Men at work and ‘90s Bollywood music – Economic Times

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Vandana Vasudevan is the author of the books “Urban Villager: Life in an Indian satellite town” and the newly released “Tough Customer”. This column will mainly explore themes … MORE
A painter is high up on a scaffolding of a building. As the sun blazes down on him and he is engrossed in his work, hanging dangerously high above the ground, a song blares out of his mobile phone. “Aur is dil mein kya rakha hai tera hi naam likha rakha hai » It is from the movie Imaandaar starring Sanjay Dutt. Singer Suresh Wadkar is straining his vocal chords, infusing the high notes with the pathos of a man trying to convince his woman that he loves her to bits. The next line says that if she were to rip his heart apart (ouch!) she would find her name inscribed there.
Elsewhere, a taxi winds up a mountain road in one of the hill stations in north India.  It’s been a long journey from Delhi/Mumbai to the nearest airport or railway station; a peaceful drive to the hotel would be nice. But the cabbie is in the mood for songs of bitter love.  “Ab tere bin ji lenge hum. Zahar zindagi kaa pi lenge hum” Kumar Sanu‘s nasal voice playing on a scratchy tape recorder fills the car.  I can learn to live without you. Life would be like drinking poison but what ‘s the big deal if one heart breaks, says this hit song from Aashiqui  (1990)  It seems churlish to tell him to stop playing the music because it seems to be the norm with small town cabbies, so you stay silent, your own mood affected by the blues.
A group of masons are laying cement on bricks. “ Tumhe apna banane ki kasam ” floats through their portable transistor kept close by. It is Kumar Sanu again, playback singing for Sunjay Dutt in Sadak (1991 ). Or maybe they would play “Chaha hai tujhko, chahunga har dum ” (Mann 1999). “I loved you, will love you each moment, I may die but my love for you will not reduce.” Whew.
Or  Sanu again in “Teri Umeed  Tera Intezar “ (Deewana 1991),  a song practically heaving with emotion.
What’s common to all these numbers? They are all from Hindi movies released in the 1990s, (except Imaandaar which is late ‘80s but fits the type) , many have been sung by the king of that era-Kumar Sanu, composed by Nadeem Shravan and almost invariably, speak of unbearable longing, bitter heartbreak, undying passion or promises of togetherness till death and beyond.  They convey all this through a very particular kind of heightened intensity in the lyrics that was typical to Bollywood songs of the 90s, especially those of early 1990s.
But what I find more interesting is how this genre of songs has a loyal listenership among small town cabbies, auto drivers, labourers on a construction site, carpenters, plumbers and other working class men.  Why do all these men gravitate towards the trio of Kumar Sanu, Nadeem Shravan and lyricist Sameer at their melancholic peak?  A lonely auto wallah putting his feet up on a hot afternoon is typically doesn’t listen to the “Choli ke peeche kya hai” / “Tu cheez badi hai mast mast” kind of songs which are also from the 1990s but loud/playful/raunchy.  When the sweepers in my building take a lunchtime pause around stacks of roti and red aloo sabzi, they don’t play RD Burman or Shankar Ehsaan Loy but songs from  Saajan (1992) or  Raja Hindustani (1997).
So why does this demographic typically tune in to this brand of songs? There are no statistics  to find this but is  it possible  that most workers and tourist cab drivers we meet are typically between 35 and 45 and these were the songs they heard when they were 20 years younger? Like all middle aged people, perhaps they cherish the songs that transport them to their youth, that remind them of lost loves and stolen moments back in their village.
Conversely, why won’t an urban upper middle class Indian of the same vintage be caught dead playing a song like “Milne ki tum koshish karna, vaada kabhi na karna” (Dil ka kya kasoor, 1992) on his car stereo? This song I find has huge mass appeal, for some reason, perhaps because it offers  practical advice, saying just make an honest effort to show up instead of lofty promises.

My other premise is that working class folk identify with the heartbreak songs from films where the hero was himself is a struggler of some sort. In Aashiqui, the hero is a small time singer, in Sadak Sanjay Dutt is a taxi driver, in Raja Hindustani Amir Khan is a small town cab driver,  in Saajan the protagonist is a poor lame poet, in Deewana SRK runs a garage.  The ‘90s had several movies where the hero was a working class bloke, something that became less and less common from the 2000s.  In the scratchy music players of hill town cabbies,  one rarely hears the  songs from urbane Yash Chopra movies of the 1990s like, for example,  Dil Toh Pagal Hai or Darr where everyone was posh.
Why is “Tu pyaar hai kisi aur ka “ from Dil hai ki manta nahin  or “ Tumse milne ko dil karta hai” (Phool aur Kaante) the favourite song of ,say, plumbers?  Out of millions of songs why does the presswalla prefer to blare the agonised “Sambhala hai maine bahut mere dil ko ”(Naaraaz 1994) or the quietly passionate “Is tarah aashiqui ka” (Imtihaan 1995)  as he works the iron box?
What is it about intense ‘90s songs that appeals to all these working men but  is given a wide berth by urban, English educated folk?
One can only guess until someone thinks it is worth a more scientific research, but the musical leanings of north Indian blue collar workers towards plaintive Bollywood songs of the ‘90s remains intriguing.
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Views expressed above are the author’s own.
Copyright © 2023 Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. All rights reserved. For reprint rights: Times Syndication Service


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