Bollywood through a feminist lens

“Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu” (Howrah Bridge, 1958)

It takes at least a week to get this song out of your head. A week if you are lucky. And then you start mindlessly humming, and suddenly the song is back.

“Mere Naam Chin Chin Chu” is a famous song, one of the oldest, most recognizable item numbers. It was a star turn for Helen, who went on to a long, remarkable career.

Yet I first heard it over the closing credits of Deepa Mehta’s Bollywood Hollywood. A fitting choice; the movie plays with and deconstructs movie tropes. All of the characters dance to the song during the credits, but the performer is a man in drag, whose character had been a closeted gay man. As the original song celebrates a mixture of cultures, the old, and the new, it is an appropriate conclusion to that film.

And so it is that version that has been running in my head for years. I was genuinely surprised by the sweetness and innocence of the original performance.

Helen plays Miss Chin Chin Choo, a dancer at a club. (Are there cuts to stern men drinking and smoking while watching women dance? Yes, there are.) The actress herself comes from a mixed Anglo-Burmese background; the makeup and costuming play up her “Chinese” features. But in the lyrics themselves suggest that her different parts come from different places; a sweetheart from China, youth from Singapore, excitement from Shanghai.

I hesitate to call her costume modest, as it is form fitting, and the camera lingers on her swaying hips. Helen and her backup dancers are more covered up than the typical item girls. While Helen is dressed in “Chinese” clothing, the other women wear Westernized Chinese (or vice versa?) dresses. Their choreography is relatively simple. But there is no mistaking that this is a song that’s just for fun and meant to feature pretty women to gawk at.

The music, too, is eclectic. Guitar, oboe, bass. Upbeat. Would fit into nearly any 1950s movie. The music also unexpectedly includes Hawaiian lap slide guitar. The music isn’t beholden to a particular place, but rather mixes sounds into a fresh, modern sound.

The choreography as a whole is quite simple-yet-complex. The staging, particularly at the beginning with the men in their sailor suits, is quite artificial and theatrical, like a stage show; one is reminded of 1940s Hollywood musicals. The staging reminds us what we are watching isn’t “real,” and centers the focus on the performers, particularly Helen. At times, Geeta Dutt’s voice has a strong reverb; while normally this might sound out of place, it works with the artificial reality of the song.

“Mera Naam Chin Chin Chu” is catchy, fun, sweet, easy to remember and perform, and catchy. It showcases a mix of cultures and styles. It shows that an item number doesn’t have to ooze sex in order to be enjoyable.

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