Thursday, February 09, 2012

We are what we sing

The year is 2005. The rain has settled into a sweet Delhi drizzle. Between the bus conductor’s lusty cries of ‘Gurgaanva!’ the radio crackles with song. A group of college girls boards the bus, arranges itself in the row just ahead. The song changes to the still popular ‘Bheege honth tere’ (Your lips are wet). One of the girls begins to sing along, but there is one line she skips: Kabhi mere saath koi raat guzaar (Come spend a night with me).

In swoops a memory. I’m a schoolgirl in remote Rajasthan. It’s lunch break and the girls are soaking in the winter sunshine, singing 'Mr India' songs. The girl with the sweetest voice is singing the stunningly sensual 'Kaate nahin katate' but there’s one line she will not sing. All of us hang our heads, humming, afraid of being caught singing that line: ‘I love you.’

This is the sort of childhood memory I never share with Bombay and Delhi friends. They’ll never understand, but for us, it would have been too bold, which wasn’t a good thing to be. When I was a teenager, references to zulf (tresses) and ada (style) would make our eyes roll, but love songs were still about undying loyalty. We could not conceive of a popular song — or indeed a world — where boys and girls spent nights together.

Traditionally, Hindi film songs have had room for every shade of sentiment, including disillusionment. Like a sozzled protagonist singing something along the lines of ‘Rehne do, chhodo bhi, jaane do yaar’ (Let it be, my friend, I don’t want to fall in love). Today, he might sing ‘I hate love stories’ but he’s all up for one-night stands.

To an older generation, this spells the death of romance. Shikha Biswas Vohra, who runs Sangeet Smriti in Delhi (a group dedicated to keeping old film music alive through regular shows) and is the daughter of composer Anil Biswas, says that for her generation intimacy meant a single touch and fidelity was the norm. “When one broke the norm, bewafaai was the theme of the lyric. Nowadays the norm is ‘break up, move on’; short-term relationships. Modern technology too exults in shortcuts, which means love is not a ghazal, but an SMS. That is why you have very direct lyrics like ‘Aati kya Khandala’.”

Film writer Javed Siddiqi agrees that to the extent that films are a mirror to society, so are songs since they’ve traditionally been an intrinsic part of Hindi films. And it is only natural that words change. “Once, every other song mentioned sajan and balam. Not any longer.”

When I ask screenwriter and lyricist Jaideep Sahni about how the expression of love is changing, he seems unsure that it is being expressed at all. “A lot of songs have [love] words thrown around liberally but they are not really about love. They are meant to be good jingles with romantic phrases working like comfort food.” Sahni’s ‘Haule haule ho jayega pyar’ focuses on a specific mood: a fellow madly in love telling himself to go slow lest he screws things up. But barring a few exceptions, Sahni says that opportunities to tease out a full idea through a song are rare; songs are are marketing tools, not narrative devices.

Writer-filmmaker Paromita Vohra agrees. “Songs are now at a remove (of emotional logic). Which is why the music of films like 'Aisha' might be nice, but not memorable. The lip-synched song as a filmic moment is disappearing.”

Disappearing, but not quite vanished. Like children abandoned in the forest by hardnosed producers, lyricists leave a bread crumb trail, clues that tell us how to retrace our journey as a society. Hindi films dominate popular culture to the extent that even if, as Vohra says, the canvas is shrinking, it’s still big enough for a few corners to be painted such that they escape the censure of both market and moral police.

Thus, in a time of ‘break up, move on’, when lovers hope to remain friends, a song pops up to fit the situation. ‘Chor bazaari’ (from 'Love Aaj Kal') may well be the first Hindi song that exults in the relief of being free of someone you love. Or ‘Ladki kyon’, where the boy makes fun of the girl’s sentimentalism and hypocrisy, and the girl accuses him of hitting on her friends.

This is a sea change from the Girls versus Boys lyrical battles of the past, which were often designed as a tug-of-war between husn (beauty) and ishq (love). Now, girls are starting to call the boys out on the ishq fraud. ‘Gore-gore se chhore’ attacks commitment phobia with lyrics complaining: They cry out in the name of love, but they do not want to marry. 

These are songs for a more aggressive generation, one that has little appetite for niceties.

