The bold and bawdy Bollywood Holi

Quartz india
Quartz india

First, the screen usually bursts into a phantasmagoria of yellows, blues, greens, pinks, violets and reds.

The young man, along with his rowdy friends, then sprints in, holding a water-gun in one hand and dragging his voluptuous, pretend-coy, lady love with the other. Sometimes he would be alone as she watches from the sidelines for a while, as if to delay the pleasure by a few precious minutes.

Sooner than later, she must give in to his peremptory wooing.

This very public display of affection is usually induced by a generous helping of bhang—a traditional cannabis concoction.

And then there is no stopping the lovebirds for the next four or five minutes. They gyrate, they gesticulate, they hop, they skip. They lip-sync often innuendo-laden lyrics. All amid a profusion of mini polychromatic explosions on screen. An off-screen ensemble of violins, shehnais, dholaks and tablas adds aural madness to the visual.

Pristine white apparel, of course, is a must. Nothing like whites to showcase the day’s unruliness.

This, for beginners, was the template for a quintessential Bollywood Holi song sequence till recently. From that very first spurt, it became evident that Holi and the film industry were simply made for each other.

Despite its very Hindu roots, this spring festival is more universal in its appeal than most other such popular occasions such as the secular New Year’s Day or Diwali with its attendant rituals.

Perhaps, what informs this widespread acceptance is the way it is celebrated—intoxication is generally winked at and social segregations are temporarily forgotten.

According to veteran music composer Khayyam, this spirit is derived from lord Krishna’s days in the Brij region of northern India where he is said to have indulged in sensuous frolicking with his consort Radha and other belles (Gopikas) of his village. Brij is also where the Hindi language partly derives it’s form and spirit from.

This legend of Krishna exemplified spontaneous, unconditional, and universal love.

“They (Krishna, Radha, and the Gopikas) set a message of unity. Their legend carries romance, youthful exuberance, pranks, and banter. Cinema took that spirit straight to heart. That is what is now often seen on screen,” Khayyam told Quartz.

The leitmotif of Holi songs is the mixing of various hues. It symbolises the disappearance of social distinctions behind a colourful veil. One of the most popular numbers in the genre is from the iconic curry western, Sholay (1976). Part of its opening lines mean “even enemies shed their differences and hug each other on Holi.”

In many ways, this grand coming together has been an enduring trait of Bollywood, too. For decades, professionals of varying religious, linguistic, political, and cultural backgrounds have come together to create one of the world’s most prolific movie industries.

The classic Holi song is a product of such an unlikely confluence.

“What we have often heard as Holi song on screen is essentially folk music. And that too mostly Gujarati and Rajasthani folk music,” Pyarelal Sharma of the legendary composer duo Laxmikant-Pyarelal said.

And this combination—western Indian folksy tunes plugged with lyrics in Hindustani, the lingua franca of northern India and Pakistan—hasn’t changed much over the last 75 or more years.

It all began in 1940, nine years after the first Indian talkie, Alam Ara, introduced sound and music to the industry.

“Till then, Hindi cinema was mostly dominated by filmmakers, producers and composers from Bengal and Maharashtra (both non-Hindi speaking regions of India). Holi was not that significant in their parts of the country,” said Manohar Iyer, founder of Keep Alive, a Mumbai-based organisation that strives to revive and maintain interest in vintage Bollywood music.

“By 1940 many north Indian and Punjabi artistes had entered the field,” Iyer said. That year, two nasal, yet silken, voices—of Sitarabai Kanpurwali and Amritlal Ojha—were heard singing the first ever Holi song.

Penned by D N Madhok, it was tuned by Khemchand Prakash, an erstwhile court singer of the Bikaner royal family of Rajasthan. Prakash went on to become one the greatest music composers of the industry.

Interestingly, the name of the movie itself was Holi.

Since then, every decade in Bollywood has had its Holi moment and song. With the black & white era slowly fading away by the late 1950s, the festival seeped irreversibly into this cinematic universe, with even Maharashtrian director V Shantaram indulging in a riot of colours in his classic Navrang (1959).

The early 1980s churned out what went on to become the ultimate Holi song, unsurpassed till date in its popularity.

Composed by classical musicians, Santoor maestro Shiv Kumar Sharma and veteran flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia, Rang Barse (“It’s raining colours”) was sung and enacted by mega star Amitabh Bacchan himself. The lyrics, by Amitabh’s poet-father Harivanshrai Bacchan, were based on a centuries-old Rajasthani hymn, deftly altered to suit the adulterous plot of Silsila (1981).

Ever since, no Holi celebration in India reached a crescendo without Rang Barse being sung and danced to.

Like this one, the typical Holi sequence often gives viewers a knot in the tummy. By now, it is a well-used tool of scriptwriters to kindle anxiety about the following scene.

“For long, Holi has been the precursor to darker plots unfolding. It could be an attack by dacoits like in Sholay, or a build-up to trouble in the family like in Silsila, or the stalker’s scary presence like in Darr,” Iyer of Keep Alive said.

More than two decades after Silsila, Amitabh Bacchan sang and lip-synced another Holi number in Baghban (2003)—its rustic opening notes sneaked from a lively interlude of Rang Barse itself. This time, though, Amitabh was a retiree, getting his widely dispersed family to spend time together. As expected, the revelry comes moments before familial discord sets in.

Another Amitabh releases, Waqt (2005), too had Holi as a moment of dramatic changes in the plot. A novelty this time was the use of English words to capture the spirit of what is quintessential Hindi heartland fiesta. With “Do me a favour, let’s play Holi,” a whole new generation was being wooed by the industry.

Today, the lady’s coyness has made way for bolder, more ready, body movements. The setting has mostly shifted from rural to urban. The sound is more techno than rustic.

But the colours, fervour and playful bawdiness are unmistakable.

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