Song Of Amnesia The film song is mass hypnotism, an aid to help us forget. But the past never leaves. Sunil Menon one page format feedback: send Special Issue: Bollywood Music Special
An outsized paper moon, a cardboard night. A faux skyline, windows tungsten-lit...a city beyond our love-lorn balcony. The hero, effeminate despite his jodhpurs, fingers all mixed up on the mandolin. The lady: ethereal, weaving the studio backlighting in her hair. For all the miles between them, they’re dead on cue in their song of lament. Paisley on the billowing curtains; lattice shadows on her blameless face. An unseen orchestra. This scene was never shot, but does that matter? It matches a diagram in your head—in our collective head. We recognise all the elements in this romantic impasto. We’ve seen that paper moon a gazillion times, attained a state of bionic senility. Point a cursor and click on the diagram, and a medley of sounds too picks up from some corner of the brain. They strangely match our phantom set-piece—so flavoursome despite its bare economy. We could even swear we know the lyrics—give me a minute, it’s at the tip of my tongue. Even a false cue automatically opens up a folder—the Fifties, C:\MyMusic\ Bollywood\50s. Vast mountains of para-real, audio-visual stock are stored up in each of us, permanently burned onto our memory cells. Whether the point of reference for your kind of film music is C.H. Atma or Trickbaby—or anything else from the half-a-century of pauseless music-making that intervened—you’ll have your Top 10 and Top 100, neatly catalogued. The rest is mnemonic debris, sheer inorganic waste floating in mindspace. It lies dormant till that accursed song floats up from the transistor on the migrant labourer’s shoulder, the family playing antakshari in the park...Hai Hukku Hai Hukku Hai Hai! Call it passion or pathology, the film song is so basic to our landscape—like neem, or pepper, or cows on the roads—that we’re liable to not notice that it’s a special kind of artefact. Uniquely Indian, found in all its climatic zones, warm-blooded but immune to the snow. A supremely adaptive beast, it has segued well across time too: we have online antaksharis, Pallo Latke ringtones available for download, and a certain search engine called Yahoo! The film song is part of our suspended particulate matter. It’s in the air. At the water park. At the barbershop, on the ghettoblasters, all over TV. It’s the chewing gum that never leaves us. We know all its visual cliches. The party dude at the grand piano, city girls cycling to a picnic, the Shakin’ Stevens in his open-top convertible, urchins, fakirs, sundry nobodies. We also parse it by its logical type. Like the declarative song that sets up a character—‘I am...’, and fill up the blanks (Awara, Jhumroo, Dus Numbri, Don, Aflatoon, Chameli, or whoever) All this trivia serves no tangible aesthetic function. It’s a shared database of no use except that it is shared—a zone of overlap in the experience of millions who will never know each other. It makes us all participants in a common pop history, with or without our consent. The old puritanical avoidance of films for its ‘low culture’, or the cultivated dislike of the convent-bred, they’re no immunity against the ocean washing up on your front porch. There are no draft dodgers here. So much power. By what decree did it colonise the whole landscape of sound? That too in a country of a million songs of the earth, such richness of rhythm and tone? At its root, for a people who had lost patience for all that is archaic, it came as a technology that produces newness. This function is constant in each of its time-zones; only the aspect changes. It occupies a new habitat, a temperate flatland that shuns anything too ‘arty’, anything that bears the vestiges of ‘vulgar’ folk culture. Not abstaining, but coopting—it extends its body to ingest anything it fancies.