S. Vasan, an iconic dance-off features Vyjayantimala Bali who plays Mandakini and Padmini who plays Padma. The two women begin all sweet and innocent singing and dancing about their love, and soon realise they must fight for the affections of the same man, through the course of the song. Glorious jealously and rage ensues. The song features two women who were very accomplished dancers and so the quality of this dance-off is, according to me, unmatched in Indian cinema.
The film showers eight minutes of undivided attention on the two women. This is also worlds apart from the representation of the dancing girl – as the vamp or the other woman that had been the standard trope in Tamil cinema. In a sense, the woman dancer was ‘rescued’ in this video from the narrative of ‘dancing women ruin men’s lives’. Also, the idea that this song is based on, that a woman can brazenly wear her ‘want’ for a man, and not be judged for it, or be labelled an ‘item’, or be showcased in ways that seems empowering, rather than exploitative, is all a far cry even from what contemporary Tamil cinema feels it can let its woman on screen do.
Kannum kannum kalandhu is at once playful, serious, angry, and most importantly super fun. It also built on real life images that the stars had. Gemini Ganesan who was the hero of the film, was given the moniker ‘Kadhal Mannan’ for his lover boy image onscreen and a bit of a playboy image off it, in those days. Padmini and Vyjayantimala were thriving women artistes, both known for their dance. A lore still told in Tamil cinema circles is that they both were really rivals when it came to this dance and that they would go train separately and come to outdo each other on screen.
Thirty-nine years later, when Bollywood needed to create a dance-off between two women on-screen, it would follow pretty much the same script as Kannum Kannum. Dil To Pagal Hai’s Dance of Envy, featuring Karishma Kapoor as Pooja and Madhuri Dixit as Nisha, feels almost like a modern-day tribute to the older song. An innocent woman in love, begins dancing, looking all sweet and tender. Then the envious woman who also likes the same man as the innocent woman crashes the dance party. The two of them dance together, the man, the hero, looks at them worriedly, the women only see each other and nobody else. They challenge each other, and just when it appears as if the feisty jealous woman will win the dance-off, the hero puts an end to the charade.
The men in both sequences (Shah Rukh Khan stars in the latter), interrupt the proceedings as the dancers turn into a whirlwind almost. While Vyjayanthimala spins with Padmini in her arms in the old film, Karishma Kapoor spins on her own, like a fast moving, whirling dervish.
Sequences like this, I feel, also pluck power from others and hand them to the women, while men generally watch, almost useless, for the duration of the song, even if they are about the men ultimately. As in Mughal-e-Azam’s Pyar kiya to darna kya, while Madhubala who plays Anarkali tells off the Mughal with her, Pardah nahin jab koyi khuda se, bandon se pardah karna kya, and when she dares him with a dagger, Prithviraj Kapoor who plays the emperor of Hindustan, Akbar, watches paralysed, wheezing with rage. And in Sholay’s Aa Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Jaane Jahan, Hema Malini’s Basanti at once defies both Gabbar’s gaze and Veeru’s order to not dance in front of these ‘kutton’.
This sequence is of course among the best examples of male characters frozen to inaction for the entirety of the song, as Basanti makes her point. Her clothes dusty, her hair undone, feet bare and dirtridden at first and then cut up by glass... But she’s still dancing – yeh nazar jhukti nahin, yeh zubaan rukti nahin, main kahoongi gham sahoongi chup rahoongi kya, bebas hoon lekin nahin main bezubaan. She’s meant to be the helpless woman, who has no choice but to keep dancing to keep her love alive. Even in her helplessness she’s defiant. It is also among the earliest of songs that I remember, in which the heroine is just not doing dainty, elegant, or outright embarrassing things.
And in the 1998 film Jeans, director Shankar, who’s known for some of the most vivid, loud song sequences, seemed to be mocking this idea of groups of people sitting around and watching the heroine dance in films. In the song Kannodu kaanbathellam, Aishwarya Rai’s Madhu, aided by her family, dupes the man she loves and his family into believing she has an identical twin sister. She does this so that her lover’s father will allow her to marry the man she loves. The hero has an identical male twin too, and their father wants his sons to marry twin sisters.
Shankar takes the usual ‘men sitting on the floor, resting on bolsters, watching a woman dance while drinking’ trope, and turns it into a joke. During the song, Aishwarya Rai turns into a skeleton. Compared to the technology that Shankar himself uses now in films like Endhiran (in which Rajinikanth plays a scientist as well as his creation, a robot), the graphics in this song seem tame. However, in 1998, it was just so fun to see a newly minted Miss World be represented like that on screen. In a way, Kannodu kanbathellam shattered the idea that she was oh-so-delicate.
Looking back at all the songs I’ve visited here, that seems really to be the theme. The breaking, even if briefly, of the woman on screen, who’s written in ways that usually feel claustrophobic. The cracking of the veneer of plastic subservience, the second fiddle she’s expected to play to the hero, unless it’s Women’s Cinema or Art Cinema. These anomalies make even her writers, and the directors, seem a little more likable and interesting. But most importantly, these songs are just a lot of fun. They amp the drama up and give us memorable videos, with fantastic staging and superb choreography. All the ingredients that make a song truly amazing.
Which brings me to my final video, that according to me is the best staged Indian film song. And any day beats the La La Lands of Hollywood hands down. The man does all the work in the song, and is right in its centre, and yet it’s a triumphant moment for women in commercial cinema. The film: Om Shanti Om. And the song, Sun Ne Walon – a brilliantly staged, meta sequence that at once pays tribute to Bollywood itself, contains within it the entire story of the film, and makes it all look so effortless. So far as commercial song-making is concerned I believe Farah Khan will have the last word, until someone can match her.
* Krupa Ge is the author of Rivers Remember, Context, July 2019.