A frequently voiced, totally clueless complaint about Bollywood is that the films are not realistic; they are filled with too much song and dance, they mix genres too eagerly, they are too colorful and exuberant for a country that is devastated by poverty. I hope my readers are perceptive enough to know that this is bullshit. Media and genre mixing is longstanding element of traditional cultures, and is even more important for people with little leisure time and few sites of cultural experience. As for charges of escapism? To deny lower-class Indians the kinds of pleasures you and I derive from consuming culture because they were born into poverty is typical liberal guilt projection, blame-the-victims nonsense. Besides, everyone knows that a good escape plan is of prime importance for revolutionaries.
Since this is a music blog, what follows is a sampling of ten fantastic Bollywood songs. For inclusion, not only did the song have to be excellent, it had to be from an excellent film. You could get a great start in learning about this vibrant global culture by following these leads.
"Chaiyya Chaiyya," from Dil Se
It only makes sense to start with a Rahman composition. The guy is a household name all over the world, and it's about time y'all caught up. Rahamn's work is extroadinarily diverse; he is equally adept at more melodic, romantic ballads as he is at rhythmic dance jams, of which "Chaiyya Chaiyya" ("shadow") is a prime example. (A key example of the former, the absolutely irresistible "Kuch Kuch Hota Hai"--loosely translateable as "shit happens"--was disqualified for its source movie's tiresome plot and troublesome gender politics.) You might recognize "Chaiyya" from the opening sequence of Spike Lee's 2006 Inside Man, but it originally comes from Mani Ratnam's 1998 Dil Se ("from the heart"), a dark, impressionistic depiction of a sexually charged encounter between a journalist and a suicide bomber. The voice is playback singer Sukhwinder Singh, but the actor moving his lips is megastar Shah Rukh Khan.
"Pyar Zindagi Hai," from Muqaddar Ka Sikander
The name of Amitabh Bachchan is invoked frequently in Slumdog Millionaire, and for good reason. My man is one of the most well-known film actors in the world, outside of the United States, whose emergence in Indian cinema in the late seventies marked a shift from light romance to violent, melancholy drama. 1978's Muqaddar Ka Sikander may not necessarily be the best of Amitabh's action movies, but it features perhaps the greatest disco jam in Bollywood history, by musical eccentrics Kalyandji and Anandji V. Shah. The dazzling, funk-influenced work of the Shah brothers is the wellspring of material for Dan the Automator's Bombaby the Hard Way and its sequel. "Pyar Zindagi Hai" ("love is life") is performed by Lata Mangeshkar, who I believe holds the world record for singing the most songs of anyone ever, and her sister Asha Bhosle, who was immortalized in Cornershop's 1998 tribute to vinyl, "Brimful of Asha." The male vocalist is the less well known Mahendra Kapoor. No, I don't know where you can find a 12-inch of this.
"Soni De Nakhre," from Partner
A movie like 2007's Partner is a perfect target for those who are too cool for Bollywood. The film is based on the already mediocre Will Smith vehicle Hitch, about a guy who teaches clients how to get dates, adds in a totally irrelevant mafia subplot, stars the beefy, insincere Salman Khan, and features a lengthy chase scene in which the protagonist is pursued by a heat-seeking missile--while on a jet ski. As you have probably guessed, it's fucking awesome. As much as I love Will Smith, Hitch is truly bested here. "Soni De Nakhre" (don't speak Punjabi, sorry) is the movie's peak moment (along with that jet ski chase I guess), a wonderful instance of the Bollywood tradition of throwing one song in Punjabi into a movie that is otherwise in Hindi; this is without exception the bangingest number, often in a Bhangra style. Many people don't know that the name of the genre "Bhangra" comes from the word "bhang," which means marijuana, often used in that region to make a kind of milkshake called "lassi." This shit is like Indian dub reggae, or dancehall. "Nakhre" was composed by Labh Janjua, who is also responsible for Punjabi MC's seminal Bhangra classic "Mundian To Bach Ke" (better known for its Jay-Z remix, "Beware of the Boys," but better heard in its original incarnation). Not only is Partner cooler than Hitch, this song is way doper than "Pump up the Jam," which it blatantly rips off. A great example of Bollywood's mastery of male-female song dialogue.
"Main Koi Jhoot Boleya," from Jagte Raho
Jagte Raho ("stay awake"), is a landmark film, featuring one of India's earliest auteur actor/directors, Raj Kapoor. Though his early films were compelling translations of Charlie Chaplin's formal style and political thematics to a third-world context, 1956's Jagte Raho, a collaboration with Amit and Sombhu Mitra, is some downright Scandanavian shit. Like the European art cinema of the day, the story is highly symbolic and abstract: a peasant finds himself trapped on a Calcutta street after curfew, dying of thirst. He comes upon a gated apartment complex, where the overworked guards shout to each other at regular intervals to make sure no one sleeps on the job. He manages to get past the gate, and makes his way, unseen, through the hundreds of apartments in the complex, becoming a silent witness to the latent corruption and conflict that lay under the normalized surface of India's emerging postcolonial middle class. The film won the main prize at the prestigious Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, forcing the world to take notice (a bit) of Indian cinema. This scene is, in a way, a predecessor to the previous one, as an encounter with a more marginal ethnicity in both story and song. "Main Koi Jhoot Boleya" ("do I lie?") is by Salil Chowdhary and Prem Dhavan, and is mainly performed by Mohammed Rafi (who is something like the Indian Elvis). I can't translate the Punjabi outside of the refrain "so what!"
"Jaane Wo Kaise," from Pyaasa
Early Bollywood, like early Hollywood, was a profoundly exciting, innovative, politically engaged world. Like many of the great talents involved in thirties and forties Hollywood (and the early Soviet Union), the workers in India's nascent film industry came together from many disparate fields--visual arts, theater, classical music, poetry, and so on--to develop a radical new medium. Again, similar to Hollywood, many of these artists were involved with the Communist Party of India. The hybridity was not only media based; Bollywood was perhaps the first truly national culture of the Subcontinent. Rather than a Sikh cinema or a Sufi cinema or a Muslim cinema or a Hindu cinema or a cinema based solely on any other one of the region's many ethnicities, Indian cinema constructed a notion of Indian-ness out of many cultural traditions, making it a profoundly anticolonial art form. From this millieu emerged Guru Dutt's 1957 masterpiece Pyaasa ("thirst"). For many, it is the greatest Indian movie--influential film theorist Laura Mulvey is one noteworthy fan. Dutt borrowed some aspects of his plot from Preston Sturges's brilliant 1941 comedy/drama Sullivan's Travels, adapting it to an Indian setting. Dutt, ethnically a Hindu and trained in theater, worked with Urdu poet Sahir Ludhiviani, ethnically a Muslim, on the story and songs of Pyaasa, with music by Bengali composer S.D. Burman. Students and fans of cinema owe it to themselves to see this classic. For now, the wrenchingly beautiful "Jaane Wo Kaise" ("how could it be?"), performed by Hemant Kumar.
Stay tuned for Part 2, goras.