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1990s: The decade of Indipop

Ten memorable moments in Nineties Indipop, from crank calls to ambiguous music videos

Milind Soman and Alisha Chinai in a still from the video ‘Made In India’.
Milind Soman and Alisha Chinai in a still from the video ‘Made In India’.


The first hit of the decade…but what’s the video saying?

A screenshot from the music video.

In 1991, singer Suneeta Rao had a hit with Paree Hoon Main, an ethereal-sounding dandiya-inflected track from her album Dhuan. The video was striking too, shot largely in black and white, the images artistically blurred at times. The video showed a schoolgirl and her teacher. Add to this the song’s refrain of “mujhe chhoona nahi, paree hoon main (don’t touch me, I’m a fairy)" and you have a much more sobering context than the fetching melody and Rao’s nimble vocals would suggest.


India’s first AIDS anthem

Unlike the more politically minded Indi-rock scene, Indipop was more concerned with easy listening than deep thinking. An exception was Remo Fernandes, the Goan singer who was, from the start, bringing up burning issues in his albums. Having already addressed the drug menace (Pack That Smack) and political apathy (Mr Minister, Politicians Don’t Know How To Rock And Roll), Fernandes recorded what was, in all likelihood, India’s first AIDS anthem: Everybody Wants To. It’s not a particularly subtle track (Everybody wants to oomph/without the fear of AIDS, the chorus goes), which makes Remo’s brassiness all the more laudable: Hardly anyone was singing openly about AIDS and safe sex in India in the early 1990s.


Out with the west, in with desi cool

Udham Singh.

During its first stint in India, starting 1991, MTV didn’t “Indianize" its content. When its contract with Star TV ended in 1994, it exited briefly, and Channel [V] debuted. This new channel was along the lines of MTV, with one crucial difference: It felt like a cool take on India, not an import. There was grunge and hip hop but also Indipop and film-based shows, multilingual VJs, promos featuring specific regional caricatures like Udham Singh and Quick Gun Murugan. This cool-but-relatable style would become the decade’s defining youth aesthetic. It worked so well that when MTV returned, in 1996, it adopted the same hybrid approach.


The first indipop supergroup

Q Funk crowded more pop stars into a single video than ever before: husky-voiced Shweta Shetty, siblings Shaan and Sagarika, Babul Supriyo, now a Union minister of state, and Style Bhai, the poor man’s Baba Sehgal. The track is echt-1990s—three old Hindi film numbers “remixed" with an awkward rap on top—as is the video, with its backup dancers and a mean-looking guy taking off his shirt.


What’s in the box?

On a very short list of images that define the 1990s is Milind Soman emerging from a crate. In the video for Made In India, singer Alisha Chinai plays a princess who rejects a series of foreign suitors until the locally manufactured Soman arrives to sweep her off her feet. The song was a massive success, giving composer Biddu a genre-defining hit for the third decade running after Kung Fu Fighting (1974) and Disco Deewane (1981).


Aby’s strangest baby

One of the stranger bits of 1990s Indipop flotsam is Eer Bir Phatte. Aby Baby, produced by Bally Sagoo, was Amitabh Bachchan’s first pop album. Eer Bir Phatte was the big single—and what a weird one it was. Based on the semi-nonsense Bachchan utters in the 1976 film Adalat, the song is a spoken-word shaggy dog story married to a moody Sagoo beat. Seen today, it’s fitfully amusing and not nearly as desperate a move from Big B as it seemed at the time.


MTV steals a march on Channel [V]

A screenshot from Silk Route’s music video ‘Dooba Dooba’. Photo: Ravi Udyawar
A screenshot from Silk Route’s music video ‘Dooba Dooba’. Photo: Ravi Udyawar

Channel [V] had tied up with BMG-Crescendo to premiere the video of Silk Route’s Dooba Dooba. However, MTV stole a march on them, and later denied any knowledge of the contract. This was one of several spats between the two channels. Today, few remember the controversy, but Dooba Dooba is still a singalong favourite, and the partly underwater video is one of the very best ever made in this country.


Say it without pausing

A screenshot from Shankar Mahadevan’s ‘Breathless’.

Sure, Breathless is a gimmick—but it’s a great one. Shankar Mahadevan kick-started his career with this 2-minute-and-40-second track, sung without taking a breath. The cascading rhymes are instantly recognizable as Javed Akhtar’s, his third great contribution to an Indipop album after Gurus Of Peace and Afreen Afreen. Mahadevan’s middle-of-the-road dependability as a film composer now makes it difficult to imagine the splash his breakthrough created.


Clash of the divas

Anaida had been a pop star for some time when Mehnaz had her breakthrough with Miss India in 1996. Though it might seem now that there was space enough for both of them (and for Shweta Shetty and Suneeta Rao) in the Indipop arena, the stakes were apparently higher back then. Phone calls made to Anaida in September 1998—either blank or threatening, depending on which report you read—were allegedly traced by the police to Mehnaz’s home. “I was shocked," Anaida told Open magazine years later (without naming Mehnaz). “I had actually given her clothes to wear for her first video." In a 1999 Rediff chat, Mehnaz, addressing one of the many questions posed about the incident, wrote: “I know a lot has been said and written about it, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s mere industry gossip."

1 January 2000

Coming out (of the frame)

A screenshot from Falguni Pathak’s Meri Chunar Udd Udd Jaaye.

It’s difficult not to read coded LGBT messages in the video for Falguni Pathak’s Meri Chunar Udd Udd Jaaye (released on 1 January 2000, technically outside the 1990s, but what’s a day?). A lonely young woman (played by Ayesha Takia) finds a companion in a sari-clad apparition who steps out of a painting. An India Today article from 2002 said the video “caused a heat wave in the lesbian community". “Pathak denies any sexual messages in the video," it read, “but Lajja Kamath, a collegian who prefers to date girls, says, ‘Her song inspired me to come out.’"

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