The Soundtrack To My Diasporic Roots

If you asked me at 14 what my favourite song was, I’d have said Good Charlotte’s "The Anthem", based on my crush of the month’s music tastes. However, deep down it was and still is RD Burman’s gem, "Ek Ladki Ko Dekha" from 1942: A Love Story, the first Bollywood movie I’d ever seen.

Anil Kapoor in 1942: A Love Story

Anil Kapoor in 1942: A Love Story

From the cascading sitar-tabla melody that lined the chorus, to Kumar Sanu’s reverberating “ohhhhh” that started each verse, it was iconic to me. It provided so many firsts - Anil Kapoor was the first hero I was dreamy over, and it was the first time I learnt Hindi. Following along from the English subtitles, Hindi seemed to be the language of love and Javed Akhtar’s evocative lyrics helped. Likening the heroine to “jaise shayar ka khwab” (a poet’s dream) or “jaise balkhaye bel” (a swirling vine) set the bar high for my expectations to be thought of like that!

You could call me another product of an indoctrinated diasporic fan from Cranford, but I relished being plonked in front of the burgeoning satellite channels that would play Bollywood films all day long. I loved coming home from school and putting on the Shah Rukh Khan compilation video that we’d picked up in Southall. With his outspread arms, overblown stammering, and wigley eyebrows, Shah Rukh made songs like “Tujhe Dekha To” or “Jaadu Teri Nazar” into sweeping romantic gestures that made me tingly with goosebumps.

Hybridity was a concept I’d embrace later on, but it was apparent when soundtracks like Dil Se could co-exist in appreciation with Westlife’s Coast to Coast. I didn’t have to choose which genres I liked best, because I had an accepting friend group who didn’t mind hearing the whole synopsis of Biwi No.1 or compare our favourite member of So Solid Crew (Asher D...duh). At 11, it’s a much easier feat to freely admit all the pop culture influences that you’re enchanted by, even if both sets of grandparents advised, “She should get into sports or get out more, the cinema is corrupting her!”

Kajol and SRK in DDLJ

Kajol and SRK in DDLJ

Eleven is a tough age to move countries. I hadn’t quite finished growing up where I was, and I didn’t feel in my skin until much later on. Moving to Vancouver erased that freedom of embracing my influences, I was in exile and the departure had a shocking air of finality to it. I became more rigid about how my identity could be expressed. I was British first, then Indian, so I had to act accordingly, which started with fudging my music choices around the boys I fancied.

I never said that “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha” was my favourite song of all time to anyone, it alternated based on which band the guy liked. Having an accent was disarming to some of them, but conversation would halt when I couldn’t name other songs by Good Charlotte or All American Rejects beyond their Top 40 hits. I used to buy band shirts that had a Vancouver date on them, and nonchalantly talk about how I moshed so hard at that date. Pretences were my fallback, no matter how silly I looked in my Claire’s scene kid jewellery or my baggy jeans. Often these pop punk bands would appeal to me with their thrashing riffs and cheeky lyrics, but I felt like I was missing out on my Bollywood leanings.

Othering yourself based on signifiers like Bollywood music and language stings, and I shudder at my diary entries that go back and forth between craving them and feeling like a secret would be found out. To love those things would to be outwardly different, and to wear a kurta my nani had bought would be too bold. I desperately wanted to fit in during high school, and if that meant slipping in a secret song amidst my CD then I would do it.

In between songs like “Fat Lip” and “Don’t Wait” I’d space out the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai soundtrack. Having a secret was sometimes thrilling, because I could tune out the world and someone would still think that I was rocking out to Dashboard Confessional. My younger sister and I used to talk out songs on the walk home, which was so ridiculous but made us cackle as we said, “Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham” (Sometimes happiness and sometimes sadness) “Hmm...nah judaa honge hum?” (May we never be separated).

Creating dichotomies in my identity was harmful, because where Bollywood used to be just a facet of my identity, it became my escape and refuge. I wept through Kal Ho Na Ho not just because of Shah Rukh’s wheezing but that feeling of being so connected to some semblance of home surrounded by the Indian audience in the cinema. I was always trying to restrict my influences to being British outside of the house, and being as Indian as I wanted at home.

