Revisiting the Best of Bollywood’s Satirical Music

From "Emosonal Attyachar" to the recent "Pleaj", the last couple of decades has seen Bollywood lyricists and composers gleefully and organically creating a whole subgenre of satirical songs
Revisiting the Best of Bollywood’s Satirical Music

Quick question, did anyone have Gulzar sir gifting us with the words, "You mads you? I loves you, pleaj" on their 2022 bingo? I know I didn't. And yet here he is, proving once again why he's so loved universally, cross-generationally, with his latest song "Pleaj", for Alia Bhatt-starrer Darlings. Indian cinema is unique in that the extradiegetic nature of our music, equally enjoyable with or without the context of the film, offers us the opportunity to create subgenres that wouldn't work with an individual singer-songwriter audience. I love crying to Taylor Swift as much as the next person, but there's only so much of your angst that you can indulge before craving the relief of laughing at your own absurdity, or satirically poking fun at society. Bollywood knows this better than anyone else. The last couple of decades have seen Bollywood lyricists and composers gleefully seizing the opportunities provided to them by the culture of our film music, and organically creating a whole subgenre of satirical songs. In honour of Gulzar throwing his hat into the Bolly-satire mix with "Pleaj", let's revisit some of the best Bolly-satire tracks of our time.

Emosanal Attyachar (Brass Band Version)

Composer: Amit Trivedi
: Amitabh Bhattacharya

We're starting with the best, as satire can often be an elusive concept. How does one tell satire apart from other types of comedic music, such as homage comedy, parody, or just plain funny? Getting into the technicalities might be outside the scope of an internet listicle, but luckily I don't have to, as "Emosanal Atyachar" sets the gold standard for pitch-perfect satirical music, and demonstrates the definition of satire self-explanatorily. I hadn't fully comprehended the magnitude of the cultural reset that ensued from this song when it first released, given that I was quite young at the time, but today as an adult woman, little gives me more uninhibited pleasure than driving in the car with my sister and jointly screaming "bol bol w-h-y did you ditch me WHOREEEEE", reclaiming the vile word on behalf of all my fellow sisters, giving the proverbial finger to the toxic Dev-Ds out there, and cackling at an A+ lyric while doing so, in our nasally Band Master singing voice.

Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai

Composer: AR Rahman
Lyricist: Irshad Kamil

I still remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard this song (early morning, brisk winter air, earphones in, walking to my lecture, nursing heartbreak). I was floored by how economical the comedic lyrics and upbeat Punjabi music were in piercingly conveying a woman's sadness. It took me a while to unpack that it was because the song was doing two things at once: expressing the woman's sadness, and also satirising pop media's manic-pixie-dream-girlification of a woman's sadness.

Maybe it's ironic that I feel more viscerally understood by this absurd, satirical song, than I do by songs earnestly channelling a woman's sadness. When female characters in popular media are flattened into manic pixie dream girls long enough, and the real-life everywoman, let's call her Heer, consumes that media long enough, one day when Heer finds herself sobbing in her car, she first wonders if her mascara is smudged in exactly the right way, and if Heer's Ranjha saw her at that moment and if he would find her specific sadness appealing enough. Like the great Margaret Atwood had said, "As a woman, even when you're just looking in the mirror, you're looking at yourself in the way that a man would see you. It's not you looking at you, it's you looking at your objectified self." Living this dual life is a tragic sadness of its own. And ultimately, no matter how many ghosts of the male gaze haunt you, it's still you alone, in your car. Baji padi hai band Heer ki, ab is band pe naache kaun?


Composer: Pritam
Lyricist: Amitabh Bhattacharya

If I didn't have to curate this list objectively or fairly, "Cutiepie" would be at the very top of this list, and pretty much any other list to ever exist, including all my grocery lists. Listening to this song feels like being in on the world's most clever inside joke. The coveted lot who are in on the joke are the ones who know that the song isn't hating on the deceptively charming Cutiepie who wreaks heartbreak in her wake, but is actually scathingly mocking the insufferable "friendzoned" "nice guy" moping after her, "Devdas ki tarah". The lyrics are ever so subtle in doing so, and barely even mentions the mopey boy, which makes the whole thing that much more satisfying. Perfect for screaming at karaoke night with the girls.

O Womaniya (Live)

Composer: Sneha Khanwalkar
Lyricist: Varun Grover

A testament to the resonance of the political, satirical sentiment of this song is the fact that the word "womaniya" is now permanently in our cultural lexicon. From feminist podcasts, to feminist survey reports, and feminist artisan employment programs, Womaniya become the go-to name for many feminist initiatives in India. And yet, most remarkably, the word has (for the most part) resisted a neoliberal watering down — a la girlboss — no doubt owing to the word's permanent association with the memorable, raspy voice of the singers, a voice that to me feels and sounds like generations of feminist resilience, feminist wisdom. All these combined with the blunt lyrics, matter-of-factly joking about many married women's daily horrors, makes it one of the most enduring satirical songs of our time.

Bhaag D.K. Bose

Composer: Ram Sampath
Lyricist: Amitabh Bhattacharya

It's hard to tell if this song is satirising millennial angst, or just comedically channelling it. I suspect that it probably intentionally toes the line, since the only thing that the tired, irreverent millennial enjoys more than laughing at demanding, out-of-touch adults is laughing at his own irresponsible, self-sabotaging self. Of course, the fact that this song is the millennials' answer to the Gen Xers' iconic Papa Kehte Hai (Aamir Khan did produce Delhi Belly) makes it that much more satisfying.

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