On SRK, Bollywood’s Love of Urdu and What It Means To Be a ‘Deewana’ in New India

A few weeks ago we saw two parallel scripts enfolding in the predictable narrative that is today’s new India – the targeting of Shah Rukh Khan’s son in a drug case, as well as the upheaval surrounding Fab India’s Diwali advertisement ‘Jashna e Riwaaz’, for its use of the Urdu language in depicting the festival.

They say two parallel lines never meet, but I see a confluence of two parallel scripts; a confluence of waters whose currents and tides are too strong to reverse: here, the syncretic literary past of contemporary India symbolically represented Khan.

In Khan I see the embodiment of not only India’s popular culture but also its literary culture — in his depiction of the ‘deewana’ or lover — which is tied to the Urdu language.

One of the aspects of Urdu language and literature is its poetry, sher o shayari and the Urdu ghazal. Not to mention the scores of Bollywood songs in Urdu, drawing from the Urdu literary tradition with the writings of Sahir Ludhianvi, Gulzar and Javed Akhtar. Urdu runs in the very veins of the mehfil that is Bollywood and Hindi cinema.

Consider the figure of the ‘deewana’, the mad and passionate lover — both prominent traits of the lover in the ghazal world — which was epitomised by Khan in his films. There is even the popular song, ‘Ye Dil Deewana/Deewana Hai Ye Dil…  Mujhko Bhi Kar Dala Deewana’ from the movie Pardes.

The figure of the ‘deewana’ is central to the ghazal and one can say that ‘dil’ is the very heart and object of the ghazal. It is the terrain of the deewana’s discourse and pursuits. It is a terrain much like the desert that Khan races through in a sports car in ‘Yeh Dil Deewana’. Khan is the ‘King of Romance’ for no other reason than that he is a professional lover or deewana.

But as is seen in the ghazal, this pursuit depends on the absence of the Beloved; it is always unrequited love — the very existence of the poetic form of the ghazal depends on ‘furqat’ or separation from the elusive and intangible Beloved:

“Teri furqat ki sadmein kam na honge” (the wounds from this separation will never heal)

This makes the deewana a lone, solitary figure. In a number of film songs, we see Khan, the hero-lover of the film, forlorn and alone. Take him walking the streets of New York all by himself for instance in Kal Ho Na Ho, dwelling in the bitter-sweetness of the secret that is his love and the fleeting nature of life.

Yet, it is love itself that is both dard and dava, painful and self-sustaining. ‘Chaiya Chaiya’ has the iconic lines: “Jin ke sar ho ishq ki chaaon/paaon ke niche jannat hogi (Those under the shade of love walk on heaven’s floor)”. This song, as many film admirers have observed, stems from a literary past as its main hook line ‘chaiya chaiya’ is an adaptation of the mystic poet and sufi saint Baba Bulleh shah’s ‘Tere ishq nachaya thatha thaiya”.

Bulleh Shah sings these words in ecstatic elation for his pir Shah Inayat Qadiri. This song also similarly evokes the beloved: “Jiski zubaan Urdu ki tarah… kabhi daal kabhi paat mein hawa pe dhundu uske nishaan (He who has Urdu on his tongue… Whether branch or leaf or the air I breathe/I look for him everywhere)’.

The love that Khan embodies in his films also has this Sufi element — all encompassing, open, and inviting, represented by the iconic visual of his extended open arms.

The idea of this kind of love, with Urdu on your tongue and an open heart is a subversive one in today’s India. That Khan’s family was a target of the authorities is then a symbolic one: because his persona represents all of what is prohibited in a Hindutva India — freedom, inclusivity, love, and the boldness and fearlessness of a deewana.

Even though a deewana is quite simply one who loves and follows the heart, it is in that, however, that they are rebellious. In doing so, they break the laid out rules and contours of society. Questions of morality also seep in. It is not for naught that deewana is often deemed paagal, ‘mad’ by society. The carefree dance of Khan in ‘Chaiya Chaiya’ is the dance of the paagal deewana, a mad lover rebellious in their freedom.

In this manner the deewana is an outcast of sorts. We see this in Kundan Shah’s Kabhi Haan Kabhi Na, where the character of Sunil, played by Khan is shunned by his family and friends for walking an unconventional path — of going to great lengths in pursuit of love: the woman he loves and his passion for music as vocation.

Majru Sultanpiri pens the lyrics “Woh tho hai albela hazaron mein akela” (He is a free spirit, one in a million). Sultanpuri’s words echo the ghazal world that also pits the lover against a cruel and indifferent world and era or ‘zamaana’.

It is in these little ways that Bollywood is heavily influenced by a shared literary past: one that includes the rich legacy of Urdu literature. The personage of the deewana portrayed by Khan is in fact a figure belonging to the Indian subcontinent’s literary heritage.

Love and freedom and hence dissent and courage of the deewana then is not something new to this country. However these are objectionable traits in the Hindutva society of India today.

The attacks on Khan and Urdu as one of the languages of the subcontinent are not set apart from one another, but shed light on the systematic machinery of hate and exclusion currently on display. To be a deewana outside the reels of cinema is to dissent in present-day India.

Ilina Acharya is an artist based in Delhi. She writes, edits, makes music, and is currently learning french from Alliance Française de Delhi.

All translations in the text by author

Featured image credit: Pixabay/Editing: LiveWire/Tanya Jha