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The Empire Sings Back: Aesthetics, Politics, and Postcolonial Whimsy

  Namita Goswami

This essay recovers the devalued aesthetic dimension of the Bollywood film/song from its political over-determination as national allegory. The qualities attributed to the film/song, such as effeminacy, irrationality, fantasy, and non-synchronicity, which I term its postcolonial whimsy, and its surplus value as the Bollywood film’s most transnational component, allow for the free play of the imagination. This admits the possibility of another performative public culture and imagined community not premised on exploitation, calculability, and passive spectatorship and consumption. The film/song enables affect without literal linguistic comprehension, especially among those unfamiliar with the indigenous languages and musical traditions. What is derided as the sentimental aspect of Bollywood films and as its most embarrassing element is its whimsical aesthetic. The film/song as the film’s fanciful, hopeful, and dreamy core and its unmoored quality broaden the scope of its possible political meanings. The film/song dis/plays what is unsung in spite of being spectacular (inferior) excess: the dreams and aspirations are still possible in everyday life.

Key Terms
aesthetic dimension, Bollywood, Bride and Prejudice, diaspora, Gayatri Gopinath, globalization, Gurinder Chadha, Nandini Bhattacharya, postcolonial, transnational, whimsy

1. Postcolonial Whimsy

The predominant trend in postcolonial and cultural studies scholarship on Indian diasporic film production, including the rising popularity in the U.S. of one part of India’s film industry, Bollywood, is to focus on its political dimension. Bollywood cinema in the diaspora and diasporic Indian films are most often viewed as trans/national allegories of the Indian nation, even when this nation is re-territorialized in the diaspora. [1] Although scholars rightly critique the heteronormative, gender-, race-, religion-, class-, linguistic-, and caste-based means of crisis management and reconsolidation of a hegemonic and investment friendly (global and nuclear) Indian nation, [2] the neglect of Indian and diasporic Indian cinema’s aesthetic dimension [3] presents at least tacit approval that Bollywood and Bollywood-inspired films are aesthetically inferior in comparison with their namesake, Hollywood.

The comparison with Hollywood leads to the assumption that unlike Hollywood’s “realist aesthetic,” Bollywood cinema is melodrama defined as “excess” or “feminine emotion.” [4] The devaluation of the aesthetic conventions of Bollywood cinema lead to a “curious logic:” [5] cinema produced by arguably the world’s largest film industry and drawing a “global audience estimated at 3.6 billion annually, a billion more than Hollywood,” spread across the Middle East, Central Asia, Africa, Latin America, [6] and the former Soviet Union, is “represented as a curious, unusual, and even marginal case,” although an “ironically popular, highly commercial form of ‘third world’ cinema.” [7] Even though (dubbed) Hollywood films have failed to garner a firm foothold in the Indian market [8] and Bollywood and Bollywood-inspired diasporic films are the most profitable of all “foreign” films in the U.S., [9] Bollywood is most often considered to be a “curiously commercialized folk ritual produced for naïve and overly emotional spectators.” [10]

This naïveté and emotionalism apparently stem from Bollywood cinema’s most distinctive and unique feature: the film/song. Indeed, “No other cinema in the world ha[s] this peculiar characteristic.” [11] A typical blockbuster has on average five or six picturized songs. Most often compared with the Hollywood musical, [12] the songs in a masala film [13] “risk narrative logic” and interrupt “coherence” through nondiegetic “spectacle.” [14] This comparison presupposes the aesthetic superiority and hegemony of Hollywood and considers the film/song to be a spectacle rather than an imaginative dis/play constituting its aesthetic function. [15]

The devaluation of the aesthetic dimension leads to a misapprehension of aesthetic conventions. For example, the visual is in fact a “visual elaboration” [16] or picturizing of the aural and is not the primary aspect of the film/song. The film/song’s significance lies beyond the film’s narrative, [17] and uses “pleasurable conventions” that stem from the predominant “felt ethics” [18] of Bombay cinema, but it is considered the “sentimental core” of popular culture and an “embarrassing element” because of which Bollywood cannot gain global appreciation. [19]

Gayatri Gopinath and Nandini Bhattacharya rehabilitate the film/song by focusing on its political dimension. As a “place of fantasy and excess,” [20] the film/song, according to Gopinath, provides spectatorial and performative agency to disrupt hegemonic national imaginaries. Bollywood, according to Bhattacharya, allows diasporic women to “negotiate … nation, exile, and cultural production” because they have the primary responsibility of cultural transmission and reproduction. [21] Watching Bollywood cinema is a “basement cinephilia,” a secretive spectatorship that is neither in public nor in private. The basement is the site of women’s further retrenchment into invisibility even as Bollywood serves the political function of paradoxically consolidating diasporic Indian identity through the experience of (private) pleasure. [22] Gopinath further addresses the film/song as a “peculiarly queer form” because of its extra-logical/sequential/temporal character, and as a “specifically queer diasporic form” because it challenges the mutually reinforcing compulsory heterosexuality of the Indian nation and its diaspora. [23] Although I do not disagree, I argue that Bhattacharya and Gopinath devalue aesthetic qualities in the very act of gleaning their political value. Political value, in other words, stems directly from aesthetic devaluation.

