On June 2, while the country continued to struggle, barely making sense of the second wave of the coronavirus pandemic, a tiny, fantastical incident gave Indians a moment of respite. The Delhi High Court was hearing the suit filed by Actor Juhi Chawla, where she argued that installing 5G technology would seriously damage humans and all of Earth’s ecosystem. All was going well, till the hearing was disrupted by a man singing songs from her movies, ranging from – “meri banno ki aayegi baraat” to “ghoonghat ki aad se.” Many users took to Twitter to express the comedy just enacted out on the stage of the Court. Soon enough, Justice Midha, presiding over the hearing asked the Court Master to lock the room. This, however, did not stop the users from using the option to react with emojis, often in ways that agitated the Court. In the latest development, the Delhi Police and the IT department have been asked to trace the individual, so the court can proceed with pressing charges of contempt.
As the search continues, what is interesting to note is how this incident brought India’s musical consciousness back to the public sphere. Where we were too burdened by grief, too angered by the complacency of our leaders, this moment was a breath of fresh air. India is a country of music. Even before our films make their way to the theatre, we hear songs on the “FM”, their theatricality unleashing itself on our ears. The money-making capacity of the film is often determined by how hit the songs will be. We Indians are not inherently musicians, but we are all inherently musical. Often, this music conceals itself as noise in nooks and crannies. Sometimes, it’s a neighbor organizing a ‘maata ka jagraata’, sometimes the azaan catches our attention, sometimes, a melodious horn of a truck on the highway sings itself out, and sometimes, a wedding procession hastily fills the quiet of the night. More often than not, these musical cacophonies are offered to us by Bollywood. Who has not heard “Beedi Jalai Le” adapted to “Maata ka Aashirwaad”? Through the concrete walls of our private homes, we let the neighbour’s radio reach us both in peace and resignation, as we quietly hum to “Abhi na jaao chhod kar”. At parties and weddings, we blast “Gallan Goodiyan” loudly, aided by our own enthusiasm to add to the noise.
Lately, however, we have shifted into quietude. Apart from the restrictions imposed by the coronavirus lockdown, we are also a country in mourning. Of late, when we think of the noises around us – it is echoed in the consistent blaring of ambulance sirens. On phone calls, we have heard our friends and family whisper in sighs and muffled cries. Rarely do we now hear the dhol of the wedding processions. On some days, we are lucky if we get company from the continuous humdrum of the traffic. As the nature of noise was shifting, what the person singing for Juhi Chawla did, was offer us unfiltered joy. For a moment, we were all delighted. For a moment, the country resumed its filmy character.
The Cinematics of the Hearing
The filmy fervor of the incident however, could have been foretold. Actor Juhi Chawla had in fact announced the hearing to the Indian public almost as if she was promoting her next film. She had shared the link for the hearing with her followers on Twitter and Instagram, inviting them to join. In total, news portals have reported, the hearing was attended by 200 people – the maximum limit that the software permits. One can imagine then that the hearing was already a spectacle, a cinema hall where people walked in to watch their endearing Juhi, to catch a glimpse of her as she presented her case in the Court. Perhaps, what this brought back was the experience of collective cinema watching that Indians have longed for. In the post pandemic world, cinema halls have long been out of reach. For a little while that they did open, we were all seated too far apart, isolated in our own seats.
Even prior to the pandemic, we had all become private viewers. In the last few decades, India has seen a steady rise of the multiplex. Jonathan Gil Harris, in his book Masala Shakespeare writes, “Bollywood now makes its profits increasingly in air-conditioned pockets of exclusivity that we call multiplexes. There the tickets are 300 rupees or more; the cost of a movie mushrooms further when one factors in the vastly overpriced popcorn and soda available from the concession stands. There are no cheap front stalls for the poorer sort. As a result, multiplex audiences are more homogenous: overwhelmingly upper middle class, often young and fashion conscious, largely Anglophone. They are as noisy as the Chanakya Theatre audience, but not because they are talking back to the characters or erupting in joyous dance. It’s because they are chattering loudly on their mobiles about today’s clothes purchase, tonight’s dinner reservation, or tomorrow’s business meeting”. Today, in a world dominated by streaming platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime, the collective experience of watching movies has further diminished. Some of us movie goers have missed whistling, and hooting in the cinema halls; in our land of fantasy removed from the pressure to be well behaved, serious individuals. Moreover, Netlfix and Amazon Prime subscription is a luxury, afforded by many only by freeloading on the backs of our friends. In this world then, singing “Meri banno ki aaegi baraat” becomes an act of immersion in cinema, reminding us of the times we spoke back to Hindi cinema.
