By Roshni Sengupta
Political and economic volatility marked the decade of the 80s in India as the period witnessed record levels of unemployment and social inequalities. The years after the emergency were far from tranquil, the anger of a burgeoning middle class with the political dispensation was boiling over, the insurgency in Punjab was threatening to tear the country apart, culminating in Operation Blue Star – the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar to allegedly flush out Sikh militants and their leadership, which had fortified the shrine. The assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi led to one of the worst bouts of communal rioting India has ever seen. No film exemplifies the Punjab crisis and its aftermath better than Gulzar’s Maachis (1996), not least through its exemplary soundtrack which includes numbers like “Chappa Charkha Chale” and “Pani Re, Khare Pani Re”. Sung by an ensemble of lively voices, “Chappa” conveys pain and pathos, set in a catchy tune. It underlines the trauma of loss and longing for lost homes and hearths and catapults the narrative into an evocative zone. On the other hand, “Pani Re” (in the voice of the melody queen Lata Mangeshkar) is cathartic – in its imagination of hurt and defeat and its rendition of desire and yearning for a normal life disrupted by political violence – during the Partition, in Punjab and against the Sikh community in Delhi in 1984.
The use of the film song to carry the narrative forward was employed methodically by Mani Ratnam in Roja (1991) – made in Tamil and later dubbed in Hindi with Hindi songs – brought to life in the tricolor-burning sequence as the song, sung by Hariharan and a brilliant chorus of backing vocalists – “Bharat Humko Jaan Se Pyaara Hai” – reaches a crescendo in the background, also heralding a new dawn in the history of the Hindi film song producing and sustaining patriotic fervor. It is hard not to get goosebumps as the song ends with the dramatic visuals transmitting a politically capricious image of the Kashmiri Muslim terrorist torturing an Indian – read Hindu – in a cauldron of hatred and violence. Incidentally, Roja is regarded by scholars and commentators as the first film to temporally link the Muslim with terrorism, aided and abetted by the enemy from across the border, clearly pointing fingers at Pakistan for stoking the fires of militancy and separatism in Kashmir.
The 1990s is also the decade of composer A R Rahman, whose personal history looms large over his rapid rise towards international fame and acclaim. Born Dilip Kumar to Dalit parents, Rahman is credited with creating the background score for another of Mani Ratnam’s explosive films – Bombay (1995) – in which the portrayal of the Muslim as lower in social stature to the caste Hindu and the communal riots in Bombay in 1992-93 was carried forward by the overwhelming and incredible Bombay Theme, a resounding instrumental piece. The theme music of Bombay presents a gritty interlude to the affected visuals on screen as the protagonists try to reason with rioters and arsonists at the height of the violence that engulfed Bombay in two spells or phases.
Terrorism had emerged as a favoured theme with commercial filmmakers in Bollywood in the 1980s itself. “Dil Diya Hai Jaan Bhi Denge” from Karma (1986) embodies the overarching themes of these narratives – the ultimate defeat of terrorists and hence violence at the hands of the state helped along by non-state actors, usually personified by the wronged hero, and in the case of Karma, reformed criminals who complete revenge against the perpetrators of terror. Interestingly, these narratives did not categorise the villain or the terrorist in a particular communal or religious bracket but left it vague and ambiguous. Nitin Mukesh’s soulful “So Gaya Yeh Jahan” (Tezaab, 1988) and “Papa Kehte Hain” by Udit Narayan from Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak released the same year stand testimony to a rapidly criminalizing society as the question of social position and location looms large over the horizon. As Aamir Khan twirled and gyrated to the guitar strings in “Papa Kehte Hain”, treatises on social location dictated by wealth and fortune signaled the travesty of the dwindling socialist ethos from the national imaginary, calling out glibly to the 1990s when privatization of the economy and the opening up of a hitherto mixed system to foreign investment foreshadowed the death of Nehruvian socialism.
The 1990s was the period when popular cinema became manifestly grandiose and escapist at the same time. As the strains of “Tujhe Dekha Toh Yeh Jaana Sanam” from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995) and “Tum Paas Aye” from Kuch Hota Hai (1998) wafted across foreign locales and tugged at the heartstrings of not only the diasporic Indian but also other South Asian communities like the Pakistanis and the Bangladeshis living abroad, the era of the NRI romance films made a remarkable entry into Hindi film lore. With the world at their feet, Bollywood filmmakers began to move out of Indian shores seeking not only locations but audiences and markets. This was a decade of aspiration – the Indian middle class was growing at a rapid pace with more professionals being churned out by technical and skill development institutes. The satellite television had started to enter the living rooms of average Indians bringing a plethora of programming from all over the world into sharp focus for the first time. Politically, the 1990s marked the end of single-party rule and coalitions became the order of the day. However, the biggest box office successes of the decade did not engage with politics but emerged as the quickest formula for escaping the anxieties of a rapidly transforming society and polity. Love and romance blossomed on the silver screen with Ashiqui (1990), holding out the beacon for a new age of music directors like Nadeem-Shravan, Anand-Milind and Anu Malik and singers and crooners such as Kumar Sanu, Alka Yagnik, Udit Narayan and Kavita Krishnamoorthi, followed by musicals like Saajan (1991) and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992). If “Pehla Nasha” from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar became the anthem for teenage star-struck lovers, “Woh Sikandar Hi Doston Kehlata Hai” and “Jawaan Ho Yaaron” symbolized the exuberance of youth along with a slight subaltern tilt aspiring for a better future. Through these musical narratives, a discursive explication for a dramatically changed future in an economic powerhouse was being put forward.
