[Monographs 2023] The Call Of The Wild: Nature Metaphors In The Hindi Film Song Sequence

By Udita Bhargava

The song sequence is an important part of commercial Hindi cinema; it has been a part of its film language since the sound film was introduced in India in the 1930’s. While early  cinema was tasked with the imperative of nation building and developing a swadeshi[1]  voice, the song sequence within the Hindi film remains a crucial site of couple formation[2], establishing a sovereign space in which the private sphere (of the film characters) can gain centrality. Desire can be expressed and celebrated freely within this capsule of time; its many facets—objectification, pining, overtures, poetic expression[3]—are present, often simultaneously, making the song sequence a vehicle for accessing those hidden corners of ourselves through identification, which a narrative, with its commitment to story and plot, often denies.

Below I have made a selection of films from the 1950s to the 1990s; each film shows a different approach to the subject of desire using metaphors of nature.

 

“O Door Ke Musafir” — Uran Khatola (1955)

The song “O door ke musafir” (Oh, traveler from far away) closes the film, serving as the hero Kashi (Dilip Kumar)’s parting farewell to the heroine Soni (Nimmi) as she walks towards her death.

You go away from this world
estranged from life
You’ve found a haven
Death hasn’t come for me

Oh, traveller from far away
Take me with you
Take me with you
I have been left alone. 

The film tells the story of Kashi; he is rescued by the beautiful Soni after his plane crashes in a kingdom named ‘Sangha’. Sangha is ruled by women. The love between Soni and Kashi grows but the queen of the kingdom, Raj Rani, wants Kashi as hers. Kashi is  implicated in a false case of sexual harassment by Shambu, the queen’s evil minister. At the queen’s behest and in order to save Kashi, Soni agrees to marry Shambhu. Due to the misdeeds of the queen and her minister, a storm threatens to destroy the entire kingdom. Soni sacrifices herself to save Sangha and gain back Kashi in the afterlife, since, married to another man, she cannot have him in this one.

Thunder and lightning crack around Soni; the waves crash against the bridge on which she is walking into the afterlife. Her desire for her lover is tempestuous but it is unafraid; defying death even as it becomes the engine for her sacrifice. The pathos of the tune, combined with the beautiful and dense black-and-white photography on a film stage, creates an impression of a landscape that is sinking under the weight of the tragic emotions at play: loss, regret, grief, an eternal separation.

Kashi sings for her, so that she can hear his voice as she walks into her death:

You have given me a sorrow so great
I have died without being dead
My heart does not care for this life
Take me with you I have been left alone

In a close up Soni looks at Kashi longingly. One gets the brief impression that she is returning to him. But when the shot opens up she is walking steadily over the bridge. The push and pull of her desire—the longing to be united and the resolution to break away from their world which offers no possibility of consummating their love since she is  wedded to another man—is wonderfully illustrated through the camera movement. At the song’s end, Soni jumps into the stormy sea, giving up her body to death, but her desire, vast as the ocean, lives on in the hearts of all those who have witnessed her tragedy.

 

“Wadiyan Mera Daman” from Abhilasha (1968)

A valley, still and golden; the afternoon light ripe and mellow; the open sky above. Ritu (Nanda) sings into the landscape; the very same song that her lover Arun (Sanjay Khan) had sung for her at this spot before he departed for military service. The hues (yellow brown), the cabriole, her cigarette smoking companion Ajay, who is her lover’s younger brother, give the scene an air of a western. Yet, suffused with longing rather than intrigue, the scene could not be more different than anything belonging to that genre.

The valleys are the folds of my skirts
its path are my arms
Go without me
where will you go?

At the beginning of the song, the landscape calls out to her in the voice of her lover. She responds, with the very same words he had sung for her:

When you hide your body
for any reason
the branches of flowers
will stroke it with my hands
In the locks of your own hair
you will get tangled further
the valleys are the folds of my skirts
its path are my arms
go without me
where will you go?  

The story of the film revolves around Arun. As a child, he is adopted by rich parents. When Ritu, the daughter of his adoptive parents’ friends, comes for a visit, the reticent Arun falls in love with her. She too reciprocates his love. All is set to fall into place with a wedding when Arun discovers the truth about himself: that he is the son of a ‘lowly’ servant rather than the heir to a highborn Hindu family.

