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Thinking through Bollywood class consciousness

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I learned to enjoy Bollywood movies from my maternal grandmother, Kusum, who at the age of eight taught me how to pirate them on videotape. She was a woman who loved rituals, and for several years we expected other company on weekends.

In the early 1990s, Bollywood rentals were scarce in California. We drove from her home in Fullerton to the Patel Store in Little India in Artesia or Cash & Carry in Bellflower, if new versions couldn’t be found in the first. You might find a glass case with a stack of VHS tapes at the back of a grocery store. A spiral notebook could be attached indicating who praised what. We would choose five or six unknown titles with more or less familiar names, most often at random.

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Prakash Mehra, Namak Halal, 1982, still film with Shashi Kapoor. Courtesy: his video

Music has been a part of Bombay cinema since its first sound film, Ardeshir Iranis Alam Ara (1931), inheriting its structure from the social-realistic narratives of the Urdu Parsi theater and regional traditions such as Ramlila,Nautanki and Festival, which brought together loose adaptations of William Shakespeares performs with dozens of song and dance routines. Filmi Gaana (or Bollywood songs) do not extend or advance the plot as much as they ask you to evaluate, through exaggerated literalisms, the outbursts of affection that a shared language fails to express in her alone. Take for example:

I was coquettish, and you moved jerkily. Should I continue to tie my waist like this? Why? Did you feel alarmed? 1

Or:

If the moonlight says something to the moon, who is it that tells you something? 2

A stony sentimentality motivates the maximalist form of Bollywood. The rules of continuity in the Western film those which, for example, suture an action (a first meeting, a drunken dinner between friends, a rite which, before you are really fully aware, marries you to your cousin) to a certain space and time (a train carriage, a mother-in-law’s boudoir, a Swiss mountain pasture) are disobeyed in favor of the production of a certain number of visual or auditory excesses. Especially during musical numbers, the editing is freed from the imperative to give shape or texture to a world constructed of films in order, on the contrary, to celebrate the novelty of appearance: hundreds of spontaneous bodies populate scenic landscapes; love at first sight, outfits change.

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Rajkumar Kohli, Badle Ki Aag, 1982, film poster. Courtesy: Desimovies.biz

Bollywood songs are lip-synced by the actors. Music directors arrange the melody and ask invisible lyricists and reading singers to focus on what’s happening on screen. Kill yourself, whispers actor Parveen Babi Namak Halal (1982), before lip syncing with the disco track Jawani Jaaneman. Babi plays Nisha, a double agent disguised as a dancer who arrives in the films’ penultimate act and swears to murder the male protagonist: Kill Yourself! I want to kill you, I will kill you! she shouts into a phone. Nishas self-possession propels her onto a nightclub stage where she is supported by a band and a mind-blowing Giorgio Moroder-style rhythm. As in the David Bowies Heroes video (1977), multiple exposures reproduce the figure of Nisha in a circle hovering above the stage. The camera swings in and out of the dancer, twitching between the verses. She strums her aerial guitar, laughs to herself and lip-syncs:

Watch how a killer looks at you!

I found my ha ha one!

What is ha, ha something wrong?

My enemy bow my beloved?

The thief fell in love with the bird.

Jawani Jaaneman’s current singer was Asha Bhosle. During her 60-year career, she has recorded songs for generations of actors in Bombay cinema, as well as many other film industries in the South Asian subcontinent. Born into a theatrical family in 1933, Bhosle is one of four siblings who have all made careers in Bollywood. Along with her sister, Miss Lata Mangeshkar, whose mellow playing style, praised for her Brahmin politeness, was celebrated long before Bhosle rose to fame, she has become a household name to myself and to most South Asians. non-residents that I know of. In 1949, at the age of 16, Bhosle ran away and married music director Ganpatrao Bhosle who, according to an article by his daughter Varsha, published in Gentleman in 1993, made her sing all night:

The oldest memory I have of my mother [] is an ephemeral montage of doorbells ringing very late at night, a sobbing woman goes back to bed, the tensions of a strange and repetitive song emanating from behind a closed door I slam the door wanting to enter but I am rudely pulled by a man when the music threatens to stop.

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Ram Gopal Varma, Rangeela, 1995, film stills.Courtesy: Eros International

From the 1940s to the late 1960s, Bhosle landed only a handful of jobs. After her husband’s death in 1960, Bhosle met and fell in love with RD Burman, a genius young producer with whom she revolutionized the sound of Bollywood. If her task as rival singers was to guarantee, through their voice, the mastery of the tone, the deployment of the voice as a craft, Bhosle used her brassy contralto to bypass the performance of femininity (and ethnicity). heard. She added variations to her word pronunciations, cadence, and pace that didn’t flatten her Marathi-inflected vernacular, but let it percolate through its high peaks, into its half-words. She paved the way for singers like Ila Arun, Hema Sardesai, and Usha Uthup, whose raucous, androgynous registers undermined the industry’s desire to purge itself of lower caste or gender non-caste subjects. Bollywood wanted to project cosmopolitanism, so Bhosle improvised, absorbing his clues from British psychedelia, American jazz, Arab and Bengali folk music, calypso and cabaret. Despite her physical absence, when Asha-ji (as she is also known) sings, the male protagonists’ lusty goals onscreen are briefly upset: they stop, as if to wonder who might do what to whom.