According to Vohra, ‘item’ numbers are quite revealing: “It is the one song in the film which is made to be listened to, so we really listen.” But they’re slightly problematic since these words rarely express female desire, although they’re mostly performed by women. “Most item numbers are about how the woman is so desirable, inviting men to look or touch.”

But there is a difference between saying "I’m drawn to you" and "I look hot, come take me". The current generation of ‘hot’ songs have words like ‘Zara zara touch me’ while ‘Sheila ki jawaani’ takes the here’s-my-sexy-body routine into unexplored terrain with words that seem to say: Why do I need someone? I can make love to myself.

Until the '70s, it was mostly men praising women’s beauty in song. Now item numbers suggest that women seek to overwhelm and cause destruction through their beauty. As Vohra points out, there is also a growing trend where women are blamed for ‘provoking’ men into violence. Not surprisingly, the words and the action they accompany can border on sexual harassment. I remember a scary visual from the '90s: a knife is pointed at a college girl, with the words ‘zara bhi choo-chaan ki jo tu ne...’ (not a squeak out of you) casually inserted into the ill-fated ‘Meri pant bhi sexy.’ There was some outraged spluttering, but only about using the word ‘sexy’, which was later replaced with ‘fancy.’

When I was growing up, there was much controversy surrounding film lyrics. ‘Choli ke peechhe’ made headlines. ‘Gutar-gutar’ ostensibly referred to cooing pigeons, but it ruffled so many feathers that lyricist Maya Govind was forced to defend herself on national television. ‘Sexy Sexy’ was changed to ‘Baby Baby’, while ‘Sarkaaye liyo khatiya’ remains a contender for the trophy at Raunch Central. Yet, these songs were not just experiments in titillation. ‘Sexy’ was fast becoming acceptable amongst young urban Indians; my older brother’s crowd even called vada-pao sexy.

This was the '90s and liberalisation was at India’s socialist throat. On MTV, multinationals battled for our teenaged souls during commercial breaks. ‘Western culture’ was everyone’s favourite bugbear. English and Hindi were on a collision course that would ensure neither was ever the same again.

Take ‘Saawan ka Maheena’ from 'Hulchul'. The title is a throwback to a subtle '60s song about the monsoon. But the new song leapt forward with: ‘We want girls beautiful-beautiful… / We want boys handsome-handsome, dashing He-man, Superman, Phantom.’ 

For a generation that grew up on comics, animation shows, and some Hollywood, Superman and Rocky were cultural reference points. In ‘Tan-tanatan-tantan-tara’, from 'Judwaa', the guy buys two tickets for the 9-12 show (seats at the back, so they can neck with a modicum of privacy) and when he asks the girl out, he promises a taxi ride, an air-conditioned theatre, samosas or idli-dosa. These were the new tropes of romance: movies, eating out, discos. A distressing change was evident: wooing a girl meant spending money.

In the '60s and '70s, at least on-screen, it was enough to compliment a girl and protest that you’d die without her. If she melted, you took her for a walk by the sea, or to a park, or the hills. Films often touched upon the conflict between love and money but there was little doubt about which would prevail. Songs like ‘Dilwale dulhaniya le jayenge’ spelt it out. As late as 1985, there was Anil Kapoor in 'Saaheb', trying to sell off a kidney for his family’s sake, and yet he sang: 'Yaar humein paisa nahin pyar chahiye' (we don’t want money; we want love).

But in the '90s, something shifted. In 'Chandni', Sridevi sings: You fool! You don’t bring any flowers or gifts / Never go empty-handed to meet your girlfriend. A few years later, ‘Sexy Sexy’ left little unsaid: ‘Me no worry, me no care, me go marry millionaire/ If he die, me no cry, me go marry another guy.

The assumption was that you need to be a millionaire to get a sexy girl, and a sexy girl was inevitably westernised. This was the sort of girl for whom ‘Sheher ki ladki’ was written, a song that talks about English-speaking city girls who shake hands and say: 'Hi, how are you?' The assumption also is that an ordinary salaried guy isn’t going to get anywhere with this kind of girl. In ‘Sheila…’ the girl declares: ‘I know you want it but you're never gonna get it’ and then explains why: ‘I need a man who can give me all that’ (i.e. money, bungalow, car.)

