A Tiny 2020 Lesson* in a 1951 Film Song
*Who the hell knows if this qualifies as a lesson, actually. I just have a story.
Year-end essays make me uneasy. Especially those that attempt to tease out an overarching theme from 365-days of scattered, disparate experiences. Introspection, in these essays, always feels condescending. With 2020, even more so.
In the last three days, I have read many essays on the lessons 2020 has left behind. On grief, injustice, loneliness, and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. And in some ways, all of these lessons stand true. But when I sat down to write this year-end essay and thought about that one thing 2020 was about…I came up with nothing.
Sure, I can wax eloquent about how this year has been a timely reminder to focus on family, friends and love. But how can I say that to my uncles and aunts who lost their mother to Coronavirus and were unable to grieve her in the way she deserved? Or to the families of over 145,000 Indians who have lost their lives to the virus?
How can I assertively say that this year has made us kinder, for example, when so much violence and apathy around us points otherwise? (Love jihad laws, farmers protest, violence against Dalits, apathy towards doctors, people hating on each other, violations of health safety measure, I really could go on and on.)
Basically, I have no gyaan to offer on what this tumultuous year means. Maybe its lessons will crystallize fifty years later; maybe not. All I have is one 2020 story which I can’t stop thinking about. A story which has made me chuckle, and left me embarrassingly hopeful. A story about a 1951 Hindi film song. And a dancing superstar.
When Anurag Basu’s “Ludo” released, one song became a superhit. Suddenly, “O beta ji!” was everywhere. In case you have no idea what I am talking about, here’s the song picturized on a trigger-happy guy called Sattu, played by the incredible Pankaj Tripathi.
A gangster shooting people, with this song playing on YouTube in the background. It’s a hilarious scene, which is why presumably, this song has become as popular as it has. My tiny, hopeful story is about the black-and-white star of the song.
The song used in “Ludo” is from C Ramachandra’s “Albela” starring India’s first dancing-acting superstar, Bhagwan Dada. The film was released in 1951 and became a super-hit. To put it mildly. If you look at the other songs from the film, you’ll see why I said “mildly.” From “Shola Jo Bhadke” to “Bholi Surat Dil Ke Khote,” songs from “Albela” are still a cult hit. And all of them feature Bhagwan Dada. His expressive eyes, his smooth moves, his slightly unconventional looks. Here’s the original song.
After the release of “Albela,” Bhagwan Dada became a superstar. An unexpected one. Born as a son of a textile mill worker, and with non-hero looks, no one expected Bhagwan Dada to become a superstar. And yet, he did. He wrote, acted, produced and directed films. But most importantly, he danced like no had danced before on-screen. If you’ve ever looked at Govinda or Amitabh Bachchan dancing, you’re tracing the rhythms of Bhagwan Dada dancing. Pure joy even through a pixelated video on YouTube.
At one point, legend has it that Bhagwan Dada had a 25-room apartment in Juhu and a different car for each day. (An excellent biopic on this phase of his life, and the making of “Albela” was made in Marathi in 2016 called “Ekk Albela”.)
But then, his luck turned. After “Albela,” he made a series of films with similar sounding names like “Jhamela” and “Shola Jo Bhadke” but none worked. Whether it was the “kismet” he sung about (like a reported fire at a lab where all his film reels were kept), or something else, who knows. What is known that he spent his last days in a chawl in Parel.
So, when I spotted this song in a 15-second reel on Instagram – where it’s a trending sound – my cynical-armour melted. And I was filled with hope.
That a 1951 song fronted by a once-superstar can became famous again, is a reminder that you can’t predict how our stories will end. That the song in question is about the elusive nature of fame, is maybe a reminder that life, in the end, is just a long-running joke. And we are nowhere near the punchline yet.
I can’t explain why, but every time I hear this song, I am reminded of that tricky thing called hope. Hope, that maybe things can, and will, change. Maybe we just have to hold on. And somehow, find ways to dance with joy.
Links of The Week:
JK Rowling was the most famous author in the world. But, she has always been an author in love with the idea of control — over her characters, and her world. Except, in 2020, that revealed her to be a transphobic bigot. Molly Fishcher writes a must-read piece on what happened to JK Rowling.
Read another way, though, the latest turn in Rowling’s story looks perhaps less perplexing than inevitable. It is the culmination of a two-decade power struggle for ownership of her fictional world — the right to say what Harry Potter means. The Harry Potter books describe a stark moral universe: Their heroes fight on behalf of all that is good to defeat the forces of absolute evil. Though the struggle may be lonely and hard, right ultimately beats wrong. For fans, when it came to the matter of trans rights, the message of Harry Potter was clear. For Rowling, this was no less the case.
Manjiri Indurkar writes on loneliness and cities — loneliness that visits when you’re alone in a flat, or in a marriage filled with silences.
Shashank, who had just returned to India after completing his masters abroad, told me he was looking for love and a serious relationship. He had been lonely for far too long, he said. Desperately lonely. I would, he said, jump into a relationship right away. Shashank’s loneliness had roots in family history. It wasn’t just broken relationships but a product of living alone and suffering too much physically and psychologically. He wanted to be with someone so he could forget about the things that were not right in his life. A companion who could take away some of his sorrows, divide his loneliness into half.
Umar Khalid is still in jail. This has been a year of injustice, followed by a year of dissent. Betwa Sharma writes on friendship across jail walls, and how prison can’t cage ideas.
Even the doctors who used to examine them when they were in police custody before going to Tihar jail, Bhattacharya said, would either taunt or lecture him and Umar, especially Umar, going as far as calling him a “traitor.” But there was one night when they were too deflated to respond to a lecture on nationalism that one doctor was giving them, and the policeman on duty spoke up for them, said Bhattacharya. “This doctor was going on and on, and we did not have it in us to respond,” said Bhattacharya. “Suddenly, this cop said, ‘Ab doctor sahab, bas chup kijye.’ (Now doctor, please be quiet),” he said. “The doctor was flabbergasted, and so were we.”
Books I Read This Week (And This Year?)
Reading has been what has centered me this year. I ended up reading mostly women; and read 46 books this year. Not that numbers matter. Reading women felt like having a sisterhood of wise, witty and wonderful women I had in my corner. I have been keeping track, and doing quick reviews on Instagram here.
That’s it from me for this week!
I hope you have a good long weekend, doing things that make you happy. You, not anyone else. A timely reminder that social media is all moh maaya. 2020 has been a rough year all round. I hope you’re surrounded by love, good food, and some dhoop. (Especially, if you’re in Delhi.) As always, I would love to hear from you.
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I will write again, soon.