The Musical Ghosts of Dilliwood

Hindustan Times | ByJonathan Gil Harris
Sep 29, 2012 03:39 PM IST

The Capital has become a city of increasing vitality in Bollywood’s cinematic imagination, writes Jonathan Gil Harris.

India Bana Pardes
A Pardesi Watches Bollywood: a three-part series

Part 3: The Musical Ghosts of Dilliwood

The success in recent years of films like Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Band Baaja Baarat, and Vicky Donor has made clear what has been an open secret for some time – that Delhi has become a city of increasing vitality in Bollywood’s cinematic imagination. Much has been made of how the new “Dilliwood” films embrace a distinctive, vibrant Delhi culture, one rich in Punjabi gaalis and colourful Vintage Earth wear. Yet there is another Delhi that has made its presence felt on screen in recent years. It is a Delhi of ghosts, and it speaks powerfully to the theme of India Bana Pardes.

This other onscreen Delhi is beset by the spectre of a past that filmmakers don’t fully acknowledge, yet cannot fully repudiate: an undivided Hindustan in which Urdu was the primary language of poetry and music. If Bombay was a city of immigrants, it was (at least before its renaming) a metropolis gazing steadfastly into the future, a City of Dreams waiting to be realised – or dashed. Delhi after Partition was also a city of immigrants. But unlike Bombay, it became a city less of future aspirations than of difficult pasts. Perhaps that’s why people who moved to Delhi after Partition didn’t become Dilliwalas the way migrants to Bombay became Mumbaikers. There has always been an uneasy sense that the residents of Delhi are custodians of a city that is not fully theirs, because so many of its inhabitants left in 1947.

The loss of pre-1947 Delhi was for many years largely disavowed in Hindi cinema. Sometimes, though, it would be hinted at in elliptical form. In Tere Ghar Ke Samne (1963), Dev Anand and Nutan’s characters come from warring families; although both are Hindu, the fact that Nutan’s family is modern and Dev Anand’s is traditional speaks of a Delhi divided in time. That the couple woos each other in the Qutub Minar is another subtle reminder of how Delhi’s landscape does not belong to one time, but is everywhere riddled with the ghosts of various Muslim pasts.

Old spice: In Tere Ghar Ke Samne (right) Dev Anand’s character woos Nutan in the Qutub Minar – a reminder of how Delhi’s landscape does not belong to just one time

In recent Hindi cinema, Delhi’s ghosts haunt not our sight, but our hearing. Delhi Belly (2011) is a film that in many respects could be set anywhere in India: there’s little in it that visually evokes the city. Yet one thing in it is unmistakably Delhi – the song I Hate You (Like I Love You). At first hearing, it’s a little like the city depicted in the film: modern, brash, American-Anglophone, somewhat airheaded. The song is performed over the closing credits, and features Aamir Khan in his Disco Fighter avatar, wearing an Elvis jumpsuit, chest wig, and medallion. Yet lurking in the song is an unexpected ghost. It appears first as a Hindi-Urdu chorus – tere pyaar ne kar diya deewana – but then in the middle it transforms into a haunting qawwali song, accompanied by a Sufi ustad ecstatically chanting “saiyan” as the music speeds up like a jubilant, whirling dervish. And as the chorus of “I Hate You” returns over the top of the continued chant of tere pyaar ne kar diya deewana, we might recognise how the tune has all along been sculpted out of the qawwali form. The song captures Delhi better than any other Hindi movie song of the past year: like the city, the seemingly cosmopolitan I Hate You (Like I Love You) is built on top of, and out of, a Muslim foundation that it can’t completely conceal.

I Hate You is performed over the closing credits of Delhi Belly, and features Aamir in his Disco Fighter avatar
I Hate You is performed over the closing credits of Delhi Belly, and features Aamir in his Disco Fighter avatar

What to make of the qawwali’s appearance in I Love You (Like I Hate You)? We might be tempted to treat it as a symptom of India Bana Pardes in the age of globalisation, when the growing dominance of American pop music forms in Bollywood means that older Indian idioms such as qawwali have become embarrassingly outmoded styles to be performed so they can be laughed at. But, given the undoubted emotional power of the ustad’s chants of “saiyan” amidst the bubble-gum banalities of the American-accented lyrics, the haunting presence of the qawwali has a more interesting effect. In Delhi Belly, the qawwali works to reveal the multiple musical and cultural layers of India, past and present.

