Vulgarity and the “Trashy” 80s: A Case for the Double-Meaning Hindi Film Song
Sporting a shabby sherwani and a comically large moustache in Manmohan Desai’s Mard (1985), Amitabh Bachchan, the brooding “angry young man” of the 1970s and 80s, sings provocatively about a bambu (bamboo stick) erected in a tambu (tent), as he longs to be united with his bride. As the song progresses, Bachchan unambiguously assigns the phallic symbol to the bambu and performs suggestive hand gestures that often originate from between his legs. The lyrics make up for what the gestures cannot say:
Maine Jor Lagaaya,
Haath Se Bhi Dabaaya,
Par Dil Ki Miti Na Chubhan
Dulha Baahr, Dulhan Andar, Bich Mein Yeh Gore Bandar
Mera Kab Hoga Utghaatan?
(I applied force,
Pressed with my hands,
But my longing does not subside.
I am outside, my bride is inside,
And these villains stand in my way,
When will my time come?)
Hum Toh Tambu Mein Bambu is only one of many such raunchy examples that populated Hindi films of the 1980s and early 90s. Though many of them were hits at the time, over the years the double entendre songs of this period have often been met with disdain, discomfort, and even righteous rage. The 1980s in particular incite such a reaction. Ahead of the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, the government had temporarily relaxed import restrictions for Video Cassette Recorders (VCRs) and coloured television sets, prompting the arrival of video cassette technology to India. The following years saw the mushrooming of “video parlours” across the country, where pirated copies of films were screened at much lower costs than movie theatres. At the same time, middle-class audiences retreated to their homes that were now equipped with coloured televisions and VCR sets. Exhibitors were at a loss and the industry entered a slump, engendering the perception that the decade represents a “dark age” in Hindi cinema. This perception is closely linked to the class composition of the audiences that frequented theatres during this period, based on the assumption that the poor cinematic quality is synonymous with “poor tastes” of the working classes. The films, made on sparse budgets, were considered exploitative and tawdry in production—certainly not an aesthetic that could find an honourable place in the neat trajectory of the Indian film history canon.
The “South Indian” Influence
A prominent trend in mainstream films of this period was the collaboration with Tamil and Telugu-language filmmakers. Based on interviews conducted with Hindi filmmakers during her doctoral research, Tejaswini Ganti observes a disdainful attitude towards this “south Indian aesthetic”, which was widely considered to be louder than Hindi films. The drama was regarded as kitschy, and the songs and choreography were seen as vulgar. But scratch the surface of this supposed vulgarity, and one may appreciate that some of these “trashy” song sequences are bursting at the seams with imagery. There are lovers dancing among flowers in deserted gardens or fields, married couples engaging in pre-coital banter, and several odes to the glittery adrenaline of the disco era. The double-meaning lyrics were often a play on youthful desires, premarital sex, and the pleasures of intercourse.
Dancing in lush fields in K Raghavendra Rao’s Himmatwala (1983), Jeetendra and Sri Devi sing:
“Kaisi yeh lagan hai?
kaisi yeh agan hai?
Milke mann bhare nahi, kaisa yeh milan hai?
(what is this attachment?
what is this fire?
The heart still yearns for more, what is this union?)”
The lighthearted song (Taki O Taki) gives expression to the burgeoning romance of young lovers who no longer wish to keep their desires secret. “Aapas mein taak dhin, taak dhin ho gaya, ab kya reh gaya baaki?” says the refrain of the song, loosely translating to: “we have done the taak dhin, taak dhin together, what more is left to do?”. The term “taak dhin”, used informally to mark beats in Hindustani classical music, becomes a euphemism for the pleasures of a love consummated—what more, then, is left to legitimise this union?
Jeetendra and Sri Devi in Taki O Taki, Himmatwala (1983). GIF created through GIPHY, Video Source: YouTube
The suggestive song sequences of the period also push the envelope in a largely censorious society. Looking at Bhojpuri cinema and vulgarity in the public sphere, Akshaya Kumar posits that vulgarity is also prompted by a desire to deliberately defy repressive rules of etiquette. To an extent, the mischievous double entendre in these songs is a test to see how far an idiom can stretch. The songs are careful to only make a suggestion, and are almost never explicit. Where there are limitations to what the text can say, they find innovative ways to convey meaning. In Aayi Aayi Mein Toh Aayi from Rao’s Jaani Dost (1983), Parveen Babi bites into an apple, then dances on grassy slopes with Dharmendra. She sings about the jannats (heavens) she hides within herself, as large, inflated balls descend down the hill. The visuals can lend themselves to any number of meanings—the apple is the forbidden fruit, and the balls (seemingly an odd choice of props) could mean a rush of hormones, or a burst of fertility. The cinematic text, therefore, operates at multiple levels.
Titillation of the “Low Brow”
The 1980s and early 90s were also especially rewarding for B cinemas—small-budget films that circulate in “non-prestigious” rural markets, often including sexploitation films, adult horror, and other “low” genres. This is the time when Marathi comedy icon Dada Kondke also made his foray into Hindi films, and brought with him the risqué humour he was known for in Marathi films. The song Teri Le Loon Baanhein from Kondke’s Tere Mere Beech Mein (1984) frequently makes it to online compilations of “most perverted” Hindi songs. The meter of the song has strategic punctuations which make the lyrics more salacious than if one were to read them on paper. The song features Kondke himself, and in a particularly bawdy line he says “khol ke mujhko dede, oh khol ke mujhko dede (open it and give it to me, oh open it and give it to me)”, before the next line clarifies “khol ke mujhko dede nakli kaano ki baali”—he is only asking the woman to remove her “nakli kaano ki baali” (false earrings) so he can replace them with genuine pearl ones.
