Like most memories, it is a random one. Of standing in a line for assembly in school, squeezing in whatever we have to talk about in those few moments before the start of the morning prayer. “It was raining yesterday and I went out to the balcony to get drenched,” I tell her. “Like Aishwarya in Taal?” she asks immediately.
I don’t know why I remember this. Maybe, because my best friend had nailed it and I was embarrassed to admit it. That we all led secret inner lives thanks to Hindi cinema, never really owning up to it, or perhaps even realising the serious extent to which we regarded Hindi films. Only, in this particular case I wasn’t thinking of Ash, but that I was Kajol singing, ‘Mere khwabon mein jo aaye’ in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge.
Growing up, the women we saw on the Hindi film screen sang about love. A lot. They were waiting for love — Usse kaho kabhi saamne toh aaye (DDLJ, 1995) — or singing about how it keeps them up at night — Jaagte rahein hum toh raat bhar, ek lamha ek pal bhi soyi na nazar (Barsaat, 1995) — celebrating it — Ankhiyan milaon kabhi ankhiyan churaun kya tune kiya jadoo (Raja, 1995) — or, of course, lamenting it — Tujhe yaad na meri aayi, kisi se ab kya kehna (Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, 1998).
It was all also an excuse to get sensuous, because it was allowed in the course of the song sequence. Dhak dhak karne laga (Beta, 1992) or Tip tip barsa pani (Mohra, 1994) survived well into our teenage years, and in our collective memories. We knew them well, even if we did not remember when we first heard or saw them.
In the rest of the songs, the Hindi film heroine would be watched closely, and commented upon. The colour of her eyes was sometimes “katthai” (Duplicate, 1998), a word whose meaning had to be asked around in pre-Google times. There were also “strawberry aankhein” (Sapnay, 1997), in the weird “lost-in-dubbing” manner of many of the popular songs of this time. In jest, she might have been Khambe jaise khadi (Dil, 1990), but eventually, she made men swoon: Ladki hai ya hai jadoo, khushboo hai ya nasha (DDLJ). It was important how she appeared to men, to be jadoo (magic), khushboo (fragrance) and nasha (intoxication) all at the same time.
While this is what the heroes sang when they sang about her, the women did not sing about what men looked like to them. Their songs, instead, were about what they felt. About how difficult it was to openly accept or deny that they had fallen in love: Iqraar karna mushkil hai, inkaar karna mushkil hai, kitna mushkil hai dekho is duniya main dil lagana (Agni Sakshi, 1996). Talking about themselves through the man’s gaze: Ghoonghat ki aad se dilbar ka deedar adhoora rehta hai (Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke, 1993). She felt incomplete till her lover saw her: Jab tak na pade aashiq ki nazar, singaar adhoora rehta hai, laying bare a problem, but also celebrating it rather than questioning it.
Who watched whom was, therefore, strictly demarcated. Who was supposed to feel more was decided according to gender. It had deep roots in the past and we still find it hard to shake off the gender demarcations.
The songs men sang imagined the women as reluctant. She would be the one to say that she had to leave — Jaati hoon main (Karan Arjun, 1995) — because she was scared of herself — khud se hi darne lagi hoon. This reluctance, which was a way of denying her desire, contradicted what the women sang when they were left alone, by themselves, in the film’s narratives. But, perhaps, this was part of their charm. The songs gave us enough mixed signals and confusion to get along with all of us.
There were exceptions to the rules. In Rangeela re (Rangeela, 1995), Urmila joined a small group of heroines before her — starting from Waheeda Rehman in Guide’s ‘Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna hai’ — who were singing of something other than their relationship to men. Sapnay might have been about taming Kajol’s character, but what we remembered was her singing Aawara bhanware jo haule haule gaayein. And Manisha Koirala singing, Aaj main upar, aasmaan neeche (Khamoshi, 1996) brought a bounce to the day anytime.
When you hear a song, a Hindi film song in particular, who is to say who relates to what, and what it evokes in you? Who is to say we only related to the female voices? Or that men only related to what male heroes and singers sang? In the times we were growing up in, for some of us, Papa kehte hain bada naam karega (Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, 1988) could have easily been our song irrespective of our gender. It did not really register at that time that the song was talking only of fathers and sons: Beta hamara aisa kaam karega (My son will do something consequential).
But even with us making songs our own, interpreting them in our own way, which we did all the time, there were some ideas which have stayed over the years.
It was a victory for the patriarchy in Hindi cinema of that time, for instance, that when we watched Saif Ali Khan sing, Dil main tere haan hai haan hai, hoton pe na na hai jhooth (Hamesha, 1997) for Kajol’s ‘neela duppata peela suit’, we knew that he could only be talking about a woman. She is saying no, but her heart actually says yes.
Hindi cinema had taught us well.