Another Dilliwood blockbuster from 2011 – Imtiaz Ali’s Rock Star – uses the qawwali rather differently from Delhi Belly. And that’s because the film’s relation to Delhi and its pasts is altogether different. For Rock Star offers an exemplary instance of the new wave of India Bana Pardes movies. The film articulates a powerful fantasy that I dissected in my earlier article on Don 2: the Indian as global shape-shifter, accumulating power by moving across international borders.

Power trip: Rock Star articulates a powerful fantasy: the Indian as global shape-shifter
Power trip: Rock Star articulates a powerful fantasy: the Indian as global shape-shifter

In the case of Rock Star, the shape-shifter is Janardhan Jhakar (Ranbir Kapoor), a sweet-natured Haryanvi singer-songwriter who eventually morphs into the brooding international rock sensation Jordan. We first see him in Italy, getting into a fight with local police before storming on stage to sing angrily at a largely Western audience. In an extended flashback, the film proceeds to narrate his long journey to stardom. The canteen-owner at his Delhi college tells Janardhan he cannot succeed as a musician unless he experiences heartbreak. He consciously seeks out pain, and finds it in the form of Heer (Nargis Fakhri), a St Stephen’s girl who dashes his dreams by marrying another man and moving to Prague. Janardhan becomes a world-conquering pardesi star not just by changing his name to the Western-friendly Jordan, or by mastering a Western musical idiom. He does it also by swallowing a Western canard, dating back to the British Romantics but still alive and well in rock music, that true art can only be produced by individuals who suffer.

What is at stake in Rock Star, therefore, is a highly problematic concept of authenticity. And in the era of India Bana Pardes, it is a concept that the film stretches to breaking point. For Janardhan to become an authentic rock star, he has to abide by a foreign script of misery breeding great art, one that the film presents at first in a deeply ironic light. Yet as Rock Star progresses, Imtiaz Ali attempts to domesticate this pardesi myth of artistic authenticity by reclothing it in local fabrics, suggesting that India provides the would-be desi Jim Morrison or Kurt Cobain with all he needs to suffer.

Janardhan’s initially comic pursuit of heartbreak becomes tragic when he is kicked out of his Jat household by his father and brother. His true suffering begins as a homeless person in Delhi, during which time he takes refuge in the dargah of Nizamuddin and learns his musical craft under the tutelage of its qawwals. For the sake of religious equality, he also decamps to a mandir and sings bhajans. But it is his time in the dargah that lends the film much of its emotional power, not least because of A R Rahman’s beautiful Sufi song, Kun Fayaa Kun. For a brief instant, the pardesi myth of the suffering artistic individual is replaced by another possibility – that of the communal singer who experiences desire, longing, and ecstasy in shared harmonies.

Ecstasy is the objective and the hallmark of the qawwali. Irshad Kamil’s lyrics for Kun Fayaa Kun powerfully capture this ecstasy, and in the process they gesture towards a musical tradition that has always sought to move across seemingly insurmountable borders and divisions. When the qawwal sings Jab kahin pe kuch nahin bhi nahin tha, wohi tha, wohi tha, wohi tha, his words go beyond simple reverence for the Creator. More precisely, they long for oneness (Wohi tha). That oneness is made clear by the song’s picturisation, in which Ranbir Kapoor sings with all the other members of the Nizamuddin humnawa. The sequence provides a reminder that a qawwali performance brings together singers and audiences across boundaries of religion and culture, and in a state of ecstatic joy as much as longing.

Ecstasy in qawwali: Ranbir sings with other members of the Nizamuddin humnawa in Rock Star
Ecstasy in qawwali: Ranbir sings with other members of the Nizamuddin humnawa in Rock Star

All this ends up being suppressed, however, by the narrative’s focus on how Janardhan becomes Jordan, the tragic, authentically suffering individual. His immersion in Sufi music may offer a swadesi index of his authenticity as a pardesi artist of great feeling. Yet inasmuch as it provides a soundtrack to his individual pain, the joyous, trans-communal dimension of the qawwali ends up being erased. Once he has become a global star, Jordan is a lone wolf onstage as much as off it: in performance, acting as if his band and his audience aren’t there, he conducts an extended conversation with his own pain.

As a result, Rock Star plots not only the trajectory of Janardhan Bana Pardes in the global marketplace of rock music. It also plots the trajectory of Dilliwood Bana Pardes, which works to estrange Delhi from its Muslim cultural traditions and, in particular, from a still-vibrant Sufi musical form that is about so much more than expressing individual loss or providing a stepping stone to global success. Just go to Nizamuddin on a Thursday night, listen to the harmonies of the qawwals, and you can hear how.
The series is concluded
– The author is Professor of English at George Washington University in Washington DC, USA

From HT Brunch, September 30

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