Through the landscape she transmits her feelings to her absent lover Arun; the landscape is the chamber that holds the echoes and memories of their love, and now her longing. That a woman can express her desire so freely, so eloquently, is rare. Maybe it is because her lover is absent? In his presence, might she have been shy or proud? She experiences her lover by finding a oneness with her surroundings, which held the body of her lover in the past, and which continue to connect her with him. There is a brief cutaway to the trees and the skies: they are witnesses to the vastness of this woman’s desire.

Since the time our paths have crossed
The sun and the moon have become my eyes
Where ever you go,
you will always be before me. 

Not a single glance is exchanged between her and Ajay, her companion at the moment; after all he is not the object of her desire or her emotion. But one could mistake her intent as she sings; her words so mysterious and full of secrets waiting to be unravelled. Indeed Ajay mistakes her intent briefly and thinks that her song is for him. But soon, thankfully, her wedding is fixed to her missing lover Arun, only to be endangered by the facts of his birth.

“Bade Achhe Lagte Hain” — Balika Vadhu (1976)

A young couple Amal (Sachin) and Rajni (Rajni Sharma) are sitting by the banks of a broad river; it is a place where he often sits alone, but today, with his wife next to him, all that he loves in the world seems to be present at once.

I love them all
Who?
the earth, the rivers, the dusk and dawn,
And?
And you! 

They have been married at a very early age; she is still a child. According to tradition, she continues to live with her family, visiting her husband only at intervals. The love between them continues to grow and mature during their brief meetings. At the end of the film, she joins him as a wife in his home.

This song is a reflection of the growing maturity of their love; it is an embodiment of a whole world opening up for their shared emotion. Reeds wave gently in the wind, lotus flowers are in full bloom, clouds swim across the sky and are reflected in the water, giving us a sense of union both fleeting and eternal.

We are so close, the moon and the stars so far
To tell you the truth, they feel like an illusion,
But they are true—the earth, the river, the dusk and dawn,
And you! 

His young bride is the embodiment of nature. And like nature, she is delicate, ever changing; young as yet, she will fill out like Mother Earth. Wistfully he continues:

In the morning tomorrow when you leave all of this behind
With me, they (the earth, river, dusk and dawn) shall miss you too.
I love them all
the earth, the rivers, the dusk and dawn,
And you! 

His words allude to her impending departure but he is mature enough to feel the sorrow of that eternal parting which will one day break the chain of their love. At the end of the gentle song, they walk through the river. The darkening landscape is like their garden of Eden, from which they cannot not be banished since they have given it life with their desire, their love, their song.

 

“Nadiya Bahati Hain Tumko Kahti Hain” — Ek Imarat (1981)

While singing, Chanda (Vidya Sinha) fills water in an earthen pot from the tumultuous river; her voice floats across the landscape to Yogendra (Parikshit Sahni) who is entering her village for the first time. He is enchanted.

The river flows, it tells you “I don’t want to join the sea, I will get salty.”
the river tells you “I don’t want to join the sea, I will get salty.
Harness me, stop me,
Stop me, I will be yours.

Yogendra, the hero, gives up his privileged life in the city to go and teach in a village. His fiancé refuses to join him. They part ways. Battling social ills and the resistance of the local landowner, who wants to keep the village folk under his thumb, Yogendra starts to build a school in the village. In the process, he wins the admiration and love of the film’s heroine Chanda; she joins him in his selfless devotion to the nation.

Chanda’s song is an introduction to a new life for Yogendra: a first encounter with unashamed and innocent desire, not burdened by the norms of middle class life, wherein such an expression might not be possible even in the metaphoric language of song. The look on her face is naughty. The whole idea is naughty; yet set within this natural context, it is not racy but just a natural joyful expression of a woman who wants to belong to her lover.

Take me for yours, settle me in the village
I will be yours fully,
the river flows, it tells you “I don’t want to join the sea, I will get salty.”
Harness me, stop me
Stop me, I will be yours.

The body of the actress and her movement across the hilly forested landscape are full of vitality. She, like her desire, like the river, helps to keep this world alive. In Chanda’s imagination, her tumultuous desire should culminate in peaceful domesticity. The villain Rajju (Amrish Puri) too hears the song. He will come in the way, unsuccessfully, in the fulfillment of her desire. Yet right now, Chanda is totally unaware of both men—the villain and the hero—and is absolutely free to dream of her life as a river.

