The Skilful Use of Navras

March 29, 2009

So long, long, ago, Beatzo came up with a muhuh thuhuh about A R Rahman:

The deal with Rahman music is that most of it, the stuff that has stood the test of time, is music that does not really have a template from previous film music. You sure as hell hadn’t heard an acoustic guitar and claps and a growling bass – and those instruments only – backing Chitra’s voice, until you heard ‘Kannalanae’ (That’s ‘Kehna Hi Kya’ for you non-purists) in Bombay. You heard Shweta Shetty singing herself hoarse on TV channels, but did you really think she could pull off the kind of high-pitched vocal violence that Rahman subjected her to in ‘Mangta Hai Kya’? Fine, so Iruvar was based on 70’s MGR movies, but were you really prepared for the scat portion in ‘Hello Mr Ethirkatchi’?

Let me tell you a secret. These three songs I mentioned above? I hated all of them the first time I heard them.

Why can’t we love AR Rahman’s music the first time we hear it? Because we are minor mortals. Because we have limited attention spans and equally limited aural capabilities, rendered sterile by the kind of puerile sonic experiences we are subjected to in the name of music. Please note that the previous sentence was bereft of irony of any kind. It’s true, you know it.

OK, so let’s take this ahead with the Dilli-6 title track.

For starters, let’s set aside the lyrics and the inevitable question of how truthful the statement ‘Yeh hai Dilli mere yaar, bas ishq, mohabbat, pyaar’ is considering that so much of Dilli is also road rage, sexual harassment, and papri chaat. What we’re focusing on is the music – and especially the vocals. Which were just as unexpected as Beatzo would have found Kannalanae or Mangta Hai Kya. Unlike Beatzo’s reaction, I didn’t hate Dilli-6 the first time I heard it. But I didn’t love it either. My first reaction was an overwhelming WTF.

Be warned. At this point the post abandons all objectivity and veers into dangerous fanboyism.

Yes, my first reaction was not “Yuck!” or “Wow!” but “What the hell is this? French women rapping? Mixed with Punjabi spoken word? Just what is the accent on Bas Ishq Mohabbat Pyaar anyway?”

The second time I heard it, my reaction was the same as the first time, except this time I also asked “And how does it all come together so well and become so awesome?”

Now is when I unleash my inner fanboy. The second time I heard it, I went ape over the song (no kaalaa bandar jokes in the comments, please). I sat stunned because I finally got past how strange everything sounded on its own, how it sounded even weirder together, and it still sounded brilliant despite all the weirdness. The French rap was catchy, the Hindi chanting was even more so, and Tanvi Shah’s refrain was incredible.

Okay, fanboyism over, and on to geekdom. The question now arises – why do the separate sections sound so different? I shall hazard – it is because A R Rahman has done an incredible job of mixing and matching rasas. Remember the time Neha Natalya Pandey wrote about navras over here? In case you don’t, click through on the link – but the quick summary is that Indian classical dance defines nine separate collectively exhaustive emotional states, or rasas. And while most Hindi movie songs use only a single ras, A R Rahman uses three rasas in the title track.

The मस्ती है मस्तानों की दिल्ली दिल्ली / Masti hai mastaanon ki Dilli, Dilli male vocals are in veer (courage) ras. As I had said to Beatzo when we were discussing this, the male vocals sound like an assembly of sardars chanting ‘Deh Shiva Var Mohe‘. They’re assertive without being aggressive, proud without being cocky, and are delivered with the assurance of stating the obvious.

The French and Hindi female rap? I’m not quite as sure on this as the other bits, but I’d say it’s in adbhut (astonishment) ras. There’s a sense of wonderment and novelty in there, at this utterly cool and new and weird place that is Delhi.

And now we come to the यह है दिल्ली मेरे यार, बस इश्क मोहब्बत प्यार / Yeh hai dilli mere yaar, bas ishq mohabbat pyaar bit. And – there’s no escaping this – it’s in shringaar ras, the expression of love, compassion, and erotica. Except that the love is being expressed not for a person but for an entire city.

OK, now even more overanalysis.

The majority of Hindi movie songs are love songs, and so are done in shringaar ras. And within that – the shringaar generally comes with an element of longing and unfulfilled desire. Not always – there are a bunch of songs from the 60s which skip this (though I can’t remember any off the top of my head at this exact moment) – but pretty overwhelmingly.

