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Bollywood's Holi high
The festival of colours is a convenient backdrop for a whole range of dramatic moments - romance, erotica, pathos, and even violence.
The highlight of the recent trailer release of the latest youth romance, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, once again is its Holi song, showcasing its young couple's irreverent, energetic chemistry, which its makers promise will become the Holi hum of the year. From Krishna's Raas-Leela in the gardens of Gokul and its enthused recreation on Rangapanchami by devotees in Mathura to the big Bollywood family bashes (the Kapoors and the Bachchans) and the studios of Mumbai - Holi has had a long, vibrant and truly colourful journey in India's socio-cultural psyche.
No wonder, it also is Indian cinema's favourite festival, perhaps second only to Dussehra in terms of its usage in plot development. Dussehra, given its 'good winning over evil' connotation, enjoys a much more dramatic plot insert a la the violent climax of Kahaani or as a more subtle, symbolic celluloid call for exorcising the demons within as in Swades (2004).
Holi, on the contrary, has been a relatively less dramatic, though not necessarily sober, onscreen festival limited to triggering the more pleasurable audience emotions of rati (love), hasa (laughter), vismaya (astonishment) and utsaha (energy/heroism).
The coming of Technicolor in Indian cinema in the '50s (Aan, Jhansi Ki Rani) was the first time when filmmakers went gung-ho about exploring the festival's cinematic potential with songs themed around Holi. V Shantaram's Navrang (1959) leads and defines the festival's song, dance and cinematic attract in that beautiful male-female split act in the masti of Holi, "Arey ja re natkhat". Evocatively conjuring the shringara rasa potential of Holi, Shantaram also celebrates its traditional Radha-Krishna connection that makes the festival.
Sandhya's act remains the best on-screen solo Holi dance ever for its achievement of gendered body language and for showcasing Sandhya's dance skills. The '60s carried on with mixing romance and Holi. SD Burman's "Piya tose naina lage re" sung by Lata Mangeshkar in Guide (1965) was the decade's most memorable movie moment, made magical by the luminous presence of Waheeda Rehman, awash in a rainbow of colours, awaiting the arrival of her beloved.
But we had to wait for nearly two more decades for some serious erotica to happen around the Holi song in popular cinema. When it did, in the '80s with Silsila (1981), it was stuff that has sustained the gossip around Bollywood's most speculated affair.
Can one think of a more dramatic Holi moment beyond "Rang barse bheege chunarwali" from Silsila? Harivansh Rai Bachchan's tactile, intoxicating articulation of dare and abandon, Amitabh Bachchan's perceptually 'high on bhang', earthy baritone, conceived by director Yash Chopra as a dramatic mini-climax inviting its hitherto restrained protagonists to open abandon. On serve is a shocker concoction using each of the Holi essentials - the bhang, the bonhomie, the bohemia and the bindaas 'paan' induced liberties - to some notorious impropriety.
But before that, let's look at Sholay (1975) and the '70s. This was the decade when Holi moved from being an event between lovers to an excuse for mass celebration, an 'item' opportunity to construct a grandiose song-and-dance spectacle. And when that event ended up celebrating the colour 'red', literally, with a bloody spill by villain Gabbar Singh and his dacoits as villagers danced to "Holi ke sang dil mil jaate hain", the scene was set for a dramatic usage of the festival in films.
Indeed, anything now seems permissible with that alibi of 'Holi hai!' The chemistry of erotica, aided by the indiscretions of Holi, that dictates and manipulates the moment's 'love-in-defiance' so robustly articulated by the characters of Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha in the presence of their respective on screen spouses played by Jaya Bachchan and Sanjeev Kumar. The song gives scandalous goose bumps to the most liberal minded even today. No wonder, three decades hence, "Rang barse" still remains Hindi cinema's most sung Holi anthem.
Come '90s, it was Yash Chopra again, who gave us another unforgettable twist in the Holi plot in Darr (1993). In its edgily constructed Holi sequence composed to a drumming crescendo where a jilted stalker carries forth his threat to 'leave a personal mark' on his object of affection in her home, what worries most is that Shah Rukh Khan's Rahul convinces you to empathise with his unsavory intentions.
The menace potential of Holi however was exposed to gut-wrenching effect as a convenient backdrop for a brutal gang-rape in Raj Kumar Santoshi's Damini (1993). The film's identification parade scene where the accused are deliberately doused in an extra dose of colour to confuse the victim disturbingly wakes one to the other side of the Holi story, a festival often misused as an easy and permissible excuse for sexual harassment.
In the new millennium, filmmakers continue to 'insert' the Holi moment in most of its early-day possibilities as a playful love charade, though now tad crowded and often choreographed to a company of toned dancers as an excuse for some skin show. But the melody has somewhere gone missing in the crowd - remember the ear-splitting hit "Do me a favour, let's play Holi" in Anu Malik's baritone from Vipul Shah's Waqt: The Race Against Time (2005).
I would rather seek my post-millennium Holi moment in that sublime song sequence from Deepa Mehta's Water, "Mohe shyam rang rang de", revolving around the forgotten 'ladies-in-white' off the ghats of Benaras for whom the festival is the only pretext to get some colour into their lives. As the oppressed widows turn into merry Radhas for a day, dancing around a 'cute' kid widow dressed up as baby Krishna, a triumphant moment of cinematic reflection is conjured - poignant and powerful, poetic and provoking - and, of course, very colourful.
(The writer is a scholar of Indian cinema)
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