Because of this tacit acceptance of inferiority, Gopinath and Bhattacharya also succumb to an implicit nationalism because they limit the affective and af/filiative capabilities of Bollywood cinema to an already constituted “Indian” community (diasporic or otherwise) in the throes of anxious reconstitution. Gopinath privileges visibility and audibility for diasporic queers through the film/song because she accepts it as interrupting narrative coherence, which she conflates with heteronormative nationalism. Bhattacharya emphasizes the use of Bollywood to mediate loneliness and homesickness, which reinforces notions of stoic self-sacrifice and shame rather than a sense of agency. [24] Neither Gopinath nor Bhattacharya, however, examine the film/song aesthetically.

Although Bollywood’s role is critical in the consolidation of “India” and its mutually reinforcing diaspora [25] as a global cultural commodity [26] by reducing Bollywood to the “site/sight” [27] of identity politics, Gopinath and Bhattacharya render Bollywood cinema and film/song as national allegory. [28] The film/song is recuperated as a narrative within the nationalist (logical) narrative whose political burden delimits meaning. In spite of the “unmoored quality” of the film/song in the film’s narrative and as the “most transnational” part of the film, [29] attested to by its increasing popularity in mainstream U.S. consumer culture, the film/song no longer has an aesthetic dimension symbolizing freedom but is an aesthetic object that is calculable.

The overdetermined nationalism and national overdetermination in the analysis of Bollywood films, even as they are derided as naïve and emotional in comparison with the “realism” of Hollywood, assumes the synonymy of modernity and postmodernity with national crisis management because aesthetic production is equated with the narration of national identity, which subsumes real conflicts and heterogeneous fractured constituencies within transparent accessible narratives that are simply reconstituted anew. Emphasis on identity politics, in other words “bottom-line national origin validation,” [30] privileges assimilation-based U.S. multiculturalism premised on a coherent national narrative. Migrants carry this coherent national identity embedded within them in the diaspora where it substitutes for “culture.” Indian culture becomes conflated with Indian national identity. Migrants become complicit, therefore, in preserving the exclusions inherent within a seemingly coherent identity, even as they seek recognition in the diaspora on the basis of their difference from the dominant culture of their adopted nation.

The diasporic re-coding of nation as cultural identity elides the impossibility of maintaining national boundaries and domestic protection of fragile industries, bio-diversity, and the environment as the postcolonial condition. Nation-as-culture not only disavows that diasporic migrancy for class advancement is made possible by and aids neo/imperialism but also recodes aspirational class advancement as victimized minority status. [31] For example, conventional analyses cast the popularity of Bollywood for India’s poverty-stricken as escapism or titillation for ostensibly sexually-repressed masses of males succumbing to and indiscriminately spreading A.I.D.S. [32] This approach neglects the aesthetic dimension and the uniqueness of the film/song and reinforces notions of pathological Indian masculinity and concomitant inadequacy of the Indian nation, which is represented allegorically in its inferior cultural productions.

Such analysis, moreover, cannot examine how Hollywood functions as national allegory for crisis management and reconstitution of the U.S. [33] The derogatory aesthetic qualities attributed to Bollywood, incomprehensible, fantastic, dreamy, effeminate, illogical, escapist, irrational, adolescent, indulgent, reinforce the idea of Hollywood cinema as the obverse. This understanding of Hollywood reinforces the U.S. as “finished,” unlike the “undeveloped” Indian nation. Hollywood’s function as national allegory subsumes heterogeneous fractured communities within transparent cohesive narratives and overlooks diasporic interventions and transformations, an analysis that the success of Bollywood and Bollywood-inspired films worldwide underscores. For example, on January 27, 2006 the NBC soap opera Passions created a Bollywood picturized song sequence to represent a love triangle between its three primary protagonists. Similarly, on November 2, 2006 the NBC show The Office had an episode featuring the Hindu festival Diwali, which also included Bollywood-style singing and dancing. Fox Broadcasting Company’s popular show The Simpsons had an episode (April 9, 2006) on outsourcing entitled “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bangalore” that ends with a popular Bollywood song about “false love” (a metaphor for outsourced jobs having none of the benefits enjoyed by U.S. workers). All the characters join in the film/song, especially Mr. Burns, who, pace Gopinath, is in his element as, of course, is Smithers.

The public culture of the diasporic nation, therefore, when acknowledged to be just as porous and fluid as the public culture of the Indian nation, allows for the examination of globalization in “a truly ‘global’ context” [34] because the Bollywood film/song renders the U.S. a local site of negotiation. This localization disrupts the over-determined nationalism and national over-determination of U.S. public culture in spite of its status as the hegemonic cultural form of self-expression and memory. [35] If the film/song, as Gopinath argues, is a “discursive space where debates around high and low art, and authenticity and inauthenticity [are] staged,” [36] then reducing Bollywood cinema and the film/song to its utility for the masses in “India” and for the classes in the “diaspora” [37] reinforces a development-based logic and neglects the aesthetic dimension.

