If you’d asked at 14 what my favourite song was, I’d have said Good Charlotte’s "The Anthem", based on my crush of the month’s music tastes. But deep down it was and still is R.D. Burman’s "Ek Ladki Ko Dekha" from 1942: A Love Story, the first Bollywood movie I ever saw.
From the cascading sitar-tabla melody that lines the chorus to Kumar Sanu’s reverberating “ohhhhh”, which launches each verse, it was iconic to me. It provided many firsts – Anil Kapoor was the first hero I found dreamy, and the song was instrumental to my first learning Hindi. I scrambled to follow along with English subtitles, but Hindi – specifically Javed Akhtar’s evocative lyrics – seemed to be the language of love.
Akhtar likening the “ek ladki” to a “shayar ka khwab” (a poet’s dream) and to “sardi ki dhoop” (winter sunlight) set the bar high for my expectations of romance.
I grew up in Cranford, a diverse suburb near London’s Heathrow Airport that’s teeming with aunties, just as in Bend It Like Beckham.
I relished being plonked in front of the burgeoning satellite channels that would play Bollywood films all day long. I loved coming home from school and putting on the Shah Rukh Khan compilation video we’d picked up in Southall. With his outspread arms, overblown stammering, and wiggly eyebrows, Shah Rukh whipped out songs like “Tujhe Dekha To” and “Jaadu Teri Nazar” as sweeping romantic gestures that made me tingle.
Hybridity was a concept I’d embrace later on, but its earliest manifestation was my simultaneous, equal teen mania for the Dil Se soundtrack and Westlife’s Coast to Coast. Fortunately, I had an accepting friend group that didn’t mind sitting through the whole synopsis of Biwi No.1 or comparing our favourite members of So Solid Crew (Asher D... duh).
At 11, it’s easy to freely admit to loving the culture we love, unconcerned about coolness or a lack thereof.
When we moved to Vancouver later in the year, that freedom was replaced by culture shock. Launched suddenly into a new social world at the cusp of adolescence, I became rigid about how I expressed my identity. I was British first, then Indian, so I had to act accordingly, which started with fudging my music choices.
I never told anyone “Ek Ladki Ko Dekha” was my favourite song. Instead, my “favourite” music fluctuated based on which band my current crush liked. My accent disarmed them enough, but conversation would halt completely when I couldn’t name any songs by Good Charlotte and All-American Rejects beyond their Top 40 hits.
So I committed. I’d buy band tour T-shirts that had a Vancouver date on them, and nonchalantly brag about how I’d moshed so hard at that concert. Pretences were my fallback, no matter how silly I looked in Claire’s scene-kid jewellery and baggy jeans. Pop-punk bands appealed to me with their thrashing riffs, cheeky lyrics, and easy promise of social acceptance.
Of course I missed my Bollywood playlists.
Othering yourself based on signifiers like music and language stings. I shudder at my old diary entries that go back and forth between craving the sounds I’d grown up with and treating them like a dark secret to be hidden away. To love those things was to be outwardly different, and to wear a kurta my nani had bought would be too bold.
I desperately wanted to fit in during high school, and if that meant slipping in “Ladki Badi Anjani Hai” between songs like “Fat Lip” and “Don’t Wait” on my mix CD, then I would do it.
Having a secret was sometimes thrilling, because I could tune out the world and someone would still think I was rocking out to Dashboard Confessional.
Creating dichotomies in my identity was harmful, because while Bollywood used to be just a facet of my identity, it became an escape and refuge. Kal Ho Naa Ho made me sob, not just because of Aman Mathur’s tragic demise, but because I felt so connected to some semblance of home surrounded by hundreds of similarly weeping Indians surrounding me in the cinema.
I was consciously, palatably British outside of the house, and as Indian as I wanted at home.
Being music-mad, I can get quite righteous about what I love, and that’s what kicked me into a jarring epiphany. A guy I liked at 15 was my cooking-class partner and had asked to listen to my music while writing our notes on chocolate cake. When he heard “Main Toh Raste Se Ja Raha Tha” from Coolie No.1, he scrunched his nose in disgust, as Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik sang about the foods they’d like to feed one another on a stroll together.
