Safar aur Musafir: The Hero’s Journey in Bollywood

The single silliest cliche I’ve heard about India is that it is a “land of contradictions.” Every travel book, outsourcing guide, and opinion on globalization repeats this cliche. Empty-headed Indians repeat it too. Land of striking contrasts, perhaps. Contradictions, no. At least no more than you’d expect from a country of that size, with that much history and entropy in its civilization-ware. In particular, India is no more a land of contradictions than, say, China or the European Union. The problem is, there are very few lenses through which non-Indians (especially Europeans and Americans; I think the Chinese and Middle Eastern worlds understand us well enough) can comprehend the India underneath the apparent contradictions. Two of those lenses are Bollywood and Cricket. I flipped a coin and decided to start with Bollywood. Cricket might come later. So here is one of the many contradiction-busting themes that hold India together — the Campbellesque metaphor of “life as a journey,” viewed through the lens of Bollywood songwriting.

Bollywood as Lens

I don’t talk about India much on this blog, except in passing. This is partly because so far, I haven’t really touched on subjects where my being Indian is relevant. Where the Indian perspective on a universal theme is uniquely valuable, I haven’t been able to figure out a way to share it in a way that is comprehensible to non-Indians. But in the last few months I’ve broached a subject — globalization — where India matters for two reasons: first as a relevant contextual fact about me, and second, as 17% of the human “globe.” So I decided to take a first shot at doing a truly Indian piece for non-Indians. Let’s see how good I am at playing interpreter.

At a conference last year, I had a long, sprawling dinner conversation with a former NBC “Must See TV” era executive about storytelling and narrative, and towards the end, he put me on the spot. What, he demanded to know, did I think of Slumdog Millionaire? I told him honestly that I thought it was a mildly entertaining story, but that it was basically a Hollywood movie. I was neither offended by it (as some of my friends in India were) nor  interested in its Oscar sweep (unlike many young second-generation Indian-Americans, who were apparently exultant about it, changing their Facebook status to Jai Ho!). I don’t think he believed me, but it it is true.

The interesting thing about Slumdog Millionaire is that as a hat-tip to the Bollywood narrative aesthetic, it was honoring peripheral elements: peppy song-and-dance routines and colorful clothes.  Global perceptions of the mainstream Bollywood at its best (which does not include Satyajit Ray, who of course is an island of brilliance off the main continent of Indian cinema) usually focus on one of these aspects:

  • The (unintended) camp factor, as in the minor infatuation exhibited by the teenage girls in Ghostworld
  • Understanding it as a sort of Broadway art form, which is what led to the Andrew Lloyd Weber-A. R. Rehman collaboration, Bombay Dreams.
  • Understanding it as a less sexy, more family-oriented alternative to Hollywood in conservative places like the Middle East and Africa
  • The colorful clothes and peppy song-and-dance routines, as in the Hindi song sequence in Moulin Rouge

All of this is part of Bollywood, and all of it is mostly irrelevant or peripheral. The majority of Indians relate to Bollywood primarily for one reason: the lyrics of Bollywood songs (and these are typically not the peppy numbers that Americans, in particular, associate with Bollywood). Not the thoroughly inane Jai Ho of Slumdog Millionaire (which will never make any Indian’s top 100 list, either for its lyrics or its melody), but the songs you will hear contestants choosing to sing on shows like Indian Idol. Songs that manage to speak to every corner of India, including the deep south, where people barely understand Hindi.

The lyrical tradition in these songs evolves around specific themes, rather than musical styles. One of the most important themes is the metaphor of life as a journey.

The Life is a Journey Metaphor

Let’s do one playlist to illustrate Bollywood songwriting at its best. It might seem slightly odd that the life is a journey metaphor resonates so strongly with Indians, given that India has been probably the least exploratory among the major world cultures. We carry this weakness for journey metaphors with us when we listen to non-Indian music. Indians who don’t listen to much English music invariably list John Denver songs among their favorites.