In August, I returned to California to visit my parents. Nearby forest fires created thick columns of ash-filled smoke between their home and the neighbor. We watched Ram Gopal Varmas paean in Bollywood, Rangeela (1995). The plot centers on Milli, a young dancer hungry for star power, caught between two suitors: Munna, her socialist best friend and secret admirer, and Raj, a film actor and financier. Above the noise of the traffic in the streets of Mumbai, RangeelaThe title cards accompany a slideshow of black-and-white photographs of famous actors, all of which have been voiced at one point by Bhosle. In the foreground of the film, Urmila Matondkar, who plays Milli, watches a roadside peep show (possibly her movie; that is to say Rangeela, the movie watched by us). Varma lets a few moments of silence pass before allowing Bhosles’ comeback song, Rangeela Re, to rise above the surrounding noise. Milli stands up slowly, slides her hands over her body, then takes off her cap. I want to read it as a scene of lesbian lust, but Matondkars Chaplinesque’s gestures ease the tension, replacing sex with a farce.

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Prakash Mehra, Namak Halal, 1982, movie poster. Courtesy: Desimovies.biz

While Milli is fair, the middle class begins to rise through the ranks as a movie star, her friend-lover, Munna, a Mumbaiya tapori (vagabond), begs her to live, like him, by looting the streets. Rich overproduction, he argues, so there is plenty to do. the tapori was a familiar type of character in 1990’s Bombay cinema: typically a lower class man and a low-stakes gangster, he would act, to the viewer, as a social barometer of his neighborhood. Like girls trafficked to perform an item number, or a sexy dance song, tapori exist exclusively on the periphery of the Bollywood filmic narrative, bypassing its heavy and conservative mores by only ever finding yourself in the twinkling shadows of the movie theater. the tapori speak Bambayya, an urban dialect formalized by this type of character to signify the working class and, in this particular case, to revel in a language unheard of by the state. The first time we see Munna, he’s standing outside a ticket booth, selling tickets on the black market for a sold-out screening. A mesh tank top hugs her sweaty torso, and the ends of a silk patchwork shirt are tied above her stomach. Searched by a nearsighted policeman, Munna pretends to surrender. He takes a whiff of his spliff, slips the pirated tickets into the cops’ hats and calls anyone listening directly:

Hey brothers, look! The perpetrators of the Bombay riots have not been convicted. Millions have been diverted from the stock market. But have they arrested anyone? And I, a simple man who comes to see a movie, I am harassed! It’s your rule anyway what’s gonna happen to this country, yaar [buddy]!

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Prakash Mehra, Namak Halal, 1982, film still starring Parveen Babi. Courtesy: his video

He disappears into the movieplex arm in arm with another tapori, where they sit transfixed by the confit Bollywood commercial framework, within which political realities cannot be rudely softened, one beatific track of Asha Bhosle after another. It is not unusual for actors who live and work on the South Asian subcontinent to be nationalistic as well, so it was not surprising to see both Bhosle and actor Aamir Khan (who played Munna ) at the inauguration of Prime Minister Narendra Modis’ second term in 2019, defending a supremacist Hindu administration that supports mass incarceration, lynching, institutional murder and acts of terror. Bombay cinema takes the path of least resistance, which has enabled Bhosle to become an integral part of Indian public life; his voice continues to be heard in stores and echoes from car radios across India and its diaspora, on the same channels that spit out the cult oratory of Modis. Seduced by one and repelled by the other, I feel disturbed; Perhaps this is the impossible structure of feeling that Bollywood has always wanted.

This article first appeared in frieze number 215with the title Out of Earshot

Lily friezeEditor Andrew Durbin in conversation with Shiv Kotecha about this essay here.

1 PK Mishra (lyricist) and AR Rahman (musical director), Hindustani, 1996, directed by S. Shankar. Translated from Hindi by the author.

2 Mehboob Kotwal (lyricist) and AR Rahman (musical director), Tanha Tanha, Rangeela, 1995, directed by Ram Gopal Varma. Translated from Hindi by the author.

Main picture: Rajkumar Kohli, Badle ki aag, 1982, detail of the film poster. Courtesy: Desimovies.biz

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