The annual Ganpati festival in Maharashtra was famously born during colonial rule as a way of putting the British in their place through mass displays of community strength and solidarity. The element of anti-authoritarianism lingers in the way the festival is marked in Mumbai of late. Swaggering indiscipline has become the norm, with heavily sponsored Ganpati pandals encroaching on public spaces, traffic becoming even more nightmarish than usual, and noise pollution breaching acceptable levels. Mumbai’s idea of a carnival merrily mixes the sacred and the profane, with the latter often overtaking the former in the choice of music (songs such as “Pappi De” and “Appadi Podu” compete for attention with religious tunes).
Hindi cinema has contributed its fair share of earworms, titled Morya or thereabouts, to Ganeshotsav. The hitlist includes enduring classics, recent popular tunes and numbers that target the season, such as Bappa from the September 23 release Banjo. The movie marks Marathi director Ravi Jadhav’s debut in Hindi, and stars local hero Ritesh Deshmukh as a musician. Visually, the rock tune unfolds per script: the screen is washed with red vermilion while Deshmukh and other dancers swirl in choreographed motions in front of a large idol. For Ganpati devotees, there isn’t much by way of darshan, which is a standard requirement of the Ganpati film song. The idol is hidden behind Deshmukh’s rock star antics, and like the other seasonal earworm, Jalwa from the Salman Khan starrer Wanted (2009), the visuals genuflect to the screen god rather than the real one.
The contest between celestial and mortal gods is also present in the prayer-like Deva Shree Ganesha from Karan Malhotra’s Agneepath remake (2012). Ajay Atul’s brilliant composition, which has since become a festival standard, towers over the song’s clichéd visuals and the snatches of a beautiful but tough-looking idol. This is a busy number – it includes celebration, romance, a family reunion, and murder.
Another Ganpati song featuring a superstar is more mindful of who the real deity is in the scene. Shah Rukh Khan blends into the community celebrations in the catchy Morya Re from Farhan Akhtar’s Don (2006), with enough views of the idol to please the faithful. Akhtar also resists the temptation to squeeze a parallel narrative track into the proceedings. The song is a pure celebration, full of the colour and fun that is typically associated with the festival.
If a Ganpati film song performs more than one duty, blame it on Francis Ford Coppola. In The Godfather: Part 2 (1974), a traditional Christian procession gives Don Corleone’s character the perfect excuse to carry out a murder.
Coppola’s masterful blending of God and the Devil has been endlessly imitated since. One of the best local examples is the climax of Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1988), in which the titular anti-hero avenges the death of his mentor and close friend by taking advantage of the immersion of Ganpati idols at the beach.
Coppola also surely influenced the song Ganapati Apne Gaon Chale from Mukul S Anand’s original Agneepath (1990). As Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay Dinanath Chauhan sets out to immerse his idol, danger follows in the form of killers sent by his adversary. Anand skillfully blends together documentary footage with his staged procession and gives Mithun Chakraborty yet another chance to display his smooth moves.
Chakraborty, one of the most unassuming and skillful dancers in the movies, is forever associated with the Ganpati song through another festival standard. Deepak Bahry’s Hum Se Badhkar Kaun (1981), about a bunch of thieves who try to rob a temple of its gold, is best remembered for the Raam-Laxman composition Deva O Deva Ganpati Deva. The beats are perfectly suited for spontaneous street dancing.
Deva O Deva has the mandatory sudden zooms onto the benevolent face of the idol, which watches mortals perform calisthenics or dream up of dastardly acts without apparent judgement. Poor Ganesha has had to witness every shade of human behaviour and listen to ordinary tunes and banal lyrics masquerading as tributes to his powers. Paresh Rawal’s sniper from Ayub Khan’s Mahantaa (1997) dresses up as in a traditional Maharashtrian nine-yard sari (complete with a nose-ring) in order to bump off the honest police officer during a community celebration. The aggressive dancers from rival groups in Remo D’Souza’s ABCD: Anybody Can Dance (2013) come to blows while Vinayaka benignly looks on in Ganpati Bappa Morya. Ganesha comes to the rescue again in the climactic dance competition song Sadda Dil Vi Tu when the dancers convert the stage into a temple floor and dance in the god’s name in order to impress the judges. Both tunes are about as salubrious as trying to sleep when a procession is blaring away below your window.
One of the earliest Ganpati celebrations in a movie dates back to Dhirubhai Desai’s Pujarin (1969). The veneration of Vignaharta results in a miracle in He Ganpati Bappa Morya as the crippled heroine manages to get off her bed, crawl all the way to the public celebration, and finally stand on her feet.
One of the loveliest Ganpati songs is about a prayer for a miracle rather than an actual act of divine intervention. Sunil Dutt’s tearjerker Dard Ka Rishta (1982) features a father’s frantic attempts to cure his daughter (Khushboo) of cancer. Said to have been made in response to his wife Nargis’s death from the disease in 1981, Dard Ka Rishta features the simply titled song Ganpati Bappa Morya, sung by Hariharan and composed by RD Burman. The zoom-ins in this track are on the ailing Khushboo’s face as she lies on a hospital bed while her father (Dutt) clutches a small idol and takes it for immersion, hope and despair flitting over his face. The song plays in the background, and Dutt dexterously throws in documentary footage of actual celebrations in Mumbai, producing a truly heartfelt experience.