I’ll speculate about the reasons for the infatuation with journeys as we go along, but let’s dive into our first Bollywood song. The song-title links are to YouTube videos, and I have picked out specific verses to translate. The movie title links are to the respective IMDB listings. You can check out the plots if you like. Plots and songs have a curious relationship in Bollywood. The songs are neither complete non sequturs, nor are they intimately associated with the plot. You can scroll past the Hindi to the English translations (my own). I’ve included the Hindi to allow Indian readers to challenge and correct my translations.

The Basic Stance: Life is an Incomprehensible Mystery

Let’s do the first and perhaps most basic idea about the journey of life, that it is incomprehensible and mysterious:

Zindagi Ka Safar from Safar (Journey), 1970

Zindagi ka safar, hai yeh kaisa safar?
Koi samjha nahin, koi jaana nahin

Zindagi ko bahut pyaar humne diya
Maut se bhi mohabbat, nibhayenge hum
Rote, rote zamane mein aaye magar
haste haste, zamaane se jaayenge hum
Jaayenge par kidhar? Hai kisse yeh khabar?
Koi samjha nahin, koi jaana nahin

This journey of life, what sort of journey is this?
Nobody knows, nobody understands

To life, I gave a great deal of love
Death too, I will embrace
Crying, I came into this world, but
Laughing, I will leave
But where will I go? Who knows?
Nobody knows, nobody understands

This song gets at the some of the most basic elements of Bollywood songwriting. Bollywood songs get philosophical, existential and metaphysical, even when the underlying story is relatively mundane (Safar is your garden variety love story). The lyrics here are dark, pensive and brooding, and yes, the stereotype is true: there is a streak of fatalism and gloom that runs through a lot of the best-loved songwriting.  You will find entire albums with titles like Sad Songs of Lata Mangeshkar. There are more defiant and energetic songs that we will get to, but this song (which would make most Indians’ top 100, I suspect) lays out the rough contours of how Indians naturally think (this tendency towards viewing the universe as fundamentally mysterious is far older than Bollywood itself).

Notice one interesting line: crying, I came into this world, but laughing, I will leave. This motif repeats itself in many life-journey themed songs, and appears where in the Western tradition, you would normally expect an ashes to ashes, dust to dust reference. The idea that your mental attitude at birth and death is important recurs throughout Bollywood songwriting. How much you change between birth and death, and how you face death, are far more important than the facts of birth and death themselves. And no, curiously, reincarnation is not a major theme in Bollywood songs (though it is in poetry).

Journeys and Goals are Not the Same Thing

Let’s get started. We need a destination, right? Not just yet. Ambivalence about goals, and a questioning of purposes, is essential for the Indian Hero (if you are new to Hindi songs, you may be thrown off by the almost recitation-like start to the song; wait for the first verse to finish, the main song begins with the first refrain).

Manzilen apni jagah hain from Sharabi (Drunkard), 1984

Manzilon pe aa ke lootte,
Hai dilon ke caravan
Kashtiyaan sahil pe aksar
doobti hai pyaar ki
(refrain) Manzilen apni jagah hain, raaste apni jagah

They are looted at the end of their journey
These caravans of hearts
Oftentimes, after reaching the safety of the shore
the boats of love sink
(refrain) Destinations are one thing, roads are quite another

Multiple intended and admissible readings are not unusual in the more lyrical Bollywood songs. One reading of the song might make sense in the context of the movie (usually a rather maudlin one), but songs that endure tend to encourage deeper readings, especially in the refrains, as in this one. At the most superficial level, these verses simply express a statement about the uncertainty of outcomes, which the plot of the movie requires. The deeper reading, which I prefer, is that that journeys transform you, possibly into someone who no longer wants the destination at all. The value of a goal is relative to who you are at a given time. Again, this is not a new element in the Indian national character. The Greeks spotted this too; we’ve been ambivalent about goals for a while:

“Death is with them a very frequent subject for discourse … they consider nothing that befalls men to be either good or bad, to suppose otherwise being a dream like illusion, else how could some be affected with sorrow, and others with pleasure, by the very same things, and how could the same things affect the same individuals at different times with opposite emotions?”

