Bollywood and its Modernized Bhajans

It is remarkable how Bollywood pop bhajans not only escape public denunciation but are also active crowd pullers
Bollywood and its Modernized Bhajans

Hare Ram Hare Ram, Hare Krishna Hare Ram. As he sings these words, Kartik Aaryan in his slick suit avatar is for a moment the embodiment of deep worship. Through several mudras, he appears to channel a divine Hindu spirit and ecstatically confesses to praying "all day all night long." The moment, however, is ephemeral. With the close of the bhajan-like chorus, Aaryan can be seen moonwalking and tap dancing, hands in his pockets, among hippie dancers in a glistening nightclub. A riveting trap rhythm plays in the background as the entranced bodies move in a slow and sustained manner. Aaryan sings in a hodgepodge of Hindi and English, revealing his lustful desires throughout – save for the devotional refrain. 

The three-minute title track from the recent Hindi film Bhool Bhulaiyaa 2 is an interesting experiment in juxtaposition. It intertwines the holy and the sensual in more ways than one, adopting an aesthetic in which the two conflicting realms only exist in combination. This gives rise to a neatly packaged product that is instantly seductive and irresistible to the mass audience watching the film. Nearly three months after the track's (and film's) release, the song continues to maintain its coveted status among YouTube's "Global Top Music Videos" and other record charts on major streaming platforms. 

Of course, this song-and-dance sequence is a dedicated nod to the title track of the film's 2007 prequel Bhool Bhulaiyaa, which stars Akshay Kumar in the lead role. The original music video is far more jarring and stands in contrast to the shadowy, almost sanitized look of its successor. The 2007 video includes dramatic outfit and location changes, with Akshay Kumar shifting between a chic minimalist backdrop and an exoticized desert setting. Foreign dancers clad in mini saffron dresses sway as though under the influence of a mysterious spell. 

The inclusion of the bhajan element in this popular Bollywood song pair is superficial, if not unnecessary altogether. The song's theme bears a tenuous connection to the plot of the film, portraying the superstitious inhabitants of a haunted mansion desperately trying to appease and ward off an incensed ghost. Barring this, the track contributes little to the film's narrative, especially with its broader carnal theme being fully antithetical to the spiritual lyrics involved. The song functions as a purely commercial addition to the movie, designed to enhance its entertainment value (as is the case with countless Bollywood songs). The formula consists of bringing the familiar Hindu bhajan into an unexpectedly modern and fashionable context, creating an incongruous effect that is new, novel, and often borderline taboo.  

Several films from recent decades have repackaged bhajans into modern, commercially attractive forms. In the film Laxmii (2020), which also features Akshay Kumar, a group prayer song that bears visual semblance to a real-life bhajan session turns out to be a parody of recent Bollywood song hits (including "Apna Time Aayega", the much-loved rap anthem from Gully Boy, and "Kala Chashma", a popular but stereotypical item song). Akshay Kumar caricatures the original songs with ridiculous excess, interspersing his performance with the occasional "Jai Mata Di" to invoke the supreme. 

Similarly, in Bajrangi Bhaijaan's "Selfie Le Le Re" (2015), Salman Khan dances with abandon and poses for selfies with the crowd as he sings for his beloved "nautanki", Lord Hanuman. "Raghupati Raghava Raja Ram" is yet another classic bhajan that's been adapted to a light-hearted filmi style numerous times such as in Krrish 3 (2013) and in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998). The shared concept across these songs is their deliberate merging of cultural opposites, done by recasting Hindu devotional music in trivial and commodified contexts.  

The majority of these songs might end up serving their purpose as crowd-pullers, but what remains most surprising is that no public sentiments appear to be hurt by them. However, this modern wave of filmi bhajans isn't a recent occurrence, and that could be part of the reason they don't touch a raw nerve among audiences. Hindu devotional songs entered mainstream Indian popular culture as far back as the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ethnomusicologist Peter Manuel asserts in the study Cassette Culture: Popular Music and Technology in North India that the "commercial bhajan vogue" arose due to the proliferation and accessibility of the cassette medium among the North Indian middle class. While Hindi films featured bhajans even before the 1970s, the rise of mass-produced pop bhajans greatly strengthened the influence of filmi musical styles on commercial devotional music. Early film bhajans adopted Western instrumentation, higher pitched theatrical vocals, and musical embellishments, all of which set them apart from classically-styled, namely Hindustani or Carnatic, traditional bhajans. And modern-day bhajans like in Bhool Bhulaiyaa have evolved even further, with an eclectic sound seemingly at odds with their devotional theme. 

Perhaps these songs lack the social and religious specificity to spark outrage among politically motivated groups. They make no overt attempts to reimagine historically significant customs or contested subjects in the way that recent period films like Padmaavat (2018) and Bajirao Mastani (2015) have done. The films that these songs are a part of also conveniently steer clear of loud political stances that we've seen in recent films like The Kashmir Files (2022) or Anek (2022). Through intentionally ambiguous messaging and frivolous, colourful staging, bhajan-inspired tracks are meant to uncontroversially appeal to a heterogeneous audience, regardless of faith or political affiliation. Even if this might seem like a reactionary double standard, the increasing censorship of Indian film productions today renders it an inescapable condition.

In the rare instances when such films tread dangerously close to subversion, be it cultural or political, their soundtracks might serve as a reminder of the incontestable social mores of Indian society. This occurs in the aptly titled 2012 film Oh My God, in which the atheistic protagonist Kanji goes so far as to question the very existence of God. To nullify this, the film includes several modernized songs with sacred motifs, including "Tu Hi Tu", "Go Go Govinda", and "Don't Worry (Hey Ram)". With their deceptively catchy dance beats, comic lyrics, and striking visuals, each of these songs strategically mirrors the film's message: that God indeed exists within Indian Hindu society and plays an indispensable role. 

An interesting parallel to this can be seen in the 1971 film Haré Rama Haré Krishna, which stars Dev Anand and Zeenat Aman in the roles of long-lost siblings Prashant and Jasbir. Upon locating his sister, Prashant finds Jasbir living a hippie occult lifestyle of drugs and revelry among Western adherents. The song "Hare Rama Hare Krishna" showcases Jasbir's contradictory habits through its carefree hedonistic undertones coupled with the spiritual chorus. The film concludes with Jasbir dying by suicide out of remorse, thereby conveying the danger and precariousness of her choices. However sensational and disruptive films like Oh My God and Haré Rama Haré Krishna seem, they underscore that which is moral, acceptable and safe for viewers to take in and live by. 

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