Kaminey’s ode or the ‘masala’ shortcut..

this one’s for GF… long-promised…

The extent of the riches otherwise called ‘masala cinema’ can be gauged by the number of failed attempts to re-frame this heritage in contemporary times. The crucial point that is always missed is that ‘masala’ cinema does not constitute a ‘genre’ but a worldview. As such it deploys a whole array of narrative and audio-visual strategies, in short an entire matrix of cinematic grammar, to conjure up that world. But for all the ways in which its virtues (or vices) might seem obvious ‘masala’ turns out to be in fact rather elusive when it is a question of replicating its triumphs or even one of offering homage. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey is the latest such wager in Hindi and produces in turn the same uneasy pact, even if in a different configuration, so that in losing the form of ‘masala’ one also loses the soul. For the moment though a different plot-line has to be developed here…

There are not too many films in Hindi cinematic annals that are more impressively shot than Kaminey*. One must admit this right away. Bhardwaj puts up a master class in this respect. The rapid cuts that suit the film’s staccato rhythm (itself appropriate for its subject), the marvelously claustrophobic backward and forward tracks, the moody atmospherics that include the darkly lit netherworld of the film, its cavernous spaces, its ‘framing’ portals that the camera peers out through so often or thresholds that characters cross in equal measure, the operatic use of rain in the entire second half of the work or the ‘train’ punctuations in the entire narrative, the richly detailed sense of mise-en-scene all through the same, in short the entire apparatus of ‘auteurist’ imagining to create not just an intoxicating film but also a love letter to the city of Bombay (or Mumbai). The older plot-strand should now be re-introduced..

‘Masala’ is not a series of narrative strategies only coincidentally linked to its formalist choices. One therefore errs in supposing that ‘masala’ can be ‘refined’ or that a more auteurist visual grammar can simply be grafted onto these narratives. ‘Masala’ again is not a genre. It is a world which operates with its own logic, its own visual ‘games’. All films belonging to this group are hardly equal. This world is not another name for ‘anything goes’. It exhibits standards just as any other kind of film-making would. But neither is this a framework where the soul can exist without the body. Yet this is precisely what Bhardwaj attempts and more radically than anyone else. The two branches of this narrative are finally converging…

This critique of Kaminey could immediately be brought forth based on everything that has so far been suggested — the visual splendors of this work cannot quite mask its very uneasy ‘masala’ referencing, its often lethargic narrative pace (that is highlighted all the more inasmuch as Bhardwaj strives to replicate the kinetic in masala), its rather dramatic inability to render its tale ‘metaphysical’ in the manner of all the best examples of the heritage being alluded to here, its not unique failure to substitute the epic pitch of ‘masala’ with the ironic distance of present modes. The graft is somewhat too evident in Kaminey which is to point out that the layers remain separable. In a related vein one could also assert that the film offers a whole kaleidoscope of ‘hints’, a potpourri of allusive riches touching on the socio-political concerns of the present, a potent polemics directed at ‘new India’ smugness, but still all of this is never woven into a seamless fabric. Because these hinge points of the film are very apparent the director is unable to build on his own cues and the work is reduced to a stance of ‘cleverness’ without ever reaching the level of formidable critique. This is not however the end of the story…

Perhaps there is a way to perform a grand rescue on Bhardwaj’s edifice (where the soul seems to be absent from the very beginning). What after all is the improbable (for the part) Shahid Kapoor doing in this film? Could he in some sense be the exemplary representative of the new Indian formation of the last two decades keeping in mind his proximity to the romance ideals of the age (a sober Shahrukh clone to put it a bit uncharitably… and this connection is more than fortuitous.. the older actor’s Don remake is a hubristic tale of mismatch and misreading if ever there was one.. Kaminey will have traced this move with great humor!)? His twin characters a trope for the ‘divided being’ of contemporary Indian cinema (‘un-masala’ and yet not strong enough to avoid the burden of the same) and of course the ‘new India’ which Janus-like always has one face gazing out to shimmering modernity and the other fixated onto the ‘mysticisms’ of tradition? The film perfectly encapsulates this divide in the Bombay/New Bombay/Mumbai logic (as in one of the exchanges where New York leads to New Zealand and this in turn leads back to ‘New’ Bombay) where the ‘newest’ form of the city of course reeks of ethnic chauvinism (this film is quite obsessed with all kinds of stereotypes.. another one of its masala ‘hints’) and certainly the ‘old’. Shahid Kapoor’s bland double of Charlie/Guddu with comparable speech impediments, Shahid Kapoor of Jab We Met fame somehow wandering onto this terrain, this gangster extravaganza, in turn negotiating ‘masala’ gestures as the seedy bookie and subverting ‘family values’ in a romance rife with sexuality. Perhaps Kaminey is most convincing as fantasia, a romp through the present with a line thrown out to the tradition with nary a hope of ever ‘repeating’ anything. It might be that Bhardwaj accepts the impossibility of his wager at the outset and proceeds heroically anyway. Kaminey will have proven that ‘masala’ is that which can never be forgotten but also that which can no longer be. No mausoleums for masala, no matter how grand, but no triumphant arches either. There remains a twist at the end…

