Coming to terms with pop culture and guilty pleasures
It’s been a sad year 2022 for Indian music and my neighborhood in Kolkata reflects that. A giant billboard pays tribute to Bengali singer Sandhya Mukherjee with a line from one of her famous songs—Kichhukhon aaro nahoy rohitey kaachhe (If only you could have stayed a little longer). The traffic light has plaintively changed from songs by Lata Mangeshkar to songs by Sandhya Mukherjee, but Lata Mangeshkar’s posters are still displayed near the market, telling us that life may have ended but the music continues. This very week there was an evening of songs by Lata Mangeshkar and Sandhya Mukherjee at the local park. But I don’t see any billboard for the late Bappi Lahiri.
Read also: A very personal playlist of songs by Bappi Lahiri
Some of that may have to do with politics, although West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee awarded him the Banga Bibhushan, the state’s highest civilian honour. Bappi-da was a candidate for the albeit unsuccessful Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Trinamool Congress territory in 2014. Prime Minister Narendra Modi mourned Lahiri’s death, hailing his “encompassing music, beautifully expressing diverse emotions”. Weeks before her death, Sandhya Mukherjee made news when she rightly rejected the Padma Shri, an award too little too late for a singer of her stature. But despite his long career and outsized influence on Indian popular culture, Bappi Lahiri has remained without Padma. In fact, in 2012, Congressman Kamal Kishore complained that his letterhead had been doctored to recommend a Padma Bhushan for Bappi Lahiri.
We may have all danced to his tunes, but on some level we thought the Disco King was too nerdy, too infra-dig, more copycat than cool cat. And we’ve all been taught to be a little wary of pop culture, especially if it’s adorned with shiny gold chains.
But if the pandemic has taught me one thing, it’s not to make fun of anything that makes us happy, no matter how corny it may seem to others. It could be Boney M or Bappi Lahiri or leader. Or romance novels by Ravinder Singh. “Don’t feel bad turning off CNN and turning on When Harry Met Sallywrote actor and podcast host Danny Pellegrino of guilty pleasures. “Self-care is necessary to get through this difficult time…. The only thing you will be guilty of is taking care of your sanity.
It took me a long time to learn this lesson. Growing up in Kolkata, like many Bengalis, I learned to be pushy with Hindi movies. We dutifully went to see The sound of music and Satyajit Ray’s Felu-da films on several occasions, but Hindi films were dismissed as a waste of time. Same Sholay, despite all its many jubilees, was not something we were encouraged to watch. I really discovered Bollywood after moving to the United States. Indian spices were hard to come by in our small town in the American Midwest, but we managed to find grainy pirated videos of Bollywood movies. It wasn’t just about soothing homesickness. It was a way of admitting that our emotions didn’t have to be kept quietly hidden.
To read also: Lata Mangeshkar: “I prefer happy endings”
Years later, in a more cosmopolitan California, I took my American partner, G., to see Sholay, which was screening at the local Indian theatre. We had been to Birju Maharaj and Ravi Shankar concerts and Satyajit Ray movies but Sholay was different. Also, we watched it without subtitles, which forced me to do some sort of whispered commentary, much to the chagrin of the Indian families around us. At one point, I was afraid that G.’s patience would fail. But the labor of love was not lost. I remember glancing nervously at G. as Amitabh Bachchan’s Jai lay dying and Jaya Bhaduri’s Radha extinguished her lamp and with it her romantic hopes. I couldn’t have been more relieved. G. was also sniffling. Sholay had crossed the great cultural divide even without subtitles.
At the time, I saw it as kind of a cultural litmus test for race relations for people like G. But I realize now that it was just as much a coming out for me, to admit to myself that Sholay could move me just like Pather Panchali could and there was no cultural dissonance there. In our relentless pursuit of what’s cool, we sometimes cauterize the things that really warm our hearts. Even the phrase “guilty pleasure” has a hint of apology for it. And it’s still popular culture. Beethoven and Truffaut are never guilty pleasures. Neither does cricket.
It is worth asking how we decide something is a “guilty” pleasure and what it is guilty of. When Shrayana Bhattacharya used Shah Rukh Khan’s fandom as a way to map femininity and economy in India in her book, Seeking Shah Rukh Desperately, she said in an interview on Express Audio that she wasn’t looking to comment particularly on the social roots of thinking that kind of fandom was silly, something to get past. But in retrospect, she understood that her book was partly a commentary on that idea. “I realized that our society is so oppressive when it comes to so many women that in fact insanity is a form of indulgence and it’s a form of self-love, it’s a form of personal care,” she said.
Cultural commentator Paromita Vohra put it best in a hymn to one of the ultimate guilty pleasures of our time: the babydoll. She wrote that she once received a printed cotton nightgown as a prank gift from Kolkata. She loved it. “I find it funny that people find it funny that I like baby dolls, just like in youth people were surprised that I liked Hindi movie songs and then considered maha not cool,” Vohra wrote in Midday. For her, nightgowns were “the ultimate garment of indifferent power.” It is the “don’t care” that is essential here. It’s the only way to escape the tyranny of what’s famous maha costs.
To read also: The songs will remain but the emptiness too
When literary festivals began to invite authors considered commercial writers, many purists were appalled and said, “This is the neighborhood.” Writer Anuja Chauhan once told me in an interview that she always felt like people thought she was going to “lower the intellectual tone of a panel” because she wrote commercially popular books. “It’s the only place being popular is bad,” she said. “Like I was popular in school and that was good. There’s a whole body of books on how to be popular. I don’t understand why the literary establishment is bickering with it.
When Mamata Banerjee came to power in West Bengal, intellectuals mocked her embrace of Tollywood stars and Bengali soap operas. the bhadralok complained that campaign rallies had turned into song-and-dance numbers. He was seen as Banerjee desperate for culture. His communist predecessor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, did not need such measures. He watched films with subtitles and translated the memoirs of Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovski. But Banerjee understood the power of popular culture in a way his opponents didn’t.
Communists had stood aside in disdain when mega star Uttam Kumar died, but Banerjee marched to the crematorium with the funeral procession of Sandhya Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee, a man who had never been a big fan of her. At the same time, she sent movie stars known to be muscle boys and glamorous queens to the Lok Sabha. Some saw it as a lack of discrimination. But there was also something liberating about the way she embraced everything, high, low and in between, without judgment. There was no guilt in his pleasure. She was happy to sing Rabindrasangeet and offer her thoughts on Bengali soap opera plots.
And it paid rich political dividends because in the 2021 elections, the only thing the BJP could not accuse him of faking was his Bengali. But it only worked because his cultural appreciation was not a political ploy. It was a real source of pleasure.
It’s time for the rest of us to eliminate the guilt as well.
Cult Friction is a bimonthly column about the issues we keep grappling with. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.
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