When Bollywood gets NYC right…

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I love Bollywood. When you least expect it, a song comes along and moves you.

I also love New York, with the sort of mad infatuation that only the really naive can have, I expect. So I’m especially excited by any art that can capture New York in a heartbeat and make you believe that the city is magic. Bollywood has been notoriously lax in comparison to Hollywood in this; I cannot recollect a single Bollywood film that makes New York memorable. But an unexpected song did manage to do that without even having New York as its central plotline.

If you’ve been to Times Square you’ll know it’s famous for lots of things, Broadway, the LCD  screens, the Red Steps, buskers, traffic, stores galore… there is too much to soak in and much of it glorious. But this song – Dil Gira  Kahin Darfatan – captures an essence of Times Square culture in 6 minutes, despite rolling in a film (Delhi-6) that is essentially about Delhi.

So in this song, a dreaming Roshan (Abhishek Bachchan) wakes up in a soft dawn where Juma Masjid in old Delhi stands next to a transplanted Statue of Liberty. He is pretty sangfroid about this, even as he walks through deserted Delhi galis, and the green lady looms over the city like a spectre. Then he finds one of those charming old city gates that opens up – in true Bollywood style – to a Times Square that is both familiar and unfamiliar, with Bittu (Sonam Kapoor) at its centre.

The rest, you can watch for yourself in the video, but this year when I did visit Times Square for the first time, I felt as if Rakeysh Mehra had managed to pin down that elusive piece of magic that makes Times Square so spectacularly special. There are autos in his Times Square, alongside crazy drivers in Manhattan traffic. There is a sacred tree in front the of the One Times Square building, where the ball drops every New Years’. There are jalebi-walas frying up fresh fare to a giddy Bittoo, while a sacred cow is worshipped by Chandni Chowk residents transplanted to the Big Apple. Roshan is in his place, jogging while a mad crowd rushes around him. And then Bittu is on a cycle rickshaw, while a lovelorn Roshan follows pedalling his own colourful rickshaw. Then there is the Chandni Chowk madman, the one who holds up a mirror to all.

As it happens, I did spot cycle rickshaws when I was at Times Square too, with these guys:

Cycle rickshaws at Times Sq.

But it’s in the overall impression. Times Square has elements of India – the wild colours, the chaos, the mad traffic, the people taking their everyday lives to the streets.

Combine that with some of the imagery, it  is lingering. Roshan is falling in love. An American in spirit, his head cannot seem to help taking Bittu, his beloved, to the familiar places in his heart. Hence the transplant  – he wakes up an American in old Delhi, but sleepwalks into Times Square, an Indian in New York. And he’s not the only one.

Then the mirrors – the whole aspect of mirrors extends further through the song. An artist paints Bittoo with the pigeons in a lifelike canvas, which then comes alive as the real Bittoo, as if in a window. And then she morphs back into a live painting. Seeing this in Times Square with the massive  LCD screens, it feels like mirrors and windows abound infinitely in a Chandni Chowk-Times Square parallel universe.

Even the Black Monkey subplot (horrible in the film, but not so much in the song), does not intrude jarringly here, but instead fits in with the alternate New York, bringing to mind a silly, softer King Kong.

And all along, there are lyrics full of poetry:

Dil gira kahin dafatan,
(The heart fell somewhere, suddenly)
jaane magar yeh nayan.
(but these eyes, they know).
Teri khamosh zulfon ki gehraiyaan
(In the depths where your silent hair)
hai jahaan dil mera uljha hua hai wahiin,
(is, my heart is entangled right there,)
kho gaya.
(lost).
Tu magar hai bekhabar, hai bekhabar.
(But you, remain unaware, remain unaware).

Woman singing in the background: Kyun goonj rahi hain dhadkan?
(Why are my heartbeats echoing?)

Seepiyon ke honth se moti chhalak rahe hain,
(From the lips of shells, pearls spill)
ghazalon ki sohbat mein geet bhi behek rahi hain,
(Under the influence of ghazals, songs also go astray)
samandar lehron ki, lehron ki chaadar odh ke,
(The ocean, wearing a blanket of waves, of  waves),
so raha hai.
(is sleeping).
Par main jagoon, ek khumaari, ek nasha sa,
(But I stay awake, a euphoria, an intoxication)
ek nasha sa ho raha hai
(an ecstasy is occurring).
 Tu magar hai bekhabar, hai bekhabar. 
(But you, remain unaware, remain unaware).

More evidence is hardly required to showcase A. R. Rahman’s versatility, but this song — with the occasional wail of a Chinese mandolin, liberal use of Celtic fiddles and some excellent string work accompanying Ash King’s vagabond voice — does so brilliantly. Rumours say that Rahman heard King busking on the streets of London and thought his voice had the perfect texture for this song, and recorded with him despite King’s non-knowledge of Hindi.

If you like Rahman as much as I do, then you  too should be unhappy that there are few filmmakers who do justice to Rahman’s music with  equally good cinematography. Okay, maybe hard to do equally good, but few manage to do some justice to filming the songs. Dil gira dafatan  for me, is one of the few that manages to make the cut.

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