Cast your mind back to the most romantic songs of 2008. Bakhuda tum hi ho from Kismet Konnection? It’s awesome because it too brings in adbhut ras with the shringaar ras, but it’s still very much about unfulfilled love – look at the कैसे बतायें तुम्हें, और किस तरह यह, कितना तुम्हें हम  चाहते हैं? line. Then there’s that other Rahman masterpiece, Kahin Toh. It’s about aching for a place which you don’t have where your love will be safe. Milord, I rest my case.

So the refrain is weird and incredible because it’s shringaar ras in a setting of veer and adbhutam ras, which we’re not used to. But it’s doubly weird and incredible because even as shringaar ras, it’s very fulfilled shringaar ras – Tanvi Shah acknowledges that Delhi is full of love, and accepts this. She doesn’t want or look forward to anything more. To reference my original conversation with Beatzo again, he pointed out that it sounds like a cat purring. And that is something which is so unusual in a Hindi movie music context that it just blows our socks off.

The other songs on the album also evoke the WTF-in-a-very-good-way reaction. But none as much as the title track.

Setting an Example

March 28, 2009

Writing in Dawn about Slumdog Millionaire, Arundhati Roy says:

That’s what Slumdog Millionaire is selling: the cheapest version of the Great Capitalist dream in which politics is replaced by a game show, a lottery in which the dreams of one person come true while, in the process, the dreams of millions of others are usurped, immobilizing them with the drug of impossible hope (work hard, be good, with a little bit of luck you could be a millionaire).

The pundits say that the appeal of the film lies in the fact that while in the West for many people riches are turning to rags, the rags to riches story is giving people something to hold on to. Scary thought. Hope, surely, should be made of tougher stuff. Poor Oscars. Still, I guess it could have been worse. What if the film that won had been like Guru – that chilling film celebrating the rise of the Ambanis. That would have taught us whiners and complainers a lesson or two. No? 

The logical conclusion of this is that we urgently need a media blackout of Arundhati Roy. If a mere fictional movie about sudden runaway success is so scary, imagine how bad her real life story is. She too used to live in slums and then she won the Booker Prize with her debut novel. Now she is so rich and successful that her bank puts her in the list of its top twenty five forex remittance customers, along with major exporting corporations. Imagine how much impossible hope that is filling aspiring writers with. For god’s sake, she could be responsible for creating Chetan Bhagat or Tuhin Sinha.

Section 292

March 23, 2009

Kalpeshbhai had wanted to be a smuggler when he was growing up. In the movies of the 70s and 80s, the villain would always be a gold smuggler who would have an exotic lair, many henchmen, and a moll who would do cabaret dances on command. Kalpeshbhai was attracted to the lifestyle immediately.

Kalpeshbhai also knew that while the gold smugglers of the movies performed such basic mistakes as sending their henchmen to fight the hero one by one, he would go one step better and just get things over with by shooting him. That would take care of the main disadvantage of being a smuggler which was that somehow Amitabh Bachchan or Vinod Khanna always brought you to justice. Kalpeshbhai had no such intentions. He planned to be India’s biggest and most successful gold smuggler. In fact he dreamed of a time when Manmohan Desai would be inspired by his life and make a movie where Ajit played a gold smuggler who would eat dhokla and khandvi instead of biryani. It was a constant preoccuptation with him. At his accounts tuitions, while his cousin Sailesh would disappear around the corner with Savita Patel for fondling and giggling during the breaks, Kalpesh would sit at his desk, daydreaming about bringing in huge consignments of gold.

Unfortunately things did not work out for Kalpeshbhai. Not only did Manmohan Desai and Ajit die before he got the chance to become a smuggler, but the Government of India itself legalised the import of gold, making smuggling a pointless activity. He could always have become a drug smuggler instead, but he had also seen The Godfather and had decided never to do that. So he finished his B. Com. and started helping Saileshbhai in his electronics trading and honeymoon package tours businesses instead. However, his dream of becoming a criminal mastermind never left his heart.

