Scope | Parichay Patra
Sudipta Kaviraj once read the song of a city, the proverbial ‘Bombay Meri Jaan’, into his experiences and autobiographical imaginings in a suburban town in the distant Bengal, where he didn’t have much access to the world of cinema (Kaviraj 2004). It is not unusual for film critics and scholars to begin a piece of film criticism in the middle of nowhere, situating themselves within experiences that might (not) be bordering on the cinematic. Lesley Stern, more often than not, figures herself and her eventful childhood in Africa in her reading of a film, finds herself on the paths that wind through the thicket of things (Stern 2001; emphasis mine). But what are things in cinema? According to Stern, there are many. There are quotidian things, and there are the histrionics that we experience on screen. And then there are the bodies, the dead, the living, and the transitional (Stern 2012, 3), but they are not relevant to our cause.
With that prospect in mind, I start with interpolations. Or memories that work as interpolations. What Victor Burgin termed as the remembered film (Burgin 2004). Memories that exist only when remembered , memories that do seem mine might be of various colour, of various hue and cry, of various adventures or lack thereof. Paris, for instance, is the ultimate cinematic city that, on my very first trip and despite its touristy veneer, reminded me consistently of the Garrelian lovers and the Caraxian tramps and the suicidal social misfits of Rivette and the adorable old thespians in Resnais. But this is not about my memories. On the contrary, this is concerned with the memory of a song; a song separated from ‘Bombay Meri Jaan’ by a few decades. And, unlike that song, it reappears not in human memory but in its digital counterpart.
‘Ek Ajnabee Hasina Se’ is a song from Shakti Samanta’s Ajanabee (1973) that starred Rajesh Khanna and Zeenat Aman. Kaviraj was familiar with ‘Bombay Meri Jaan’, without ever watching the Raj Khosla film where it appeared. I, like Kaviraj, have never seen the film in question, familiar as I am only with the song where Rajesh Khanna appears in a partially unbuttoned shirt, with his hairy chest clearly visible. One of the greatest romantic heroes in the history of Bombay cinema, he is surrounded by women here in the scene, Zeenat Aman being one of the latter. Khanna lip-syncs to the iconic voice of Kishore Kumar that sounds very masculine, a bit harsh, as its harshness adds to the scene.
This song has very recently reappeared in an Indian commercial  and has become an instant hit, with its like buttons on YouTube earning hundreds of thousands of supporters, decidedly more than the original and, in the process, eclipsing the original. I came across the commercial on Facebook, as someone from another part of the subcontinent referred casually to the supposedly extraordinary commercials that the Indians are making, and posted it as an instance. It advertises Livemint, but that is not where its attractions lie. I watched it on loop, sent the link to the people I care for, went back to the original song a number of times, and it sheltered me under its enormous wings of nostalgia and cine-social history for a few days. Once the initial upsurge subsided, I started giving an article on it a thought.
The song follows the trajectories of a boy and a girl as they grow up in a locality, the boy becomes a music conductor while the girl goes abroad for her studies. She comes back after years to receive an overtly romantic mode of a proposal from her man, along with a ring. It ends in a climactic embrace set in the background of moments that recollect everything, revisit every place.
Rajesh Khanna, as Madhava Prasad suggests, reigned supreme as the male star in a rapidly changing 1970s industry which had Amitabh Bachchan in the making. Bachchan’s angry young persona obliterated the romantic hero from the screen as the film form itself underwent substantial changes, getting transformed into what Prasad will be termed as the aesthetic of mobilization (Prasad 1998), with the vigilante hero taking on an ineffectual state and mobilizing the mass against the enemies of the nation. Bombay cinema would never feature a romantic hero such as Rajesh Khanna again. Instead, SRK will appear in his psychotic avatar after economic liberalization (Majumdar 2000).
