April 22nd, 2008


Scenes from the life of flowers

I've been watching romantic Hindi musicals, retro ones from the 60s and 70s. I've been watching them for their breathtaking floral references -- sometimes it seems like flowers are the main characters -- but also listening to their arrangements, which I find admirable, and would like to learn from.

It's a style given to unison, solos, and turn-taking. Only one thing is foregrounded at any one time, but over the course of the song many elements come to the fore one by one, each with its own texture. A man's voice, a woman's voice, a sitar, a cimbalon, a flute, a string section, a rhythm, a synth. Here's a scene from "Ghar" (1978):

When you listen to that (it sounds a bit like Ariel Pink, the way some things jump out of the mix "too loud"), you almost feel like you're recording the parts one by one. They aren't mixed down into sludge yet. Everything is distinct and fresh.

Of course, the actors aren't the ones singing. A playback singer -- in this case, Lata Mangeshkar (the female voice) and Kishore Kumar (the male) -- has laid down the song, and the actor only lipsyncs, pirhouetting in a landscape of flowers. I like the deep focus on male-and-female in these clips. Somehow, we never take male-and-female seriously enough in the West. We're embarrassed by it. We skirt around it, trouser it. We'd like everything to be male-and-male. Maybe it's because we trace our culture back to Christianity and ancient Greece. We think we've advanced "past" male-and-female, but it may well be that it's something we've really yet to discover, something still ahead of us.

Even the bit where Vinod Mehra blows cigarette smoke in Rekha's face is sort of cute. She doesn't seem to mind. And the dresses... Anyway, here's another one, it's from "Saathi", a melodrama made in 1968. Here a blind man falls in love with his guide. But the main characters in this clip are flowers, representing sexuality but also the beauty of the world the blind man can't see:

I love the sinuous hummed melody (so catchy, despite the weird key change!), the rich colours, the surprisingly funky rhythm fills. Here's another, from an unidentified film featuring heaving branches of blossom and ethereal mountain views:

The actress is dressed, herself, like a white flower. The strings cascade as her lover climbs the slopes to be with her. Later, they're on a boat and there's a moment similar to the cigarette-smoke moment we saw earlier: the man splashes water in her face, and instead of reacting in fury the woman smears it suggestively across her mouth. The play of capitulation and resistance is super-stylized.

Here's a clip set in an orchard heaving with apples:

The point that human fertility is part of the natural cycle is screamingly obvious, but it's rare to see Western films in which people are treated like fruits and flowers. For some reason, this seems to be a thought more entertainingly entertained in India and Asia. It appears least of all in American and British films, and is particularly absent in our cinema since the 70s. We have become unfertile, or uninterested in fertility, it seems.

Here's a scene from "The Jewel Thief" (1967):

This is from "Shagird" (1967):

That's a bit more earthy and comic. There's a parallel made between the girl and a monkey in a tree. The actors hardly even bother to lipsync properly. The emphasis is on the over-emphatic dance moves -- and the flowers, of course.

Let's end with a song in English. This is from "Julia" (1975):

"My heart is beating, keeps on repeating", sings Laxmi. "My love encloses a flood of roses... Spring is the season that drops the reason of love in our dreams."