This essay recovers the devalued aesthetic dimension of the Bollywood film/song from its political over-determination as national allegory. The qualities attributed to the film/song, such as effeminacy, irrationality, fantasy, and non-synchronicity, which I term its postcolonial whimsy, and its surplus value as the Bollywood film’s most transnational component, allow for the free play of the imagination. This admits the possibility of another performative public culture and imagined community not premised on the exploitation, calculability, and passive spectatorship and consumption that create “unisonance.” [38] The ability of the film/song to put the beat down there, as Jerry Garcia said apocryphally, where even white people could find, it enables affect without literal linguistic comprehension, especially among those unfamiliar with the indigenous languages and musical traditions.

What is derided as the sentimental aspect of Bollywood films and as its most embarrassing element is its whimsical aesthetic. The film/song as the film’s fanciful, hopeful, and dreamy core and its unmoored quality broadens the scope of its possible political meanings. The film/song dis/plays what is unsung in spite of being spectacular (inferior) excess: the dreams and aspirations still possible in everyday life. The film/song’s whimsy emerges from its constitutive hybridity, which predates trans/nationalism and globalization, [39] from its constitutive structures, and from its everyday role as public din rather than as exceptional flight from the survivalist concerns presumed to be the sole lot of the anonymous, collective “third world.” Postcolonial whimsy emphasizes, instead, that local negotiations of grand narratives, such as nationalism and postmodernism, by the dreams, hopes, and aspirations of daily life take place, most often, behind the scenes.

2. Han Dil Hai—Dil Aakhri Had Hai [40]

An historical analysis of Bollywood cinema, which developed its film/song because of the British ban on political films during World War II [41] and its long-standing indigenous musical traditions, [42] is beyond this essay’s scope. I hope to provide in this section a sense of the centrality of melody to the film/song’s whimsy as visualized in the film and of the aesthetic conventions of this picturization or embodiment. This essay, furthermore, does not prioritize Bollywood and the film/song against the stellar production of non-Hindi-language and non-mainstream cinema, especially South Indian cinema, and diverse musical and dramaturgical traditions. [43]

Conventional analyses of spectacle assume that the film/song interrupts logical narrative because the songs are “not motivated generically.” This actually gets things “backwards.” [44] As Lata Mangeshkar, India’s predominant female playback singer attests, “Cinema is an excuse for music.” [45] Songs are composed before shooting. Film directors provide the music directors (the film composer) with necessary information about the “story, the characters and dramatic situation, the visuals (locations, cinematography), action and timing.” [46] Hollywood advertises a film through previews, background music, and merchandise, while Bollywood previews films by releasing the soundtrack at least a month early.

Film/songs are the “first marketing move” and provide a unique “audio advertising ‘jingle.’” Prior to the premier, the film is publicized through “cuts” of the primary film/song that are aired as a kind of “music video.” [47] The film/songs, in fact, are often more profitable and are played in “school assemblies, festivals, weddings, dance clubs, markets.” [48] Often the film’s title is a segment of the refrain of the primary theme song. [49] The film/song becomes a part of “collective memory” and the audience is already familiar with the lyrics and tune before viewing the film/song’s visualization. Temporal priority gives the film/songs life “outside” the “accompanying” narrative.” [50] They are advertised on All India Radio (A.I.R.) and the commercial market to instill curiosity. [51] If the soundtrack fails to catch on, then the film is likely to fail regardless of the stars. [52]

The visualization of the song must capture its “lyricism,” which “affirms the life force” [53] and the lyricist must “ensure” visual and musical success. [54] The songs capture central themes, [55] underscore the characters’ feelings, [56] and provide a “mirror” of “life and the fantasy that grew out of it.” [57] Unlike Hollywood musicals, where the song forwards the plot or reveals character traits of the singer/protagonist, the film/song can “musically confirm” the visual state of characters’ “hearts and minds” and visually express what is in the “hearts of the protagonists.” [58]

This play between the aural and the visual, and the visible and the invisible, create felt contact [59] between film/song and audience. This felt contact, for Partha Chatterjee, is the film/song’s “subterranean messages” as a “simple desire to caress the moon” by “idealist seekers looked upon as a fool by most of the world,” [60] which remains caught within calculable, exploitative, and non-affective realism. The film/song, however, also contains the “message” and the director’s “true intentions.”

The director conveys the “elegance, sophistication and artistic integrity” of his or her work through the film/song. Song visualization creates “a film within a film” as a “testimony” to the director’s “artistic credo.” [61] As the film’s “most expressive single element,” [62] it allows a film to “come alive memorably” through “lilting melodies,” which represent “abiding human values.” [63]

If music is a “culture-specific semiological system,” [64] as Anna Morcom emphasizes, then the film/song’s melody is critical to its whimsical ethos. [65] Conventional approaches to the film/song, however, focus on its ostensibly identifiable “Western” elements to demonstrate inherent derivativeness and do not notice the irreducible role of melody, which is constituted by structural, visual, and aural elements. The inability to record lengthy sequences because of the availability of only the 78 r.p.m. record led to the 3 ½ minute song “neatly cut into 3 stanzas along with the opening ‘mukhra’, the catch words,” which are “neatly interspersed with musical interludes.” [66] This balanced structure extends to visualization, since there is rarely a character that expresses exclusively negative emotion such as “fury, revenge, terror, horror,” which is left to the instrumental rather than vocal melody. Melody is value-coded and, therefore, the hero and the heroine primarily sing the songs because they are “most associated with goodness and upholding the moral universe.” The villains “do not sing at all.” [67]