SRK and Rani Mukerji in KKHH

SRK and Rani Mukerji in KKHH

Being a music mad person, I can get quite righteous about what I love, and that’s what kicked me into a jarring epiphany. A guy I liked at the time was my cooking partner, and had asked to listen to my music while writing our notes on chocolate cake. When he heard “ Main Toh Raste Se Ja Raha Tha” from Coolie No.1 he scrunched his nose in disgust, as Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik sang about the foods they’d like to feed each other on their stroll together.

As he threw down my headphones and asked, “What the fuck were they saying?” I felt an inner rage brew up, and if steam from the ears was a real thing, then I was going through it. I told him that it was one of my favourite songs, I knew all the dance moves since I was a kid, and how could anyone not like all the train-like orchestration that got you in a dancey mood?!

It may have been ordained that it just had to be a dumb white guy who prompted that cathartic tumbling-out of anger. I realised that if he was too close-minded not to appreciate how well-crafted that song was, then clearly he was missing out on a world of comedic and masala songs from Govinda films. It’s definitely a lousy way to edge away from a cultural identity struggle, but that was a wake-up call for me to feel frankly superior that I knew so much music that my friends and classmates weren’t exposed to.

The satisfaction I got from chucking out the embarrassing jewellery and taking down those J-14 posters of Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, Dashboard Confessional, Sum 41, and My Chemical Romance was cleansing. They had all served their purpose in being the raging songs to speak to my unhappiness at moving to Vancouver, but whether it was moving into a more mature side of adolescence, I was just ready to let them go. I whiled away that summer of turning 16 watching older Bollywood films, reading about David Bowie, and acknowledging how these disparate influences could make me happy.

Karisma Kapoor and Govinda in Coolio No.1

Karisma Kapoor and Govinda in Coolio No.1

With Bollywood’s global reach, many theorists like Ashish Rajadhyaksha have called these films from the early 1990s and 2000s as projecting a ‘‘new sense of Indian-ness” which projects a “‘freer form of civilisational belonging, explicitly delinked from the political rights of citizenship’’ that creates an, “Indian imaginary,” for diasporic South Asians[1]. It’s true that the films many of us have watched also reinforce dichotomies with Shah Rukh Khan being western educated and wearing Armani and GAP, but has decent Indian values at heart, and girls like Kajol will drink and fall in love, but always follow the patriarchal rules in a film like DDLJ.

But for many of us South Asians, such theorising supposes that we’re starved for Indian-ness that we’d be taken in by the hokey fallacies depicted in some of our favourite movies. Bollywood songs and films were always a text from which I could draw inspiration, laugh at, and be transported to. When you’re starved for authentic images of yourself in a mainstream context, it’s natural to turn to Bollywood, because however OTT it is you might see something that reflects your reality. I looked at Kajol in DDLJ and marvelled at how awesome it was to see a darker-skinned woman with a unibrow on screen. Never mind that she looks like a ghost right now, images from iconic films like that are gratifying to see, because it made me feel a bit loved that her skin colour wasn’t holding her back from pursuing her man.

It’s not like we read a film like DDLJ or Hum Aapke Hain Kaun and realise that singing songs about family unity should be enacted in our own families. They were definitely the vessel through which I learned more about what constituted a hybrid identity where I could be Indian, Punjabi, British, and Canadian. There were far more intersections to my personhood than the national identities I inscribed to initially, but listening to Bollywood songs made me appreciate the artistry and poetry of songs I mindlessly sang all the time.

A song like “Bahon Ke Darmiyan” from Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Khamoshi could translate those initial stirrings of first love, just like the exuberance of David Bowie’s “Modern Love.” There didn’t have to be competition on my iPod about who conveyed it better, they both made me feel like dancing in the mustard fields of my imagination to this day. When I went through a really traumatic prom night that reared up my colourism struggles, there were sad songs that let me cathartically cry like “Tadap Tadap” or “It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore.

Movie soundtracks are all about placement at a significant juncture, and my soundtrack is no different. There are moments of rage that could be filled with Blink 182 and Green Day, but there are moments of “dancing in the fields-ness” with the Taal or DDLJ albums, or the moments of grave identity struggle where only “Tujhe Yaad Na Meri Aayee” would suffice. Each song on my journey to being comfortable with a messy and changing identity holds a memory that shows me how far I’ve come since that confused 12 year old.

[1]Rajadhyaksha, Ashish (2003), ‘‘The ‘‘Bollywoodization’’ of the Indian Cinema: Cultural Nationalism in a Global Arena,’’ Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, 4 (1), 25-39.