The problem

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THE ‘experience’ of films shaped my reality. I saw bereaved husbands seeking refuge from grief-filled songs; I heard creditors using ‘dialogues’ to extract money out of borrowers; I witnessed women in the house guarding their dimples to look like Sharmila Tagore, and I overheard my mother quoting Meena Kumari from a film when she wanted to say she’d had enough. The fashioning of life out of lives watched, heard and consumed through films made my ‘reality’, and made me grow up without thinking of films as an object of a gaze; but thinking of the ‘self’ as an object of cinema – shaping, morphing, re-forming under its alluring influence.

Film songs played not just in the background and in the head, but formed a substratum of life. The voices of Shamshad Begum and Talat Mehmood were the voices of childhood; the ones of Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar belonged to my adolescence. Lines from songs were quoted in the midst of intensely serious conversation, only to lend more seriousness and credibility. The presence of songs made everything seem like spoken in mid-conversation with lines, hu gaano to yaad ache (in Sindhi, translated as I am reminded of that song). The film was pikchar, the song was gaano. The former lived, the latter outlasted. Desires for objects and touch; places and people were couched in songs which were mobilized to make the ‘self’ a look-alike of someone else; an image, a word, a song hovering always in the horizon making humdrum life a little more livable.

In this process of being an approximation, nobody asked questions of the original or the authentic. In fact authenticity lay in not being entirely like the original, but in the intensity of that commitment. I must have learnt one of my first lessons of translations here, which is we don’t just love to translate, we translate to love.1

The above is not unique to me. In fact it is common to everyone contributing to this issue. But how could I focus on the experiential without the subjective and personal? Indeed many of us owe sanity to the insane amounts of films we watch and songs we hear. Surely the images, the names, sentiments, emotions, the stories, the words whether in ‘dialogues’ (such an Indianism!) or songs settle somewhere, in non- immediate ways, forming a substratum of ‘language’, a mode of seeing and feeling.

What sort of an object is cinema in India? Bhrugupati Singh asks in a previous issue of the Seminar magazine.2 I may probably replace that with the song, for its life is longer, wider, deeper than cinema. But that can come later. Singh reminds us that Nandy’s superb formulation about cinema being the slum’s eye view of India needs to be re-examined in the light of shifts. I want to stop at this question Singh asks, ‘How do we start unpacking the seemingly ubiquitous presence of the cinematic in our lives?’ Cinema, he goes on to elaborate, can have three directions for us to think about: technology, commodity, and implicated within diverse modes of sociality. (I believe that the ubiquitous presence is manifest through songs, and sociality is stitched and caressed and challenged through songs). This last mode, says Singh, ‘as a form of experience is hardest to grasp.’

This, to my mind, is the central question in this issue. Songs in particular provide a stencil of experience; helping a bereaved partner reconcile with his loss; providing subjectivity and legitimacy to the desiring woman; creating syntax for loving and missing. And really speaking it is songs that travel more than narratives, inhabiting even spaces that may be alien (if not hostile) to the idea of India. In the discussion below based on a specific film and its songs; I hope to delineate further the focus of this issue.

In arguably the first film about a child being born out of wedlock, B.R. Chopra’s Dhool Ka Phool (1956) was a remarkable success. The words ‘najayaz bacha’ act as a refrain in the film; making the memory of the romance that accompanied the birth of an illegitimate child insignificant, almost sinful. However, for a moment lets actually go to that moment of romance when the couple-to-be collide with each other’s bicycles at their first meeting. They do not exactly fall in love with each other that day, although there is no reason why they should not. Flimsier reasons have sufficed in cinema for this to happen. The following day, they are part of a college talent evening, an event that remains in the memory of many generations – when young men and women enjoyed a few minutes’ fame as they took on microphones and sang their hearts away, except in words that did not belong to them.

In this particular instance, they will probably be the originators of the words. Their names are called out, ‘…Kapoor’ and ‘…Khosla.’ The upper caste names may well be substituted with other upper caste names, but the story would remain the same. The hero, or the male actor Rajendra Kumar, goes up to the stage and begins the song: ‘Tere pyaar ka aasra chahta hun, wafa kar raha hun wafa chahta hun’ – I seek refuge in your love; I bring steadfastness which is also what I seek from you. The female lead, Mala Sinha, sings ‘back’: ‘bade na samaj yeh kya chahte ho.’ She reminds him playfully of his naivete in expecting steadfastness from the fair sex. The duet that plays around the idea of a man seeking constancy and the woman refusing both love and constancy, who plays the classic hard to get, counts for a common trope in the wooing period in many romantic films. As soon as the song is over, we find them going out and professing love in another duet, dhadakne lagi dil ke taron ki duniya – the universe of heartstrings strum away.