Teri Le Loon Baanhein from Tere Mere Sapne (1984)
Filmmaker and writer Paromita Vohra has spoken about the middle-class disdain towards Hindi film song sequences, with recent trends moving away from the lip sync songs. Vohra identifies the 80s as the period where song sequences became “formulaic”, prompting an effort in the subsequent decades to discard the formula and usher in a mode of realism. Kondke’s suggestive number incites discomfort because of its crude approach to sex. The lyrics are unlike the sophisticated Urdu poetry of the previous decades, and the choreography lacks grace. This form, and the generally “camp” aesthetics of the decade, add further to the contempt with which Hindi song sequences are regarded. The pelvic thrusts, over-the-top expressions and “vulgar” lyrics of these songs constitute precisely the kind of “lowbrow” body genre that is considered excessive. It is, however, notable that even women perform these “ungraceful” pelvic thrusts and are often engaging in a cheeky back-and-forth within the same double-meaning song—subversive pleasures that politically correct criticism of the “exploitation” aesthetic often overlooks. Hardly anywhere else does the Hindi film provide such a free rein of expression—let alone depict the actual act of sex on screen—than in the film song. As scholars like Ira Bhaskar have argued, the film song becomes the “language of the ineffable”.
Vulgarity and Censorship
It does not take long for the notion of vulgarity in films to enter the ambit of the censorship debate. The most common concern about these double-meaning songs and suggestive choreography, from conservatives and liberals alike, is that they will influence impressionable groups poorly. This anxiety, of course, is premised on the elite belief that the illusions of cinema will corrupt the “poor, uneducated masses”. The particular disparagement reserved for Hindi films of the 80s and early 90s, Ganti finds, stems from the dominant belief that they catered to the “front benchers”—poor, young men associated with repressed sexualities and vulgarity.
The argument against this “vulgarity”, that it corrodes Indian morality, that it is “trashy”, or that it objectifies women; the judgement is often coloured by a censorious impulse to do away with something one disagrees with. This dismissal also discards with it any potential value the form may have offered. In 1993, Subhash Ghai’s Khal Nayak ran into major controversy over the song Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai (what is behind the blouse?). The lyrics of the song combined with its visuals (of Madhuri Dixit dancing sensually in a room full of men) triggered accusations of vulgarity, objectification and titillation from different groups. But a closer analysis of the song also lends itself to a queer reading, where the song is essentially a conversation between two women.
Madhuri Dixit in Choli Ke Peeche Kya Hai, Khal Nayak (1993). GIF created through GIPHY, Video Source: YouTube
The latter half of the 90s saw a concerted effort to distance from the cinema of the previous decades. The economic liberalisation of 1991, and the subsequent “Bollywoodisation” of the industry—a term proposed by Ashish Rajadhyaksha in his seminal essay (2003)—ushered in glossier family dramas that catered to diasporic markets and NRI audiences. By 1997, the first multiplex had arrived, and the following years would see a greater indulgence of the tastes of urban middle-classes who patronised these establishments. More recently, a “realistic” form, sans song and dance, is taken to be the “thinking” person’s cinema, and the gateway to establish Hindi films as a legitimate and serious form. There’s less room for the sensory pleasures of a song sequence, or catharsis through an expectation to suspend disbelief, let alone for the “vulgar” flamboyance of the 80s—a period now largely perceived as what Ganti would call the “anti-thesis of cool”.
- Ganti, Tejaswini. 2012. Producing Bollywood: Inside the Contemporary Hindi Film Industry. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
- Kumar, Akshaya. 2015. Provincialising Bollywood: Bhojpuri cinema and the Vernacularisation of North Indian media. PhD thesis. University of Glasgow.
- Dutta, Amrita. 2020. Interview with 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/
- Muzaffar, Maroosha. 2018. “Interview: Ira Bhaskar on Lustful Ladies in Hindi Cinema, From Mughal-e-Azam to Veere Di Wedding”. VICE, 04 June, 2018. https://www.vice.com/en_in/article/ywen4m/interview-ira-bhaskar-on-lustful-ladies-in-hindi-cinema-from-mughal-e-azam-to-veere-di-wedding
- Subba, Vidhushan. 2016. “The Bad-Shahs of Small Budget: The Small-budget Hindi Film of the B Circuit.” BioScope 7(2) 215-223. DOI: 10.1177/0974927616668009
Header Image Caption: Sri Devi in Nainon Mein Sapna, Himmatwala (1983). Image screenshotted from YouTube
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
- Suhasini Krishnan is a student of Film Studies at Ambedkar University, Delhi. Her interests lie in popular Hindi cinema, the unique idiom of song sequences, and ‘Bollywood’ stardom as a phenomenon. She has worked as a journalist since 2016, and her writing has featured in The Quint, Homegrown, Times Internet, and Critical Collective.