The decade also marked the first vestiges of the infusion of a discourse focused on the undivided Hindu family through films such as Hum Aapke Hain Koun (1994) and later Hum Saath Hain (1999) among others. “Wah Ramji” from HAHK epitomizes the primacy of overwhelmingly Hindu idioms and motifs in the narrative as the song further compares the protagonists with Rama and Sita, therefore lending them credibility as the ideal Indian (read Hindu) couple. A similar task was accomplished by “Maiyya Yashoda” from HSSH as the Hindu-centric idioms foreclosed any attempt at arguing in favour of a more broad-based and secular depiction of the ideal Indian family. The Bharatiya Janata Party had been gaining major political ground following their successful campaign to demolish the disputed mosque at Ayodhya, which had led to a trail of communal bloodletting in several parts of the country, mainly Bombay. The political narrative was changing at breakneck speed as the Hindutva discourse took momentum supported initially by the telecast of Ramayan on national television which succeeded in consolidating the consensus for the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya. With the mandir movement in the foreground, the BJP with a definitively Hindutva agenda made giant strides finally coming to power as the head of a coalition of parties in 1999, which they dramatically lost in 2004.
The turn of the millennium made the filmic landscape more varied, more experimental and definitely more stimulating. As the discursive space became increasingly narrow with competing religious fundamentalisms dotting the political mindscape, the Hindi film song would turn into an offshoot of the main narrative, often being presented at the end of the film as the credits rolled. Beginning with Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham (2001) which carried the myth of the glorious Indian family as the upholder of culture and tradition (read Hindu culture and tradition) with a very strong class bias built into the story, helped along by chart-toppers like “Na Juda Honge Hum, Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham” (Lata Mangeshkar) and Veer-Zaara (2004) – the pleasantly sublime musical appraisal of the India-Pakistan relationship embodied in the fabulous “Tere Liye” and the heart-thumping qawwali, “Aya Tere Dar Pe Deewana”, the 2000s have brought to life a number of themes – political and historical – and not least through the Hindi film song ruling the charts. When Aamir Khan and his band of village folk danced to the notes of “Baar Haan, Bolo Yaar Haan, Apni Jeet Ho, Unki Haar Haan” and “Yeh Dharti Apni Hai, Apna Ambar Hai Re” in Ashutosh Gowarikar’s blockbuster Lagaan (2001) and Shahrukh Khan lent his brooding visage to the timeless “Maula Mere Le Meri Jaan” in Chak De! India (2007), themes such as the post-colonial peripatetic communal insinuations against religious groups in India and colonial discrimination and subjugation as well as racially motivated colonial policies came to fruition on screen, leading not only to the wider acceptability of historical and political themes presented in a commercial mould, but also inaugurated a new phase of young filmmakers unafraid to present their cinematic experiments to the audience. A R Rahman returned with a rousing musical score for Lagaan, followed by the edgy tunes he composed for Rang De Basanti (2006). Songs such as “Khoon Chala” came to symbolize middle-class anger against a corrupt and unresponsive political class. The visuals accompanying the mellifluous vocals by Mohit Chauhan brought to mind the outpouring of anger on the streets of the capital as the main accused in the high-profile Jessica Lal murder case walked free. The song exemplifies a generation on the edge, seething yet calm, its rage ready to burst out into the open.
Hindi film songs have, over the decades, remained at the forefront of massive transformations in the cinematic space as genres developed and were established, as themes and discourses gained ground and consolidated and as India changed from a post-colonial fledgling into a simmering, vibrant behemoth, beset with continuing civic strife, unmitigated violence, breakdown of inter-communal relations aided by Hindu majoritarian politics, unprecedented attacks on democratic structures and institutions and general political inertia. Not only has the film song carved a niche for itself as one of the sub-continent’s most important cultural products, it has also mirrored the myriad revolutions that have marked the past decades. As such, a musical historiography of India remains one of the most coveted academic projects.
Note: Roshni Sengupta will be guest-editing an issue of Cafe Dissensus on “Bollywood Nationalism” in November, 2016. Do look up the submissions page for details.
Dr. Roshni Sengupta is currently Erasmus Mundus IBIES Post-Doctoral Fellow at Leiden Institute for Area Studies, Leiden University, The Netherlands.
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