Kaminey is a supreme exercise in style (even in a very self-conscious which is to say ‘Hollywood’ way, where technological mastery is not often married to vision). There is nonetheless one director who was once upon a time able to split this (impossible) difference. Conjure up gestures of old and yet do so in a realist vein before in time yielding to the stylization that informed many others who followed in his wake. This is the Ram Gopal Varma of Satya who can be read in this fashion retrospectively but who alas never had enough faith in his model and abandoned it all too soon. The grandly operatic Sarkar films are also something other than masala. It should be noted that Kaminey too ends in a comparably operatic ‘pyrotechnics’ finale. Something has been afoot over the last decade. The ‘realist’ and ‘stylized’ schools have not necessarily re-invigorated this heritage nor has the practice of ironic distance or parody. Nonetheless the attempts have multiplied. The subject of this discussion is the latest such exercise (the even more recent Wanted simply denies the gap between the past and the present or pretends that no history has intervened in between). Bhardwaj’s film is a fascinating response to the continuing allure of ‘masala’. But there is a sadness in Kaminey, a melancholy that cannot cease naming what it lacks…

[a minor complaint.. the pehli baar mohabbat ki hai video was beautifully shot and really deserved more than the end credits]

*Kashyap’s Dev D also makes a very similar impact even if here there is more of an Antonioni via Kar-Wai color-coded set of registers in play. Not to reduce the film’s many splendid framings only to this latter set but it seems to be the predominant one. In terms of personal preference I prefer Dev D to Kaminey and I would even risk suggesting that it offers the more intriguing ‘auteurist’ re-coding in this sense.

74 Responses to “Kaminey’s ode or the ‘masala’ shortcut..”

  1. cool..but will need time to digest ..good mornig.. will have to read again ..but will say puri neend ud gayi aapka vocabulary read karke once again..


  2. masterpraz Says:

    Whoa..mammoth piece here…well worth the wait!

    Incidentially, I’ve seen KAMINEY twice but still struggling to write a review! Ditto for SARKAR RAJ!


  3. Perhaps because I have not seen Kaminey, I had trouble understanding what point you were leading up to or were making. I don’t normally count not having seen the film under discussion as a disadvantage, since a well-written review or analysis (as yours usually are) can make its point and argument without assuming the reader to have seen the film. In other words, the article gives sufficient information to support its thesis. Here I had trouble even understanding what your thesis is.

    I do not, for instance, understand what is the distinction you are making between Kaminay and Wanted in terms of “distance” or “history”. You have referred to the latter several times, I think even without having seen it, as a triumph for the return of masala cinema. But here you say that it simply ignores a good bit of Hindi cinema history, with the implication that its genuineness as masala cinema is thereby compromised. Is that a correct understanding?

    As far as I can understand, you seem to be saying that the shortcoming of Kaminay (and other contemporary Hindi films) in attempting the “masala” style is that the makers do not actually buy into that world view (as you define it) and hence can only approach it as a spoof or irony. Does this mean that they do not believe that, to put it crudely, good will triumph over evil, which it seems to me to be essential underpinning of masala cinema (dare I call it an article of faith?). A more modern, or even post-modern, world view can only be cynical, not hopeful. Am I reading you right?


    • I actually have seen Wanted and saw it within 3 days of the film’s release on a DVD specially released for me(!). I will get to a piece on this later but my critique here is that such a masala venture unlike Ghajini takes no account for the fact that we are quite a ways from that tradition in Hindi cinema and just takes off as if this were the 80s! Not just this it is actually very much a Southern masala film (for obvious reasons) and there is no serious attempt at cultural translation here. In effect such a film, whether it is celebrated by the single screens or not warmly embraced by the multiplexes, can only be a true ‘foreign body’. A cultural curiosity. A tradition can begin to be made with Ghajini, the question can even be addressed with some of these other attempts I’ve addressed from time to time including now Kaminey but Wanted does not allow such an opening.