We hear an occasional note of admonishment. The ‘Paisa’ song asks: Why do you keep talking money? Are you not afraid of God? But it does not take this criticism further. The guy simply promises to rain money upon the girl once she belongs to him.

This is a radical departure from older songs, which acknowledge the power of money but also describe it as a problem. 'Laawaris' made a direct argument, asking: Why are you proud of your money? What can money buy? Can it buy you the breeze, the sky, a human soul? ‘Paisa bolta hai’ from 'Kala Bazaar' says the world is one big black market, because there is rot in God’s house too; you need cash for worship.

But the '90s had given us a shiny new dream - Make pots of money, rule the world. A song from 'Yes Boss' speaks not only of wanting great wealth and power, but also wanting to be acknowledged as a good person; in fact, as the best person. In the new millennium, songs from 'Taxi No 9211', 'Johnny Gaddar' and 'Aa Dekhen Zara' said that money-lust is ubiquitous, but they offered little critique of the sentiment. 'Waah! Tera kya kehna' has a song that suggests money itself is both sin and virtue, and that money brings you love and friendship.

Another change over the last couple of decades is that there is little mention of work or jobs. In 1971, 'Haathi Mere Saathi' had crusty lyrics saying: If you want to live, you must work; you must bow low to everyone. There was also pride in honest labour. In 'Khoon Pasina' (1977) the hero sings: We will eat only what our sweat earns us, else we will go to bed hungry.

Sweat is now distinctly unfashionable and words like roti (bread) have almost disappeared from lyrics. The inequity we speak of now is that of Middle-Class Cool versus Richie Rich. The former pokes fun at the latter in songs like ‘Pappu can’t dance, saala’, making references to Gucci perfume, coloured contact lenses, fast cars. Being elite translates into expensive brands, but flaunting these brands exposes you to mockery by those who are secure enough in their own Indian skins.

This newfound confidence had found expression in the anthemic ‘Hum hain naye, andaaz kyon ho puraana’. The chest-thumping words represent the buoyant half of India, one that can afford to say: The world lies at our feet; the earth and sky have been created only for us.

But what of those who can lay claim to neither sky nor earth? What are they saying? Not a lot, it seems. Filmmakers can rarely afford that kind of enquiry into desperate poverty; hunger doesn’t make for pretty ring-tones.

However, a generation ago, even a romantic comedy like 'Pyar Kiya Jaa' could hint at class conflict. A slogan like ‘Daal-roti zindabad!’ was slid into a song that threatened: Don’t give us jobs and we’ll wipe you out / We’ll burn down this bungalow, these cars.

Now, worker unions are rarely powerful. Threats of a backlash seem as distant as battles over forest and farmland. We focus on urban middle-class problems – the pressure to build lucrative careers, EMIs, the price of pulses. That’s precisely what ‘Pocket mein Rocket’ describes - the feeling that there’s just no time for anything. Our greatest burden seems to be our own upward mobility. Like the ‘Gadbadi, hadbadi’ song says: Keep running and they keep dragging you further / Your wants are your handcuffs.

Middle class India is also stressed out over matters that really shouldn’t be so stressful. It was perhaps first hinted at in the mid-90s, as in the title song of Rangeela, where a child’s voice breaks in abruptly to complain of 'Tension! Tension! Tension!'. And this tension was about things like drinking milk and choosing between different brands.

The parent-child relationship has always been fraught. But older songs were defiant, not despairing. In the '80s, ‘Papa kehte hain’ voiced a youngster’s hopes for himself, not what daddy wanted. In the '00s, songs hint at feelings of worthlessness. The lyrics of ‘DK Bose’ suggest: Daddy said I’m a mistake.

In '3 Idiots', there’s the saddening ‘Give me another chance; I want to grow up once again’. The song says that all our lives, we have been dying, while making references to heavy schoolbags and 99 percent marks. The ‘Percentage’ song from 'Faltu' confesses: ‘It makes me lie, mere percentage / It makes me cry, mere percentage’ Consider the spate of exam-related student suicides and these songs tell a story of frustration and fear of the academic system. 

