International films are increasingly using Bollywood songs. But do they get it right?

In Hollywood, the occasional cameo by the Hindi song came with its own ironies.

Published - March 31, 2018 04:13 pm IST

 Indian weddings are great targets of cultural appropriation.

Indian weddings are great targets of cultural appropriation.

Indian songs in international films are perhaps much more common now than they once were. You can put that down to the Bollywood boom of the noughties, or the bugbear of multiculturalism that spawned a profusion of ‘brown faces’ to fill out casting rosters that were once almost exclusively white. Indian weddings with their exotic soundscapes are great targets of cultural appropriation in films like Wedding Crashers, 27 Dresses (2008) or Rachel Getting Married , where even the Indian connection is dispensed with, leaving behind an empty diversity of saris and kurtas. The ubiquitous desi immigrant continues to be chimed in with a melody from the motherland. The films of the diaspora — that always burgeoning genre — have also extensively drawn music and memories from the subcontinent.

The first time I remember encountering a Hindi song in a foreign film was in Rita, Sue and Bob Too , a 1987 British comedy about two Bradford schoolgirls who have a fling with a married man. Sue goes out for a movie date with taxi-driver Aslam to watch Sholay , and the clip in question shows Hema Malini traipsing on broken glass to ‘Haan Jab Tak Hai Jaan’, with Sue tickled pink that she was dancing to keep her beau alive. They leave the theatre without ever finding out if Hema succeeds in her mission. It felt strangely affirmative to view glimpses of our then inchoate soft power in those films.

Them and us

In British cinema, Indian movies often appeared to cater to Pakistani aficionados, ironically played by Indian actors. In 1999’s East is East, Om Puri was George Khan, a Pakistani chip-shop owner with a British wife (Linda Bassett) and a menagerie of ‘mongrel’ children in Salford, circa 1971. A telling moment in the film involves them visiting a picture house owned by a relative, who empties out seats (likely occupied by Indians) for the Khans, and barks out orders to the Indian projectionist (a vegetarian to boot) to change the reels from the film already screening ( Professor ) to Khan’s favourite, Chaudhvin Ka Chand.

It’s an interesting ‘them and us’ one-upmanship, executed by using two films, both Indian productions, and the transition effected from one signature song to another — because of course it’s the songs that audiences of Indian films most cared for anyway. In those films, it appeared that our films made it to their theatres almost a decade after their release in India.

East is East included a delightful send-up of the Pakeezah mujra, ‘Inhi Logon Ne’, by Archie Panjabi (who plays Khan’s daughter). It was a song that seemed more appropriate to the film’s period but probably wasn’t. Even allowing for dramatic licence, Pakeezah perhaps wouldn’t have normally occupied this purported pop-cultural space so soon after its 1972 opening in India (notwithstanding the film being Meena Kumari’s swan song.)

Comic self-indictment

In Hollywood, the occasional cameo by the Hindi song came with its own ironies. In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind , Kate Winslet’s Clementine works at Barnes & Noble, and acquires a taste for ‘world music’. During her parleys with Jim Carey in her boho apartment, it is Lata songs like Wada Na Tod that waft in and out, punctuating moments of romantic indecision with prescient lyrics (which American audiences wouldn’t have cottoned on to). One reviewer called it a moment of ‘comic self-indictment’ without allowing for the fact that Clementine could possibly have liked the music and not just appropriated it for boho-chic credentials.

If there’s one film that gets it right on the homage front, it is Ghost World (2001), in which Thora Birch waltzes to the Gumnaam surf-rock ‘item’, ‘Jaan Pehchaan Ho’, during the opening credits. It’s that song that leads her down the rabbit hole of misadventure, as she seeks out more eccentric (and eclectic) musical choices from a collector of old records (Steve Buscemi). They are both misfits who’d fit in perfectly in the everything-goes and exotically Western universe of vintage Hindi films.

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