— J. W. McCrindle, Ancient India as Described by Megasthenes and Arrian (approximately 4th century BC)

Nomadic Restlessness

Okay, so Indians resonate with the idea that life is incomprehensible and mysterious and are deeply ambivalent about goals, and worry about whether they’ll like what they get. You might think this leaves us paralyzed, plagued by doubt and wallowing in metaphysical arguments. That certainly happens (this blog frequently provides examples), but there is another enduring idea: that of action and movement for the hell of it. Just because you don’t understand what the journey is about, or whether the goal is worthwhile, does not mean you shouldn’t start walking:

Ek Raasta Hai Zindagi from Kaala Pathar (Black Stone, Coal), 1979

Ek raasta hai zindagi, jo tham gaye to kuch nahin
Yeh kadam kissi muqam pe jo jam gaye to kuch nahin

Life is a road; he who pauses is nothing
If these feet find roots along the way, they are nothing

India has been a crowded, settled geographic cul de sac for so impossibly long that atavistic, nomadic longings are part of the cultural DNA. Like any large country, India’s national identity has grown out of journeys. But our Lewis and Clark figures are a very distant memory. They include the mythic wanderings of Rama from Ayodhya in the North to Sri Lanka, the equally mythic journey of the sage Agasthya over the Vindhyas that divide North and South (he is credited with causing the syncretic creep of Brahminism southwards) and the verifiably historic round-the-country journeys of the reformist monk Sankara, in the 9th century.

But while the culture was stitched together by great journeys (on foot, which explains why the idea of the padyatra — foot-journey — is a credible grassroots political campaign strategy even today), most Indians pretty much stayed put in their villages and towns. There was no place to run. Which is perhaps why running away from home is a recurring fantasy. This has actually been institutionalized in the culture. A comical wedding ritual, the Kasi Yatra, in the South, involves acting out a scenario that must have been common at one time: the bridegroom gets cold feet and declares he is becoming a monk and heading off to Kasi (Varanasi, the ancient starting point of pilgrimages).

So a basic instinct to run away from home lurks just below the surface in every Indian mind (at least the male ones). Once you are on the road though, the mood turns pensive rather quickly, and the sense of freedom is accompanied by the sense that motion can enslave as well as liberate.  A favorite song in this vein is this one. The lyrics may not seem too poignant, but listen to the music, and you’ll sense the undercurrent of loss:

Musafir hoon yaaron from Parichay (Identity/Introduction), 1972

Musafir hoon yaaron
Na ghar hai, na thikana
Mujhe chalte jaana hai, bas chalte jaana

Ek raah ruk gayi, to aur jud gayi
Main muda to saath saath, raah mud gayi
Hawa ke paron par, mera aashiyana

Din ne haath tham kar, idhar bitha liya
Raat ne ishaare se, udhar bula liya

A traveler am I, my friends
I have no home; my whereabouts unknown
I must keep moving, I must only keep moving

One road ends, but another joins it
If I turn, then along with me, the road turns
On the wings of the wind, lies my nest

The day tugs gently at my hand, and makes me sit here
But night, with just a slight gesture, beckons me there

As nomadism matures, darkness starts to creep in. This next song looks and sounds very similar to the first one in this section.  Both melodies are peppy, and both videos involves motorcycles. As the lyrics suggest however, an element of darkness has crept in; the song exhorts you to adopt a devil-may-care, live-in-the-moment hedonism. Appropriately, the character singing the song dies shortly after, in the movie (songs often foreshadow plot developments at a philosophical level in Bollywood).

Zindagi ek safar from Andaz (Attitude), 1971

Zindagi, ek safar, hai suhana!
Yahan kal, kya ho, kisne jaana?