The film/song incorporates North Indian classical and folk melodies and uses the sitar, table, harmonium, sarod, the Indian flute, and sometimes the Western violin, [68] all of them “high, lilting melodic instruments.” [69] The centrality of melody has led to a unique manner of singing called ‘crooning,’ [70] especially for romance. Morcom states, “In classical music, rāga itself embodies melody. Folk music, such as wedding songs, seasonal songs and devotional songs, is also melody-based, as is film song, however Western or hybrid the tune.” [71]

Melody stems from the scale system of rāga, which is not amenable to “scenes of disturbance” and may only exceptionally express negative emotions and situations. [72] Rāga has an intimate identification with the bhakt movement of devotional music and poetry. Thus, if “rāga evokes the sacred and love,” then musical distancing from rāga elicits “disturbance, distortion, disruption or damage to that sacred.” [73] Morcom does not characterize this as a “Western” and “non-Western” conflict but casts the “distinction between rāga and the antithesis of rāga” as the “melodic and the unmelodic” [74] because the film/song is already constitutively hybrid. As music director Naushad asserts, the “ear of the Indian public [is] so tuned” that commercial films or film/songs require “ Western” music. [75]

Thus, the emphasis in aural pleasure is not on authenticity premised on identity-based distinctions of “Western” or “non-Western” but on the melodic and unmelodic which are also value-laden. In fact, coding music as “foreign” or “native” actively generates “narrative meaning,” such as what Brooks refers to as monopathic emotion, to constitute melodrama [76] because sound is used to create “stark and exaggerated … relatively unambiguous effects,” [77] rather than to establish identity-based difference. For example, the symphony orchestra, large ensembles, and the melodious “sound of massed strings,” which signify romantic sentiments, are common but not morally coded as “Western,” i.e., threatening to Indian values. [78] The “symphony orchestra and choruses for big-canvas, epic sound are also common to both traditions, as is the use of the bluesy saxophone music for ‘bad’ women.” [79]

Similarly, Bollywood’s “musical vocabulary” [80] uses the “Western” whole-tone scale for the “effect” [81] of “discomfort or disturbance;” its alien quality creates “unpleasant associations” because it can “upset tonality or cause tonal ambiguity.” [82] The whole-tone scale is not used in North Indian classically based songs for romantic, celebratory, or devotional scenes. [83] Morcom contrasts the twelve swarasthans of Carnatic classical music (South Indian) with the chromatic scale of “Western” music because “notes … are not laid out in theoretical works as a chromatic scale, but as the seven notes and their flattened and sharpened variants. The chromatic scale appears in no raga and in no common technical exercise either.” [84] Morcom emphasizes, therefore, that “chromaticism, the whole-tone scale, diminished 7ths, tritones and unmelodic lines” evoke similar resonances in Bollywood and Hollywood because of “coincidental reference points or compatibilities in the logic of both musical systems.” The distinctions, however, in these “techniques” are not identity-based but are heard as “dissonances within the raga system or they generate discomfort by being outside the raga system or other forms of Indian melody altogether” [85] The emphasis on narrative, value coding, and affect through contrariness to “positively coded raga or melody” is not determined, therefore, by political, cultural, economic, and social opposition to “Western” encroachment. [86]

The film/song is aesthetically hybrid, therefore, rather than simply politically hybrid. Its structure includes a “predominant vocal melody, Indian vocal ornamentation, verse-refrain alternation, Indian and Western scale patterns and Western harmonies” and a “recognition of song in the context of film and society.”

The film/song may be divided into the “musical structure and vocal style,” i.e., its “fundamentally Indian elements” and “scale patterns, rhythms and instruments” according to which songs are differentiated and which comprise diverse foreign and indigenous musical influences. As Allison Arnold notes, the “foreign” components are more discernible than the Indian ones, which are “assimilated into a fixed film-song format” and are usually “imitations, duplications or alterations” of influences whose “origins” are “insignificant” but their reconstellation is critical to popular success. [87] Reframing musical hybridity as long-standing “regional” musical traditions and challenging “Western” music as eo ipso “global fashions” or “cultural hegemony” [88] shifts the analysis from performative aesthetic experience (reduced to politics) to formative aesthetic uniqueness. [89]

Privileging site/sight by casting the film/song as the performance and reconstitution of politically constituted identities curiously silences the “third world,” in spite of its masses, and repeats trans/nationalism’s scopic politics. [90] The film director uses “telegraphic audio-visual signs” [91] to the visually and aurally engaged spectator. Although dance is central to visualization, especially as music-video, and draws on Western and indigenous dancing arts, [92] it has “never been integrated with the main story.” [93] The dance plus musical has not developed as a discrete genre. [94] The “primacy of the aural over the visual” [95] emerges from the “centrality of sung poetic text.” If the songs capture the imagination to evoke curiosity about its visualization, then the lyrics are critical to visual experience because lyrics (the mukhra at least) are often memorized. The film/songs are part of a unique and independent genre known as “filmi git,” or film songs (filmi being Indian-English, which adds a Hindi possessive to the English word film). The sung poetry, Taylor notes, “constitutes a textual knowledge within the community of film-viewers.”

