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Popular Hindi Film Song Sequences Set in the Indian Diaspora and the Negotiating of Indian Identity

From: Asian Music
Volume 40, Number 1, Winter/Spring 2009
pp. 53-82 | 10.1353/amu.0.0012

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Introduction

Many scholars and audiences consistently identify the song sequence and its interruption of the narrative as the quintessential characteristic that distinguishes Indian popular cinema from other cinema traditions.1 Song sequences form a significant part of musical culture throughout South Asia2 where they independently circulate as the mainstay of programming on Indian music video channels, as selections on compilation DVDs or VCDs, and as downloads from video sharing and entertainment-oriented websites. Furthermore, song sequences are often reenacted in professional live touring shows, and more amateur cultural functions and weddings. Although some viewers and critics are thrilled by spectacularly choreographed song and dance sequences within films, others consider song sequences disruptive and extraneous to the film’s central narrative.3 After I anonymously surveyed 46 regular viewers of Hindi films in April 2008, I discovered that only slightly more than half of these viewers will always watch the song sequences in the course of watching a film at home.4 The statistics for the other half of the group reveal the range in attitudes toward the song sequence’s importance to a film. While approximately another 25 percent usually watch the sequences, 15–20 percent only watch song sequences half of the time or less, and an additional approximately 5 percent state that they always skip the song sequences. The relationship between a respective film’s genre and its songs merits more attention. The responses to this survey indicate viewers are more likely to skip song sequences if the film is a comedy, action movie, or thriller, but a few viewers also regularly skip song sequences in the romance genre.

The lack of consensus on the song sequence’s relationship (if any) to its film’s narrative may explain why scholars have only begun to explore the film song sequence as a cinematic device that can play an integral role in the construction of a film’s narrative.5 In recent years, many popular Hindi films featuring characters based in diasporic locations have been shot outside India, and I argue that the song sequences in these films play a particularly crucial role in the narrative. In most recent films, the song sequences help affirm that characters based in the diaspora hold authentic Indian cultural identities and that the Indian diaspora constitutes part of the Indian nation. Song sequences in these films define Indian space and characters by drawing on recognized practices that relate to the role of song sequences within the film as a whole, and by explicitly portraying the performance of particular cultural traditions that are recognizably Indian.

Moving Films and Their Song Sequences Outside India’s Borders

The song sequence’s portrayal of particular cultural traditions within a foreign space may be better understood in the context of colonized nations’ historical struggles to distinguish and define their cultural identity against that of their colonizers. Partha Chatterjee has proposed that anticolonial nationalist thought has often imagined social institutions and practices as being divided between two domains, in order to create “its own domain of sovereignty within colonial society well before it begins its political battles with the imperial power”(Chatterjee 1993, 6). The “outside” domain is considered to encompass economic and political considerations, technology, and science, while the “inner” domain is entrusted with preserving an “essential” cultural identity—those traditions related to religion and mythology, literature, dance, music, and art. It is of course the “inner” domain that distinguishes any national culture from its colonizing power. Music and the song sequence’s ability to refer to all those traditions associated with the inner domain mark their potency to denote Indian culture and identity, as well as play a significant role in establishing the Indian cultural identity of their diasporic characters.

The contemporary song sequence’s frequent presentation in diasporic settings develops historically from the practice of using the song sequence to break from the more mundane settings within the story to spectacular landscapes. Love songs have typically been shot in scenic locations that are often far away and sometimes entirely unrelated to where the rest of the narrative of the story unfolds, exemplifying what Lalitha Gopalan (2002) has called the “dream sequence.”6 The song sequence in...



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