Maut aani hai, aayegi ek din
jaan jaani hai, jaayegi ek din
Aisi baaton se kya, ghabarana?
Yahan kal, kya ho, kisne jaana?

Life is a beautiful journey!
What will happen tomorrow, who knows?

Death looms, it will come one day
Life will end, it will end one day
Why let such thoughts worry you?
What will happen tomorrow, who knows?

And finally, the darkness of nomadism arrives with full force; the enslavement imposed by motion is explicitly realized. Most of the songs I’ve used as illustrations so far are from the seventies. This one though, is from the eighties, a relatively barren decade, musically speaking. Bollywood grew up in the eighties, and the best films began experimenting with a sort of gritty realism that would take a couple of decades to mature. This song was a rare lyrical gem; it successfully dropped the mannered idiom of the seventies without degenerating into the sort of vapidity that was otherwise the norm for the decade. Visually too, it was brilliant, and grabbed those of us who were just beginning to grow restless with the ‘classic’ music of the seventies. This song was in a way, the song of my generation. I was 14 when it hit the charts. A much peppier lyrical lightweight (ek do teen…) was the best known song from the movie at the time, but this quieter, darker one is the one that has had a larger long-term impact:

So gaya, yeh jahan from Tezaab (Acid), 1988

So gaya, yeh jahan, so gaya aasman
so gayi, hai saari manzilen, o saari manzilen
so gaya hai rasta
raat aaye to woh jinke ghar the
woh ghar ko gaye so gaaye
raat aayi to hum jaise awara phir nikle
raahon mein, aur kho gaye
is gali, us gali, is nagar, us nagar
jaayen bhi to kahan jaana chahe agar

hum paas bhi hai, aur door bhi hai
azad bhi hain, majboor bhi hai

The earth is asleep, the sky is asleep
Every destination is asleep, every destination
The road is asleep
As night falls, those who have homes
They go home, and they sleep
As night falls, vagabonds like us emerge
Onto the roads, and lose ourselves
This lane, that lane, this town, that town
Where would we go, if we wanted to go at all?

We are close, yet we are far away
We are free, yet we are prisoners

In a way, so gaya marks an adult return to a more childlike notion of nomadism that was popular in the fifties, when nomadism, destitution and a naive Nehruvian Fabianism combined to create the legend that was Raj Kapoor, an unlikely romantic hero whose puzzling mystique somehow managed to simultaneously encompass an Indian fatalism, a Russian social conscience (his movies were briefly popular in the Soviet Union) and  a Chaplinesque tragic element.

Awara Hoon from Awara (Vagabond), 1955

Awara hoon, awara hoon
Ya gardish mein hun, aasman ka taara hun
Ghar bar nahin, sansar nahin, mujh se kisi ko pyaar nahin
us paar kisi se milne ka ikraar nahin
sunsaan nagar, anjaan nagar ka pyaara hun
abaad nahin, barbaad sahi, gaata hun khushi ke geet magar
zakhmo se bhara seena hai mera, hasti hai magar yeh mast nagar
duniya… mein teer ka, ya taqdeer ka maara hun

I am a vagabond, a vagabond
Or else I am up in the firmament, a star of the sky
I have no home, no family, no one who loves me
I expect no one on the other side
Of the empty town, the unknown town, I am the darling
I have no wealth, and I might be destitute, yet I sing songs of happiness
My heart is full of wounds, and this happy town laughs at me
Oh world, I am a victim of your arrows, or a victim of fate

Trials, Grit and Persistence

If there was ever a “Go West, Young Man” era within the subcontinent, it is lost in the fogs of mythology. The nomadic songs of Bollywood lead naturally and logically to songs about journeys where aimless drifting has been transformed into a purposeful, but figurative quest.  You have plot situations such as arriving in a new city in search of a future; of young men growing up and having to abandon their carefree ways to rejoin society and face up to its challenges. This one is easily everybody’s favorite in this category. The lyrics may sound a little earnest, but taken with the quiet music, and the subdued visual context in the movie, the result is a song about a quiet sense of acceptance of whatever life throws at you, rather than a dramatic sound-and-fury battling of destiny:

Ruk jaana nahin from Imtihan (Trials), 1972

Ruk jaana nahin, tu kahin haar ke
Kaante pe chal ke, milenge saaye bahaar ke
(refrain) O raahi, o raahi! O raahi o raahi!

