My strongest childhood memories are of me perched in front of the television, intently watching Bollywood movies–especially the scenes with songs. The flying colors, dancing, and energy captivated me, but more importantly, it was a gateway to my Indian heritage. Growing up in a household with few Indian rituals and traditions, it was a way for me to connect to my culture. Watching the Bollywood songs and dances made me excited to put on my chaniya choli–a traditional dress–because I felt like I was imitating the actresses I so admired. I particularly took to Aishwarya Rai–one of India’s most celebrated stars. I would stare at her wide piercing eyes with a toothy grin on my face. I was enamored with her influence on-screen to draw anyone towards her with her talented dancing. Though she appeared in many movies throughout her career, there is one that has stuck with me because of the popular song, “Kajra Re”, she performed in the film Bunty Aur Babli (2005). This song welcomed wide success, and much of it is attributed to the charming performance in the film as well as its sonic elements. The choreography and vibrancy of the film scene makes the song one of my most treasured experiences. Whenever I listen to the song, it reminds me to appreciate my connection to Indian culture and it provides me a space to reflect on my fun and vibrant experiences like the ones depicted in the film.
“Kajra Re” means kohl-lined (Bollynook.com), which is a nod to the dark eyeliner that many Indian women wear and is part of their captivating essence/beauty. In the song, the female lead entices her male counterpart with her eyes. The song was composed by Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa, who make up a trio that has produced more than a dozen other popular Hindi songs that resonate with me as other anthems of my life. “Kajra Re” was written by Sampooran Singh Gulzar and sung by Alisha Chinai, Shankar Mahadevan and Javed Ali (IMDb). In the film, Aishwarya Rai lip syncs alongside Abhishek Bachan and Amitabh Bachchan–a father-son duo. Although none of these actors created the song, they created an experience for the audience through their performance and the song resonated among such a large audience because of the star power these actors hold. Aishwarya Rai is married to Abhishek Bachan, making this performance a family affair with the most powerful stars in India. This song provides familiarity and reminds me of these actors, and the role that the films they created had in my cultural upbringing.
The sounds of the song are enough to take one on a historical journey through India. The voice of the female singer–Alisha Chinai– isolated at the start of the song. Her high pitch reminds me of classical Indian singing, which I strongly associate with the music my grandmothers like to listen to. The sounds of clapping, cheering, and whistling men sets the scene for any large Indian function. When I hear those elements it takes me into a room with my family where my uncles are causing a raucous, and to a time where I was small enough to be tossed around on someone’s shoulders. Sounds of the sitar (string instrument) and tabla (percussion instrument) are woven into the song and is another nod to traditional Indian songs even though this song is a product of the 21st century. There is a sound that could be a tamborine, but I know it to be the jingles of Aishwarya Rai’s payal, or anklet bells, as she dances around the hall. The tempo, energy, and pitch of the song have wired my body to move in a certain way that I can only dance to Bollywood songs. Bollywood songs get me to bounce my shoulders up and down and shake my head side to side from my neck–the classic head bob. They evoke a certain reaction from me that no other genre of music can. This song was one of the most educational tools I turned to to teach me about the history of my culture.
The music video for this song is a scene from the movie Bunty Aur Babli (2005). Aishwarya Rai only appears in the film for this one song, but her demeanor in this scene is a huge factor in the success of the song and movie. The dance was so enchanting that when I listen to the song, I can relive the feeling that her performance provided. Rai is confident and talented, and I grasped on to those values as a six-year-old watching the song unfold in front of me for the first time. Because of how much I admired her, I wanted to be just like her and part of that was recreating her traditional garb. She wears a maang tikka, which is a piece of jewelry that hangs over her forehead, heavy gold-ornate earrings, and a chaniya choli. Her dance style is reminiscent of the Indian folk dance kathak–something I begrudgingly learned for a year. Throughout the eight-minute song, Rai and the Bachchans engage in a playful banter through the form of dance. They are accompanied in the scene by a huge crowd of people who mimic their choreography. The unison of the group is powerful and reminds me of my own huge Indian family dancing together at weddings and family functions. The visual elements of the music video are representative of Indian culture and it set the bar of what Indian fashion, dance, and gatherings look like to me.
At such a young age I was exposed to the music of my parents’ history. In an excerpt from Mo' Meta Blues, Questlove talks about how he came across each song that is in the soundtrack of his life and how regardless of whether or not he consciously selected the records, they impacted him and shaped his life. I have wrestled with my cultural identity for most of my life, even as a young kid I remember dreading (and failing miserably) when trying to learn how to speak Hindi, and I felt disconnected from all of the spiritual practices and traditions. Bollywood films, more specifically Bollywood songs, have always been a grounding, bonding, and rooting medium for me to my Indian culture. Not only do I experience pleasure when watching the songs in the film, but I experience a sense of community, love, and belonging when I am at Indian parties and the magic on screen is recreated in person. This song makes me proud and nostalgic.
While Bollywood has changed over the past decade and a half and has become increasingly similar to Western popular music, “Kajra Re” reminds me of the Bollywood I was introduced to that served as my favorite way to tune into my heritage. Had I not fallen in love with the Hindi songs I listened to as a young girl, I do not know who I would be today. They served as a way to draw me into the beauty of Indian culture when I tried so hard to push it away. I refused to learn the language, I refused to eat the food, and I felt more confused by the traditions than connected. But the colors, the movement, and the drama of each Bollywood song were all six-year-old me needed to feel a sense of belonging in my culture. Knowing these songs enabled me to dance with confidence–like the actresses I admired of course–at weddings and other large parties, and connected me to laughing, dancing, and simply living and enjoying with my family from a very young age. My attachment to these songs surpass their sonic value, rather it is focused around the story at large. Bollywood music is the aspect of my Indian culture that I first fell in love with, and it became the consistent thread that kept bringing me back to my roots throughout the years. “Kajra Re” pays homage to the aspects of Indian culture I love, and every time I listen to the song I get to slip away into a different world for eight whole minutes.
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