I have a great love for Ila Arun, specifically the pop numbers she did in the 1990s. One of my earliest memories of serious desi pop is 'Vote for Ghaghra', and one of the naughtiest is 'Nigodi kaisi jawaani'. Today, that's what I want to talk about: Good, unapologetic, plugged-in pop.
'Vote for Ghaghra' is one of our best political songs and certainly the only one I can recall in the post 90s cable era of Indian television. What song before or since has mentioned a chief election commissioner (T.N Seshan)? I instantly fell in love with it for reasons I found hard to articulate as a schoolgirl in Rajasthan. But more than a decade later, I still remember half the lyrics.
When a fellow-writer happened to holler back to the pop songs of that time, I was reminded of the song and began to try and decode why I like it so much. I played it over and over on Youtube and found that each viewing-listening session brought more pleasure. I had forgotten the slightly bizarre opening frames and sounds (a baby crying, then grinning) but by the end, it all made a kind of kitsch-sy sense. Finally, I think I know what makes this song such a great piece of work:
1 - The words. It is called 'Vote for Ghaghra'. The lyrics proceed to explain why by telling us a story. It ends by saying 'mardaan ke aage niklegi janaani' (woman will surpass man). If there was ever an unashamed, riotous, simply stated feminist manifesto in desi pop - haminasto haminasto haminast.
2 - The narrative. It tells the story of a village woman who is happily eating cucumbers in a field when along comes a politically-connected young lout who tries to molest her. She thrashes him. He tells her who he is. She laughs at him. He swears to get back at her, and he does too. He files a case against her!
The cops arrive; she is beaten and arrested. But in prison, she uses her charms to seduce the 'thandedar' (jailor) and - one assumes - gets him over to her side. The truth is leaked to the press. Press and politicians woo her. Other bad men try to bribe her, threaten to kill her (one is left to assume that this is because she has filed a counter-complaint, or told some uncomfortable truths).
Through all this, the woman stands firm. And she is rewarded by getting an election ticket. Since she is now singing 'dilli sheher mein maaro ghaghro jo ghoomiyo', one can safely assumes that she has won the election and her skirts are flying low, swirling brightly over the center of power in India - Delhi.
3 - The visual politics. Look at the video carefully in the Indian patriarchal context. When the powerful lout threatens the village belle, he twirls his moustache, a symbol of asserting your masculinity. The funny thing is, in the video, the lout does not really have a moustache! This adds a layer of incidental - or perhaps, intended - irony, because it immediately makes the fellow laughable, claiming qualities and power that are not his own.
When the belle wins over the police officer, his uniform cap is on her head, as she dances. This is a symbol many films and 'item' numbers have used later. It immediately communicates that the guardian has his guard down, that she is toying with the power the nation vests in men of uniform, so she is taking control in some way.
Lastly, ghaghras swirl as elections are fought, votes are sought, and 'Dilli' is evoked. Dilli has been the seat of power in the Indian subcontinent for centuries now. People marched to Delhi, rallying under the cry of 'ab dilli door nahin' (delhi is not far), and they continue to do so. Similarly 'ghaghra' has been a symbol of feminity for centuries. Skirts and bangles - these are the ultimate symbol of womanli-ness and an implied vulnerability, weakness/powerlessness. When a woman wants to insult a man, she might tell him to wear bangles, or a ghaghra (as the heroine does, in this film song). But Ila Arun is singing of making the ghaghra an election symbol, fighting under the banner of a female garment. Which means - taking the seat of power with womanliness.
4 - The physicality. Note, I do not use the softer, more popular pop word 'sensuality'. This video is not sensual. It is bawdy, funny, wild, mixed-up, physical, sexual. Arun sings: watch my choli, watch my tongue, watch my chunri, watch my ghaghra. And ghaghras fly. Wrestlers wrestle in very tiny saffron langots (underwear?). The camera zooms in to bare pot bellies. The women, and Ila Arun herself, wear traditional cholis where the emphasis of design, cut, embellishment and colour patterns is heavy on the breasts. The belle is not afraid of using her body to woo the cop (and sounds like she is proud of it) and the singer makes distinctly erotic sounds while singing out that part of the story.
