A Song on Sunday is our new weekly feature, in which we cast our eyes and ears on songs from Indian films. Arguably, songs are some of the most important parts of Indian cinema, their most identifiable unique trait, and we wanted to give them the attention they deserve. Good songs, bad songs, strange songs, significant songs — but each and every one of them, memorable songs.
It’s fair to say that 1994 was significant for me in terms of movies; it was one of the first years I took contemporary Indian cinema seriously. Earlier it was relegated to being that clumsy, often embarrassing cousin of other, more accomplished realms. Hey, we were barely out of the 1980s, and that time wasn’t kind on anybody. So while I tolerated and even enjoyed some of the loud, garish disco pop extravaganzas of that time, they never distinguished themselves as anything but weird indulgences, far removed from my er, highbrow leanings towards stuff like Star Wars (I know).
But by 1994, I found, a lot of the strange, garish movies started to appeal to me. I didn’t particularly feel the need to go out and buy neon yellow Hammer Pants, but I found in myself a new appreciation of the odd. I was still an unremarkable South Indian boy from newly-rechristened Mumbai, who wore checked shirts and proudly amassed a comic book collection, but this new stuff was finally cool in its own, unique way.
And one of the earliest examples of that cool, was Urvashi.
While the names Shankar, Prabhu Deva, and A. R. Rahman come with a strong pedigree today, back in 1994, watching Urvashi on Philips Top 10 as a boy, all of this was new and fresh. A.R. Rahman was ‘that guy who had done the music for Roja‘ (if people north of the Nilgiris knew his name at all). Little did we know then the range & excellence he was capable of. Hindi movies were still stuck in heavy, over-orchestrated songs, ugly trainwrecks of string sections, disco synths and qawwali Urdu. Into this, Rahman’s new sound — breezy, atmospheric, percussive and contemporary — exploded like a bomb. Suddenly, all those tired mujras and torch songs seemed like dinosaurs, and we were glad to be rid of them.
And then there was Prabhu Deva, raw and young and entirely an unknown quantity. You could easily, at first glance, dismiss him as some kind of South Indian Michael Jackson wannabe (and many did), but like Rahman, he had a unique, new style. Indian movie heroes didn’t look like this. They were fair and light-eyed, muscles shiny with sweat rippling under tight red vests. ‘Dancing’ for a Bollywood hero meant standing around and possibly throwing one muscled hand here and there. This guy, meanwhile, was lean and dark and not afraid to make a fool of himself for a good take. He was the Anti-Sunny Deol.
Embedded here is the Hindi version of Urvashi. While the original is in Tamil, this is how I first encountered it, and its Hindi lyrics are special on their own. Unfortunately I can’t find a credit for who did the Hindi lyrics, but man are they strange in all the right ways (‘Jaanti ho Hindi me pyaar ke kitne akshar?’ and ‘Take it easy policy’ quickly became popular catchphrases in my school). Couple that with Shankar Mahadevan’s vocals — probably the first time many of us had encountered the singer, and singing in Hindi better than any North Indian (something millions from the South can do, but it still seems to surprise folk).
It’s easy to overlook Urvashi in favour of other songs in that early 90s time when South Indians staged something of an invasion into the dying world of mainstream Bollywood. It was not the first or the most famous or the most lauded, but I think maybe it is, at least to me, the definitive song of that time. Urvashi is very much like the transparent bus that features in it — at once entirely alien but ordinary, a piece of everyday life changed into something wonderful, unexpected, new — and magical.