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The woman behind the choli

There is a sober side to Ila Arun, masked as it may be by her filmy image as the rani of raunch.

Ila Arun: `I can never do remixes.' — Photo: K. Bhagya Prakash

EVERYTHING ABOUT Ila Arun exudes ethnic chic. A shining black bindi that winds up her forehead like a snake, hair dyed raven black that reaches all the way down to her waist, heavily embroidered black ghagra, and bangles that jingle as she talks animatedly. Quite in tune with her songs that talk of the fairs and festivals of India, colourful turbans and bandhni duppattas of rural Rajasthanis, and the sensuous sand dunes, while carefully skirting the hardships of desert life. The lyrics are in robust, rustic dialect, and she is totally uninhibited when she sings in her rather stiff, throaty voice — a style typical of Rajasthani folk music. But this "rusticity" is pepped up by heavy drums and rich synthesisers.

If pop-folk has become a genre in itself today and is a rage on dance floors, a large part of the credit goes to Ila, who started it all. "Bichuda... " song from her 1993 album, Main Ho Gayi Sawa Lakh Ki, was the first Indian video to be aired on MTV. But can a "Nimbuda..." still be called folk when it steps out of its context and does a tango with gizmos? Ask her this, and she fumes at the so-called purists: "Do they blame Ravi Shankar for doing fusion with The Beatles? Then why me? No one has interacted with folk musicians Langas and Manganiars the way I have. I always acknowledge that they are the maestros and I am what I am. I should be given credit for that. I am no pseudo."

Ila's abhorrence for all that she terms "pseudo", she tells us, comes from her academic background. She studied music as a subject in B.A. and later studied acting at the National School of Drama. "I closely relate to classical music. But I also listen to mujra and folk music. I have no hang-ups. For me, art and music are not fashions." She talks nostalgically of her association with the New Wave cinema and the way her acting talents were honed by the likes of Shyam Benegal. She acted in films such as Mandi, Sushman, Arth, Swayam, and Rukmavati ki Haveli, and came to be acknowledged as a sensitive actress.

But her later association with mainstream cinema, especially as a singer of raunchy numbers, cast her in an altogether different mould. Her notorious "Choli ke peeche... " number from Khalnayak, which incurred the wrath of a wide spectrum of people — from feminists to the self-styled protectors of Indian culture and women's honour — raised a heated debate about aesthetics and vulgarity. "When you decide to enter commercial cinema, you have to put your sensibility on a loft!" concedes Ila. But as far as the "Choli... " number is concerned, she seems no signs of vulgarity in it. "I am a theatre person and I never felt awkward singing it. Consider the other woman's sensible answer to the first question. The lyricist is at once sensitive and commercial. He actually hints at how dirty the human mind is! The song was hyped, but listen to the song carefully and you will hardly see any vulgarity."

Once "Choli... " became a hit, "70 kinds of cholis" came Ila's way. "I could have minted money, but I said no way. I didn't want to repeat myself. `Choli... ' was done with imagination, not everyone can do that." But that hasn't stopped her from being typecast the "rani of raunch". "That's the sad thing about films!" admits Ila. She recalls how Anita Kanwar, having played one role as mother, was offered a string of such roles. "Such a tender, sensitive actress with the potential of Nargis! She finally ran away to Shimla."

Ila insists that she has never let the filmy world erode all her judgments, and has sung an aaha or an oohoo only when there is some emotion to the song. One thing that she has never done, despite all pressures, is a remix. "Bali Sagoo asked me to remix my own `Choli..' and I thought it was ridiculous!" The remix culture, she holds, has done great disservice to artistes.

"If you want to know the true Ila Arun, listen to my private albums, watch my plays, and read what I write," she urges. The theatre troupe she heads, Sur Nai, always picks up women-centred themes. The troupe took a play to the Prithvi Theatre Festival last year in which Ila played Seeta, who questions Rama's credentials as a husband. And Rama comes across as a man caught in a political cobweb.

"I like the dignity of theatre. It is a kind of thought process for even those who are part of the production... " It is this conviction that has made her keep at it though it is an expensive hobby and "Hindi people have always been for Hindi films and not for good theatre". People might go to watch a play if Kareena is making a guest appearance, but never to watch the pillars of the theatre such as Uttara Baukar or Surekha Sikri. After a thoughtful moment, Ila declares with a grand flourish: "If theatre is supported here the way it is supported in the West, I don't think I will ever want to do films!"


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