[For the same reason, I also like 'Nigodi...' It is breathy and doesn't shy away from husky, blatant expression of desire, placed in the unrevealed bosom of a middle-aged domestic worker. It is desire that likes itself.]
5 - The innocence. You must have noticed the girl in the really short black skirt, gyrating along with another young fellow. There is very little connection between this visual and the rest of the song. The micro-mini was probably tossed into the video because it was India and it was the 90s and cable TV was all over the place. India was waking up to bare legs on TV and shorts and minis were de rigueur if you wanted to catch eyeballs.
Interestingly enough, a decade and a half later, this is still de rigueur. Films, 'items', pop albums - they are full of young women in really limited clothing. And not just one. Usually, there is a horde, usually around one 'hero'. The trend veered towards blondes lately and will probably shift away at some point. But the profusion of bare, gyrating skin on TV nowadays makes this early video look innocent. Note how the young 'modern-urban' couple do not even look into the camera. They are not trying to seduce the viewer. They are just doing their thing like the rest of the dancers in dhotis and ghaghras, looking quite silly, of course, and very happy.
Also, the baby begins to made sense after you view the video four or five times. There are all kinds of non-adult visuals tossed into the mix. There are little girls swirling in their little ghaghras, but they are not sexualized (unlike the kids in present-day dance shows). They are just dancing like little village girls do. There is an old sadhu who pokes his elbow-rest at the camera. Ila Arun preens in her dark glasses like any village woman just back from a tour of the big city.
6 - The visual theme. Spinning. The act of rotating and revolving.
You don't see too many videos in India that actually have a theme going. We totally do not see videos that are intelligent in the way they choose to interpret the lyrics. 'Vote for Ghaghra' works with: '...ghaghra jo ghoomiye... ae ghoomiyo, ae ghoomiyo', but it doesn't remain stuck with swirling skirts, or spinning dancers. Everything is ghoomo-fying.
Ila Arun's fingertip. Dancers' hands. A barber rotates the head of a client getting a massage. Wrestlers move round and round, locking each other in a grip. A leg of chicken rotates on a spit, embedded as a photo in a newspaper. The camel's jaw works in a circular sort of way. Turbans are turned round and round. Lights and shadows slowly move across bodies on the screen. Dancing laddoos. When you have seen it a dozen times, you actually begin to look at the ghoomiyo theme as representing something larger. Everything moves as the world itself does.
7 - A brief list of things to pay attention to: The camel, especially when he eats the newspaper. The moustaches. The turban spinning. The goggles. Ila Arun adjusting the flower garland on her bosom while she stands beside an elderly politician. Ila Arun in a white tee over a ghaghra. The images reflected onto the dancers as a moving shadow around 3 minutes and 38-40 seconds into the video.
For me this song means a feminist high. It mixes up a dozen different elements but it is bold and ambitious and colourful and it places a mature woman bang at the center - visually and contextually - of things. It celebrates her sexuality, even her bravado. It allows her to say 'no' and to punish unwelcome advances. It gives her a backbone. And it gives her a happy ending fixed on her own future, not about her relationship with another man.
I am sick and tired of songs doused in, and set ablaze by, what look like 16-24 year old blondes (or dark girls who want to be the blondes they grew up watching on MTV), dressed in clothes that are cut to reveal skin but have little else to recommend the style aesthetically. The girls all have almost the same measurements. They gyrate and twist in the same predictable way. They all pout. They all stare at you in a seductive, mock-tigress stance.
You might understand what I mean if you watch these videos back to back - first watch 'Choli ke peechhe' (Ila Arun's voice accompanying Neena Gupta on the screen), then Arun's Nogodi, and then a newer remix of 'Resham ka rumaal' which Arun has also sung (but her voice is not on this video). The first two don't have a dull second. I wish someone would tell music video (and film item number) directors that the latter is boringboringboring. The last time a gyrating number was even slightly fun, they had to put in a buffalo into the mix.
There's no accounting for tastes, of course. But as a woman, I prefer cholis and ghaghras to buffaloes. They have my vote.