It has been a sad 2022 for Indian music and my neighbourhood in Kolkata reflects it. 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 signal has plaintively switched from Lata Mangeshkar songs to Sandhya Mukherjee ones but the posters for Lata Mangeshkar are still up near the market, telling us life might have ended but the music lives on. This week itself there was an evening of Lata Mangeshkar and Sandhya Mukherjee songs at the local park. But I see no billboards for the late Bappi Lahiri.
Some of it might have to do with politics, although West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee had given him the Banga Bibhushan, the state’s highest civilian award. Bappi-da was a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) candidate, albeit unsuccessful, in Trinamool Congress territory in 2014. Prime Minister Narendra Modi mourned Lahiri’s death, hailing his “all encompassing music, beautifully expressing diverse emotions”. Weeks before her death, Sandhya Mukherjee made news by rightfully rejecting the Padma Shri, an award that was too little too late for a singer of her stature. But despite his long career and his outsized influence over Indian popular culture, Bappi Lahiri remained Padma-less. In fact, in 2012, Congress member of Parliament Kamal Kishore complained that his letterhead had been forged to recommend a Padma Bhushan for Bappi Lahiri.
We may have all danced to his tunes but at some level we just thought the Disco King was too cheesy, too infra-dig, more copycat than cool cat. And we have all been taught to be a little suspicious of pop culture, especially if it comes festooned in shiny gold chains.
But if the pandemic has taught me one thing, it’s to not sneer at anything that gives us pleasure, no matter how tacky it might seem to others. It could be Boney M or Bappi Lahiri or Bigg Boss. Or Ravinder Singh romance novels. “Don’t feel bad about turning off CNN and turning on When Harry Met Sally,” wrote actor and podcast host Danny Pellegrino about guilty pleasures. “Self-care is necessary to get through this challenging time…. The only thing you’ll be guilty of is taking care of your mental health.”
It has taken me a long time to learn this lesson. Growing up in Kolkata, like many Bengalis, I learnt to be snooty about Hindi films. We dutifully went to see The Sound Of Music and Satyajit Ray’s Felu-da films multiple times but Hindi films were dismissed as a waste of time. Even Sholay, despite all its many jubilees, was not something we were encouraged to watch. I truly discovered Bollywood after moving to the US. Indian spices were hard to come by in our tiny town in the American Midwest but we managed to source grainy pirated videos of Bollywood films. It was not just allaying homesickness. It was a way to admit to ourselves that our emotions didn’t have to be kept discreetly tucked away.
Also read: Lata Mangeshkar: 'I prefer happy endings'
Years later, in more cosmopolitan California, I took my American partner, G., to see Sholay, which was screening at the local Indian theatre. We had gone to the Birju Maharaj and Ravi Shankar concerts and Satyajit Ray films but Sholay was different. Also, we watched it without subtitles, which meant I had to conduct a sort of whispered running commentary, much to the annoyance of the Indian families around us. At some point I was afraid G.’s patience would give way. But love’s labour was not lost. I remember glancing nervously at G. as Amitabh Bachchan’s Jai lay dying and Jaya Bhaduri’s Radha snuffed out her lamp, and, with it, her romantic hopes. I could not have been more relieved. G. was sniffling too. Sholay had reached across the great cultural divide even without subtitles.
At that time I thought of it as some kind of cultural litmus test for interracial relationships for the likes of G. But I realise now it was just as much a coming out for me, to admit to myself that Sholay could move me just as Pather Panchali could and there was no cultural dissonance there. In our relentless pursuit of what is cool, we sometimes cauterise the things that truly warm our hearts. Even the phrase “guilty pleasure” carries a hint of apology about it. And it is always about popular culture. Beethoven and Truffaut are never guilty pleasures. Neither is cricket.
It is worth interrogating how we decide something is a “guilty” pleasure and what it’s guilty of. When Shrayana Bhattacharya used Shah Rukh Khan fandom as a way of mapping womanhood and the economy in India in her book, Desperately Seeking Shah Rukh, she said in an interview on Express Audio that she was not looking to make any particular comment on the social roots of thinking that kind of fandom was silly, something to outgrow. But in retrospect she understood her book was in part a comment on that idea. “I realised that our society is so oppressive when it comes to so many women that actually the foolishness is a form of indulgence and it’s a form of self-love, it’s a form of self-care, ” she said.
Cultural commentator Paromita Vohra expressed it best in a paean to one of the ultimate guilty pleasures of our time—the nightie. She wrote that she was once given a printed cotton nightie as a joke gift from Kolkata. She loved it. “I find it funny that people find it funny that I love nighties, much as in youth people were surprised that I loved Hindi film songs, then considered maha uncool,” wrote Vohra in Mid-Day. For her, nighties were the “ultimate don’t-care power wear”. It is the “don’t care” that’s pivotal here. It’s the only way to escape the tyranny of what is deemed maha cool.
When literary festivals first started inviting authors deemed commercial writers, many purists were aghast and went, “there goes the neighbourhood.” Writer Anuja Chauhan once told me in an interview that she always felt people thought she would “bring down the intellectual tone of a panel” because she wrote commercially popular books. “It’s the only place where being popular is bad,” she said. “Like I was popular in school and that was good. There’s a whole body of books dedicated to how to be popular. I can’t understand why the literary establishment has quarrels with it.”
When Mamata Banerjee first came to power in West Bengal, the intellectuals sneered at her embrace of Tollywood stars and Bengali soap operas. The bhadralok complained that election rallies had turned into song-and-dance item numbers. It was seen as Banerjee desperately seeking culture. Her Communist predecessor, Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, needed no such measures. He watched subtitled films and translated the memoirs of Russian futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovski. But Banerjee understood the power of popular culture in a way her opponents did not.
The Communists had stood aloof disdainfully when mega star Uttam Kumar died but Banerjee walked all the way to the crematorium with the funeral cortege of both Sandhya Mukherjee and Soumitra Chatterjee, a man who had never been a great fan of hers. At the same time, she sent film stars best known for being muscle boys and glamour queens to the Lok Sabha. Some saw it as lack of discrimination. But there was something liberating as well in how she embraced everything, high, low and in-between, without judgement. There was no guilt in her pleasure. She was happy to sing Rabindrasangeet and offer her thoughts on Bengali soap opera plot-lines.
And it yielded rich political dividends because in the 2021 election, the one thing the BJP could not accuse her of faking was her Bengali-ness. But it only worked because her cultural appreciation was not a political ploy. It was a source of genuine pleasure.
It’s time for the rest of us to also take the guilt out of it.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.
Also read: Why Silambam is getting a new life