      The South too incidentally is in crisis in some ways. In Tamil cinema this crisis is more advanced. Vikram to his credit has taken note of this before anyone else but also because being n elite star places the kind of burden on him that it doesn’t on say Ajith or Vijay who can (and will!) keep doing these films all their lives. Rajni’s films have simply become ad campaigns for himself or grand homages to his history and Shankar certainly realizes this. Surya because of the class angle can keep attempting masala and his multiplex audiences will indulge him but again there’s no way forward here. If you’re a Vikram the superhero element offers some escape routes though of course this cannot have the same degree of repetition.


    • On your second point indeed I have criticized many such attempts in the past for not believing in masala enough. Kaminey though is a bit different in the sense that here Bhardwaj is attempting a genuine upgrade on the one hand but at the same time also indicating that masala can perhaps only be approached as ‘memory’. Ghajini was the most successful attempt to my mind in many years and even this film offered a ‘memory palace’ as I put it in my piece. The question remains open as to whether a tradition is being (re)formed here or if this is just stumbling around in the dark (though of course after years of Yashraj I’ll take it!).


  4. I liked Kaminey a lot. For a movie that is suppose to be intense, it was (i know it’s crazy) peaceful, cool and refreshing… and thank god… simple ! The way peoples acted, talked, even the camera made my eyes happy because for once, it wasn’t shot like a cheesy CSI Miami (forced contrast, plastic images “a la” Race).


    • As for the rest of your reflexion on Masala and Kaminey, well… The twin story is an old idea, the complicated narration with two or more stories mixed together is a trend spreading in Bollywood since a couple of years, but made very popular thanks to 24 in US before that. And the roots of the story is the classic Mumbai underworld. So is Kaminey modern or just westernized ?


  5. initially i decide to quote what i liked and enjoyed from above but buddy this is some piece.. it cant be seperated even to point out its usp or good point..

    its one of the best piece i have read in my life. ( i m not exagretting i like very few works other than mine 😉 )

    brilliant.. spellbounding piece… buddy hats off..

    i wont go into liking disliking agreeing disagreeing that aside its a very intellectual, classy material up here.

    The way u have explained masala.. topped it with really some funny (though serious ) observations.. and one moment we feel u r going on certain line of observation and u take a turn and explain something out of blue… thats some writing and i feel proud to read that above that i will quote myself here that too from my kaminey review lol 😉

    “Kaminey is an experience kinda movie its above stars and criticism according to me its not about liking or disliking its about going through a mad cap vision of director with the most funniest of sequences topped with best of chases and double cross.”


  6. just some of the words that i had to mark to check in dictionary to fet exact meaning as mostly i understand their impact by applying doctrine of “EJUSDEM GENERIS ”

    wager (i guess something like putting a bet on future price or something knife like ??)
    claustrophobic (no idea)
    auteurist (??)
    kaleidoscope ??
    mausoleums ??
    melancholy ??

    on a satyam’s vocabulary test i get may be .5 – 1 out of 6!!
    and i say i have studied from english medium 😉

    i will be learning 6 different words today 😉


  7. masterpraz Says:

    I must add that KAMINEY for me is Bharadwaj’s weakest film to date! I’ll do a full review after another watch.

    Will be interesting to see what he does next!


  8. kaminey is based on quintin tanatino type films.


  9. masterpraz Says:

    Yeah agree, but it doesn’t work that well on that level either. More than Tarantino, it was Guy Ritchie imo..


  10. “In a related vein one could also assert that the film offers a whole kaleidoscope of ‘hints’, a potpourri of allusive riches touching on the socio-political concerns of the present, a potent polemics directed at ‘new India’ smugness, but still all of this is never woven into a seamless fabric.”

    Gets to the heart of the issue here, Satyam. Thanks for this thoughtful piece on a film I really enjoyed and that isn’t easy to crack. The above statement is probably the best description of what makes Kaminey a problematic film. In my view it tries to be too loyal to too many reference points in terms of cinematic influence and in doing so one embraces a number of varying worldviews (either by way of formal approach or thematic contrivance) which ends up feeling disjointed and never whole.