This textual knowledge or “collective memory” is demonstrated on television game shows such as Sa Re Ga Ma, Antakshari and Star Yaar Kalakaar, where contestants must remember the lyrics and sing from this “ever-growing archive.” Significantly, studio audiences also sing “‘answer’ songs,” which cues those watching at home to “chime in.” [96] Antakshari, for example, is a game familiar to many who played it at family gatherings, weddings, on social occasions with friends, or on long journeys by car or train. It requires one to sing a mukhra that begins with the last letter of the mukhra of the song sung by the opposing party.

Advertising on huge billboards that litter the landscape at traffic-filled intersections and open-air markets is also a part of this textual knowledge and collective memory. Scenes from the advertised film are gaudily painted on the canvas, or the billboard shows actual stills from key moments. Although the billboards demonstrate Bollywood film’s important role for “formations of visuality” through their “intervisual relationships” with other popular public media such as postcards, posters, and calendars, [97] Taylor asserts that spectacular excess also instigates the memory of the corresponding song. [98] The song, therefore, is larger than life because it is heard even when not temporally present. The active participatory quality of the film/song, such that the viewer listens to what he or she is seeing on the billboard and sees what he or she is listening to on the radio, CD, or cassette, is central to its imaginative aesthetic. Textual knowledge (visual media and sung poetry) and collective memory connect the “modern experience of movie viewing to an imaginaire constructed from conventional South Asian poetic metaphors and themes” and creates a “poetics of sight and visual display” that “directly affects the meanings films generate for audiences.” This poetics, I argue, is whimsical because it represents a complex interplay between visual and aural pleasure. Even though visual pleasure depends on the aural pleasure of filmi git [99] they are in an imaginative rather than structural relation.


Another aspect of the aural pleasure of filmi git that is crucial to visual pleasure is the sung poetry. Traditionally, the sung poetry of the film/song derives from the Persianate poetic paradigm, as the “very first utterance in a Bollywood movie was in Urdu, the Persianate end of the Urdu-Hindustani-Hindi language spectrum.” In fact, Urdu had the furthest reach geographically and demographically in North India. [100] If visual and aural pleasure cannot be separated, and poetic lyrics are Persianate, [101] then the film/song’s aesthetic conventions do not challenge Hindu trans/national communalism through the political scripts un/seen at the site/sight of the visualized song. Such an approach presupposes that the visualized song is an inherently political form. This challenge is issued, instead, through its Persianate poetry and from the memory of the communal experience of viewing the film/song’s visualization or from the individual experience of anticipating/imagining visualization. The “replaying” of tunes creates a “public modernity based on the poetics of a film imaginary” [102] and challenges the “primacy of images and texts in the cultural transmission of ideas,” [103] which furthers the “petrified poetics of space.” [104]

Theoretically, the film/song’s unique aesthetic requires examination of film music as “not specifically bound to an image,” i.e., a “disembodied” or “non-visual song.” [105] This paradoxical aesthetic allows for their diffusion beyond the “parent films.” [106] The film/song is broadcast more rapidly than any other form of music and traverses borders unlike the majority through live shows of stars and playback singers as well as through cassettes, videos, CD’s and DVD’s. [107] The sheer volume of production and the availability of pirated copies [108] contribute to their popularity. “One-fifth of [Indian cinema’s] current annual production of approximately 750 films is made in Hindi, each film having an average of five to six songs.” [109] Chandarvarkar notes, “On an average, ten new film songs are written, composed, sung and recorded every day for 6 days a week, through the year. Another five a day are put on to a cassette or disc as non-film songs.” The profit-driven multi/national entertainment industry inculcates popular taste through public and behind-the-scenes campaigns. [110] The “war profiteer-turned-producer” and the “producer-distributor-exhibitor nexus” [111] insist on “one or two stars, six songs and three dances.” [112] This reliable formula is often bolstered by an additional picturized song “as a last minute ‘vitamin injection’” for “entertainment quality.” [113]

The film/song’s whimsy, however, does not emerge from marketable, calculable, and exportable entertainment value but from its peculiarly detached aesthetic quality as a non-visual song. Specific spectral associations do not over-determine the film/song’s dreams and the viewer/listener does not position him/herself as a politically correct spectator who looks at rather than sees and listens to the film/song. The fact that the film/song’s “sentiments” are not logically predicated on the “character” enables the seer/listener to enter its whimsy so that the primary pleasure-oriented concerns are with “how well a singer renders a song” and whether visualization captures sentiments, often those of the audience. [114] The emphasis on “visual enactment” displaces the “standardization” of establishing a “character type” through a “specific voice.”

Gopinath rightly focuses on the un/spoken that emerges at the film/song’s site/sight and is especially rich for recuperative political readings. For example, “body language, covered by the veil of a song, suggest[s] a display of affection, which [is] forbidden in public.” [115] These dramatic/visual conventions, which derive from Victorian moral codes, are not politically suggestive, although they are a paradoxical spectacular excess stemming from restraint. At their best they are part of the film/song’s poetry. Woodman Taylor examines the Persianate and bhakti origins of “penetrating gazes” between lovers, nazar and drishti, respectively. For example, the bhakti tradition creates a “female subject position” for the devotee and expresses romantically “religious sentiments,” such as separation and desire. [116] Within bhakti poetry, the female devotee articulates a longing for convening with “her Lord and lover.”