 

“Chanda Re Chanda Re” — Sapney (1997)

Deva (Prabhu Deva), the ace dancer, holds the gaze of the heroine Priya (Kajol). She listens wide-eyed. Shy. Deva moves across the docks, his movements quick and smooth. His song has woken up the destitute who spend the night in the streets; they join him in dancing. Addressing his prospective lover through the moon, he asks:

The moon, oh moon, why don’t you descend to the earth sometime, so that we can talk?
And if you feel shy, why don’t you wear a cloak of clouds and come down? Come on down.

The title of the film is ‘Sapney’, meaning ‘dreams’. Priya, the daughter of a rich industrialist, wants to become a nun. Her neighbour, Thomas (Arvind), is in love with her and devises a plan to stop her from taking her vows. He asks his friend Deva (Prabhu Deva) to convince Priya to join the latter’s music troupe. Unfortunately for Thomas, Deva and Priya fall in love.

The song depicts the blossoming of Priya’s and Deva’s love. The sea is quiet beside the docks, the full moon shines steadily in the sky. Like Priya, it seems hypnotised by Deva’s words.

We will bathe together in the blue rivers of dreams,
lose ourselves in the foggy wakes.
pick stars, make ourselves a home from them
The moon, oh moon, why don’t you descend to the earth sometime, so that we can talk?

Just when we think that Priya is sinking further into a reverie, she breaks into song: the very same song as him! This time, it is she who compares him to the distant moon, inviting him to come and speak with her.

And we will ask the moon so many questions of wonder
why are the wings of butterflies so colourful?
what do fireflies do if they wake all night?
lose ourselves in the foggy wakes.

They are the fireflies, dancing in the night, while the moon watches on. The aliveness of the lovers-to-be takes over everything else. They hug, then a heave, Priya looks at him with large eyes: her first orgasm? A brief moment of wonder from him. Then they break into dance again. Smiling, they leave the docks, having lost the reticence or reserve of lovers who haven’t consummated their love. Metaphorically at least, they are lovers now.

 

Post 1990s and conclusion

In 1991, India opened up its economy, aligning itself with the free market. Cable TV entered our homes and along with it came new influences from all corners of the world. The song sequence changed, drawing inspiration from MTV rather than just the Hindi cinema of yore. The old metaphoric language gave way to a new one—sexy, racy, sometimes even vulgar. With highly expressive dance choreographies, desire was located in the body and expressed through it. The couple too, no longer alone but surrounded by professional dancers, became the centre and focus of the song, whereas nature elements receded to the background. Increased physical contact and sexual interactions between the couple became routine on screen, even as the environment in which the lovers were placed lost its previous meaning.

The internet is full of pages dedicated to the ‘perverted’ songs of the 90s which managed to get past the censor board[4] despite their sexual innuendo. One of the most popular examples on many lists is the song ‘Gutar Gutar’ from the film Dalal (1993); the title refers to the coo-ing of a pigeon.

Oh God it climbed on top
On the roof the pigeon rolled
coo coo-ed
coo coo-ed
The mad (love) bird ate his fill
flew away
On the roof
On the roof the pigeon rolled
It died on top

 

Footnotes

[1] Swadeshi: meaning ‘of the nation’, a term that gained much prestige during the freedom movement in India, as it became a clarion call for self sufficiency in all fields — cultural, economic, political.

[2] Sangita Gopal, “Sealed with a Kiss: Conjugality and Hindi Film Form,” Feminist Studies 37, no. 1 (2011): 154–80. http://www.jstor.org/stable/23069888.

[3] Paromita Vohra, “How song and dance made love and desire visible on screen,” The Indian Express, July 12, 2020, https://indianexpress.com/article/express-sunday-eye/how-song-and-dance-made-love-and-desire-visible-on-screen-6500784/.

[4]  All films shown in public venues like a cinema undergo a certification process from the central board of film certification.


About the Writer

Udita Bhargava is an Indian filmmaker living and working between Germany and India. Her debut feature DUST (2019), a German-Indian co-production, premiered at the 69th Berlinale. Her shorts have been screened and awarded at film festivals across the world, including the Oberhausen Film Festival, where Imraan, C/o Carrom Club (2014), won the 3Sat Prize. Udita studied film directing at the Film University Potsdam Babelsberg Konrad Wolf. She has worked on several international film productions including Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2005), Lars von Trier’s Antichrist (2009) and Mira Nair’s The Migration (2008). She holds a Master’s Degree in Mass Communication and a Bachelor’s Degree in English Literature.

 

 

 

 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

About the Writer