Saathi na caravan hain
Yeh tera imtihan hain
Yoon hi chala chal, dil ke sahare
Karti hai manzilen tujhko ishare
Dekh kahin koi rok na le
Tujhko pukaar ke
(refrain) O raahi, o raahi! O raahi o raahi!

Do not stop, defeated

Only by treading on thorns will you get to the pleasures of springtime
(refrain) Oh traveler, oh traveler; oh traveler oh traveler
So keep moving, sustained only by your heart
The destination beckons
And look out, let no one distract you
With a call
(refrain) Oh traveler, oh traveler; oh traveler oh traveler

But Bollywood songwriting does not ignore the idea that trials can break you. This next song is one of my few favorites from the nineties:

Hum na samjhe the, from Gardish (Sky), 1993

Hum na samjhe the, baat itni si
Khwab sheeshe ke, duniya pathar ki
aarzoo humne, ki to hum paaye
roshni saat laayi thi saaye
saaye gehre the, roshni halki
sirf veerani, sirf tanhai
zindagi humko, yeh kahan laayi?
kho gayi humse, raah manzil ki

I did not understand, this one little thing
Dreams are made of glass, the world of stone
Whatever I wished for, I got
But light brought with it shadows
The shadows were heavy, the light weak
Only desolation, only loneliness
Where have you brought me, oh life?
I have lost the road to the destination

In this sort of songwriting, we get glimpses of the Campbellian monomyth and shades of the Biblical “valley of death” imagery. But the Indian inclination, when it comes to grit and trials, is to turn inward for sustenance rather than outwards, to seek solitude as a necessary part of the trials of any goal-oriented journey, rather than as a burden to be eased or avoided (this folds into the whole transformed-by-journeys thing, but never mind that wrinkle).

Companions, Parting, Irreversibility and Loss

Which brings us to a big part of the “Life is a Journey” metaphor — other people as transient companions (in Bollywood lyrics, the word humsafar, companion, is nearly as common as musafir (traveler) or safar (journey)). This again, is at odds with the reality of India, where it is generally impossible to leave community behind, no matter how far you go. But unlike the nomadic yearnings of a settled people, the withdrawal-from-community instincts of a highly communal people actually finds an outlet: a general withdrawal from life itself (legitimized by every native religious tradition in India). Let’s start with a song whose main theme is the irreversibility of the journey of life; the idea that you cannot go back:

Zindagi ke safar mein from Aap Ki Kasam (I Swear By You), 1974

Zindagi ke safar mein guzar jaate hain jo maqam
Woh phir nahin aate, woh phir nahin aate

Phool khilte hain, log milte hain, magar
Patjhad mein jo phool murjha jaate hain
woh baaharon ke aane se khilte nahin
Kuch log ek roz jo bichad jaate hain
Woh hazaaron ke aane se milte nahin
Umr bhar chaahe pukara kare unka naam
Woh, phir nahin aate, woh phir nahin aate

Those places that you leave behind in the journey of life,
You do not pass them again, you do not pass them again

Flowers bloom, you meet people
Flowers bloom, you meet people, but
those flowers that wilt in the autumn
do not bloom again in spring
those with whom, you part one day
they do not return, though you meet a thousand others
even if you call out their names, for the rest of your life
They do not come again, they do not come again

Curiously, very similar sentiments sounded more happy and less pensive, in the fifties, though the lyrics allude more directly to the pain of parting:

