Bollywood is a universe of extremes. Lusciously over-the-top films portray glittering princesses drowned in jewels living aside dishevelled slum-dwellers fighting their way to the top. Across India sprawling billboards advertise the hottest new release, well-loved posters ripped-out from magazines decorate the inside of auto-rickshaws and booming Bollywood soundtracks reverberate out from roadside stalls. Like India, Bollywood is an assault on the senses – an experience like no other, thrilling in its eccentricity.
The term ‘Bollywood’ first came into common parlance in the 1970s when film production in India was at an all time high. Film had been a much loved medium since the 1930s and 1940s though, offering a rampant escapism that provided salve to the hardships of the time; the Great Depression, World War II, the Independence Movement and the violence related to the Partition of India.
India was finally granted independence from Britain in 1947. Though the Empire made its exit, the cultural implications of 200 years of colonial rule meant that many English businesses remained. Recording magnate HMV stayed, capitalizing on the emerging market in ‘new’ India. HMV pressed Western rock albums and released them alongside their Indian output and in Mumbai and Calcutta, All India Radio made time in its schedule to broadcast Western pop. The 1960s saw the release of Indian-inspired album The Velvet Underground and Nico by the American band of the same name. The seminal psychedelic rock album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released the same year by The Beatles and featured several Indian gurus on the iconic front cover and instruments likes sitar, tabla, tambura on the tracks. The late Ravi Shankar played a huge part in invigorating Western interest in Indian music: he performed at Woodstock and collaborated with George Harrison. Fascination with Indian culture was also spurred by the hippy trail, which led many flare-wearing wanderers to seek refuge in Ashrams in popular coastal hotspots like Goa.
Influenced by the Western rock and the intertwined hippy movement, the Indian underground scene mushroomed: rock-zine the Junior Statesmanwas founded and Simla Cigarette Company held a ‘Battle of the Bands’ competition at Shanmukhananda Hall in Mumbai, offering a platform to newly formed garage rock bands. The first simmers of a psychedelic underground inspired composers like R.D. Burman to work far-out music into their blockbuster soundtracks. Evidently the Western psychedelic movement owed much to Indian inspiration and the relationship was mutual: the sounds and styles of the swinging sixties trickled back to Indian shores and went on to manifest themselves, first in the underground scene and then Bollywood.
One of the very first examples of a psychedelic element on the big screen was seen in the classic Hare Rama Hare Krishna. In this film, a young woman runs away and joins a hippy commune where she puffs with pleasure on an oversized chillum and dances loosely to the hypnotic music. ‘Dum Maro Dum’, the famous track from this scene is sung by renowned playback singer Asha Bhosle.
Another 1970s R. D. Burman classic is the featured Piya Tu Ab To Aaaja, again sung by Asha Bhosle and mouthed by India’s naughty screen seductress Helen. Cabaret numbers like this one, and ‘Dum Maro Dum’, were a regular feature of Indian films up to the 1980s. Other jewels included feature Lata Mangeshkar (Asha Bhosle’s sister) as well as Mohd. Rafi, two of the most influential playback singers ever, whose voices brought fantasy to life, and continue to inspire succeeding generations. Delve deep into the time-warp and lose yourself in the heady world of psychedelic Bollywood.