Suspension of Disbelief
In a similar fashion, the experience of listening to music too was gradually becoming more and more private. Before the pandemic, we would listen to songs on Spotify, or other streaming platforms. We would be curled inside ourselves, our headphones wrapped around us, finding solace in music. This was only intensified by the pandemic. It is however, also true that we turned to the collective experience of listening to music numerous times during the pandemic. Many singers like Ali Sethi and Kavita Seth took to Instagram to livestream. However, we were all still removed from the real time sensations of attending a gig or a concert. The feeling of swerving to music, surrounded by strangers offered the comfort of collective healing, of knowing that our feelings of desolation and exhaustion were shared. For some reason, collectively attending an Instagram live hardly served the purpose. The crescendo didn’t feel as cathartic. With this incident however, many of us went back to the good old times of Juhi Chawla and Shah Rukh Khan – listening on loop to songs from Duplicate, Darr, Yes Boss and Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani. Many users took to Twitter voicing similar sentiments. And perhaps, this experience felt more shared than others because it had all the elements of a scrumptious ‘masala’ movie, a star factor. A long-lost beloved actress was fighting a legal battle. To add to this, we are already very well versed with the suspension of disbelief that Bollywood permits us. It allows us to imagine that all over the streets of India, crowds of scattered folks are randomly bursting into an impeccably choreographed dance performance of Mere Mehboob Mere Sanam.
At the heart of this conversation is also the irrationality that is often associated with the naach-gaana in Hindi cinema. When a friend and I were discussing this incident, looking at the hoo-ha around the incident, he concluded that our country was ‘inherently bakchod’. To be fair, he also agreed that it was also one of the reasons he loved India. Bakchodi in the Indian context has emerged as a cultural phenomenon in its own right. Starting from the space the content created by the controversial AIB (All India Bakchod) has occupied in the Indian imagination, it has come to mean everything associated with the words senselessness & mischievousness. It is almost a new replacement to the concept of vellapanti or time-pass. Someone could ask you, “What’s up?”, and you could easily respond with, “Bakchodi”. It in this realm of senselessness, notoriety and irrationality that India truly reflects itself. When I asked people if they had ever sung a song for someone in any context, Rahul Sen, who currently identifies as a connoisseur of love said, “I often imagine myself and my partner as Shah Rukh Khan and Juhi, or Imraan and Genelia (from Jaaney tu ya jaane na).” Somewhere, all of us know that our referred singer must have imagined himself to be Shah Rukh; hoping in some corner of his heart that this was his chance to make Juhi fall in love with him. Singing a song for a loved one is not a new concept to Hindi cinema. In my generation (and I am, like it or not, Gen Z), one of the most iconic examples of such a moment is when in Jaaney tu ya jaane na, Jai dashes through airport security, with the police force running behind him, to stop Aditi from boarding her flight to New York, he sings for ‘meow’ in his horribly guttural voice – “jaaney tu ya jaaney na.” Where was the last time read about a police force chasing a raucous singer cum aashiq? Does this incident not sound absurdly unbelievable in real life, but atrociously filmy? The bakchodi of Hindi cinema has finally seeped through the walls of our Courts.
Bollywood Music as a conduit of confrontation and denial
When I was a young child, I would often look at my grandfather singing songs for my grandmother when she was upset with him. While my grandmother cooked in the kitchen, my grandfather would stand for hours at the door, singing and asking for water. Even today, he continues to do so. Sexist connotations aside, to my mind, it is still one of the grandest romantic gestures I have come across. But I have also often wondered why he would not put his feelings into words, and why he would feel the need to sing them to her. Perhaps, the answer lies in understanding how filmy Hindi music has also been used as trick to in movies to purge repressed emotions. It helps us articulate that which we want to live in denial of. Tanya Jha, to my question of who she has sung songs for, told me she would often record and send voice notes of her singing to her friends. On being asked why she would use songs, she said, “singing for someone is the best way to express love. It is also convenient. Lyrics and melody do all the work. You just have to feel it. You have to think a lot while writing a note.” On thinking closely, it is true that songs are a lot less confrontational – both for the singer and the listener. For people who are afraid of feeling too much, with songs, we do not have to think long and hard about our own emotions and vulnerabilities. And the person we are singing for, does not have to think about accommodating our emotions and vulnerabilities into their lives. They give language to those who struggle with efficiently articulating their own selves. In that sense, they are also intensely emotional.
In a time like today, where the pandemic has brought us face to face with our intense emotions of grief, these songs have become conduits for saying what we long to avoid saying. They are a defense mechanism. A couple of weeks ago, when the news was an endless obituary, a snippet that went viral was of a son singing on a doctor’s phone for his mother, who was admitted in the hospital. He sang,“Tera mujhse hai pehle ka naata koi, yun hi nahi dil lubhaata koi”, separated from his mother, too overwhelmed to make sense of the uncertainty. In a heartbreaking turn of events, his mother eventually died. The son, Soham, in that moment, had found the pain too much to articulate. He later took to Instagram and recorded the song in an outpouring and sharing of grief. With all its implications of wanting to escape articulating himself, this experience was also a deeply public ritual. Dr. Deepshikha Ghosh, who had tweeted about the same, wrote that this song would never be the same for her. Where the government refuses to count some of the deaths, Bollywood music has continued to write obituaries in the public memory. Many of my friends and family members who have deeply loved and deeply lost, have rejoiced in going back to movies they have memories associated with. They have thought of it as a form of fleeing away. Hence, it is now more than ever that we need public naach-gaana to triumph over the forces of power. We go to the cinema to also run away from our painful realities. If anything, our “laal laal hoton pe gori kiska naam hai”singer does not distract us from the shrilling screams of our times, in fact, he reminds us of the grief we are trying to not articulate. And what really is so contemptuous about that?