Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 September 2019

A Bollywood contract for India's busking sensation is no reason to pat ourselves on the back

Is the story we are being told about Ranu Mondal simply another example of our cultural, social and ideological laziness?

Ranu Mondal from Ranaghat, who went viral for her song Ek Pyaar Ka Nagma Hai, just recorded her first song with Himesh Reshammiya. Screengrab
Ranu Mondal from Ranaghat, who went viral for her song Ek Pyaar Ka Nagma Hai, just recorded her first song with Himesh Reshammiya. Screengrab

It has been presented as a rags-to-riches fairy tale – the Indian version of the Hollywood myth of the grocery checkout girl in Orange County who gets “discovered”.

The story goes like this: on July 21, a busker named Ranu Mondal boarded a train at Ranaghat Railway Station in the Indian state of West Bengal. She chose to sing a rendition of a chartbuster by Lata Mangeshkar, a singer who is often referred to as “India’s nightingale” for her four-decade reign over the Bollywood film music industry.

A commuter was so touched by Mondal’s voice that he recorded her on his smartphone and eventually uploaded this on social media. In the meantime, his friends offered her food and water as she continued belting out ditties from Bollywood’s song bank, much to their delight. Overnight, Ranu Mondal became a viral sensation in India.

That’s Side A. Side B of this heartwarming vinyl goes thus: the viral video translated into a windfall for Mondal; Himesh Reshammiya, one of Bollywood’s most sought-after composers, was so enthralled by the dishevelled, happy-go-lucky soul that he offered her a singing contract for his upcoming film titled Happy, Hardy and Heer. She has also been cast in Superstar Singer, a reality singing contest on Sony Entertainment Television (in which Reshammiya will incidentally play the judge).

The composer quickly uploaded a video of him jamming with Mondal on Instagram. But this quote from Reshammiya deserves attention: “Today, I met Ranuji and I feel that she is blessed with divinity. Her singing was mesmerising and I could not stop myself from offering her the best I could.”

The fact is that Reshammiya doesn’t have to look very hard in Mumbai itself to realise that there are thousands who make ends meet similarly. Indians are appropriating Mondal’s struggle to feel better about themselves. The fundamental problem with the viral video and its ostensibly transformative virtues is that Bollywooders, music industry folks and the wider public consuming this narrative are oddly convinced they are performing a humanitarian act.

Indian Bollywood music director, singer and actor Himesh Reshammiya. AFP.
Indian Bollywood music director, singer and actor Himesh Reshammiya. AFP.

But there is one problem: to perform a humanitarian act, you need to be on the ground and in touch with the nerve ends of a country, not on the sofa of your living room watching television. That Bollywood has not done much to alleviate inequality in India is a given.

Asia’s biggest slum, Dharavi, is less than 10 kilometres away from Carter Road, where some of Bollywood’s biggest stars live in their plush homes. A November 2016 article in Live Mint says that while Bollywood is taking “baby steps” towards philanthropy, and “while Indian celebrities have been associated with social causes, there is little transparency here, unlike the West, about the amounts donated”.

In an opaque milieu such as this, compounded with the malleability of the truth in the social media era, fairy tales starring the likes of Ranu Mondal need to be taken with a pinch of salt. So wide is the chasm between Bollywood A-listers and India’s Z-listers that tinsel town was recently rocked by a “brown-face” controversy. One of the year’s biggest blockbusters is Super 30, in which the actor Hrithik Roshan portrays real-life mathematician and teacher Anand Kumar, who comes from a less privileged background.

To get under the “skin” of the character, Roshan resorted to bronzing his skin two shades darker than he is. The classism and racism in the film was called out by the press, but it does highlight Bollywood’s twisted relationship with the nation’s downtrodden.

Hrithik Roshan portrays real-life mathematician and teacher Anand Kumar in 'Super 30', but his 'brown face' controversy threatens to overshadow the film. 
Hrithik Roshan portrays real-life mathematician and teacher Anand Kumar in 'Super 30', but his 'brown face' controversy threatens to overshadow the film. 

Again, one needs to reiterate that India is a free society and no one is exactly hauling anyone up by their collar demanding that they shell out cash. But what does rankle every now and then – and especially in the case of newly discovered chanteuse Ranu Mondal – is the hypocrisy and the exploitation of folks who don’t have any agency in how information about them is disseminated to millions of privileged and “humane” Indians far removed from her reality.

It is fantastic news that a poor busker will find yet another means of income after years of penury. But Indians need to be reminded that they also live in an era in which second-hand emotion on social media is increasingly being considered as a bona fide sentiment. After all, is becoming a feminist as easy as retweeting an article on feminism? If you download a book dissing Donald Trump on your Kindle (and then flash it on your Facebook), are you liberal now?

Way back in the pre-internet era, philosophers Robert Pfaller and Slavoj Zizek coined the term “interpassivity”. Drawing on the technology of their time, they used the videocassette recorder to explain this phenomenon: “the VCR does the job of watching the movie so that the owner of the VCR can be free not to watch the movie”.

It warned us of a zeitgeist of cultural, social and ideological laziness, in which members of a society delegate the responsibility of feeling anything to technology. Ranu Mondal’s “rags to riches” story is an updated version of this very malaise.

It is a ready-made humanity nestled somewhere in the infinite realm of cyberspace – YouTube, Instagram, Twitter, what have you – and one that can be accessed at will by anyone wanting to feel benevolent, humane, or a good Samaritan. But it will take a lot more hard work than that.

Perhaps enrolling for some volunteer work at an NGO down a potholed street might be a good starting point – as opposed to finding hapless mascots to celebrate one’s softer side in the echo chamber of social media, a virtual pond teeming with people like us.

Updated: August 28, 2019 03:39 AM

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