Jeevan ke safar mein rahi from Munimji (The Accountant), 1955

Jeevan ke safar mein rahi
milte hain bichad jaane ko
aur de jaate hain yaadein
tanhai mein tadpane ko

On the journey of life, you meet many other travelers
You meet them, only to part ways again
and they leave you with memories
that torment you in your solitude

The late seventies were interesting; the romantic bubble universe created by stars like Rajesh Khanna was on the wane; Amitabh Bacchan’s angry-young-man persona and the associated darker engagement of social issues was on the ascendant, as India suffered through the emergency years under Indira Gandhi. I was born in 1974, and was only six when the seventies ended, so I did not really appreciate the grimness of those years, but the memories seemed to be burned into the heads of Indians born in the sixties. The last few years saw a few more enduring gems in the parting-and-loss department, before the desolate eighties hit.

Aate jaate khoobsuratfrom Anurodh (Plea), 1977

Aate jaate khoobsurat, awara sadkon par
kabhi kabhi, ittefaq se
kitne anjaan log, mil jaate hain
inme se kuch log, bhool jaate hain
kuch yaad reh jaate hain

Wandering along, on these vagabond streets
Sometimes, serendipitously
You meet so many strangers
Of these, some you forget
Others leave you with memories

And no roundup of journey songs about meeting and parting is complete without this maudlin hit from the late seventies, as the poetic romanticism of the seventies began to wind down.  In many ways, this song marked a goodbye to the seventies, kabhi alvida na kehna has become a single memorable refrain from a forgettable movie with a hero nobody remembers anymore:

Chalte Chalte from Chalte Chalte (Moving On), 1977

Chalte chalte, mere yeh geet yaad rakhna
Kabhi alvida na kehna, kabhi alvida na kehna

Beech raah mein dilbar, bichad jaaye kabhi hum agar
Aur sooni si lagi tumhe, jeevan ki yeh dagar
Hum laut aayenge, tum yun hi bulate rehna

Moving on, remember this song of mine
Never say goodbye, never say goodbye

If halfway along the road, we lose each other
And you find the road to be a lonely one
Just keep calling out to me, and I will return.

But the seventies ended with an irreversible growing-up for Bollywood. There was a definite goodbye. The classic escapist fantasy of Bollywood would not die, but a parallel realist aesthetic would emerge that would gradually shed song and dance until, with the visceral gangster movies that appeared between the late eighties and mid 2000s, song-and-dance would cease to define Bollywood exclusively. Starting with the Ardh Satya (Half-truth, 1983), a movie that fit uneasily between mainstream and arthouse Bollywood, and through movies such as Droh Kaal (Age of Terror, 1993), Parinda (Bird, 1989), Vaastav (Truth, 1999), Company (2002), Ab tak Chappan (56 So Far, 2004) and the horrifying Ganga Jal (Holy Water, 2003), Bollywood would increasingly draw inspiration from terrorism in Punjab and Kashmir, gang violence in Bombay and political corruption and Marxist rebellions in Bihar. The Age of Innocence ended with the seventies. In these movies, song-and-dance were either dispensed with altogether, or relegated to the background. Where they did appear in the foreground, it was side characters such as prostitutes who did the dancing and singing (a phenomenon that came to be known as the ‘Item Number’ formula, which allowed filmmakers to cater to song-hungry crowds without sacrificing the realism of the plots).

By the late 2000s, though the world still associated Bollywood with the escapist song-and-dance drama, and big stars such as Shah Rukh Khan continued to ham their way through godawful family operas designed for a tasteless subset of the expatriate Indian crowd, and a growing subculture of non-Indians interested primarily in colorful costumes and dancing, the creative center of gravity had shifted. The darkness that characterized two decades of violence-inspired movies eventually lightened, as the economy began to grow, but the humor that lightened the darkness, in movies such as Munnabhai, MBBS (2003) and Khosla ka Ghosla (2006), was a realism-driven middle-class sort of satirical humor that had previously been the preserve of a minority tradition of filmmakers such as Amol Palekar.