    Having said this, I can’t call this Bhardwaj’s weakest attempt which is an allegation that has come up (one I know you don’t embrace) in the kind of expected backlash to a film that gets mostly good reviews. And I only bring this up because this strikes me as a genuine if very confused film. For me it works ultimately as a kind of unique and fun noir thriller on its own terms and, simultaneously, as a cinematic romp through any number of references for fans of Hindi cinema and not just masala but also the Varma universe which is a point you smartly touch on. The Tarantino/Ritchie elements for me (the ensemble rather than the focused hero(s), the badass irony and the stylistics) were actually what made for an uneasy mix, at least, for me. These elements belonged to the emerging perspective of folks who revere this kind of film making which, while I enjoy, I can’t claim to hold in the same esteem.


    • Thanks for this comment GF.. I too wouldn’t call it Bhardwaj’s weakest film for the simple reason that I think what he gets right here is better than what he gets right anywhere else. Ultimately I can forgive a film a lot if it offers a seductive (not in a negative sense) visual grammar. Far too few films attempt this. with Omkara for example, a film that I otherwise like (and would possibly take over this one in some ways) Bhardwaj again displayed some strengths from those marvelous wide angles to very ‘real’ sense of place. But his visual strategies still seemed uncertain, his pace was still a bit ‘relaxed’ (this is a problem incidentally that I feel Bhardwaj has still to solve, unlike Kashyap who grips me far more even with his uneven films). From the perspective of Kaminey I would perhaps suggest today that there is always a struggle in the director between his auteurist impulses and his ambition to re-invent the ‘rooted’ (which is not the same as masala). The ‘times’ of the two impulses clash and he hasn’t yet brought them on the same plane.

      In any case I can certainly agree almost totally with this comment.


    • masterpraz Says:

      Brilliant set of of thoughts here…!


  11. By the way I can’t remember the last time when there were three films as impressively shot as Dev D, D6, Kaminey in the same calendar year.


  12. Finally, I get to read your thoughts on the film! Excellent stuff. You really need to write a book on masala cinema because I haven’t met a person who knows more about it than you do.

    I would have to revisit Kaminey regarding the cinematography and camerawork. I found the rapid cuts a tad irritating on my first viewing. There were a lot of impressive shots though. And I do agree with your thoughts on Dev-D.


  13. It did take me a while to sort this one out in my mind. Initially I didn’t have the chance to do so for about a month after watching it as I was in and out of town. But it always seemed to me that there was something ‘different’ about this one’s mode. The impasse of ‘refining’ masala is in some ways most evident here. As Abzee has pointed out masala itself is a pop art form and you throw out the baby with the bathwater when you try out such an exercise. Bhardwaj I have speculated is aware of this challenge. Perhaps he gives up too soon and therefore decides to go all out ‘auteurist’ on the subject. But there is a very specific problem associated with re-inventing this cinema for Hindi audiences which is that certain kinds of genres and film-making are immediately construed as regressive. An audience that loves ‘multiplex formula’ (I love this coinage by a blog writer I’ve referenced elsewhere even if even this dignifies many of those films) will never quite be able to absorb more authentic films. The evidence that kaminey is a genuine film is offered by this very audience. The film started off big but couldn’t quite sustain this pace. Yes it’s trended very well at the lower end of the spectrum but it would have grossed far more if most of those initially interested in the film had been completely satisfied by it. This film fundamentally laughs too much not just at all of the current ‘chauvinisms’ and ‘jingoisms’ but also bourgeois values (here superbly treated with the sexually frank talk of female lead.. Dev D also performed a very similar move). And as I’ve said forever multiplex audiences just do not have a funny bone when it comes to serious self-critique. Now it is assuredly fair to assert as some have here that the film ultimately does not have the resonance that all the best masala offers and hence fails on this score. But this cannot be a concern for those audiences that are regularly lapping up ‘multiplex formula’!


