A Brief History of Bella Ciao (the song Shah Rukh Khan is so sick of)

How a peasants' song, adopted as a hymn of resistance against oppressive regimes, risks the inevitability of crass commercialisation, thanks to the Netflix hit Money Heist
A Brief History of Bella Ciao (the song Shah Rukh Khan is so sick of)

I first heard of Bella Ciao from a friend. As a former student of Jadavpur University in Kolkata, he knew of it, just like he knew of other protest songs by Pete Seeger and Paul Robeson, or from Hirak Rajar Deshe and by Mohiner Ghoraguli. People like him know of Bella Ciao (meaning 'Goodbye, Beautiful') before Money Heist, its identity as a song of resistance, its roots as an anti-fascist anthem in Italy between 1943 and 1945. And even earlier, in the latter half of the 19th Century, another form of resistance, by women peasants in the Po Valley of Northern Italy who worked under brutal conditions and low wages under oppressive landlords supervising them with canes in their hands. The lyrics of the song changed when the Italian partisans revolting against Benito Mussolini's fascist state adopted it, but the spirit was the same.

Protest anthem, or the cool song from Money Heist?

Thanks to the friend, I came to know about Bella Ciao without the knowledge that it has been used in the Netflix show, which I have never seen. Then I heard it again, in the various Indian iterations, during the CAA/NRC protests. In the #OccupyGateway gathering, one of the protestors stood and sang the new lyrics, written to fit the issue at hand: 'Aaya Nazi, laya NRC. Bola pehchaan karao, varna jao jao jao', and the others, seated, sang after him, repeating the words: a demonstration of the power of the song and its ability to transmit across cultures. In the recent past, Bella Ciao has become a rallying cry for pro-independence activists in Catalonia, anti-Brexit protests, and the Yellow Vests movement in France.

The song had become hot property in 2018 after the Netflix show — the most watched non-English language show at present — became a global hit. Various artists started doing their own versions. Tom Waits did one, as part of his album Songs of Resistance 1942 – 2018. Others were less sensitive about its socio-political roots. DJs began remixing it, including Aoki, the video or the accompanying note doesn't acknowledge the song's history. And now again, during the pandemic, Bella Ciao has found its way back into the public consciousness: a song of resistance against the virus, if you may, seen in videos such as the one where Germans can be seen singing from rooftops of their houses as a gesture of solidarity with Italy, one of the worst hit countries in the outbreak. Or that of an Italian man playing the tune on his trumpet, entertaining his neighbours during the Quarantine. And the timely arrival of Money Heist Season 4 in April.

Bollywood: Appropriation and tone-deafness  

Unsurprisingly, I am hearing Bella Ciao more and more without the context. Baba Sehgal has done one, called Kela Khao, so silly that you can't be offended by it. Ayushmann Khurrana wrote a post on Instagram wishing to play the Professor — a charismatic, popular character from the show — in an Indian version of Money Heist. In the video, Khurrana plays the tune on his piano, wearing glasses like the Professor, using the words Bella Ciao as a sign off, like a punchline. Actress Kriti Kharbanda also attempted a piano cover and uploaded a video. (If this lockdown has revealed something about our film stars, it is that a surprising number of them own pianos).

All this smelled suspicious because Bollywood is notorious for being ignorant about such things—notice how their reference of Bella Ciao ends with superficial aspects of the show, the 'cool' factor, with no acknowledgement of its socio-political roots. (Although the show — which pivots on anti-establishment sentiments — doesn't cut the song off from its history. In a scene, the Professor says that he learnt the song from his grandfather, who fought as a partisan in fascist Italy).

Then you had Shah Rukh Khan confirming those suspicions. In his segment shot from home for a fundraising concert for the COVID-19 outbreak, Khan sang that he is sick of hearing Bella Ciao: "Bella Ciao sun sun ke pak chuka hoon". He meant it as one of the typically Quarantine things, equating it to activities such as working out and watching TV shows on streaming. Given the significance of the song — a symbol of common people speaking up against an oppressive regime — this appeared insensitive to some. It offended the friend, an SRK fan by the way, who had introduced me to the song: What do you mean SRK is sick of Bella Ciao? He has no clue.

I saw people on my Facebook timeline sharing that video commenting that they were disappointed with Khan's ignorance. And I get it. People feel strongly about the song. It has inspired people across the world, a soundtrack for the Kurdish men ands women fighting for self governance in the rugged mountains of Syria, where children learn the song at a young age. For Italians of a certain generation, when it plays in clubs and pubs, like a happy tune, it brings back bad memories of the War. 

The lyrics for Khan were written by Badshah — no surprises there. Last month I wrote a piece about the hip hop star using a Bengali folk song called "Boroloker Biti Lo" without giving credit and completely decontextualised it. Even a film like Gully Boy — which was socially conscious in other ways — was guilty of washing its hands off Azadi's political context, using it as a catchy hook. Forget Money Heist, Bollywood has been guilty of bastardising Bella Ciao even before it had become so popular in this part of the world. Lalit Pandit (of Jatin-Lalit) plagiarised the tune in "Love ki Ghanti" from the movie Besharam, starring Ranbir Kapoor. There is also a Telugu song called "Pilla Chao" from the Mahesh Babu film Businessman. They are cringeworthy. Or, you could choose to look at it this way: in the spirit of a folk song, Bella Ciao has travelled to all corners of the world, localised as per tastes and demands of the people. One way or another, the journey is fascinating.

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