A NOSE FOR MELODY - THE BALLAD OF REMIX HIMESH
I wrote this piece for Time Out when Himesh Reshammiya first became a thing - when he replaced Altaf Raja in my nightly auto rickshaw rides. It's a pity Time Out didn't keep its archives online, so if I want to share something I wrote for them I have to do it here. These were early writings on culture for me, and I think I was quite lucky to have the space to write about things other people thought were quite faltu - such as this piece on Rendezvous With Simi Garewal (of which I was was an ardent fan ) and a new singer I heard on the radio called Rabbi Shergill :)
I also wrote about my ongoing Himesh amusements on this blog at the time - about going to see Aap Ka Suroor and then! Meeting some people who had acted in the film in Stuttgart :D as well as seeing a fab docu on the Making of Aap Ka Suroor!
Anyway the reason all this came back to me is that I just stumbled upon a truly genius instagram account called Himesh Doing Things, which I believe was #madeforme and well, His Himness continues to rule, having repackaged him-self as himm-self.
A NOSE FOR MELODY
Even as Himesh Reshammiya’s star rises, so do the number of people who look for ever new analogies to describe his peculiar voice. Yet every negative comment unleashes a barrage of squealing, misspelt, indignant comments on blogs and websites. To provide a representative sample: “TO ALL OF YOU WHO FINK HE IS A LOSER …well folks just pay a visit to a psychiatrist….something aint working in ur heads”; “himesh ah!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!, my god he sings mind blowing , n i m his bigest fan”. Less explicably - I HAVE 12 PICTURES OF UR’S & 3 OF THEM ARE WITHOUT A CAP. PLEASE REPLY THIS TIME I’LL SEND ALL OF THEM TO U. And finally, less articulate, but no less hearfelt - ohhh huzzzzzooooooorrrrrrrrrrr.”
It seems a little stock to complain of His Himness’s voice when we have spent decades in wall to wall Lata Mangeshkar as she relentlessly ascended the stair of shrillness. It’s possible that time will dull the edge of HR’s ubiquity and nasality to interesting difference, as it did with R.D.Burman. We’ll have to wait and see about that.
But only the most churlish would deny Himesh his compositional talent, which lies in his ability to manufacture a perfect hit song along an unambiguous formula, despite his protestations about versatility. In this, he is a culmination of the remix phase in our popular music, dressing traditional Hindi movie melodies in trance like Arabic/Sufi folk phrases, infectious dance beats and his signature hooks: every song moves in an upward cresendo to hit a chorus type catch phrase that makes you want to sing and jump simultaneously, screaming– Zara jhoom jhoom, Janaabe-Janiya or whatever. Added to this is the judicious ornamentation of words from the language of Indian love – Urdu. His songs embody the faux-serious ghazalification, beloved of Pankaj Udhas fans, using only the most familiar of words. It is an Urdu learned only by hearing Hindi film songs - Aashiq, aksar, chaahat, huzoor, inayat, janaabe-janiya, kashish, nasha, sarfaroshi, suroor and last, but not least, zohra jabeen. There’s just enough to make you think that the song is about something, when in effect it’s always the same thing – you intoxicate me, and by the way, I hate you because I love you. To put it in the uncluttered terms of Reshamiya himself as he promotes Ahista Ahista on radio – “these songs are very good, very modern, very commercial, very…. meaningful.” That’s the package he’s selling and going by the fact that he’s sold ten lakh copies of Tera Suroor, delivered 29 hits in 6 months and claims to have a 1000 songs banked, he knows what he’s doing.
In this, Himesh has completed the journey begun by the once successful, now diminished Altaf Raja. Raja burst on the scene in the ‘90s, with the monster hit tum to thehre pardesi, saath kya nibhaoge, propelled by the T-series promotional machinery of free cassettes to auto-rickshaws. Raja’s songs added pop beats to the working class, secular, urban quawwalis, which sometimes dotted Hindi films in the streetsinger voices of people like Jaani Babu Qawwal (remember, Jhoom Barabar, Jhoom Sharabi?). The hallmark of Raja’s songs was the unremitting accusation to women that they were Harjai, Bewafa and so on. He appeared in his videos too all of which had fairytale romances gone sour, turning the male lovers hard eyed and violent. While the violence was not defended, it was somehow empathized with. But eventually, Raja, enjoyed only a brief flirtation with mixed audiences, although he still remains a major barbershop and bar-room success from Bhayander to Jhansi.
The next time our autorickshaws spawned a hit-man like this was with Tere Naam. Although quite different in style from Altaf Raja, the songs evoked the same in sensibility – and the same ability to turn your hate to acceptance with constant repitition. The difference is that HR managed to crossover from that working class landscape into a much wider audience, giving his tunes a faint awareness of the world music scene, a facsimile of internationalism.
But perhaps Reshamiya’s more interesting coup is his success as a video star, his turning Indian playback singing on its head. For years, even though we only heard Lata’s or Rafi’s voice when we heard songs, we conjured up the faces of Rakhi, or Padmini Kohlapure or Dev Anand. Not so with Hurrican Himesh, who sings for all his films and stars in their videos too. Whether it’s Dino Morea or Zayed Khan doing the lip-sync, the face flashing before us is of that Gujerati boy with a memory of babyfat under his stubble and that cap on his head.
Like his songs, he has crafted this visuality out of the most successful elements – his video narratives of wronged lovers simmering with violence, echo not only the videos of Altaf Raja but the film personae of Reshamiya’s soul Siamese twins - Salman Khan and Emran Hashmi. From Salman – to whom Himesh ascribes his success – Himesh gets his vulnerable and about to lash out vibe, from Emran the stubble, the jacket, the scowl. His chantepleur – the ability to weep and sing at the same time – seems to justify his skulking and sulking under his cap on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa, his cry of Let’s Rock more suicide note than slogan. In his music videos he stands unnoticing – could the nasal quality be from too much crying you wonder - fully clothed in cap and jacket, while semi naked ladies dance around him. Long bits of satin are suspended all around, in case the pain necessitates sudden suicide or homicide.
But as in his repackaging of Altaf Raja, so with this sado-masochistic lover image. Himesh has managed to soften it with those brimming eyes, evoking the memory, but making it more palatable. In his latest music video he epitomizes the “bas, main hoon na” air of dolorous paternalism. He carries in himself the ghost of every Indian man who cannot get over that one slight love affair gone wrong – and we know, that’s a lot of ghosts to carry inside you! Perhaps when the people of Bhalej, a village in Gujerat, forbid the singing of Jhalak Dikhlahja, saying that the aaja aaja refrain invites lovelorn spirits to take possession of the singing youth, they know whereof they speak.
Even as we extol the commercial virtues of Hurrican Himmesh, it’s worth remembering that many of the films with big hits in them, nevertheless flop. Perhaps it says something about the fact that we are a nation of song listeners rather than movie goers, as Himesh himself says. Perhaps what we learn about the state of Indian pop from him is not really very new – and why would it be? What we learn about him about how Indians think of romance and how they like to love isn’t that new either, but shouldn’t it have been? As we shake our heads in agreement to those Moroccan beats which echo the suffering heart of the Indian man, maybe it should give us pause that the more things change, the more alas, they stay the same.