From Tears to Tears

There is perhaps no song that summarizes the idea of the Hero’s Journey in the Bollywood tradition as well as one from Raj Kapoor’s failed 1970 magnum opus (a four-hour behemoth with two intervals that even most Indians cannot sit through). Despite the movie’s failure, the songs endured. The movie is a metaphor opera, with life-as-a-journey being mashed up with life-as-a-circus. Raj Kapoor’s vaulting cinematic ambition is perhaps most clearly revealed in this song, which pretty much encapsulates an entire philosophy of life. I’ll just provide translations for the bits that fit within the journey metaphor (warning, the song is nearly 10 minutes long; Indians have a good deal more musical patience than Americans):

Ay bhai… from Mera Naam Joker, 1970

Ay bhai zara dekh ke chalo
aage hi nahin, peeche bhi
daayen hi nahin, baayen bhi
upar hi nahin, neeche bhi
tu jahan aaya hai, woh tera
gaaon nahin, gali nahi,
duniya hai!

Tu jahan aaya hai,
Wo tera ghar nahi gaanv nahi
Gali nahi kucha nahi,
Rasta nahi basti nahi
Duniya hai

Girne se darta hai kyon?
Marne se darta hai kyon?
Thokar tu jab tak na khayega
Pas kisi gam ko na jab tak bulayega
Zindagi hai cheez kya, nahin jaan payega
Rota hua aaya hai, rota chala jayega

Oh brother, watch where you step!
Not just in front, but behind you as well
Not just to the right, but to the left as well
Not just above you, but downwards as well

This place here, where you’ve arrived
Is not your house, not your village
Not your lane, not your something (some help here?)
Not your street, not your neighborhood,
But the world

Why do you fear a fall?
Why do you fear death?
Until you face rejection
Until you call out to, and embrace, some misery
You will not know what life is
You came here crying, you will leave crying

And so we are back, full circle, to the idea that you enter the world, crying, and will leave it crying if you do not seize control of your journey and do something that allows you to face death laughing.

Understanding India through Bollywood Lyrics

Bollywood lyrics live in their own universe, mostly, but not entirely, divorced from the universe of movie plots they inhabit. You will find the most sublime lyrics in the movies that are widely considered godawful dreck. More logically, the best stories rarely contain the best songs. Storytelling in mainstream Bollywood is a usually a mess, and the need to embed songs in the narrative is often the cause. The songwriting though, is an art form that is several orders of magnitude more refined and mature than the rest of the cinematic arts in India, which are only now beginning to catch up.

Three things are central to understanding India through Bollywood.

The first is that Bollywood songwriting is the only part of Indian cinema (and possibly all of modern Indian culture) that has successfully, and seamlessly, maintained cultural continuity with the past without sealing itself off from the present. This, perhaps, is an element of contrast between India and China (or perhaps an artifact of state control in China). While India has its costume dramas, mostly we Indians like our stories and songs to reflect the uncensored present. We are deeply uneasy about living in the past, glorious or not. Yet, a sense of history and context is practically a cognitive necessity in even the most ephemeral of popular culture productions. Without it, we cannot make sense of our lives, and songs do not resonate as much. Which is why, in Bollywood music you will find Vedic chants, street slang, medieval classical and semi-classical traditions, Arab and Persian influences and successful insertion of the thoroughly alien DNA of Western popular music.

The second thing to understand is the centrality of metaphor and figurative language in understanding the human condition. Indians are a highly metaphoric and figurative people. D. T. Suzuki, in the preface to his book on Zen, very perceptively nails the difference between India and East Asia, and the reasons for the transformations that left Chinese and Japanese Buddhism thoroughly disconnected from Indian Buddhism. It has to do with our extraordinary love affair with metaphor, and figurative ways of understanding the world. Instead of taking about the concept of infinity, we prefer to talk about really, really big numbers. Instead of talking about omniscience, we do four-headed idols. Instead of talking about omnipotence, we do a hundred arms. And instead of talking about life, we talk about journeys. This can occasionally lead to very mannered lyrics, such as those that use the overused moths-and-flames (parwane and shama) metaphor for all-consuming passion and love. But generally, it works.

