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Sunday, April 18, 2021

The various shades of Holi in Bollywood films: From the shy exuberance of 1940s Aurat to Hrithik Roshan-Tiger Shroff’s dance off in War

Holi has fueled several elements in our films since times immemorial. From providing a moment to rejoice with exuberant song sequences and lavish sets, to introducing a major plot twist, Holi has been an integral part of Bollywood for decades.

Written by Mimansa Shekhar | New Delhi |
March 29, 2021 9:00:15 am
holi festival in filmsThe journey of Holi in Bollywood proves that we cannot take the festival out from our films.

Deepika Padukone isn’t just celebrating Holi in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani’s “Balam Pichkari”, the song also marks the transition of her ‘chashmish’ Naina into a confident girl who is ready to take on life full throttle. Sholay’s “Holi Ke Din” is like a ticking time bomb, ready to explode as Gabbar Singh’s henchmen attack Ramgarh. While the events in Damini’s Holi sequence changes the entire storyline, Shah Rukh Khan’s obsession reaches new heights in Darr’s “Ang Se Ang.”

Holi has been presented in many shades and colours in our films, and from the time India started making films. From being a moment to rejoice to introducing a major twist or letting passion have its play, Holi has been an integral part of Bollywood narrative device for decades. However, as the times changes, its representation changed as well.

mother india holi song Holi Aayi Re Kanhai nargis raj kumar Nargis and Raj Kumar in a still from Mother India’s song “Holi Aayi Re Kanhai”.

The earliest Holi portrayal in Bollywood that we can enumerate here are “Jamuna Tat Shyam” from Aurat (1940) and “Daaro Re Rang” from Jogan (1950). The films from the black-and-white era mostly depicted the festival in long shots, in its full glory with the entire cast literally playing with colours. But did it add anything to the plot? Rarely.

Dilip Kumar in “Khelo Rang” from Aan (1953), however, brought a new colour to Holi – actors prancing around and women giving flirtatious looks. The long shots gave way to close ones, just like the increasing proximity between the actors. We got a true depiction of the festival’s traditional roots. Soon enough, long-distance flirting was replaced by subtle romance, like in “Holi Aayi Re Kanhai” from Mother India (1958). The flashbacks of Raj Kumar romancing Nargis was a wonderful breather in the otherwise intense drama of the film.

My memory of Holi goes back to Navrang song “Are Ja Re Hat Natkhat” (1959). It became remarkable because actor Sandhya played the dual role of both Radha and Shyam. A beautiful dance sequence, which continues to be a benchmark of creativity to this day.

Bollywood kept its date with the festival of colours in yet another memorable sequence in Kati Patang (1970). Apart from “Aaj Na Chhodenge” finding a permanent place in our playlists, it was also progressive in the way it dealt with how the society looked at a widow at the time. Asha Parekh’s Madhavi is holding back her desire given the conventions of the society, but Rajesh Khanna’s Kamal is not ready to budge. Holi was gaining prominence to take the story forward, so much that Phagun (1973) entirely revolved around Holi. What happens in its song “Piya Sang Khelo Hori” changes the course of the story and the lives of its characters.

aaj na chhodenge rajesh khanna asha parekh Asha Parekh’s restrained desires as a widow in 1970 film Kati Patang were shown during “Aaj Na Chhodenge” song.

Our films began opening doors for its songs to seamlessly flow into the plot. Going forward, if we tried to edit out Holi, the screenplay would remain hanging. Just as we saw in Sholay’s “Holi Ke Din” (1975) which came as a relief amid the high octane dacoit drama. Hema Malini and Dharmendra get drenched in the blast of colours, while Amitabh Bachchan and Jaya Bachchan realise a spark in their silence. It was also a prelude to the big story twist about to happen, which increased the pace of the movie. By the end of it, Gabbar Singh’s “Holi kab hai?” found currency among the fans, and eased us into the climax of the film.

Giving a new dimension were Amitabh and Rekha when they shed all inhibitions in “Rang Barse”. For the audience, Silsila (1981) was a real reflection of the reel life couple, the song was also a major breakthrough in the iconic film. It was no more about romance or taboos. It was about love and only love, even if it meant challenging the so called societal norms.

Holi continued to be a plot twist in films of the 80s and 90s, including Damini (1993). Holi scenes kept getting intense, In the Rajkumar Santoshi film, Meenakshi Seshadri witnesses the rape of her maid by her brother-in-law and his friends. Her screams for help get suppressed amid Holi’s loud festivities.

holi sequences silsila damini Films like Silsila (1981) and Damini (1993) had plot altering Holi sequences.

By 1990s, Bollywood began showing the bolder side of Holi. By now, the depiction of innocent love was passé. Rather filmmakers swore by action, assault and fear. And taking it to newer heights was Shah Rukh Khan flaunting his menacing avatar in Darr (1993). In the midst of his ‘K-K-K-Kiran’, came “Ang Se Ang Lagana”. Playing a stalker, the actor uses the anonymity allowed by Holi to trespasses into Juhi Chawla’s safe zone and smear colour on her. Creepy much? An important chase sequence followed between SRK and Sunny Deol.

The canvas of Holi was getting bigger, exuberant and loud. By late 1990s it became a plot point in the film when the entire cast marked the festival together. Now, how it happened was the job of the writers. We were returning to the celebratory mode.

shah rukh khan darr Shah Rukh Khan played a menacing stalker in Darr.

The audience’s love for festivities became so strong that the 2000s kept Holi majorly for song and dance. This was the 90s generation adapting to the new millennium, embracing dance floor culture. Community Holi was gaining prominence, and so was the demand for frolic and fun. Both Mohabbatein (2000) and Baghban (2003) had chartbuster Holi songs – “Soni Soni” and “Hori Khele Raghuveera” giving us a moment of vibrancy, even if it meant them not really adding anything to the plot. No, not even Shah Rukh’s plea to Amitabh Bachchan, to forget their differences was of any relevance to Mohabbatein.

Gladly enough, folk songs again came into picture by early 2010s. Tracks like “Balam Pichkari” and “Badri Ki Dulhania” fused together traditional Holi songs with new-age music arrangement. And as they say, folk can elevate anything, and we got two hit songs in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) and Badrinath Ki Dulhania (2017). It was a good way to introduce the new generation with its roots.

Lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya, in the making video of “Balam Pichkari’, said, “It was more of a fun, teasing and flirting song. That’s how we arrived it the hook which is very desi hook, to be precise – “Balam pichkari jo tune mujhe maari…”

war song jai jai shivshankar hrithik tiger Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff’s dance off was set around a Holi song in War (2019). (Photo: YRF)

Most recently, when Bollywood’s best dancers – Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff, were brought in for a dance off in War (2019), the makers ditched a Hip Hop or acrobatics and opted for a Holi sequence in “Jai Jai Shivshankar”.

The journey of Holi in Bollywood surely proves that we cannot take the festival out of our films. From being the go-to song situation to a catalyst of change, Holi has been, and continues to be, prominent. How will the new decade shape Holi sequences in our movies? We are awaiting to see, with a splash of colour.

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