“Jai Ho” (Slumdog Millionaire, 2008)

“Remediation,” as defined by Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, is the idea that new media achieves cultural significance by referring to and building on old media. One form of art or culture as reflected through another. Consider something like a vine, which combines gifs, memes, video, and thus photography, painting, stage productions. . . .Vines built on those previous forms and provides a new context and way to communicate.

Something might be lost in this re-media-tion, but something else is gained, and these different forms gives us new ways to interact with the world. A painting is slow, posed, perhaps an expression of the ideal. A photograph can be that, but also captures the instantaneous, the imperfect. A great artist and a great photographer share many of the same skills, but not all.

In 2009, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire was everywhere, and was part of the cyclical interest the West has in Indian culture (consider Madonna and Gwen Stefani’s use of Indian styles in the ‘90s, the popularity of musicians like Shelia Chandra in the ‘80s, and yoga in the ‘70s). Boyle is an English director; the movie is loosely based on an Indian book which uses the British television show Who Wants to be a Millionaire? as a major component of the plot; the film’s composer, A.R. Rahman originally got his start in Tamil cinema; and so on.

The flip side of remediation, then, might be appropriation. A blend of ideas, but also, if not theft, misrepresentation.

Slumdog Millionaire is not a Bollywood movie, but for many Americans (and perhaps many white/non-NRI Westerners), it represents Bollywood, since it is set in India, has Indian actors, and some catchy songs. On the one hand, it might represent a sort of gateway for people interested in but scared of Bollywood. On the other, it’s an interpretation, a fantasy, that is often represented as “the real thing.”

The Slumdog Millionaire soundtrack was everywhere. How could it not be? A.R. Rahman is one of the most popular musicians and composers in the world. His music is fun, catchy, edgy, influences, and is influenced. His music is a beautifully curated collection of beats. “Jai Ho” won an Oscar, Emmy, and was a campaign song. It’s a song of victory, a celebration at the end of a movie about poverty and hardship. Released by the Pussycat Dolls as “Jai Ho (You Are My Destiny)” it became an item song. A sort of item song. A remediated item song.

The original version of the song uses a lot of Bolly-elements: a train station, a slew of extras, adorable children. It celebrates love and life. It’s fun, but not an item song. Frieda Pinto wears jeans, a t-shirt and a scarf; she dances closely with Dev Patel, but the focus is not on her body.

The version with the Pussycat Dolls includes the train station and the extras. The lyrics have been tweaked slightly so the song is more romantic. The focus is now more solidly on the female body. The Pussycat Dolls wear Indian-inspired clothing: bindis, crop tops. They pose in a way that suggests classical Indian dance, but the actual dancing is more firmly Western.

The song is less than unnecessary. It doesn’t tell us anything about the characters. It doesn’t serve as a release of tension; the Pussycat Doll version was its own entity, released after the movie. It does help sell the movie, I suppose, so maybe “less than” is too harsh.

For one more layer of remediation, the Pussycat Doll version of “Jai Ho” was featured in the video game Just Dance. Players copy the moves of the on-screen dancer. Again, the style is “Indian-ish.” Which is disappointing because the series includes actual songs/moves from Indian cinema. At least the cartoon aspect of the game makes it easier for the viewer to understand this isn’t “real.”

These different versions show us just thin an item song can be. A few tweaks, and it’s a “normal” song. Remove it from the film, and nothing lost. Certainly I find aspects to praise, such as Katrina Kaif’s physical strength or learning something about a character’s state of mind. But the Pussycat Doll version shows us how often we (feminists) have to grasp to find something positive. The changed lyrics are fine, but the video focuses only on the body and desirability of the female singer. Their voices and dancing are perfectly fine, but there’s nothing particularly fun or special. It really is a fairly naked cash-grab.

Consider, instead, of the song really was a celebration. Not just conventionally attractive women dancing in skimpy outfits, but all kinds of women displaying their talent. Or the song raised awareness or money for some of the issues explored in the film, such as poverty, violence, or sex work. Or even provided a little vignette about the characters, a more thematic tie. Pinto and Patel sit in the audience and watch the Pussycat Dolls.

That a non-Bollywood movie spawned a disappointing item song shouldn’t be that surprising. It’s remediating Indian cinema, building on it, not part of it. Technically an item number only requires a beautiful body and a catchy song, and the Pussycat Doll version of “Jai Ho” has that. But this mediocre version shows just how magical a really good item number can be.

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Categorised in: Bollywood Adjacent, Item Numbers

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