The Police’s first-ever India concert was a case of mistaken identity. The British rock band was at the peak of its career in 1980 when a group of Parsi women invited its members to put on a charity concert at Rang Bhavan, near St. Xavier’s College, in Mumbai. The only hitch: the women thought the group was a marching Army band instead, reveals Indus Creed frontman Zubin Balaporia in Rockumentary: The Evolution of Indian Rock.
“The show was a packed house. Women draped in sarees were dancing on tabletops. People who knew The Police were obviously inclined to go to the concert, but the organisers themselves had no clue. The band raised 5,000 pounds for underprivileged children,” says Abhimanyu Kukreja, the director of Rockumentary.
This documentary, which had its India premiere at the Brahmaputra Valley Film Festival, features many such forgotten anecdotes from around 40 artistes, including two Grammy Award nominees – Nagaland band Abiogenesis and composer Louis Banks – playback singer Usha Uthup, director Imtiaz Ali, singer Lou Majaw, musician Susmit Bose and members of Indus Creed, Indian Ocean, Velvette Fogg, Millennium, Parikrama, Atomic Forest, The Local Train and Agnee. Over eight sonically-distinct chapters, it traces the history of Indian rock music from its colonial beginnings rooted in the jazz and blues of the 1930s to modern-day forms. The documentary is part trivia (did you know Shillong holds the world record for the most people playing “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” simultaneously?) and part Mythbusters (there’s a whole chapter devoted to why it still isn’t the rock capital of India.)
The film begins with clips of Kukreja’s career as an entertainment reporter for an English news channel. At the sidelines of the festival in Assam, dressed a bit like a rockstar himself in a grey suit and dark glasses, Kukreja says he did recces around the country for four years (from 2008 to 2012) before he officially began shooting in early 2013. He’s also one of the film’s three producers.
Much like its subject, his documentary went through an evolution of its own. It started out as a 24-minute short which aired on television in 2008. “My job on the entertainment desk was to go out every day, catch hold of a musician and bring back a story. I had no competition because no one else was interested in rock-n-roll. I got access to a lot of Grammy Award-winning musicians like Herbie Hancock and Wes Borland. I met Pandit Ravi Shankar at his music studio in 2009. I would go to these concerts and just have a good time. It increased my interest in the subject as well as my network.”
He soon realised that a comprehensive history of India’s rock sonicscape could not be accurately presented in the limited time slots imposed by news channels, so he quit that year. “If you type ‘Indian Rock’ into Google, you’ll get lots of things right now. There’s a whole Wikipedia page that has come up. But when I started, there was literally nothing. I had friends who would help me with word-of-mouth information,” he says.
It’s a wonder then, that he managed to find the sources he has. The documentary segues from The Beatles visit to Rishikesh’s Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Ashram in 1968 to country singer Bobby Cash. The connection: Cash’s uncle, a doctor, had treated one of the band members for a stomach ache. Other subjects are as diverse as The Vinyl Records – an all-women rock group from Shillong – to Mohiner Ghoraguli, a one-of-its-kind band that plays Bengali protest music.
Of all the musicians profiled, it’s perhaps Elvis who is remembered with the most fondness. Usha Uthup talks about him playfully chiding her for singing his song “Heartbreak Hotel”. “Once the song is out of your head, it belongs to the whole world,” she remembers retorting. The documentary builds the case for why Elvis’ influence on India’s music culture was so pervasive, citing the 1960 film Ek Phool Chaar Kaante, in which Iqbal Singh, a well-known Elvis impersonator from Chandigarh made his Bollywood debut. Turbaned and bearded, he looks nothing like Elvis, but when he begins to shimmy to “Beautiful Baby of Broadway”, it’s a near-perfect imitation. “We could not get in touch with him but we found this video in which he’s dancing better than Elvis. He won a local competition in Mumbai in the 1960s and was tagged ‘The Elvis Presley of Bombay’,” says Kukreja.
The documentary also chronicles how India’s rock talent made an impression on the global stage. Parikrama singer Nitin Malik describes opening for English heavy metal band Iron Maiden in Bangalore in 2007. When they began to play, the band stuck their heads out of their green room in awe, he recalls. “I think they realised that India is not just snakes and elephants. They have decent rock bands who deserve to play before an international audience.” Iron Maiden went on to put up a letter of support for Parikrama on their website, taking them to the UK for a series of gigs.
From rare photographs of bands in their heyday, the first videos they ever shot and issues of the Rock Street Journal – a monthly magazine covering India and South Asian rock since 1993 – the documentary is flush with archival material. Kukreja says this took a lot of time to acquire. “I had to gain the musicians’ trust because they were giving me the treasures of their lives – old photographs from the 60s and 70s, a lot of video footage.”
Over the course of its long making, the rockumentary itself became an important archive of stories. Velvette Fog singer Nandu Bhende, considered to be a pioneer of Indian rock music, passed away in 2014, the documentary being one of the last times he was captured on film. A few of the bands featured have split. Following a Bombay High Court ban on loudspeakers at Rang Bhavan in 2003, the venue was shuttered and now lies decrepit. Slip Disc, a Colaba nightclub where Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin held an impromptu jam session, has been converted into a gay bar. Kukreja got there a few days before renovations began. But as Bhende succinctly put it: Rock-n-roll can never die…I hope it lives forever.