This is a far cry from the 1940s and 50s, where films like 'Barood' and 'Kangan' sang of education as something that adorns a child, makes him worthy. In 'Sant Gyaneshwar', a little girl sings: One-two-three-four, brother, get smart/ Everyone says you mustn’t stay illiterate. 

It is hard, though, to find a lyrical exhortation to study in the '70s, perhaps because the ranks of the literate unemployed were swelling, and going to school didn’t automatically translate into jobs.

By then, we were waking up to the fact that independence was only the first of our battles. Shikha Biswas Vohra says that the post-independence euphoria shattered quickly. In the '60s, poets like Sahir Ludhianvi, Kaifi Azmi and Jan Nisar Akhtar lashed out bitterly against poverty and inequality. Sahir took apart the beautiful fantasy embedded in Saare Jahan Se Achha with his own mocking version, saying: China and Arabia are ours, India is ours; We’re homeless, and the world is ours’. 

And yet, in another song from 'Phir Subah Hogi', Sahir allows us to hope against hope. He writes that though the earth itself has a price tag and human dignity is worth nothing, yet, another day shall dawn.

In the '70s, disillusionment had turned into anger and bitterness. Thus, the caustic ‘Apni to jaise taise’ which suggests that poor people will survive anyhow, but what’s going to happen to the elite?

However, in the '90s, it was like a chord had snapped. Films were often about non-resident Indians and sure enough, a spate of songs emerged, full of a vacuous nostalgia. Songs like ‘East or West, India is the best’, or meaningless phrases like: 'Saare jag mein nahin hai doosra Hindustan' (There is no other India in the whole world).

Since then, patriotic songs have sounded a bit iffy. There was the disarmingly honest ‘Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani’ which admitted: We might sell you old things in new packaging… we’re a bit honest but we’re also crooked. The title song of 'Chak De! India' was neither wholly complimentary nor entirely blind to social realities. But it exhorts us to stop putting up with the grind, to rise above our desperation.

And if you complain about the young urbanite’s disconnect with the ‘real’ India, there’s lyrical evidence of that as well. The bhangra beats of ‘Rang De Basanti’ hint at a general cluelessness. This nation-love song is romantic and, like the euphoric ones from the '50s, it uses the language of ishq, but seems blind to the fact that in this same country, young people are still murdered for falling in love!

If there is one thing film songs have rarely acknowledged, it is caste-related violence and the aggressive control over women’s sexuality. There have been hints. In the '90s, for instance, there was ‘Tere baap ke darr se’ (I’m running away with you because I’m scared of your daddy). Even peppy numbers like ‘Kisi disco mein jaayein’ go on to say: I love you with my whole heart but it is true, I’m scared of your brother.

Naturally, for such fathers and brothers, a grown-up daughter is a headache. A song about the difficulties of getting daughters married off in 'Dana Paani' (1989) put into words what millions of Indians are probably still thinking: Once your daughter grows up, you’ve had it. And if our sex ratio has been so unbalanced over the last two decades, why is anyone surprised?

Filmmakers rarely address the obsessive, often violent control of women’s sexuality. Although incidents of lovers or spouses killing women have appeared in the news regularly for a decade, it was only recently reflected in the deeply discomfiting title track of 'Love Sex aur Dhoka' with lyrics that say: I’ll put a bullet through you… Try stopping me, I’ll cut you down. The song also reflects a schizophrenic desire to flaunt a woman and yet control her sexuality, as it says: I’ll film you, exhibit you in public / those who look, I’ll gouge their eyes out.

It's not like there haven’t been any lyrical fight-backs over the years. A few songs have rejected overt attempts by lovers to control women. Songs like ‘Bindiya chamkegi’ before the '70s were gentler, saying: I love you but I’m not your slave. A song for more aggressive times, ‘Bad Girls’ (Chak De! India), says that a girl can give back harder than she gets. She’s not interested in jewellery or ghazals. She’s rough, she’s sweaty and she’s not going to feed you, braid her hair, or lower her eyes.

These are rare exceptions, though, and according to Jaideep Sahni, there can only be more such songs if there are more films made where women protagonists have ambitions independent of men.

