I’ve been thinking about Bollywood music a lot lately, specifically the people who request it. I got into it with a Bollywood fan at the last Atlas, and that particular “conversation” has brought the whole filmi issue to the relative forefront of my daily ruminations. To regular readers of this blog, this may all be previously-covered ground, but since this stuff is on my mind, it gets spewed out once again. Proceed with caution.
I was introduced to Bollywood films and soundtracks in the late ’90s by Kathy Molloy (of the late, great Portland music zine Snipehunt). I managed to track down a few vinyl soundtracks in San Francisco around that time, since I was only listening to records in those days. A few years later Anjali introduced me to the cassette and CD racks of Indian music at Srider’s in Tigard, but I was still only buying records, so I ignored them. It wasn’t until Anjali started blowing me away with her DJ sets in late 2000 that I became serious about researching contemporary filmi (Which means (shudder) CDs, vinyl-hounds. They haven’t pressed Bollywood vinyl since 1989.) Since then I have become insatiable, buying the vast majority of Bollywood soundtracks as they are released. Truthfully, most of the contemporary stuff is awful: lame rip-offs, insipid melodies and abominable Hinglish lyrics. This means that filmi is pretty much like any other music on earth: 99% of it is crap. But make no mistake about it, the filmi I love, I love. It’s just that the stuff I love only sometimes overlaps with what the typical Desi filmi fan loves.
The particular disagreement I got into at Atlas had to do with Anjali and I not playing enough Bollywood at that night. Funnily enough, in four years, we have never advertised that we play Bollywood at Atlas. Ever. I play some sometimes, Anjali does even fewer times, but we have never advertised that we play filmi at that night. That doesn’t stop people who want to hear Bollywood from coming to Atlas expecting to hear some (or a lot). Some Desis see Anjali’s name on a lineup and just assume that she will be playing Bollywood, no matter what the gig. Unlike me, Anjali was raised with Bollywood soundtracks, and she has very specific ideas about when and where she is going to play filmi, and nine times out of ten, Atlas is not it, especially if there are pushy Desis getting in her face and demanding to hear some. What she will often do in these situations is drop an old vintage Bollywood song into the middle of her set, hardly what the pushy requesters had in mind, but perversely satisfying to her.
I was trying to explain to this particular Bollywood fan at Atlas that Andaz is the night where we regularly feature Bollywood music, and she did admit that we play some filmi songs there, but was very disatisfied with how much Bhangra gets played at that night. The reality is that she is like many (non-Panjabi) Desis who attend our parties: only satisfied if the night was 100% Bollywood, since they have no affinity for, or understanding of Panjabi music. In my experience, Desi Bollywood fans view filmi as the ultimate music on earth, and only the ignorant and barbaric would ever DJ anything else. Try explaining to a Desi Bollywood fan how cheezy many of the popular songs sound to non-Desis and they would have no idea what you were talking about. To them it is an inconceivable horror that bhangra music appeals to more goras than Bollywood music.
Atlas is an around-the-world music party. We will play African, Latin, Brazilian, Balkan, Arabic, Jamaican, Indian, etc., music throughout the night. Even if you came to the party hoping to hear some Bollywood, I would hope you would be aware of the inclusive nature of the party. It’s one thing to come to a Desi party expecting all Bollywood, it is another thing to come to a party that explicity advertises a wide range of music with those same expectations. Bollywood music is popular the world over, but it is not the only music in the world. I will often get compliments from different international attendees at Atlas who were thrilled to hear even one song from their country. Not some Desi Bollywood fans, they wouldn’t be happy unless all they heard all night was Bollywood. It is not an attitude that is very compatible with a party whose stated mission is to play music from every corner of the world. (I’m still waiting for the dope beats from China!)
What about Andaz, a party that actually does advertise Bollywood? Truthfully, Andaz was always a successful party, no matter how little filmi we played. When we do play more filmi two things happen: more Desi Bollywood lovers come to the party, and more goras complain that we are not playing Indian music anymore. Some goras who come to our night have a concept of Indian music that fits with the tribal drumming of bhangra, but not a popular filmi song like “It’s the Time to Disco.” This always amuses me, because I have learned over the years that many Indians who are not Panjabi do not consider bhangra to be Indian music. For them, only filmi is Indian music. –They should try telling that to the South Indians.– So the more filmi we play, the more some Desis are happy we are playing more “Indian” music, and the more some goras are convinced we are not playing Indian music anymore. Sheesh.
Having listened intently to Bollywood soundtracks for years now, and having DJed to thousands of Desis over those years, I now have two minds. One knows what I like, and what I think is awful; the other knows that something is going to be a huge hit, whether I like it or not. So as a DJ who generally likes to please people and make them happy (as much as I also like to perversely toy with them) I am really torn when it come so a popular song that I think is abominable, like “Dhoom Again.” I’m still getting requests for that song, and I will play the original (and marginally-less-awful) “Dhoom,” as an attempt to placate the requesters, but I have begun to get the impression that the requesters assume that I am probably behind the times, and don’t know about the new song. Yeah, right. I can pretend.
Try telling a Desi filmi requester that their song will bomb on a mixed dance floor. Try. Especially if you are a gora DJ like myself. I get requests for lame filmi trance songs (not to be confused with the lame filmi techno songs I love and try to cram down the audience’s throats), and if I play them, a few Desis are thrilled, and everyone else stands around like, “What the fuck?” Meanwhile I can drop some hard-ass UK bhangra song, and the dance floor goes crazy, except for the Desi Bollywood lovers who go, “What is this crap?” Some goras think all Indian music sounds the same. They wouldn’t understand that playing filmi and bhangra together is often like trying to play polka and gabba, or country and death metal, or rockabilly and drum’n'bass. Two very different aesthetics, that get mashed together at our party. As much as some goras can’t tell the difference, they are not even sung in the same language. No matter how much contemporary filmi cribs from bhangra, its not going to fool any Panjabis.
Anjali has talked more and more about the two of us throwing a separate, all-Bollywood party. We have tried it once before, but it was at Saucebox, a lounge, and not a dance club, and the bathroom flooded that night, so it was a far from ideal experiment. I don’t like the idea of splitting our audience, especially in a city the size of Portland, with such a small Desi community to begin with. And, as much as I complain about the difficulties in trying to mix bhangra and Bollywood, and please two divergent audiences, that challenge has no doubt played a part in maintaining my interest in playing the Andaz parties over the last five years. I love both musics, but I would probably grow restless if I was only allowed to play one or the other.
Recap: I love filmi, often the songs filmi-lovers think are crap. I also loathe a lot of popular filmi songs. Bollywood supremacists want filmi and nothing else, regardless of the stated format of a party. They also think bhangra is not Indian music. Some goras think Bollywood is not Indian music, especially if it is a big techno number. Don’t make pushy requests of Anjali, you will not be pleased with the results.