Songs of Belonging

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Immigrant Song A still from Bidesiya in Bambai
Immigrant Song A still from Bidesiya in Bambai

SHE SWAYS her midriff playfully to the tune of Beedi Jalayile, as one of the young men in the audience smacks his lips, entranced. The camera lingers on him before sweeping through the rest of the crowd. Most of them are holding up mobile phones to film the performance.

It’s a scene from Bidesiya in Bambai, a new documentary feature by Surabhi Sharma that explores the flourishing Bhojpuri music industry in Mumbai. Occasionally appropriated by Bollywood to pander to what used to be its core constituency, the real action in the industry lies in live shows: boisterous performances with the erotic dance moves greeted by cheerful hooting and banter, which motivates the performers to raise their game and egg the crowd on further. The live act is also big business. An estimate by Ratnakar Tripathy in the Economic & Political Weekly pegs the total market for live shows at a few thousand crore rupees, which is supplemented by the sales of cds and its use in Bhojpuri (and Hindi) films.

A major reason for this success is the profusion of mobile phones, through which Bhojpuri songs are routinely recorded, downloaded, shared and played back to each other. Naresh Fernandes, a consulting editor for Time Out, believes that mobile phones have freed up young men and women from these conservative belts to engage in covert romances. ‘Mobile phone’ has even entered the lexicon of the songs, with many lyrics pleading with their lovers to call them on the phone, to give them a kiss since they gave them a miss(ed) call. The mobile phone conceals within it, and stands for, the intense desire for connection, so much so that they insist on calling rather than sending the conventional love letter. Longing trumps romanticism. Indeed, these phones have even flipped gender equations in some respects, leaving the migrant men longing for their wives back home, who may or may not be cavorting with a paramour, again using the discretion offered by mobile phones.

Sharma, who tells her story through two unlikely protagonists — a taxi driver on the verge of getting his first record deal, and Kalpana Patowari, the current singing sensation — says that music for the migrant worker in Mumbai, one out of four of whom is a Bhojpuri, is “a way to mobilise identity. An identity sometimes bereft of love, at times filled with longing, at others spewing aggression. Thousands of people gather in tiny clearings in the city after a hard day’s work and immerse themselves in these performances.” The 40-yearold, whose 2008 film Jahaji Music: India in the Carribean documented the chutney music traditions of the Bhojpuri community in Trinidad, made this film, she says, to track how the community in Mumbai is changing. “I worked on the film for four years, tracking various migrant workers in the city — taxi drivers producing albums, security guards trying to write songs, bus conductors recording music.” The themes of migration, identity, loss and belonging are as much present in the community in Mumbai as they are in Trinidad.

She also wanted to focus on the spaces around which the music is performed. “Where the shows were being performed, the physical space in a city that is notoriously hostile to the migrant communities from Bihar and Eastern UP, makes for an interesting narrative,” explains Sharma. In doing so, she makes this as much a film about Mumbai as it is about music. The ecosystem required by these thriving assemblies depends, in large part, on the political parties. “They make promises that their houses will never be demolished. But a backlash from parties like the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena always hangs over these performances like a cloud,” Sharma says, talking about the hurdles they face, the taxis that have been burnt some occasions, and the beatings that followed.

In Sharma’s able hands, Bidesiya in Bambai captures the power of music as both a political tool in sustaining the hardest-working migrant populations in India, and the fulfilment of the great Indian dream.

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