But every once in a while, lyricists rise about the limitations imposed by their production houses. 'Love Sex aur Dhoka' is a film about cameras and what they’re doing to India, but ‘Tainu TV’ refers to big money, crime and deliberate controversy, serving as an obvious critique of current television content. Similarly, Piyush Mishra managed to pull off what can only be described as lyrical stunt with ‘Rana-ji.’ Ostensibly an item number in 'Gulaal', it touches upon 9/11, the US invasion of Iraq, the bottled-water culture, and the undermining of our democracy.

So there is hope. As long as our writers are talking about the currents shaping India, or twisting her out of shape, there is hope. And as long as we are listening, we will know how to sing songs of truth.

An interview with Jaideep Sahni

Q: I believe films and film songs always tell us about ourselves - where we are as a society/culture, and what our values look like. What do newer songs tell us?
A: First, like always, they reflect the changing popular language and expression. Traditional metaphors are reducing at a at a frightening pace in both how people speak in the urban areas and the films that cater to them, but the new urban expression in Indian languages has not yet grown and matured fully to present a credible alternative which has enough depth and a bandwidth of metaphors and shared history. So it’s a bit of work in progress right now.

Secondly, a lot of new lyrics show that most new films are about nothing. A song can rarely rise above the film it is a part of. Most songs are made to fit a producer’s ‘requirement.’ Due to technological changes and financing patterns, this is about selling lucrative ringtone rights to music companies or aggressively marketing the film on TV for an opening weekend. Most songs are carefully designed by producers and their buyers in music companies not to be about anything specific or important.

Q: Do contemporary songs address critical issues? I know you wrote 'teeja tera rang' which is a contender. But have other songs tried to confront discrimination on the basis of religion?
A: It happens now and then. The title track of Chak De! India was about a kind of patriotism which rejects our national past-time of praising ourselves. But a song embracing an issue obviously cannot fit an issueless enterprise.

Q: Why have Hindi songs never addressed Caste? Religion is at least acknowledged (in that old national integration style) but I cannot remember anything on caste.
A: That’s because most films are largely designed to give a rollicking grand time to urban multiplex viewers. Serious issues don’t exactly fit the bill, do they? When a film does (address caste), so will its songs.

Q: Despite the 'ring tone' approach, do writers still try to push in larger ideas into tiny spaces?
A: Yes, all the time. But you win some and lose some. Most wins happen when you write lyrics for your own scripts or for colleagues who share your sensibilities; most losses happen when you’ve misjudged the real intentions of the people who hired you. You try your best to make the songs say something, failing which you grit your teeth and get your contractual obligation over with as soon as possible.

Q: What about attitudes to women and their aspirations?
A: Well, they are a bit more ‘equal’ in tone, a nod to changing urban lives. It’s a kind of upgrade, a diet version of the traditional film heroine and what she sang. Lyricists have tried to get away from the diet lyrics representing women, but few manage to get past the filter.

[Interview ends]

And finally, a very short list of must-hear Bollywood songs (for the lyrics):
Pyaasa (1957), ‘Jinhe naaz hai hind pe who kahaan hain’ and ‘Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai’

Phir Subah Hogi (1958), ‘Cheen-o-Arab hamaara’

Kagaz Ke Phool (1959), ‘Ek do teen, chaar aur paanch’

Barsaat Ki Raat (1960), ‘Na to caravan ki talash hai’

Dosti (1964) ‘Jaane wale zara mud ke dekho mujhe’

Laawaris (1981), ‘Apni to jaise taise’ and ‘Kahe paise pe itna guroor kare hai’

Saath Saath (1982), ‘Ye tera ghar, ye mera ghar’

Ijaazat (1987), ‘Mera kuch saaman tumhaare paas pada hai’

Satya (1998), ‘Goli maar bheje mein’

Jodi No. 1 (2001), ‘Ande ka fundaa’

Gulal (2009), ‘Aarambh hai prachand’ and ‘Rana-ji mhare gusse mein aaye’.

[A slightly edited version of this essay was published in the winter edition of Forbes Life, 2011]


A A said...

nice posting.. thank for share

Serious Sometimes said...

Very well written! Your comment about the humming the 'I love you' part really resonated with me. In india, sexual revolution isn't really a sweep, not unlike any other revolution, but there is a war of ideas even between social classes. This is a very well thought out exploration of our values with keeping an objective context! Congratulations :)

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