Most Hindi film songs are dedicated to traditional boy-meets-girl romance. What then should queer people in love do? Should they reclaim popular songs, as a somnolent Manoj Bajpayee does in Aligarh (2016) by tuning into forlorn Lata Mangeshkar ballads that express his feelings?
What choice does Bajpyee’s character have? Queer people in love have to lip-sync the same ditties and give a new spin to lyrics originally written for heterosexual couplings.
Much has been made and misread of the lyrics “Bas yahi apradh main har baar karta hoon, aadmi hoon aadmi se pyar karta hoon” from Pehchan (1970).
Neeraj’s lyrics describe a man in love with his kind, rather than another man. The lyricist was writing for the character Gangaram (Manoj Kumar), who is ostracised in the city for being a country bumpkin. He travels through villages voicing his homilies like a minstrel. Neeraj was nominated for a Filmfare Best Lyricist award but lost out to Varma Malik, who wrote “Sabse Bada Nadaan” for the same film, in which the lyricist warns tellingly about inexperience.
“Bas Yahi Apradh” follows in the tradition of brotherly love that was the theme of Dosti (1964). Bromance has been a common feature of such songs as “Yeh Dosti” (Sholay, 1975). Neeraj’s song acquired a cult of its own, and the unintentionally loaded lyrics have been used both by gay subcultures as an rallying cry as well as by homophobes as a slur.
The song popped up in an unlikely place: Mast Kalandar (1991), in which Anupam Kher played a flamboyantly gay character known as Pinkoo (for his outré taste in all shades of pink). Pinkoo sings Neeraj’s song, only to be laughed at. Disturbed, he enters a bar where “Ek Do Teen” from the movie Tezaab (1988) is playing. The beats of the peppy number excite Pinkoo, unlike Neeraj’s mournful dirge, and he breaks into an uncontrollable dance of joy and seduction, whose target is Prem Chopra.
Several romantic songs have lent themselves to queer articulation. Lata Mangeshkar’s viriginal pining voice and Asha Bhonsle’s amorous advances poured through a carafe hold more queer significance than Mukesh’s plangent paeans. “Ajeeb Dastan Hai Yeh” (Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai ,1960) does not only become a reference point for the plot in the Karan Johar chapter in the Bombay Talkies (2013) anthology. The song mirrors the anxieties of the short film’s burdened characters.
Popular female solos revolving around the machinations of the heart find new life as queer anthems. “Aap Ki Nazron Ne Samjha” (Anpadh, 1962), “Lag Jaa Gale” (Woh Kaun Thi, 1964) and “Yun Hi Koi Mil Gaya Tha” (Pakeezah, 1972), all sung by Lata Mangeskhar, as well as Asha Bhosle’s mujra number “Dil Cheez Kya Hai” (Umrao Jaan, 1981), give voice to pent-up homosexual desires.
Another buddy song from the 1990s, when the sexually suggestive song was at its peak, was far more ambiguous about yaari (friendship). In “Tere Bin Main Kuch Bhi Nahi” (I am nothing without you), written by lyricist Rahat Indori for Mahesh Bhatt’s Naaraz (1994), Kumar Sanu and Udit Narayan sing for characters played by Mithun Chakraborty and Atul Agnihotri. The characters are drunk and in fulsome embrace. Actress Sonali Bendre follows them into a temple featuring erotic sculpture. She captures their intimate moments on a camera as they lie next to each other . Chakraborty sings, “Do shahazaade raat akeli, reh na jaaye baat adhoori” (Two princes in the night, there is some unfinished business to complete), which is as homoerotic as it gets. A teary-eyed Chakraborty is not done. As he sings, “Main dil hoon dhadkan tu hai” (I am the heart, you are the heartbeat), Bendre emerges from her hiding spot, wondering about the extent of the bond shared by the men.
The definitive gay dance number appeared late in the day. The outrageously campy “Maa Da Laadla” disco track from Dostana (2008) re-imagines the love story of Heer-Ranjha. It involves a twist in which the mother's favourite son meets Ranjha in the manner suggested by Kumaar’s mischievous lyrics: “Heer mile na issnu ye Ranjhe utthe mar gaya” (He fell in love with Ranjha as Heer was missing). Actor Kirron Kher, who plays the grieving mother, eventually learns to accept her son’s sexual orientation because he is no longer in the closet and she needs to “come out” of hers.