International films increasingly use songs from Bollywood. But do they understand correctly?

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

Indian songs in international movies are perhaps much more common today than they once were. You can attribute this to the Bollywood boom of the 2000s or the scarecrow of multiculturalism that spawned a profusion of “brown faces” to fill cast lists that were once almost exclusively white. Indian weddings with their exotic soundscapes are big targets of cultural appropriation in films like Wedding crashers, 27 dresses (2008) or Rachel is getting married, where even the Indian connection is removed, leaving behind an empty diversity of sarees and kurtas. The ubiquitous desi immigrant continues to be rung by a homeland melody. Diaspora films – this still booming genre – have also drawn heavily from the music and memories subcontinent.

The first time I remember meeting a Hindi song in a foreign film, it was in Rita, Sue and Bob too, a 1987 British comedy about two Bradford schoolgirls having an affair with a married man. Sue steps out for a cinematic date with taxi driver Aslam to watch Sholay, and the clip in question shows Hema Malini dragging across broken glass towards ‘Haan Jab Tak Hai Jaan’, with Sue tickled pink as she danced to keep her beau alive. They leave the theater without ever knowing if Hema is successful in his mission. It was oddly affirmative to see glimpses of our then inexperienced soft power in these films.

Them and us

In British cinema, Indian films often seemed to appeal to Pakistani aficionados, ironically played by Indian actors. In the years 1999 East is East, Om Puri was George Khan, a Pakistani chip shop owner with a British wife (Linda Bassett) and a menagerie of ‘trades’ children in Salford, circa 1971. A revealing moment in the film involves them visiting a picture house owned by a relative, who empties seats (probably occupied by Indians) for the Khans, and barks orders to the Indian projectionist (one more vegetarian) to change the reels of the film already shown (Professor) to Khan’s favorite, Chaudhvin Ka Chand.

It’s an interesting one-upmanship between them and us, performed using two films, both Indian productions, and the transition made from one signature song to another – because of course, those are the songs that audiences are most interested in. Indian movies anyway. In these films it appeared that our films have succeeded in their theaters nearly a decade after their release in India.

East is East included a delicious shipment of the Pakeezah mujra, ‘Inhi Logon Ne’, by Archie Panjabi (who plays Khan’s daughter). It was a song that sounded more appropriate to the period of the film but probably wasn’t. Even admitting a dramatic license, Pakeezah perhaps it wouldn’t normally have occupied this so-called pop cultural space so soon after it opened in India in 1972 (although the film is Meena Kumari’s swan song.)

Comic self-blame

In Hollywood, the occasional Hindi song cameo came with its own ironies. In Eternal Sunshine of the Flawless Spirit, Clémentine de Kate Winslet worked at Barnes & Noble, and acquired a taste for ‘world music’. During his talks with Jim Carey in his bohemian apartment, it is Lata’s songs like Wada Na Tod that float in and out, punctuating moments of romantic indecision with premonitory lyrics (that American audiences wouldn’t have thought of). One reviewer called it a “comedic self-accusation” moment regardless of the fact that Clementine might have love music and not just appropriating it for boho-chic references.

If there is one film that is right in terms of the tribute, it is Ghost world (2001), in which Thora Birch waltzes Gumnaam Surf-rock ‘item’, ‘Jaan Pehchaan Ho’, during the opening credits. It’s this song that leads her down the pit of misadventure, as she searches for more eccentric (and eclectic) musical choices from a collector of old records (Steve Buscemi). They are both outsiders who would fit perfectly into the exotic and exotic universe of vintage Hindi films.

Darcy J. Skinner

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