  14. As a related point I would add that these very audiences are also for all their smugness about this the least critically motivated proportionate to formal education. hence we see Ranbir Kapoor being celebrated for his WUS (these initials always seem to be a bit of an appropriate acronym!) the way one might shower praise on Bachchan for Deewar. there isn’t a sense of proportion to any of this and of course it’s hard to imagine an actor in a non-multiplex film (let alone one such as WUS designed totally for this mindset) getting such accolades. We saw last year Abhishek get more for Dostana than for some of his much better parts. This isn’t to say that his Dostana performance cannot be liked or loved or defended, just that the praise was disproportionate (it was an effective star performance for him given the part but not the sort of really fine, measured acting he’s capable of elsewhere.. because the part does not require more than this is no reason to overrate things.. one doesn’t equate Bachchan’s Kaalia with Bachchan’s Kaala Pathar!).


  15. on Dev D incidentally I finally got around to watching the Indian release on this a month or so back (don’t think this has released in the US yet) and I was truly entranced by a great deal of the visuals here. Don’t think I’d necessarily want to watch it in the theater because this film too has some ‘dead time’ but Kashyap’s visual grammar would nonetheless have made it worthwhile. Today I would have liked to revisit Kaminey in the theater (I wasn’t so compelled at the time) and unfortunately one doesn’t have these chances outside India once a certain time has elapsed (on a related note I now really regret missing out on Magadheera.. they’ve released a new version with some scenes added here but the closest theater for me in NJ would be a couple of hours away!). Again will do so on a proper DVD when it comes out.

    But again I think that with Dev D, D6, Kaminey there are three models of authentic films (even if one doesn’t want to completely endorse any one or all of these) with cutting edge cinematography that can provide a model for film-makers in all genres. Unless one is doing masala (in which case a different order of film-making has to be summoned up) narrative doesn’t have to come at the cost of ‘aesthetics’.




    • fine buddy..wolfburg really scared me .. but carrick came good..

      and i njoy the new young winger we have “giggs” lol


  17. Giggs looks devastating,but wayne gets too much frustrated.Taking to much pressure on him


    • yup but thats typical wayne like ronaldo was always whinning 😉

      between looking forward to return of hargreaves and obertan debut..

      also fergie said somewhere he is having difficulty selecting midfield.. i like fletcher scholes combo..

      also we need to start the game early.. we mostly conced a goal and than we comeback..it gives my heart to much pressure to handle 😉 but that united..


  18. Yes rooney you have hit right on the bulls eye.We need to finish the team by scoring early.
    To-morrows match will be interesting against Sunderland as they have just hit the form and we played mid-week ,tiring will take place.

    any word on OWEN injury,i hope its not serious as they thought.

    I am going to the match and see what happens as the crowd does get frustrated sometimes asspecially smaller teams coming here and play 4-5-1,


  19. Excellent stuff., Satyam. Am hopefully watching the ‘official’ DVD tonite. So, cannot add much at this point. Hope it wont take me a month to figure out how I felt about the movie. But between your thoughts and GF’s comment, am now mentally in a good frame of mind to watch the film.
    So how did you like Shahid here?


  20. “Shahid actually did a good job but I think was ultimately miscast”



  21. Satyam – this piece and GF’s piece on Kaminey are fabulous commentaries on this movie. I saw KAMINEY first-day-first-show(in our city ie) and was pretty impressed, inspite/because of all the references it makes. In retrospect I see my stance changing a wee bit on the movie. Maybe I do need to re-watch it once more. I do feel that VB’s put extra effort and somehow it shows as simply a lot of hard work and not as much as a better product. Make no mistake, I like the movie, however I have been quite impressed with how beautifully he was able to bring Othello to the rural terrain and Macbeth to the underworld in his other outings. Needless to say THE BLUE UMBRELLA continues to be a beautiful work of art. When i see him in that light, I was hoping KAMINEY would have had more memorable incidents for me outside of the Bhope Bhau and Sweety. Nevertheless, I am being an Oliver Twist here, never hesitating from asking for more, arent I ???!!!


    • thanks much Aarkayne and I certainly see where you’re coming from. I did have a similar reaction initially but as I ‘lived’ with the movie for a while I rethought my own stance towards it. But as I said I find your reaction very comprehensible.


    • hope they have this video separately on the DVD because it’s a split screen on the end credits and it doesn’t do justice to the video.. I don’t know why Bhardwaj didn’t have it in its natural place pre-interval. This video here plays in a loop to cover the entire audio but Bhardwaj just shot half the song and this is what the end credits feature. This is my favorite video from the film though.


      • This is great and I completely agree that they should release it seperately. If I were to take a guess Bhardwaj was probably trying to streamline an already somewhat disjointedly paced film.

