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Right to Whimsy


The Gangnam style phenomenon (I only just got around to watching the video; it’s just insanely slow-loading for my ADHD-riddled brain!) is cool and funny and everything, but two things are just popping out at me. First, that it’s so Indian in so many ways. I could just change the race of the characters and have myself a contemporary Indian Bollywood/Tam-movie/Gult-movie “item-number” style video – the music, the beats, the expressions of the main character, the various other characters that come in, the flashy clothes, and yes, the transformed “loser” guy at the center of it all who represents the viewers fantasies. It just hit me yet again on watching this that the typical low-rent Indian male ishtyle, a melange of proud crassness, in-your-face political incorrectness and so-uncool-I’m-cool-now attitude – the Sallu-bhai phenomenon – that its consumers thinks is pure, distilled desiness is a copied, mass-manufactured, imported product, as cynical and plastic as the styles it mocks.

Second, the non-linear narrative of the Gangnam style video reminded me of my own childhood. We’d grown up in an India which was poor, and economic poverty, the long decades of collective self-loathing and cultural insularity and the aftermath of political monopoly somehow engendered the creation of the worst kind of unimaginative art, e.g. in 1980’s Bollywood. We were in our pre-teens when the first ‘music videos’ came out – the idea of a video of a stand-alone song, not part of a movie or a larger story just blew our minds. “What is the *point* of an album of just songs that aren’t classical or ghazal music?” we asked ourselves, quietly, lest someone know how un-with-it we were. And the videos mostly confirmed to Bollywood-style fantasy stories, but some, with their non-linear narrative and “no story”, pushed the boundaries of what we’d thought were the only way to sell music – with over-the-top personal angst or illicit romance (the only kind) or overt family melodrama. The lead singer would walk/dance by backgrounded by psychedelic, ever-changing things (not the usual 20 background dancers) in a 70s-throwback, random characters would walk in and out, snidely indicating some story that was never fully explained, and sometimes subtly a story or a “deeper meaning” would be hinted at but never fulfilled. It was just pure whimsy in a narrative disguise, and recognizing and accepting this whimsy took a leap of confidence in oneself. It required a sense of luxury, of wanton waste, of deliberate decadence that we’d never grown up with and never internalized.

Maybe it’s the whole low-rent-ness of the main character’s expressions and body language, but for some reason the Gangnam style video brought back those feelings of wistfulness, that sense of watching someone burn dollar bills (i.e. rupee notes) without needing a Purpose, and that realization that it was totally out of reach for me to even understand how anyone could get away with such whimsy without someone asking them to “finish everything on your plate first”.

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Categories: Bollywood, culture
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