Life’s filmi soundtrack

This is a piece that appeared on Firstpost today, under the title How I met and fell in love with AR Rahman:

On my commute to work the other day, plugged in like always to my iPod, I scrolled through playlists, trying to find something I hadn’t listened to lately. I stopped at a playlist labelled Kadhalar Dhinam assuming it must have been some movie soundtrack I brought back from a past trip to Chennai and had forgotten.

As the song Kadhalenum started up, it was like someone had splashed ice water on my face. I remembered getting the album around 1999. Kadhalar Dhinam, a Tamil film starring Sonali Bendre, was also released in Hindi as Dil Hi Dil Mein.  When I first stumbled across the music by AR Rahman, even though I never saw the film, I just couldn’t stop listening to it.

At the start of the new millennium, after a slow and lengthy long-distance friendship, I had fallen in love with TamBram boy just over a decade my junior, who was living – where else – out by Edison, New Jersey. Every Friday, as soon as work was over, I’d drive out of Manhattan to his place, and we’d spend the weekend together. As I would exit the Lincoln Tunnel and Kadhalenum play from this soundtrack, I would be in great form. The weekend was starting and there was a cute boy 25 miles away waiting for me, sometimes — in the heat of summer — standing shirtless in the doorway of his garden apartment, watching me park the car.

We had talked about marriage though he was fearful of how his rather orthodox parents would react to me as his choice of spouse (hmmm, let’s see, their only child and only son involved with an Irish-American Catholic 10 years his senior…. I bet you know how this story will end, don’t you?)

But at that time, the bloom was still on the rose and we couldn’t get enough of each other, so when the shehnai blast signalled the opening bars of the film’s wedding song Nenaichchpadi, I allowed myself to daydream about what our wedding might be like. (Never mind that the reverie was soon interrupted by thoughts like, “I always perspire like crazy in silk when the temperature goes above 70 degrees, how am I ever going to make it through an entire wedding ceremony in Madras wrapped in a full-on Kanjeevaram and not look a complete mess by the end?” and “How lopsided it will all be, his huge family from the city and all corners of the globe in for the wedding, and on the bride’s side, my Mom and whatever few family or friends who’d manage to travel all the way from the US and Ireland …”)

I needn’t have worried, because within a few years, soon after we defied his parents’ and my mother’s disapproval and moved in together, he secretly posted a profile of himself on an Indian dating site and started an affair with a girl in his office.

And here’s where that soundtrack comes in again. One late December evening, just a few days shy of New Year’s Eve, he returned from supposedly “a drink with the guys at work” and announced, “You know, maybe I don’t want to get married and have kids.” It all went into slow-motion and the foundation of my life disintegrated like a sandy ledge under Wile E. Coyote in those cartoons. Soon after, we negotiated our separation. He offered to do me a huge favour and delayed his departure to remain in our home until I returned from a business trip to Malaysia: mind our cat and sign for deliveries of the new furniture I would buy to replace what he was taking with him.

I had thought that he was The One I’d be with ‘til the end, and the break-up cut me off at the knees. It was one of the darkest times of my life and I moved like the walking dead through the conference in Kuala Lumpur, somehow holding it together, just barely.

The day the conference concluded, an acquaintance in KL offered to take me on a drive to see some of the city. As I played with the radio dial on the car, I stumbled across a Malaysian Tamil station. Alternating DJ chatter and film music played in the background while we talked about the city’s architecture.  And then it happened.

That wedding song I used to daydream to while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike suddenly came on the radio and for a moment I froze, biting the cheek inside my mouth to keep from crying, the joyfulness of the song a wicked contrast to my actual situation. At that very moment, if my soon-to-be ex- wasn’t back in New Jersey entertaining his new girlfriend, he was in our apartment, boxing up his belongings in anticipation of moving out right after collecting me from the airport.

My life as a musical

But that was quite a few years ago, and this time, summer 2011, listening again as the first track of that album played, then another and another, on a lovely sunny morning, I could appreciate the beauty of the songs’ melodies. Those other memories were like watching a jittery movie clip on YouTube. It was an awful time to live through, but I survived and have thrived since then, and come to realise what a disaster it would have been if we had married or had kids.

Music has always been such a vital part of life.  Even as a little girl, spending my summers at my grandfather’s home in Ireland, I was in love with musicals like West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof.  I would take his little portable Grundig tape recorder and ensconce myself in the apple tree in the garden, while I blared I Like to be in America and If I Were a Rich Man at full volume for my maximum enjoyment, until the poor neighbours would appear on the other side of the hedge and ask me to turn it down.

After Hindi movies became a regular part of life, so too did all the music, and not just from films, but from pop and bhangra stars too. When that TamBram boy and I were together, I introduced him to DJ Rekha’s monthly Basement Bhangra event in Manhattan, and we soon became regulars. Very happy and bolstered by one or two caipirinhas, we’d dance for hours to Mary J Blige’s Family Affair and Dil le Gayi Kuri by Jasbir Jassi. Even now, when I hear that song start up, it’s hard to not dance and sing along with the music.