Kalpeshbhai did not realise that it was in his destiny to become a smuggler after all. The first step came at Saileshbhai’s honeymoon resort in Alibag for couples who could not afford to go to foreign. Saileshbhai made every attempt to provide the appearance of foreign, including morphed pictures of the happy couple in front of the Eiffel Tower, and iPods along with receipts from Sim Lim Tower; but the lady honeymooners would still grumble that they were not able to do all the shopping they could have done in foreign. Saileshbhai was conscientious about customer service, and would always ask what he could do better, but for some reason the ladies were never forthcoming.

Kalpeshbhai then had the bright idea of asking their old friend Savitaben to help out. Savitaben conducted interviews with the honeymooners before they would leave Alibaug, and after a week explained to Saileshbhai what the problem was. Section 292 of the Indian Penal Code made it illegal to import, sell, exhibit, or purchase a wide variety of merchandise in India, so the good housewives of Kandivalil had to do their shopping in foreign.

It was then that Kalpeshbhai realised that he could become a smuggler after all. He immediately flew to Bangkok, and spent a fortnight in Thailand meeting contract manufacturers. By the time he returned, Kalpeshbhai had left heavy cash advances for the production of a wide variety of silicone and latex items, moulded into interesting shapes, and some even motorised. Not to mention leather items, metal items, and water soluble cellulose with added flavours. He also found a ship owner who was keen and eager to ignore such absurd paperwork as bills of lading and customs invoice, and would unload directly onto a launch off the coast of Alibag.

On his return, Kalpeshbhai firmed up the marketing end of things. Saileshbhai’s honeymoon resort was of course a firm customer, and Savitaben agreed to sell his merchandise on a retail basis through discreet word-of-mouth and referral advertising. Word of mouth spread very rapidly in fact. People all over Mumbai had realised that marriages were made not in Heaven but in Malad, and could always do with a little help. They rushed to Savitaben to purchase the marital aids which Kalpeshbhai had smuggled in.

Kalpeshbhai is a very satisfied man these days. The unfulfilled demand in Mumbai means that he can charge enough to cover the costs of purchase, Coast Guard and customs bribes, and shipping, and have enough left over to furnish his home as ornately as an 80s movie smuggler’s lair. And while he has not yet fulfilled his ambition of capturing Amitabh Bachhan’s ma, behen, and maashukaa and tying them up in his lair, he is happy in the knowledge that he faciltates the tying up of other people across Mumbai. And although Manmohan Desai is dead, he is reasonably sure that Madhur Bhandarkar will make a movie about his career sooner rather than later.

When Doves Invade

March 16, 2009

So this morning, a little bird decided to fly through the open window into our living room. Once inside, it perched on our cordless phone’s base station.

 Dove Perching on Phone

It eventually decided it didn’t like the phone, so it went on to the network hard disk. Over here, I got off a shot which shows off its blue feathers.

 Dove Perching on Hard Disk

By this time, I was squeezing off lots of shots and the bird got nervous. So it crapped on the hard disk and flew away.

Nice bit of weirdness to start the day.

Traditions, Sanskaar, Yada Yada

March 15, 2009

In this modern and fast-Westernising world we are fast losing our traditional moorings.

Our traditions and practices are known to our grandparents, but we have foolishly neglected to learn them as well. My generation no longer knows how to tie the veshti or the dhoti, leading to a huge loss of manliness.  The Urdu language’s vocabulary is being decimated as Bollywood lyricists turn from ‘more saajan hain us paar’ to such bastardised creations as ‘you’re my mind blowing mahiya’. Homemade gaajar ka halwa is being replaced by an MTR packet. When ranting thathas rant, they have a point. We have a valuable cultural corpus, and we are losing it.

However, in the specific aspect of Punjabi culture that is toothless old aunties tunelessly singing folk songs at weddings, I think we can all agree that it’s really for the best.

March 15, 2009, which I mentioned a few months ago is now up and running. In case you missed it when I first wrote about it, it’s a site where Lazy Lola and Popagandhi are posting handmade videos which have been shot on smartphones or point-and-shoot cameras. The videos are very much on Discovery Travel&Living lines, and the awesome ones so far include kushti tournaments in Dubai, pancake racing in London, and the Chennai-Kanyakumari Autorickshaw Challenge. There are fourteen more weeks of this to go, so subscribe wonly.