The last point is probably the hardest for Americans to understand, but something Indians share with most of the rest of the world. The dominant emotion is tragic, not idealistic. The songs that endure tend to have a pensive quality to the lyrics. Undertones of loss and death are very evident, even in apparently happy, energetic and defiant songs. We (along with most of the world) accept stories with tragic endings far more easily than Americans do. Perhaps because there is no recent history of ideas like manifest destiny shaping Indian identity. Whatever the reason, if you do not get the tragic view of the world, you will not be able to appreciate Bollywood lyrics, or India through them.

You can explore all the journey-metaphor songs in this trail.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter


  1. Manish Gaur says

    I think its quite right to say that the majority of Indians relate to Bollywood primarily for the lyrics of Bollywood songs and this is one component that has the longest shelf life and more often than not a life independent of the actual movie.

    Reading through the narrative a couple of related points come to mind..

    Also entwined with the idea of safar and musafir is the concept of living in the present (not always in relation to hedonism) and there are a number of lyrical references to the same – “aage bhi jaane na tu”.. to “kal kya hoga kisko pata”.. and the latest one.. “Kal ho na ho..”…

    Similarly, closely linked to the idea of Journey is the thought that while you live with entire community in the worldly sense, ultimately its an inner struggle and you are a lone ranger, something best personified in this gem from chitralekha.. “man re tu kahe na dhir dhare…”

    Also, Gali Kucha ~ lanes and alleys, maybe.


  2. I think you should actually not see videos! and just listen to the song. Except in few cases, there is a strong dissonance between the tone of the music, and the videos which are somewhat mundane. Part of this is due to to nature of the lyrics which are internal reflections and are difficult to show externally. Often, the acting or the video script is pretty awful.
    The voice of the singer, who has taken great care for presenting each phrase so that it conveys the mood, carries the content of the song.

  3. Nice change from your usual blogging. Another song that could go into this list is Ibn-e-batuta from Ishqiya which is interestingly named after an actual traveller and vagabond but maybe the movie hasn’t hit the US shores yet.

  4. Farhat: Very nice to see Naseeruddin Shah is still active. Haven’t seen much of him in recent years. Sadly I don’t get to watch many Bollywood movies these days.

    There is a good book about the travels of Ibn Batuta. The Adventures of Ibn Battuta: A Muslim Traveler of the Fourteenth Century

    Read it a while ago, but I recall it being very interesting.

    anon1: I think it is a mixed bag. Sometimes the video works (I think it does in ruk jaana nahin, with Vinod Khanna, for instance).

    Manish: your tastes seem much more classical than mine :). I didn’t think of “man re, tu kahe…” but it would be a good addition to the list. A little hard to translate, and musically not as accessible as the rest.

  5. I really appreciated this!

    This kind of description of a world of thought encourages me to make something creative of my own that expresses it, which suggests you’ve done a good job showing a snippet of the creative tradition going on here.

    And also, it makes me wonder about your attitude to firing and employment; changing goals, fading relationships that are replaced, confusion and an opportunity to become a more resourceful and resilient person, well that pretty much sums up your attitude to a path through the labour market doesn’t it?

    (Actually probably not, but it certainly seems like an important component of your accommodation/justification for such a situation)

    • Well, I suppose possibly the songs helped shaped my attitude, or my attitudes helped me pick out songs. Or both :)

      Glad you found it interesting. It was partly an experiment to see how if I could make Bollywood comprehensible outside India, and seems like I got the idea through to at least 1 person :)

  6. Arindham says

    I am a journalist…just went through ur article!! I must say that its very well written and executed!