When lyricists craved and complained for a share of the evasive, selective cinematic spotlight, I don’t think they had the collective rage against the song ‘Kesariya’ from Brahmastra in mind. Lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya, who burst into the scene with his Hinglish wit, sense of phonetic rhythm, and unnatural talent for charming, linguistic potholes in DevD’s ‘Emotional Atyachar’, has now been stabbed with the sword he had himself burnished over a decade.
In April, 45 seconds of the song ‘Kesariya’ dropped, in the days leading up to the marriage of Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, the stars of Brahmastra, and like a stuck tape recorder, it kept playing to images in our head of love and longing. These are songs that push you, pummell you to imagine yourself as the hero in a movie of your own making; movies evoking mimetic desire, throbbing in the shadow of Bombay Cinema’s grand love stories. The lyrics had that unfussy profundity; that love is like a stain, ‘Rang jaoon jo main haath lagaaon’.
Success was imminent, with the prolific pairing of composer Pritam with Bhattacharya, whose association has given us some of the most memorable albums of the past decade — Agent Vinod (2012), Barfi (2012), Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani (2013), Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015), Dilwale (2015), Ae Dil Hai Mushkil (2016), Jagga Jasoos (2017), Kalank (2019), and the upcoming Laal Singh Chaddha (2022).
On Karan Johar’s Instagram page, the 45-second reel grabbed 11.6 million eyeballs, and the YouTube version has over 20 million views, not accounting for the reels and lofi versions that spun out of it like a loom out of control. The success of the song made the marketing team rearrange their promotional plan, and they decided to first release this song, and sate the suspense before it becomes rage.
The full version — 2 minutes 48 seconds, which immediately trended on YouTube — however, struck sour, and in one of those rare moments when attention was flung at the lyrics, the song was pulled up. What snagged, like a piece of cloth caught in a nail as you walked away, was this lyric, ‘Kajal ki, siyahi se likhi, hai tune jaane, kitnon ki love storiyan’ (You have inked, from your kajal, for so many people, love stories). The song, entirely in Hindustani until then and following that line, was slit by this sudden burp of sharp English. The resentment expressed itself as memes.
— 𝓒𝓱𝓪𝓲𝓽𝓪𝓷𝔂𝓪 (@oye_chaitanya) July 17, 2022
The issue was never about English words in Hindustani songs. There is, after all, a robust tradition of using English in songs of Bombay cinema, that traces itself all the way back to Johnny Walker singing ‘All Line Clear Aage Badho’ in the 1956 film Chori Chori. As our films and our society looked Westward, as Bombay cinema became Bollywood, with an increasing anglophile sensibility with English-educated filmmakers, the trend accelerated. The post-MTV generation needed a new grammar and vocabulary to express themselves.
These bursts of English lyrics in the songs of Bombay cinema, however, are often used for a slight comic effect, intended for the listener to exhale a soft breath through their teeth, thinking, smiling, ‘Huh’. This tradition was bolstered by the Anu Malik thrusting melodies of the 1990s, Rani Malik’s ‘My Adorable Darling’ from Main Khiladi Tu Anari (1994), Sameer’s ‘What Is Mobile Number’ from Haseena Maan Jayegi (1999), one that Javed Akhtar took to its logical pinnacle with ‘Dard-e-disco’. Gulzar’s cheeky mouthful of lyrics in ‘Yaaram’, ‘Kajre Re’, and ‘Oye Boy Charlie’ further push this idea that English in Hindustani songs — even as our protagonists become more anglophile — is always produced with a jerk of quirk. Irshad Kamil adding lines of English in ‘Tera Hone Laga Hoon’ — which would get its fair share of memeing in the years to come — and ‘Tune Maari Entriyan’ and ‘Ishq Risk’ along Swanand Kirkire anchoring the 3 Idiots (2009) centerpiece song with the words ‘All Is Well’ were, in some sense pushing this trend to its limit, bringing English to the title of these, often, playful songs.
Where does humour, then, fit in ‘Kesariya’, a soft song of swoon?
Certainly, one of the most creative lyricists of our time, Amitabh Bhattacharya was able to tread that fine line between quirky and charming, clever and corny. In Jagga Jasoos, for example, when wanting to compare the beating heart to the Taj Mahal, a connection as old as the maqbara itself, he wrote, ‘Dil Akbar Ka Pota Hai’, that the heart is Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan, who commissioned the marble memorial for his wife. Taking a page from ‘Dard-e-disco’, the pain of disco, he cobbled ‘Locha-e-ulfat’, the mess of longing. In songs like ‘Second Hand Jawani’ and ‘Cutie Pie’, he built the bridge between English and Hindustani, territories that are slowly moving towards each other, becoming one, anyway.
Was it, then, the phonetically jarring ‘st’ of storiyan, the tonal shift where a swoon is supposed to but is unable to become a smile, and the lacking freshness in meaning that agitated? Besides, words like “Rabba” and “Chanda” chafed against the visuals, as though belonging to a different song, a different genre of love. The song was precariously wobbling anyway.
Cultural osmosis is a complicated, inevitable thing in a world where roots and origin stories are slowly becoming aesthetic fetishes. The English language both gave and received, perhaps disproportionately — where Jagannath became Juggernaut, the words thug and curry were rooted out of context and slotted into Merriam Webster, indika became indikon in Greek for the blue dye that we today call indigo, and the head massage champoo becomes shampoo. The problem is when we are acutely aware of when the Hindustani ends and the English begins.
And while languages leak and lasso constantly, each also has its own anchoring rules, the limits of their tongue — where some languages refuse the harsh, emphatic retroflex sounds, some, like Bengali make the retroflex softer; some languages, like English, do not have an aspiration as a sound, unable to distinguish a phal (pronounced fal) from a phal (pronounced p-hal).
Anyone who has had the fortune (or misfortune) of performing elocution as a child would know, English is a stress-timed language, where some syllables are supposed to be stressed, as opposed to Hindustani where each syllable is stressed equally. Another difference is the Hindustani discomfort with two consecutive consonant sounds. Have you wondered why school becomes i-school, the ‘i’ — an epenthetic vowel — that cushions two consecutive consonant sounds that come after it? So, ‘love storiyan’ would have become ‘love i-storiyan’ to flow into the phonetic fabric of Hindustani. I am not suggesting that Arijit should have sung ‘Love I-storiyan’, but merely grasping at the fact that this discomfort we all felt comes from not just the word, but perhaps the way we respond to the sound of languages. Lyricists like Amitabh Bhattacharya are usually extremely sensitive to these demands, trying to see what hits the ears with most care. A slip-up, then, becomes a scandal, and what else can we do with scandals, but meme it to dust?