The song in its livemint version is sung in a mellifluous female voice. The Kishore Kumar harshness disappears as the 1970s romantic icon disappeared from the screen. There is no more ‘desire for modernity’ (see Prasad 1993), the commercial features several kisses, intimate coyness on the bed, rain-soaked delights on the roof, hurried exits of the tomboy, the holi antics of the couple. And it takes us on a journey into our cinematic memories as its protagonists progress from alleys of middle class dwellings to the airports of a new, shining Indian nation, from the days of Rajesh Khanna to those of a global SRK, featuring cars, rehearsal spaces, luxurious flats and social media platforms (not only the commercial appears on YouTube and is being shared on Facebook, it features Skype  conversations between the couple within its diegesis, with both of them using macs) on the paths that wind through the thicket of these things. Things in a cinema that features an upwardly mobile neo-middle class and their changing lifestyle, from the giggle of a neighbourhood girl to the elaborate process of giving a ring, from the holi antics to designer apparels, from the sudden rooftop intimacy to a climactic, almost ritualistic kiss. In the process, it revisits its locations.
Obviously, these locations do not include the location where it originated, i.e. the Shakti Samanta film. Obviously, because what is an image if it’s not detached from the place and time where it “first made its appearance”? (see Berger 1972, 9-10) Here I am referring to the sonic image that appeared in the remnants of a forgotten romantic hero, who went out of public memory with the appearance of the subaltern angry star. The latter would be performing his stardom in front of an audience, as the angry(s) always needed an audience often comprising of a sidekick (in the case of South Indian cinemas, for instance). The romantic cannot do that. He is unable to perform in public what needs to be done in the confines of the domestic space, especially at a time when a Sharmila Tagore appearance in a bath-towel was enough to cause controversy (see Prasad 1993, 139). The internet commercials can afford it in 2017. In their teens, the rooftop intimacy or making out on the bed was a private affair. When they grow up, the kiss and hug take place in front of an orchestra, holding its viewers as witnesses. From the quotidian life in the alleys, it travels to the Livemint histrionics.
- I am borrowing this from the title of Júlia Murat’s Argentine New Wave film Histórias que Só Existem Quando Lembradas (2011).
- The commercial can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eRDojLoCDpQ, last accessed on August 12, 2017.
- Cinema’s engagement with the contemporary, especially with new media, is a rather complex affair; I am reminded of Aleksandr Sokurov’s latest Francofonia (2015) that has an extensive use of Skype.
Berger, John. 1972. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.
Burgin, Victor. 2004. The Remembered Film. London: Reaktion Books.
Kaviraj, Sudipta. 2004. “Reading a Song of the City — Images of the City in Literature and Films.” City Flicks: Indian Cinema and Urban Experience. Ed. Preben Kaarsholm. Calcutta: Seagull Books, 55-70.
Majumdar, Ranjani. 2000. “From Subjectification to Schizophrenia: The ‘Angry Man’ and the ‘Psychotic’ Hero of Bombay Cinema”. Ravi S. Vasudevan (ed.) Making Meaning in Indian Cinema, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 238-64.
Prasad, M. Madhava. 1993. “Cinema and the Desire for Modernity.” Journal of Arts & Ideas 25-26, 71-86. Web. 12 Aug 2017.
—. 1998. “The Aesthetic of Mobilization.” Ideology of Hindi Film: A Historical Construction. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 138-59.
Stern, Lesley. 2012. Dead and Alive: The Body as Cinematic Thing. Montreal: Caboose.
—. 2001. “Paths That Wind through the Thicket of Things.” Critical Inquiry 28.1, 317-54. Web. 12 Aug 2017.
About the Writer
Parichay Patra is an Assistant Professor at the Dept. of Humanities and Social Sciences, BITS Pilani, Goa. He has recently completed his doctoral research on the Indian New Wave cinemas of the 1970s from Monash University, Australia. Patra has co-edited Salaam Bollywood: Representations and Interpretations (Routledge, 2016) and Bollywood and Its Other(s): Towards New Configurations (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014)