In the 1994 Tamil film Kadhalan, Prabhudeva gyrated on top of a moving bus to the tune of AR Rahman’s peppy composition Urvasi Urvasi. Cut to the Oscar-nominated drama Lion 22 years later. Saroo (Dev Patel) and his girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) are on their way to their friend’s house for a lunch party in Melbourne when the song Urvasi Urvasi begins to play in the background. They do a little jig before they step into the house. The song continues to play inside. Their friends are watching Prabhudeva on television and trying to copy his rubbery moves even as the hook words “Take it easy Urvasi” urge them to relax.
Urvasi Urvasi isn’t merely tossed into the background, but is integrated into the narrative. This isn’t always the case with foreign productions that use Indian film music. Hollywood films often fail to place the track within a context and deploy it merely to give the soundtrack a global feel. In films that tell stories about Indians, such songs are added to the background and are often part of the scene and not linked to the emotional landscape of the characters.
A significant portion of Lion is set in 1987 in India, when little Saroo (Sunny Pawar) wanders from his home in Khandwa on a decommissioned train and lands up in Kolkata. Popular songs from the 1980s, such as Aaja Nindiya Aaja (Lorie, 1984), sung by Lata Mangeshkar, and Salma Agha’s Come Closer Aa Paas Aa (Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki, 1984) are used in the background.
These songs work as clever metaphors since they reveal the intentions of a cunning young woman, Noor (Tannishtha Chatterjee), who exudes fake warmth while plotting to sell the lost Saroo. He is too young and innocent to immediately read between her sweet promises. The songs are his – and the viewer’s – only clue to judge Noor. The lullaby sung by Mangeshkar soothes Saroo, but Agha’s sultry number is a dead giveaway and prompts the boy to escape her clutches.
Hindi film songs used in non-Indian setups can initially seem vague to Western audiences, but when used well, they have a direct impact on the scene that is unfolding.
In Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), free-spirited Clementine (Kate Winslet) invites shy Joel (Jim Carrey) over to her apartment for a drink. The music that is playing on her stereo isn’t typical of the popular sounds in New York City, where she lives.
The sinuous snake dance number Tere Sang Pyar Mein from Nagin (1976) is heard over Clementine’s dialogue when she jokes about seducing Joel. It is followed by a shot of Clementine licking her lips as she rolls a half-empty glass in her hands, listening to Joel speak. Next up is the Mohammed Rafi number Mera Mann Tera Pyaasa from Gambler (1971). In a drunken stupor, Clementine declares that she is going to marry Joel. A startled Joel tries to relax on the couch as she sidles up to rest her head on his shoulder. Lata Mangeshkar’s peppy song Wada Na Tod (Dil Tujhko Diya, 1987) comes on when Joel decides to leave and Clementine insists he stay. The Hindi songs have been reflecting her thoughts all along.
The rumbustious rhythm of Chamma Chamma (China Gate, 1998) in Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge (2001) offers a befitting spectacle to the theatrics involving Satine (Nicole Kidman), who is dressed to the hilt for the part of an Indian princess in a stage musical.
The Accidental Husband (2008) featured a number of hit songs from AR Rahman’s repertoire. Yaro Yarodi (Alaipayuthey, 2000) and Swasame (Thenali, 2000) mirror Emma’s state-of-mind. Emma (Uma Thurman) is a radio jockey familiar with the requested tunes, and even attends an upanayana ceremony where the favoured dance track is Rang De (Thakshak, 1999).
In Shaun of The Dead (2004), the Kishore Kumar dirge Lehron Ki Tarah Yaadein (Nishaan, 1983) is played in a store owned by an Indian shopkeeper where Shaun (Simon Pegg) regularly shops. One fateful morning, the groggy Shaun finds the store keeper missing. The melancholic song that is still playing in the background is a telling sign of what has happened to the owner. The news of a zombie apocalypse hasn’t reached Shaun’s ears. The song does its bit to inform him.
The contrast between Bollywood and Hollywood was never starker than when Chaiyya Chaiyya (Dil Se, 1995) was played in the background of the introductory scene of Spike Lee’s Inside Man (2006). Here was a pulsating Hindi film tune originally meant for a terrorism-themed drama as a prelude to a bank heist. Chaiyya Chaiyya didn’t fit into the milieu of a Hollywood-style crime thriller, but it resulted in a great payoff.
Similarly, in the black comedy Ghost World (2001), the opening credits are displayed to the trippy sounds of the Shankar-Jaikishan composed rock and roll number Jaan Pehchaan Ho (Gumnaam, 1965). The visuals pan over a suburban row apartment complex, filming the homes of its jaded inhabitants. Only Enid (Thora Birch) is shown watching the television set on which the song is being telecast. Enid shakes her head vigorously, imitating the dancer (Laxmi Chhaya) to shake off her own state of ennui.
Rahman’s international success makes him the default choice for most soundtracks that sample Indian music, including the use of Bombay Theme (Bombay, 1995) in Divine Intervention (2002), Lord of War (2005) and Miral (2010).
Beyond Rahman, filmmakers such as Wes Anderson have paid rich tributes to Satyajit Ray’s music from Charulata (1964) in The Darjeeling Limited (2007). In Tim Miller’s Deadpool (2016), Mera Joota Hai Japani (Shree 420, 1955), plays in a taxi driven by an Indian man, establishing his migrant identity. It is arguably the most recognisable Indian ditty between Japan and Russia, and has now finally wormed its way into America.