It’s funny how evocative just a snippet of a song can be. To this day, when I hear Stereo Nation’s album Jambo, I’m transported back to a holiday in Padua, Italy with my mother, going for a run early in the morning, still sleepy, letting the high from the bouncy music of Oh Carol and Devotion keeping me going until the runner’s high took over.

Or Khuda Jaane from Bachna ae Haseeno evoking memories of another family visit to Venice. This time with Deepika Padukone standing in the very piazza where my Mom and I toasted each other with an aperitivo (she for my birthday and me, for Mother’s Day).

I’ll be all right

My mother raised me all by herself and it was always just the two of us. Through her career with an airline, we were able to travel the world together at least once or twice a year, until time and smoking took their toll. It was while taking my Mom’s remains home to Ireland in 2008 for her funeral that I escaped one night to try and distract myself from the approach of the dreaded day, and watched the newly released Ranbir-Deepika starrer in a Dublin cinema.
This is what I think is such a tremendous, genuinely life-affecting gift that we receive from Hindi (or Tamil or Telugu, etc) films: even if a particular movie is not to your liking, there’s a strong possibility that there may be at least one song from the film (or more) that will either improve your mood, make you want to dance, or touch your heart very deeply.

Shaad Ali and Tarun Mansukhani don’t know it, but both of their films have given me a boost when I desperately needed it. Shaad Ali’s bright and cheery Bunty aur Babli so lifted my spirits in the first few months that I was still reeling from the aftershocks of that awful break-up.

And Mansukhani’s Dostana, particularly the song Jaane Kyun / I’ll Be Alright was the one I played every morning as I marched the last few blocks to office in the three months after my Mom died and the reality slowly sank in that I had lost her, and I also found myself at the risk of possibly losing my job. As the buoyant music and that “I’ll be alright” refrain poured into my head, I kept reminding myself that the two things I had dreaded most in the world had happened, only a few years apart from each other. I had lost the boyfriend and then lost my mother. And to my surprise, I’d survived, so I just had to hang on somehow, keep moving forward and I would indeed be all right eventually.

And I was!

17 thoughts on “Life’s filmi soundtrack

  1. Filmholic: whats a “good” Iengar girl. Never heard of it :D.

    “Well-behaved women seldom make history” . Well I hope he gets a good (read boring) Iengar girl. You, well you are not right for him…coz you are so full of life, and fun to be around. You are not good (read boring) enough for him lol

  2. I wonder how difficult it was to write that post — I doubt I can ever open up like that on the internet. Thanks for sharing!

    Oh, and by the way, you have no idea how lucky you are for not having watched Kaadhalar Dinam 🙂

    1. Hi Ramsu,

      Well, it’s not like I named names, eh? 😉 But funny you should say that, as I started writing it several weeks earlier, then stopped, and was having a hard time picking up the thread again, but once I did, it all just wrapped itself up. But thanks for your comment.

      And yes, I watched a little of the Kadhalenum song video on YouTube and I think I actually shrieked out loud when the bevvy of angrezi girls suddenly appeared in orange outfits, waving their arms, then doing pony steps on a river bank. What the ???

      Never mind that I must admit (albeit, with shame) that I actually used to own a less flouncy version of the wedding dress Sonali’s got (except mine was just a dress, not intended for any nuptials). Oh well, I’m sure we all have a few fashion “Don’ts” in our closets or photo albums…

  3. As a TamBram Iyengar who married someone who is not (but still an Indian), I can assure you that your choice was between the devil and the deep sea 🙂 Well written post, you have joined the zillions of Indians who mark the passage of their lives by the Hindi film music they listen to.

    1. Ha ha, noted, Suja 😉

      Thanks for your kind words. My latest obsession is with Ik Junoon from ZNMD, great for summer driving with the roof open on the car…

  4. Maria!
    I really really really dig your blog. Thank you for sharing. I lurk more than comment, but know that your posts are appreciated and looked forward to. Be well, pretty lady!

  5. Lovely post, Maria. Indian film music is truly “such a tremendous, genuinely life-affecting gift.” Thank you for sharing these bittersweet memories.

    Now I have to see Kadhalar Dhinam!

  6. I can’t believe I didn’t find your blog earlier!
    Great post, I like when people bring a little personal experience into their blogs, so it’s not just analyzing and being objective.
    “Jaane Kyun” is a song I also listen to a lot – it always makes me happy.

  7. sorry typo should read

    Kudos and move on. Leave the past behind and yes listen to those songs but not to hurt yourself but to remind urself that u r better off . You are stronger than you think .

    1. Hi, yes, and thanks for the reminder. That’s what a chum of mine said when things were really rough: “You might feel as weak as a noodle, but look at all you’ve done and come through.”

      PS – when the ex- and I were together, much time was spent speculating on how his parents wished he’d find “a good Iyengar girl” 🙂

  8. This is the first time you wrote about yourself and how well you write! I completely agree with you on how filmmakers often have no idea how or when a particular movie/song will touch someone’s life.

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