        But I’ll still take Dhan Te Nan as the video of the film. Strives for the iconic and really works in the best way as far as Hindi film songs go…


  22. Another point I should make here is that Bhardwaj seems to have learnt something from Kurosawa because it always rains heavily in the film, it’s never a drizzle or something!

    I should also say here what I did about D6. To a lesser degree than that film there is something slightly enigmatic about Kaminey.The closing scene almost makes the film dream-like. There is a comparable portion at the beginning of the film when Charlie’s once again at the race course and he starts running after that bill and it gradually turns into a Broadway dream set-piece. Towards the end after everything has been resolved Charlie is at that moment once again. As the film ends one could almost believe that everything had been conjured up. I know this doesn’t make literal sense but in a sense parallel to the kind some have suggested for Once Upon a Time in America (a connection which might be more than fortuitous here!) there is a certain suggestiveness to Kaminey’s climactic scene and I even find this speculation more persuasive for the latter than the former.


    • That’s very interesting and an entirely plausible reading of the end. Can’t wait to buy the DVD.


      • would have liked a commentary track on this one.


        • On a remotely related note, Mehra’s commentary on RDB was hugely self-congratulatory. I was hoping for more insight on the film and not just a series of pats on the back…

          Is the D6 DVD out? Does it contain commentary?


          • Yes it’s out and doesn’t contain the commentary track. On RDB I checked out a bit and seemed like Mehra wanted to talk more about Rahman than anything else! I heard the BM commentary as well and here it was like Rohan, Abhishek, Ritesh having a buddy conversation over beer! The first such Hindi commentary track was on MHN. Let’s say I wasn’t brave enough.


  23. Ha, yeah, have a feeling Farah and Shah Rukh aren’t exactly aiming for the Criterion Collection….


  24. Variety review (not sure if anyone posted it at the time):



  25. I thought that last scene was definitely a dream sequence and Charlie died. They never show him picking up the diamonds and he is shot. But in the next scene, he had become a bookie (possibly through the diamonds).

    Another reason why I think the last scene was a dream sequence is because it exactly mirrors the first dream sequence of the movie.

    Am I misreading it?


    • I think there is some ambiguity here.. if he dies and the last bit is a dream sequence whose dream is it? But again there’s a symmetry with a similar sequence at the beginning. I am more inclined to believe that everything in between is a ‘dream’. Also Guddu has twins at the end. perhaps this is the clue to this reading. A kind of ‘joke’ if you will.

      But you’re certainly right in that Charlie gets shot and one wonders how he got out of it all (though there’s a certain masala logic to this and remember he has his arm in a cast, presumably the bullet wounded him ‘conveniently’).


    • also think there is an obsession with bifurcation in the film that is different from ‘doubling’ (for that turn to Dhawan’s hilarious Aankhen!). So two brothers who are ‘split’ from each other but also with their own fractured speech in each instance. The film’s ‘shortcut, chota shotcut’ code. Even at the end Charlie uses the same ‘formula’. About the girl having a jewel on her finger and being one herself (I find this ‘closing’ rather mysterious).


    • And again the diamond theme carries over from the climactic scene to the closing one..


  26. I have updated the time stamp on this and put it right below the Wanted piece as I think some of the arguments run over from one to the other.


  27. This truly is a film that can be called iconic and another feather in Vishal’s cap after Maqbool and Omkara.


  28. Raw and ready
    Neha Bhatt / New Delhi October 11, 2009, 0:44 IST

    With a distinct, rusty and sensual voice, singer Rekha Bhardwaj is carving a niche for herself.

    There is little we know about Rekha Bhardwaj. She may be the wife of one of the most exciting filmmakers in Bollywood, but her full-throated, sensual voice, with its rare, unmistakable quality, has pushed her talent beyond the periphery. She insists she doesn’t shy away from interviews, adding that, in fact, she very much likes media attention whenever it comes by, only refraining from combined interviews with filmmaker-husband Vishal Bhardwaj. “It interferes with our work,” Rekha reasons and continues, “We are different people. And we don’t want to talk about our relationship, or pose together for pictures. It’s too personal.” She’s surprised at the suggestion that they are among the most exciting, if understated, couples in the film industry today. “If it is so, it’s because of Gulzar saab,” she attributes. “I’m fortunate to have met him through Vishal. I don’t have to say much to him, because he understands me so well.”

