My First True Love: Bollywood Music

At the age of 13, if I was asked what my favorite song was, my reply would have been, quite embarrassingly I might add, ‘It girl’ by Jason Derulo. On the inside, however, it would actually have been (and still is) “Kal Ho Na Ho” from the movie Kal Ho Na Ho, one of my favorite Bollywood movies of all time.

Starting with the soothing melody, the soulful heartbeat, and the beautiful lyrics, the song instantly became iconic for me. I was very young at the time, about 7 or 8, but the song truly became an important part of my life. From playing it loud and clear on my Dad’s first generation iPod (also just known as a brick these days), to listening to it at home, googling the meaning of every word, to even attempting to finally sing it — the song really provided for many “new beginnings” in my life.

It was the first time I truly appreciated the meaning of any music I had listened to. It was the first time I actually wanted to go to Hindi class, which my parents used to send me to. It was the first time I truly felt a special connection with something.

“Har ghadi badal rahi hai roop zindagi
Every moment life is changing its face
Chaanv hai kabhi, kabhi hai dhoop zindagi
Sometimes it's shade, sometimes it's sun in life
Har pal yahan jee bhar jiyo 
Live every moment here, in the fullest
Jo hai samaa, Kal ho naa ho”
Whatever is today, may not be there tomorrow

Javed Akhtar’s beautiful words and Sonu Nigam’s over-the-top, but soothing, soft voice contribute to the wonderful message of this song. Essentially, it means, live every moment you have in the fullest, as you never know, you might never get tomorrow. For what would later be known to me as “YOLO: You Only Live Once”, this song set high expectations for ups-and-downs, love, and the journey of life.

Fast forward a few years from this time and I had arrived in San Jose, California — a diverse suburb in the center of Silicon Valley, teeming with stereotypical Indian aunties and uncles ready to judge me for a variety of reasons. Now, this was sort of a culture shock for me at the time as I originally grew up in Long Island, New York, a vastly different environment from the one I was about to experience. This led to an original apprehension surrounding my new home and my new neighborhood. One thing, however, that I did not realize at first, but would soon learn to greatly appreciate, was the immediate exposure to more of the South Asian Community present in the United States. One fond memory I have is of plonking myself onto my bed after a long days at school, ready to listen to the newest Bollywood songs, watching a Bollywood movie on TV, or even watching a random Indian soap opera with mom and dad (yes, I know how crazy they are).

But among all of these new experiences, it wasn’t, for example, Shah Rukh Khan’s overly exaggerated stammering, or his weird eyebrow twitching or even his classic outspread arms that stuck or connected with me — it was the music that he merely just lip-syncs to.

At the age of 7 or 8, it’s easy to easily admit to loving the culture and the music that we enjoy, totally unconcerned about “cool-ness” or possibly the lack thereof.

Once I was in San Jose, I had reached the cusp of my adolescent years and honestly, I was very reserved in the way I expressed myself and I rarely opened up to my friends, if to anyone at all. It all started with a feeling that I was American first, and then Indian. And so I started to act accordingly, eventually altering my music and movie choices. For a long time, I never mentioned to anyone that “Kal Ho Na Ho” was my favorite song or that my favorite type of music was “Bollywood”. Instead, my “favorite” music constantly fluctuated with what my friends liked or whatever was “popular” at the time. The irony of it all, however, was that I would always confidently state that I listened to music ranging from hip-hop, to rap, to jazz, but such conversations would come to screeching halts as soon as I was asked to name any of the top 20 songs in any of those genres. So, eventually I gave in and committed. I started buying iTunes songs, listening to things like Drake, Jason Derulo, Iyaz, Usher (artists popular in my middle school and early high school days) and the likes. On this path to “social acceptance”, though, I truly missed my old Bollywood playlists and the amazing feeling that I would feel in listening to them.

Bollywood was once a part of my identity, but soon it became a guilty pleasure. Kal Ho Na Ho continued to sadden me, but not just because of Aman’s (the main character) tragic death), but because I truly felt connected to a semblance of “Indian-ness”, which for a long time, I never understood why this was the case.

I was consciously “American” on the outside, and as “Indian” as I wanted back at home.

Once I hit high school, however, it dawned upon me — I couldn’t continue to listen to music I didn’t like as much, just to have something in common with other people. I started to embrace my “Indian-ness” and truly listened to and watched movies and music that I actually wanted to. In fact, instead of trying to fit in with others, I started to look for friends and people who would fit in with me. And I am glad to say, there were plenty just like me, or even those who were willing to listen to Bollywood music for the first time.

Though I was able to solve this “identity struggle” internally, I recently started reflecting, what exactly draws me to Bollywood music? What about it makes me feel so happy on the inside?

Well, there is the psychological and “theorist” approach that originates from people like Ashish Rajadhyaksha who have written about how new-age Bollywood films project a new meaning towards what it means to “be Indian”. Such theories state that pastimes like Bollywood music and movies allow Indians globally (like myself, and others) to feel “civilizational belonging, explicitly delinked from the political rights of citizenship”. Essentially, Bollywood music and movies allow so many people around the world to participate in such a culture and group with no political investment, which creates a “new India” and a “new way to be Indian”.

For me, personally, such theories imply that many people like myself long for an Indian-ness or a need for “Indian” to be attached to our identities. I disagree.

Bollywood songs were always a new adventure for me. Whether it be a upbeat, fast number on a sad, gloomy day, or a soulful piece on a particularly positive day, Bollywood music was always a place where I could get inspired one day, and smile uncontrollably the next.

Over time, there arose many more intersections between both my national identities and I have learned to appreciate both for what they have given me. Bollywood songs, for me, have become an avenue to appreciating and loving one of my cultures.

Kal Ho Na Ho was just an example of one song that carried me through a phase of my life. However, there have been many more that have been so valuable and important to me along the way. Below, I’m attaching some of my these songs in recent years for you all to take a listen if you’d like. Also, there’s a link to my Instagram page, where I horribly attempt to sing some of my favorites. Each song over the years has been like another rung to my ladder, each step leading to the next phase of life, holding a memory, truly showing me how far I have come since my days as a 7 year old loudly yelling, attempting to sing in the backseat of my Dad’s white Toyota Sienna.

Hope I didn’t bore all of you to death, thank you :)

Kal Ho Na Ho
Pehli Nazar Mein
Tu Jaane Na
Aas Paas Hai Khuda
Ae Dil Hai Mushkil
Ajj Din Chadheya
Channa Mereya
Jeena Jeena
O Re Piya
Woh Lamhe
Sanam Re