“What the fuck were they saying?” he asked, flinging my headphones off.
I felt a rage brew up.
“It’s one of my favourite songs,” I told him.
I’d known all the dance moves since I was a kid. How could anyone not like the trainlike orchestration that got you in a dance-y mood?
It may have been ordained that it just had to be a dumb white guy who prompted the cathartic tumbling-out of my anger. I realised that if he was too closed-minded not to appreciate how well-crafted that song was, then clearly he was missing out on a world of comedic and masala-fied offerings from Govinda films.
It’s definitely a lousy way to edge away from a cultural identity struggle, but that was a wake-up call for me to feel frankly superior that I knew so much music that my crushes and classmates weren’t exposed to.
I chucked out all the embarrassing jewellery and took down my posters of Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, Dashboard Confessional, Sum 41, and My Chemical Romance. It was cleansing. These pieces of culture had served their purpose – they gave voice to my rage at having to move to Vancouver. But I was ready to let them go.
I whiled away that summer watching old Bollywood films, reading about David Bowie, and relishing that such disparate influences could make me happy.
With Bollywood’s global reach, theorists like Ashish Rajadhyaksha have called these films from the early 1990s and 2000s as projecting a ‘‘new sense of Indian-ness”.
Low-barrier cultural pastimes like Bollywood movies and songs allow Indians around the world to feel “‘civilisational belonging, explicitly delinked from the political rights of citizenship’’. By allowing so many people to participate in the culture with no geopolitical investment, they create an “Indian imaginary” – a new way to feel Indian.
It’s true that the films many of us love also reinforce harmful divisions as part of “Indian-ness”; the most famous example is Kajol’s Anjali Sharma in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, who gets the guy at the end, sure, but only after discarding her tomboy getup in favour of bhajan sessions and saris and a newly learned coyness.
For many of us South Asians, such theorising supposes that we’re so starved for Indian-ness that we’d be taken in by the hokey fallacies depicted in some of our favourite movies.
When you’re starved for authentic images of yourself in a mainstream context, it’s natural to turn to Bollywood, because however over-the-top it is, you might see something that reflects your reality. Bollywood songs and films were always a text from which I could draw inspiration, and laughs, and escapes.
Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, special to each diaspora-dweller for a different reason, was special to me because of Kajol’s confidence in dark skin. It made me feel a bit loved that her skin colour wasn’t holding her back from pursuing her man. (Never mind that she looks like a ghost in the 2015 DDLJ tribute Dilwale.)
These films don’t teach us Indian-ness by asking that we re-create them – I certainly didn’t try to gather my own extended family for a song-and-dance sesh after watching Hum Aapke Hain Kaun. They were simply the vessel through which I learned to be Indian, while also being British and Canadian.
There were far more intersections to my personhood than just the national identities I belonged to initially, and loving Bollywood songs became a way of loving one of my cultures.
Khamoshi’s “Bahon Ke Darmiyan” could translate those initial stirrings of first love, just as the exuberance of David Bowie’s “Modern Love” could too. There didn’t have to be competition in my iPod about who conveyed it better – they both make me feel like dancing in the mustard fields of my imagination to this day.
When I went through a really traumatic prom night that reared up my colourism struggles, songs like “Tadap Tadap” from Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” let me cathartically cry.
A good Bollywood soundtrack succeeds by placing the right song at each significant juncture, and my soundtrack is no different. Moments of rage are filled with Blink-182 and Green Day, while imaginary dancing-in-the-field sessions call for Taal.
Each song on my journey to being comfortable with a messy and changing identity holds a memory that shows how far I’ve come since I was 11, confused, and ashamed of what was playing on my Discman.
This essay originally appeared on Burnt Roti, a London-based blog for South Asian communities around the world. The essay has been edited and republished with permission from Burnt Roti editor, Sharan Dhaliwal.