For Taylor, there are two forms of visuality. First, the “human gaze as conveyor of sexual desire was appropriated from Persianate /Urdu visuality.” Second, the Persianate nazar was “intensified” through “adding” the “force of drishti as it operates in … darshan … through the tactile qualities of drishti.” The affective consequences of the gaze are conveyed through sung poetry and choreographed dancing. The most intimate moment between lovers “gazing intensely at each other” is never portrayed in silence and such scenes span from extreme close-ups of the eyes of the lovers to beautiful landscapes. [117] The film/song’s whimsy represents love (perhaps the most whimsical of emotions) through an aesthetic where the pleasure of two lovers is both seen and heard in its fantastic cartography. The sung poetry influences audience responses to visualization (perhaps hoping for a similar experience), as Taylor emphasizes. This different expression of sexuality beyond literal touch is part of the film/song’s “utopian impulses.”

The film/songs are “free-floating signifiers,” [118] not because of their devalued aesthetic qualities but because their whimsy gestures to the behind-the-scenes aspect of the film: the dreams still possible in everyday life. The picturized song also relies quite literally on stargazing for its whimsical aesthetic. Specific songs are regularly associated with specific actors and actresses, such as Bollywood mega-star Aamir Khan’s arrival on the scene through the song “Papa kehete hain bada naam karega” in Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988). This is a film about a young college graduate dreaming of making a name for himself in the world of hearts (as one of Bollywood’s most enduring heart throbs he certainly is), while the sung poetry asks that we see through his eyes (nazar) and “Pehla nasha” in Joh Jita Wohi Sikander (1992). Both films (the author’s personal favorites) are about first love for a group of high school students (as Aamir Khan, a Muslim, continues to be for men and women across the globe). [119] The identification of the film/song with the film star also takes place because songs are “repackaged” and sold in what Sanjoy Majumdar terms a “chain of song sequences unified by theme, era, singer, music director, or actor” in addition to being dispersed through their “repeatability” beyond the cinema hall.

Many actors debut through the picturized song. Although there is obviously an element of the “spectacular” in the “star performance,” the picturized song also establishes the character of the artist, i.e., both the types of roles he or she will play and his or her “voice.” Majumdar separates the utopian and idealized aspect (cast as “impulses” rather than form) of star presence from the content of the song, and privileges, instead, the “formal construction of the scene” and the music’s “emotional appeal.” By rendering utopianism synonymous with the music’s emotional appeal (sans lyrics), including in a scene’s formal construction, Majumdar reduces utopia to joy (lyrics are excluded because they may be “tragic”), which is conflated with entertainment. While the song may evoke joy, neglecting the lyrics reduces the film/song’s aesthetic dimension to its “emotionality.” In other words, when describing the picturized song, Majumdar neglects the song altogether. She also considers this “emotionality” to stem from vaguely described “classical Indian performance theories,” which are apparently emotionally tracked even as theories and traditions. What Morcom describes as the melodic and the unmelodic, Majumdar reduces to “emotional appeal” for passive consumers.

Yet, without lyrics, how is a song set to music and the scene formally constructed? Why are affective responses limited to emotion without imaginative engagement? Majumdar also deploys the stereotypical distinction between diegetic/nondiegetic to further define the film/song’s utopianism. The narrative interruption of the picturized song, i.e., the “[adolescent] disregard for continuities of time and space,” leads not to imaginative possibilities spurred by free dis/play, but to the nuts and bolts of “change of location and costuming from one shot to the next” that simply lead to a “spectacle” in an “idealized setting” for which possibilities do not “really exist within the diegesis.” The spectacle not only interrupts the presumed realism of the narrative, emptying the film of its aesthetic dimension and rendering it a documentary text, but also is ideal and/or utopian only in so far as it interrupts this logical narrative through emotional appeal, somehow connected to the audience’s lived experiences because the film is apparently their transparent rendition. Majumdar neglects the diegetic nature of the film/song, which emerges from the sung poetry, and privileges realism by casting the location of the film/song’s utopianism as its “artificial geography” created by “editing.” In Majumdar’s analysis, there is nothing aesthetic about the film/song’s utopianism; the scene’s formal construction and music calculably and predictably generate (entertaining) emotion. [120]

In addition to sung poetry, voice is instrumental to the film/song’s whimsy. Although initially actors and actresses sang their own songs, music composer R.C Boral in 1935 used lip-synchronization or “playback singing.” The ability to record songs prior to shooting reduced production costs. [121] The song could be filmed “on location” without the need for the sets, personnel, orchestra, and singers. Because of the predominance of playback singing, lyrics became central, as did song composers, musicians, and playback singers who gained incredible financial success. [122] Majumdar rightly recognizes that the star-system in India draws on “two different star texts”—singer and actor. Film/songs are marketed based on either the “aural star” or the “visual star.” The fact that few singers dominate the playback singing industry demonstrates their change in “status” from un-credited “ghost voices.” [123] These two star texts create a unique “cinematic” or what I would term aesthetic “construct” where the “ideal voice” is matched with the “ideal body” to create a “composite star” who is the “visual-aural equivalent” of the aforementioned site/sight of the song’s “artificial geography.”

