Saturday, April 21, 2012

Swinging Sitars: How the Beatles and Their Culture Influenced Bollywood

Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Beatles and their c...
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Beatles and their companions posed on a dais, image by Paul Saltzman. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
by Will Noble

Bollywood, that inimitable institution of Indian cinema, has been delighting audiences since the birth of Tollywood in the early 1930s. 

From humble roots blossomed an all-singing, all-dancing blowout of color, inspired by traditional Indian folk theater, Sanskrit drama and ancient Indian epic poetry. 

During the 1960s however, this bastion of the Indian film industry was to be swayed in an entirely different direction; one that was decidedly western.

The British Invasion of the mid-1960s will always be remembered as one that crossed the Atlantic, forever immortalized in those black and white images of the Beatles stepping off a plane at Idlewild Airport to be greeted by swarms of crazed fans. 

But the Invasion didn't just get America; it spread eastward too. India in particular would feel the full force of mop-top haircuts and jangly guitars.

Perhaps the strongest example of the Swinging Sixties making its mark on Bollywood is 1965’s Bhappi Sonie-directed film Janwar. The story of two arranged marriages being eschewed in favor of real love may follow conventional Bollywood plotlines, but the film's soundtrack certainly doesn't. 

In what is often touted as the most flagrant use of plagiarism known to the musical world, the number Tumse Hai Dil Ko is set to music almost identical to the Fab Four's Can't Buy Me Love. The icing on the cake sees four guitarists dressed as the Beatles lurking in the background. The band never sued, probably because they realized what priceless promo this was for them.

A few years down the line, as hippiedom became the order of the day, Bollywood was sure to keep up with the times. Hare Rama Hare Krishna – Dev Anand's 1971 film – steered Hindi cinema into territory that had as yet remained un-broached. 

Its exploration of the drug-fuelled inhabitants of a commune in Nepal was revolutionary, launching the career of actress Zeenat Aman, who portrays a westernized hippie. Though drugs aren’t exactly romanticized in the film, the ‘squares’ fare much worse overall. Certainly this Bollywood classic has shades of the Beatles’ 1967 TV special Magical Mystery Tour.

As is well-documented, the cultural influence was reciprocated. George Harrison's friendship with sitarist Ravi Shankar led to the use of the instrument in such Beatles tracks as Norwegian Wood and Within You Without You

Then, in 1968 the Beatles famously flew out to Rishikesh in India, where they attended Transcendental Meditation sessions with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

Other western musicians of the 1960s were soon getting their mitts on sitars too. The Kinks, the Monkees, the Rolling Stones (Brian Jones also picked up a tambura for Street Fighting Man), the Mamas & the Papas and the Moody Blues all incorporated eastern strings into at least one of their songs. Such was the surge in popularity of the sitar in fact, that by the late 60s, the first electric version was on the shelves.

Eventually, as the Summer of Love cooled off and Flower Power faded into a hazy memory, so did its influence on Bollywood. The next chapter in Indian cinema would be another sea change; Bollywood was soon bristling with sassily violent movies about mafia and banditry.

Will Noble is a freelance writer from England who has written for the Prague Post and the Bournemouth Daily Echo. He studied Scriptwriting for Film and TV at Bournemouth University and is co-creator of comedy sketch show The Chop House. He regularly writes for the Pimsleur Approach, sellers of language courses including Learn to Speak Brazilian Portuguese and Learn to Speak Japanese.
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