Caution: Spoilers ahead about Dahaad.

Filmmaker Karan Bali is very pleased that his grandmother Damyanti Bali’s poem Machli from 1939 is still in circulation. The Hindi poem is featured in the Prime Video series Dahaad – it’s painted on one of the doors of the van driven by the serial killer Anand.

But Karan Bali would like to point out one thing: filmmakers are misquoting the poem, especially the first two lines.

The four-line poem is as follows: Machli jal ki hai rani, jeevan iska hai pani, haath lagao dar jaayegi, bahar nikalo mar jaayegi (The fish is the queen of the seas, water is her lifeblood, you will scare her if you touch her, you will kill her if you take her out of the water).

Instead, what is usually circulated is: machli jal ki rani hai, jeevan iska pani hai. It’s a minor infraction, but it’s an error nonetheless.

“I feel proud” that the poem is still popular, Karan Bali told Scroll. “A lot of people are surprised when I tell them that my grandmother wrote the poem. They go, wow!”

Machli is the 34th poem in a book of 45 quatrains. Each poem represents a letter of the Hindi alphabet.

The poems were collected under the title Billo, the nickname of Damyanti Bali’s daughter, Manmohini. A gynaecologist who was living with her family in Lahore in undivided India at the time, Bali wrote Billo for Manmohini and Karan Bali’s father, Vinod, while they were in kindergarten.

The poems were initially written out on paper, accompanied by illustrations. On the encouragement of the principal of the school where her children were studying, Bali got the poems published in 1940. They have subsequently been republished in India, have been taught in schools and passed down the generations.

Damyanti Bali with her grandson, Karan Bali. Courtesy Karan Bali.

Among the poems is an ode to the hope that radiated in the subcontinent in the pre-Independent years:

Apna desh humein hai pyara
Sab deshon se hai yeh nyara
Sona chandi resham isme
Moti jawahar Gandhi jisme

(We love our country
It’s the best country in the world
It has gold, silver and silk
It has Motilal Nehru, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi)

Karan Bali writes on, the film website that he founded, about encountering Machli in rural Rajasthan. In 2001, Bali was making the documentary Climb Every Mountain in Dungarpur in Rajasthan, about the efforts of the non-governmental People’s Education and Development Organization to support women who plant trees on wasteland.

The NGO also ran schools for tribal children. While setting up a shot, Bali was “more than pleasantly surprised when the teacher and the children began going through the motions of the popular children’s poem Machhli Jal Ki Hai Rani,” he writes.

“Though I just needed 3 to 4 shots of the school activity, I nevertheless shot them reciting and enacting the entire poem even though I knew it wouldn’t find its way into the final film,” Bali adds. “What’s more, I have kept the rushes safe for posterity... To see just how far it [the poem] had penetrated even in the far-flung interiors of rural India was just amazing and yes, very heart-warming.”

A poem meant for children was given a sinister tint (and misquoted) in Debaloy Dey’s 2014 horror film Machli Jal Ki Rani Hai. In Dahaad, directed by Reema Kagti and Ruchika Oberoi, the poem inventively serves as a forewarning of the seemingly benign professor Anand’s depraved nature.

Dahaad (2023). Courtesy Excel Media/Tiger Baby/Prime Video.

When not teaching Hindi literature at a college, Anand travels around the countryside conducting classes on literacy. The poems lovingly painted on his van look inviting and cheerful. The van has alphabet charts and books.

But the vehicle actually conceals evidence of the serial murders of women Anand has tricked into relationships. Anand’s charity work itself is a foil to pick up women. (The second poem painted on the van isn’t by Damyanti Bali.)

The words from Machli acquire a twisted meaning: Anand is the one yanking his victims out of their comfort zone and driving them to early death.

Damyanti Bali could hardly have imagined this fate for her pure-hearted attempt to entertain her children. Perhaps filmmakers intending to use (or misuse) Machli in the future might heed her advice in another poem, written for the “cha” alphabet:

Chidiya cheen cheen karti hai
Bachhon se bhi darti hai
Door se daalo unko daana
Ud jaayegi paas na jaana

(Birds make a cheen cheen sound
Even children scare them
Feed them from afar
Don’t go close, else they will fly away)

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