The playback singer and the actor have a “symbiotic relationship” because the singer’s “disembodied voice” acquires “visual presence” through the actor’s stage presence and through his or her bodily (sans voice) performance of the song. Concomitantly, the “figural gestures” of the actor gain an “aural dimension” because of the playback singer’s “borrowed voice.” Through this “ideal matching of marketable voice and visually alluring body,” the film/song aesthetic conceals the technology of playback singing in order to create the impression of “authenticity.” [124] Majumdar, therefore, theorizes an “aural conception of stardom.” Playback singers do not usually possess the traditional good looks and charisma associated with the Bollywood star and their “invisibility” constitutes their “stardom.” This “aural stardom” is dependent on public recognition of their voices, proliferation of personal and biographical details, and attribution of “moral and emotional traits” to the singing voices. Ascription of certain qualities influences the “voice-body construct” in the picturized song, which is “predicated upon the awareness, and even celebration, of the workings of technology.” [125]

The most notable female singer in Hindi cinema is Lata Mageshkar, whose voice has dominated playback singing for over four decades. As Pavitra Sundar emphasizes, Mangeshkar’s “high-pitched, unadorned singing” portrays “ideal Indian femininity” because of its “shrill, adolescent-girl falsetto” which confirms women’s “infantile status” and conflates the “purity of vocality” with “purity of character.” [126] The “ideological” problematic of the disparity between the “eroticized female body” on screen, in magazines, and in live shows and the “pure female voice” is resolved via the singing voice because of the conflation between “national identity” and “norms of femininity.” [127] In other words, maintaining proper femininity symbolizes proper maintenance of national boundaries so that impropriety is automatically coded as other or alien. Thus, a pure voice embodies “chastity, innocence, devotion, and self-sacrifice,” all characteristics of the “ideal heroine.”

Mangeshkar’s voice embodies a “desexualized vocal style” that does not have any “heaviness and nasality” that would connote “decadence, immodesty, and … Muslimness.” [128] By contrast, Mangeshkar’s sister, Asha Bhosle, sings with marked sensuality and is often the voice of the “vamp,” a stock foil, until the 1960’s, to the (authentically Indian) heroine. [129] Artists such as Ila Arun are never the voice of the heroine, even as the “virgin” and “vamp” dichotomy has been dis/placed onto diasporic Indian heroines, a fact not noted by Sundar, because of the “raw, earthy feel that … signals … rural India … [and] assertive female sexuality” such that difference becomes sexualized and this “voice stands for all the caste, class, and immoral connotations (if not the religious ones) that have been purged from Mangeshkar’s voice.” [130] According to Sundar, patriarchal discourses of nationalism place an undue burden on female voices to carry the “weight of morality, sexuality, and Indianness.” [131]

Female playback singers must negotiate these political burdens as they plan their careers and public personas because they are subject to the gendered scripts that govern public visibility and participation, unlike male playback singers. [132] Yet, Chatterjee emphasizes, the “heroine was in reality a more important person in Bombay films than the hero, despite the fact that the latter got paid more and hogged the best lines in the script and the marquee.” At their best, Hindi films did not cast the heroine as a “foil” to the hero. The female playback singer, therefore, had a very important function and “willed life into a film.” [133] In addition, certain conventions of filming women on screen came into being because of traumatic and devastating events in Indian history. The partition of India and Pakistan, for example, “brought about a need for chastity and purity in people’s lives,” which was also propagated and consolidated by the Arya Samaj whose members migrated to India from a now split Punjab. The partition was marked by unprecedented violence towards women often in the name of protecting their virtue. Films created the “myth of the screen heroine as a snow-white virgin” for a population that “lived through (and in many cases taken part in) the carnage … and needed all the hope in the world to face life again and seek expiation.” [134] These differing histories, therefore, demonstrate that filmi conventions just like filmi git do not necessary follow the political scripts that are often assumed to be allegorically found in them, even in an overdetermined script such as (Indian) gender norms (read: backward, atavistic).

Although the audience recognizes playback singing, Majumdar characterizes the viewing pleasure as “willful disavowal of technology” rather than imaginative engagement. Majumdar scolds the audience for celebrating technology (as an “undeveloped” nation, shouldn’t India celebrate technological advancements?) rather than the authentic voice and chastens the audience for “willfully disavowing” technology in order to experience the song as if it were sung by the authentic voice of the actor. Given the technology of playback singing and lip-synching, authenticity is established through the extra-cinematic “phenomena” of aural stardom. The “moral” issue of playback singing, i.e., “vocal substitution,” according to Majumdar, is “irrelevant when the dual star reference makes it equally a question of borrowing a body as of borrowing a voice.” [135] However, rather than foregrounding “authenticity,” playback singing as a technology encourages audience participation. The fact that the songs are lip-synched allows anyone to “sing” them and to imagine oneself stepping into that “role.” This recognition of the film/song’s intrinsically performative aspect allows one to take its unmoored trans/national quality seriously. Lip-synching is the imaginative possibility for freedom from calculability and exploitation (“rational” existence) and the hope for a world truly without boundaries, given the picturized song’s wondrous and often international locales.

