A Gora's Guide to Bollywood (Part 1)

"Gora" is a word in Hindi and Urdu roughly equivalent to "gringo" in Spanish; though it loosely refers to white people, what it really signifies is outsiders to the culture of its speaker. I use it because for a long time you goras of the English-speaking world haven't really given a fuck about Subcontinental Asians, in spite of occasional encouraging moments (lately: the success of M.I.A., Harold and Kumar, Anoop on American Idol, and so on). Last Saturday, however, seemed to signal a larger change. Danny Boyle's Hollywood-drama-set-in-Mumbai (please don't suggest it has anything to do with Bollywood), Slumdog Millionaire, swept the Oscars, including a win for composer/songwriter A.R. Rahman. I can only hope that we will soon start to see decent releases of South Asian music and film--Bollywood and otherwise (and there is an otherwise)--in the English-speaking world. (If anyone from the Criterion Collection is reading, come on guys. Honestly.)

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.


I'm Not An Animal

"We are living in a Post Merriweather Post Pavillion World," writes Carles, "and I am a conceptual bro." Perhaps we are all conceptual bros. The new Animal Collective album, probably the most hyped thing ever, has been settling into the heads of music fans everywhere for the past couple weeks, to the point that it recently debuted at 13 on Billboard's Hot 200 albums (right below Andrew Bird's latest--this probably says more about the shrinking demographic of album-buyers than it does about some kind of musical zeitgeist). It has been reviewed at Resident Advisor, where I thought I would be safe, Kanye West posted the "My Girls" video on his blog, and don't even get me started on all the cover versions flooding youtube. Make no mistake; this is for real, and it's serious. I'm sure you've heard it all before from your neighborhood's resident Animal Collective apologist, but witness Simon Reynolds's baffling a priori vitriol for anyone who dares question the consensus on Merriweather Post Pavilion:
It's funny watching AC haters frothing at the mouth isn't it? They can't help it, their loathing is so visceral, such an uncontrollable gut aversion to the sound: its maculate, confusional qualities seem to be intolerable, a real affront to sensibility--the way the music mixes levels, categories, registers like so much spin art (or more apposite in this case, like tie-dye).
WTF, bro?

I've never been a follower of the band, so I can't comment on their earlier stuff. But on MPP, a singular aesthetic shines through; this is the work of a group that knows what it is doing. A frequent comparison is to the Beach Boys, but with the exception of the relatively enjoyable "Bluish," I don't hear it. What I do hear is more unsettling, yet openly acknowledged: "Merriweather Post Pavilion" is the name of the arena where the Animal Collective boys saw their first Grateful Dead concert.

Ah-ha. Other touchstones fall into place: the cloying harmonies of Crosby, Stills, and Nash, the starry-eyed navel-gazing of hippiedom, the breezy multicultural appropriation inclinations of white sixties aesthetes, and so on. Guess I missed the meeting when we decided we now consider CSN and the Dead appropriate influences for a band in 2009, but there you go. Animal Collective are hardly the only rock group to mythologize the Sixties, and their take is really not all that different from the rest. The cultural myth of the Sixties falls squarely into line with the way Roland Barthes defined myth generally, as "depoliticized speech." The effect is,
The world enters language as a dialectical relation between activities, between human actions; it comes out of myth as a harmonious display of essences. A conjuring trick has taken place; it has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, it has removed from things their human meaning so as to make them signify a human insignificance. The function of myth is to empty reality; it is, literally, a ceaseless flowing out, a haemorrhage, or perhaps an evaporation, in shot a perceptible absence.
Ahistoricizing as well as depoliticizing, this kind of mythologization of the sixties does not concern itself with radical movements in the third world, with feminist and queer aspects of the sexual revolution, with class struggle. What it comes away with are essentialized, reified concepts of liberation, antiauthoritarianism, diversity, and so on, the signifiers of which are wholly incorporated into capitalist culture. For this generation, the vestiges of the Sixties--of which a primary marker is the write-their-own-songs/play-their-own-instruments Rock Band, a group that with few exceptions must be white--result in, to once again quote Carles, something like a "non-profit lifestyle brand."

Consider the analysis of Christian Lander, the creator of the somewhat cynical website Stuff White People Like. From the Atlantic:
It's strange that we are the kids of Baby Boomers, right? How the hell do you rebel against that? Like, your parents will march against the World Trade Organization next to you. They'll have bigger white dreadlocks than you. What do you do?
The answer? You don't rebel. What's the point? There are other things to attend to, as we are told in MPP's first single, "My Girls."

Written by Panda Bear, the lyrics take a confessional tone: "Is it much," he begins, already wishy-washy, "that I feel I need/A solid soul and the blood I bleed?" Personally I think that the post-Cartesian paradox of a "solid soul" actually is a bit much, but we can put that aside for now. Mr. Bear proceeds to tell us what he really needs, which is his "little girl," his "spouse," and "a proper house." (Never mind that there was no need in this case to be gender neutral, spouse rhymes with house okay?) After informing us that he doesn't want to have to get a job ("take part in a precious race") in order to pay for this house, he goes on to set his convictions in stone: "I don't mean to seem like I care about material things, like my social status/I just want four walls and adobe slabs for my girls." Hey, a third world-style house with adobe walls! Pretty alt!
Now, our boy Panda is no sellout. He realizes what a boomerist resignation it is to want a house. He's quoted in this New York Times article as feeling kind of guilty about it. "It's a song about wanting to buy a house, but then I sort of felt bad about writing a song about wanting to buy a house," he says. "'Social status' and 'material things'--just that kind of mindset was what I was apologizing for." This self-righteousness finds the latent solipsism of Sixties counterculture elevated to mythic proportions. Railing against "material things" has always been easy for children of privilege who have picked up some countercultural notions; what they don't realize is that along with the "precious race" of labor, they have summarily dismissed any potential criticality about class structures under capitalism. "Material things" matter; to ignore them abandons any sense of society rather than of just individuals, any interest in imagining and constructing new forms of social organization.

As for its sound, the song has a central synth riff blatantly jacked from Jamie Principle/Frankie Knuckles's seminal house track "Your Love." Nothing against jacking shit but in this case I keep waiting for that sublime bassline to kick in and needless to say it never does. (Actually, that kind of sums up how I feel about this album pretty well right there.) The song is heavier on rhythm than most of the album, though. The effusive "Summertime Clothes" may better represent Merriweather Post Pavilion, with all of Animal Collective's sonic trademarks in full effect, a gentle 4/4 thump not really adding up to anything like a groove. The bouncy loop backs up a trite evocation of that most boring of Rock figures, The Wanderer. In the dominant post-Sixties wave of Rocka trope that once gave voice to actually homeless people in country and blues music has again parted from material conditions and become merely another "non-profit lifestyle brand." True, the Wanderer of "Summertime Clothes" does not wander alone; the chorus swooningly bellows "I want to walk around with you!" Whether it's directed at a girl or at a bro is not directly specified, but you know how these Wanderers are. They never pass up a chance of getting laid.

You may have recognized the title of this post as a line from the most disturbing song on Never Mind the Bollocks ("Bodies," described by Robert Christgau as "effectively anti-abortion, anti-woman, and anti-sex"). "Summertime Clothes" brings to mind another bunch of punks. Every time I hear Animal Collective droning on about walking around with me, I'd like to think that the voice of Joey Ramone calls out in response from 30 years ago, as in a classic tune on the first Ramones album:
I don't wanna walk around with you
I don't wanna walk around with you
I don't wanna walk around with you
So why you wanna walk around with me?