    It took Rekha some time to be noticed — but her talents were at work long before we knew her as the voice behind the sultry song “Namak Isq Ka” (Omkara) or the more recent “Genda Phool” (Dilli 6). Behind the scenes, she has assisted husband Vishal in composing the music for Maachis and later Hu Tu Tu, and co-produced several of his films: The Blue Umbrella, Maqbool, and more recently, Kaminey. The duo had studied together at Delhi University, later making their way together to Mumbai. Rekha reasons that as professionals they click well because both believe in a certain quality of work. “We cannot take mediocrity. And even now, when Vishal does something, he takes my opinion. Of course, Vishal manages to manipulate me into doing more things for him than myself!” Rekha says all in good humour. Did she then feel overshadowed by Vishal’s work? “He is more of an inspiration,” she insists.

    And while standing by Vishal through his early years of struggle, and now, success, Rekha has made a quiet niche for herself, with musical roots that lie in sufi, folk and classical. Last week’s Rajasthan International Folk Festival at Jodhpur opened another door to her many talents, where she matched rustic notes with folk vocalists Rehana Mirza and Bhanwari Devi. Rekha wouldn’t have stolen the limelight, she hastens to add. “I cannot bring to stage the rawness and innocence of folk artistes,” she says modestly. So Rekha did what she does well, turning to full-throated quawalis, thumris and what she believes is her forte, sufi.

    Rekha’s enthusiasm for opportunities outside Bollywood comes in a rush, taking her back to early days. “I started with folk, sufi and classical music that I had learnt as a child. I would take music and dance classes at the Bal Bhavan Society in Delhi, where I grew up. In my later years, I sang for Habib Tanvir saab’s play Agra Bazaar, which helped me achieve a blend of folk and contemporary music,” says the singer. Influences have come from other quarters too: Begum Akhtar, Rashid Khan, Aamir Khan and Mehdi Hasan, to name a few. But while in Bollywood, Rekha is eager to work with young, promising composers like Amit Trivedi (who composed the music for Dev D) and Mithoon Sharma (guest composer for Anwar and Bas Ek Pal).

    Her 2005 album, Ishqa Ishqa, for which Vishal composed the music and Gulzar wrote the lyrics, turned out to be more polished than the rawness in her voice that we are familiar with. “With ‘Namak Isq ka’ in Omkara, I returned to my raw and carefree style,” points out Rekha of the turning point in her career. She however calls “Genda Phool” from Dilli 6 a bigger success because it won her a wider audience. The sensuality and rustic quality that has made her popular, she says, creeps in quite naturally in her voice. “Perhaps it has something to do with my Uttar Pradesh roots, being a Baniya. As for the sensuality, maybe it’s because I’m a die-hard romantic!” Rekha says. Has success gone to her head? She laughs carelessly at the thought. “Perhaps a little bit. But since I wasn’t that young when it all happened, it didn’t affect me significantly,” she says. Her ambitions are in check — riyaaz, she says, and classical music, keep her mellow. “I find that when I sing a raga, I don’t feel the need for anything else. I feel more settled.” Her mantra before a recording is simple: staying with the song and humming it for days, till it becomes one with her. That’s Rekha Bhardwaj — settling us into one of her moods.


  29. A new book teases out connections between mainstream Hindi cinema and Shakespeare
    Jonathan Gil Harris’ ‘Masala Shakespeare’ is also a tribute to the idea of an syncretic mixture


    Not many would associate ‘Jhalla Wallah’, from ‘Ishaqzaade’, with Shakespeare, but you find in its lyrics a parallel to the linguistic dexterity of his language.
    So many people say, I love Shakespeare, but when I ask them why, they can’t tell me. They’ve never sat down to have an irreverent conversation with Shakespeare the way they would with a film. So I wanted to give people tools that would allow them to engage much more cheekily with Shakespeare without dismissing the richness of the plays.
    I can’t tell you how much I love Jhalla Wallah. I heard that song and I grasped even the first time that there was something about the lyrics that really worked in the context of the film. It taught me how to read the opening exchange in Romeo And Juliet—why the series of puns would have worked for an audience in 1595.
    (Amitabh) Bhattacharya, Kausar Munir, they pun across languages with extraordinary wit. And you can see the audience getting it. That’s very Shakespearean and very masala. It’s the one aspect of masala that I think has survived into the multiplex. I keep saying to my students, if you want to find Shakespeare in writing now, look at the lyrics of Hindi film songs.


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