As Peter Kvetko points out, film/songs are a public entity: they are loud and played in open-air markets, shops, streets, vans, taxis, and three-wheel scooters or “autos.” The voice is not singularly “heard” in public but thoroughly infuses it. The high pitch of the female vocalist also facilitates this infusion. [136] The “lure of the disembodied voice” [137] invites anyone through its melodic qualities to embody it. Voice is the interface between the visible and the invisible or the visual and the aural. The voice, moreover, remains the same and it is the body embodying it that changes, i.e., different people can sing, even if they cannot speak, in one voice. Pavitra Sundar iterates, “In the West, all music (not just vocal music) has long been associated with the body, and accordingly feminized and racialized. This association is not as strong in the Indian context.” [138] The picturized song’s whimsy, therefore, also has political consequences: it can “denaturalize the cultural connotations of voice.” [139] Postcolonial whimsy challenges the conflation of authenticity with singing in one’s own voice. In the alternative (“artificial”) geography of the film/song, perhaps the makings of another reality principle, authenticity is singing in a common voice.

The neglect of the film/song’s aesthetic dimension and the conflation of the aesthetic object with documentary text and one-dimensional spectacular excess prevent analysis of its devalued qualities. The film/song’s whimsy remains unsung as simply its sentimental aspect rather than imaginative display, which infuses public spaces as the melodic sounds of everyday life and the common dreams and hopes that are most often behind the scenes of what is presumed to be the spectacular yet banal wretchedness of postcolonial national life. The picturized song’s postcolonial whimsy, when examined not just from the perspective of discerning irreducible “third world difference” [140] but from its popularity for billions worldwide, demonstrates its cross-cultural affective capacities and therefore the potentiality for another performative and consumptive public culture. In this respect, analysis which “addresses issues concerning the most ‘backward’ parts of the world may claim the most advanced understanding of contemporary global reality” [141] and, in that sense, truly are postcolonial.

The next section examines the whimsical aesthetic through the negative example of Gurinder Chadha’s Bride and Prejudice (2004). Chadha’s film failed to capture its audience in the U.S. because it did not have enough confidence in the aesthetic dimension of the very genre to which it is ostensibly paying homage. [142] Chadha deploys stereotypical and one-dimensional spectacular excess rather than the whimsical film/song to convey romantic sensibilities. She turns her film into a colorful musical political statement against the pride and prejudice involved in a cross-cultural encounter, a crisis managed through the reconstitution of gendered norms in the overdetermined body of the Indian bride. Yet, even as Chadha recognizes the centrality of the film/song for the participatory public culture that she concedes as salient for Indian and Indian diasporic communities, the emphasis on dance and thereby on spectacle and public display rather than sung poetry (translated as the “musical” element of the novel-based narrative) neglects the whimsical display of an aesthetic constituted by both aural and and visual pleasure. Bride and Prejudice is a particularly effective negative example because it over-politicizes the film/song. Although other diasporic productions such as Chaddha’s own Bend It Like Beckham (2002), Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding (2001), and Deepa Mehta’s Hollywood/ Bollywood (2002), deploy film songs to convey “Indian” “culture” as a means of re/territorializing the nation-state in the diaspora, or to convey diasporic and global sensibilities in the postcolonial nation-state, Bride and Prejudice is explicitly a musical and it attempts to broaden Bollywood’s aesthetic appeal.

Chadha’s hesitation to give in to the film/song’s whimsy is even more surprising because the “out-takes” of the film show a cast and crew of different nationalities, genders, races, classes, and sexualities lip-synching and dancing not only to the Hindi portion of Ashanti’s song but also to the film’s opening picturized wedding song sung in Punjabi. The film’s “out-takes,” its extraneous, illogical, and non-sequential “special feature” (on the DVD version), demonstrates, ironically, the film/song’s whimsy. Given the cast and crew’s affective responses, and their spontaneous imaginative participation and self-display, the “out-takes” convey the true intent of the director and in their aesthetic dimension are the hopeful and joyful narrative of the film. I argue that the postcolonial whimsy of the film/song expelled by Chadha in her logical filmi narrative, which translates Bollywood into a Hollywood “musical” through neglecting sung poetry and having all but one song sung in English, reappears in the film’s “extra” features after the narrative’s conclusion. The “extra” features unwittingly demonstrate how whimsy unfetters the national narratives of dominant Western culture from its burden of coherence and realism. Bollywood’s whimsical aesthetic allows the putatively original citizens of the dominant nation to sing back to empire in another common voice and in this is truly postcolonial.

3. Pride and Prejudice

Apparently, it is a truth universally acknowledged that India’s pride is its bride. India’s wedding industry, worth $11 billion annually, is growing at the rate of 25% per annum and catching up to America’s $50 billion annual industry. According to Dilip Cherian, head of the leading public relations firm, Perfect Relations, “Weddings have become the single most visible expression of a person’s social standing and wealth, an expression that is both acceptable and expected.” [143] Not surprisingly, diasporic Indian women directors, such as Gurinder Chadha and Mira Nair, capitalize on this ostensibly most Indian of Indian traditions to showcase the “new India and new Indians” [144] against long-standing static representations of “third world difference.” Chadha, whose Bhaji on the Beach (1993) was the first full-length feature film by a British Asian woman, maintains that she values the “feel good-factor” [145] and makes “joyful affectionate films.”