It has been argued by many that film songs provide a view into subjectivity without being narrative interruptions in cinema; songs enhanced the emotive world that was not available in the narrative flow. The first song is not doing that. Instead it created a couple for the song, the words formed the idea of love, the duet engendered not subjectivity but subjects. What is being said here is that song is sometimes a bahana, or pretext of one kind and sometimes some other kind. But in most cases it creates a universe of alternative meanings without offending the normal language of the narrative. The second song, dhadkne lagi dil ke taaron ki duniya, managed to do the other bahana – create sexual possibilities through a song. It suggested sensuality which in turn found its recourse in a song, and it is no wonder that there is an intense rain followed by love-making after that song.

The love-making after the song, dhadhakne lagi, led to sex, indicated through lashing doors and raindrops, a visual language. The following morning, the couple finds itself feeling embarrassed and guilty of having slipped, and transgressed social boun- daries, ‘yeh hamse badi galti ho gayi’ or ‘hum samaj ke gunahgaar hain.’

I want to pause again for a moment to think of what precisely is the ambit of language here. The language of the heart in songs, dil ki zubaan, needs to be seen as one engendering a parallel vocabulary. It provides an outlet for the sensual, but also manages to steer clear of ownership and agency. It can appear as an aberration leaving the actors guilty, but not let you forget that desires do exist, and they are difficult to control. It’s worth asking if the passive construction, galti ho gayi, mistake took place, helps us in disowning responsibility, most of it. Come to think of it, even the words samaj ke gunahgaar, criminals before society, is a strange expression. There is no conversation of mutuality, whether what happened was good or avoidable or enjoyable for the two individuals, but an immediate confession to an unseen but seeing society. An existing language of regulation has found its subjects, and although the songs leak out desire, the regulating language ensures after a point that verbs of desire are replaced by nouns of guilt and shame.

These examples are of one kind. Then there are songs that become bulwarks of living life; they remind us that we are not alone in what we experience. They explain life, betrayal, adversity, goodness, incompleteness. Many examples in this issue gesture towards those as well. So both living with desire and living in the social world come to us through a toolkit of songs. If being Indian means living the quotidian and everyday existence in a territory and idea, songs are an important ingredient of that experience.

This brings me to some of the keywords in Hindi film songs; and it is only my lack of knowledge that this discussion is restricted to ‘Hindi’ film songs. While words like ishq, pyaar, mohabbat, chand, badal would be considered common words, I am particularly interested in the role two words play. The first is the word dil, which is inadequately available as ‘heart’ in English. ‘Dil’ is one of the most protean and polysemic words. In terms of its usage, the word dil is heart, but also mind or consciousness, sometimes. It stands in for the ‘I’ so that desires are projected onto the dil, instead of the speaker taking responsibility for his/her own agency. I have discussed the semiotics of this word elsewhere3 and also briefly come back to it in the subsequent discussion. The second word zubaan, used along with dil, is tongue, but also language. The word zubaan is used almost always to suggest the language of heart; which when spoken makes love public; trivial. The body and its transcendence – both ideas need to kept simultaneous and together as we proceed.

In fact, film songs are expressive of a profoundly liminal space between language and non-language; revealing at once the paradox of translation – its possibility and impossibility. How does a song vocabulary add keywords to our linguistic repertoire? Have words intro-duced to us by Urdu poetry, via film songs formed a linguistic universe of their own? Do the words ‘aankhen’ refer to the part of the anatomy or the act of seeing and being seen, but avoiding the surveilling gaze of the family? Why do eyes become an object of desire, metonymically serving for the whole in teri aankhon ki chahat mein main yeh sab kuchh luta dunga, or the protestations that it is not ‘I’ but the dil that wants to ruffle your hair, teri zulf phir sanwaroon, teri maang phir saja dun? Why is the affrontery of action ascribed to something else, and not owned up in the body? I believe that songs create a proxy and surrogate language which by repetition, listening, humming, reproducing become mnemonic devices of their own linguistic world. Hence the title of this issue: Dil ki Zubaan .

The articles in this issue range from making India sing; to intimate accounts of courtship made possible through songs; to intergenerational bridges made by songs; to God-making projects of singers; to the staggering relegation to the world of music and words that India still subjects itself to; to ethnographies of alienated regions that open up only to songs from mainland India and to loving tributes to music directors; dance moves of angry young women and so on. The tone of these essays eludes singularity; for it is in the song that both personal, and socio-political merge but made subtextual by the affective force. This issue is to embolden us to own up to these forms of magic and diwanapan; it is to move away from the ready frameworks and mobilize the untold; unspoken; the personal and articulate dil ki baat, and to expand the zubaan from being a tongue or language to expressions of love that are both public and not.




1. Robert J.C. Young, ‘Writing Back, in Translation’, in Raoul J. Grandqvist (ed.), Writing Back in/and Translation. Peter Lang, Frankfurt am Main, 2006, pp. 19-37.

2. Bhrigupati Singh, ‘The Problem’, Seminar 525 (Unsettling Cinema), May 2003, pp.12-16.

3. Rita Kothari and Apurva Shah, ‘Dil Se: Love, Fantasy and Negotiation in Hindi Film Songs’, Interventions, 2017, pp.1-19.