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How Asha Bhosle ruled Bollywood from behind the scenes

The singer paved the way for the women Bollywood has always needed: complex, talented, and proud to defy the rules

Bollywood, with its bursts of vibrant colour and glittering sequins, has been an all-singing, all-dancing Indian cinematic phenomenon for decades. It has even become a microcosm of India itself, with all its many languages, stories, and characters.

However, the way women have been treated by Bollywood, and India, is complex. Women have been relegated to serve particular roles which heighten traditional ideas of ‘femininity’, and any attempt to stray from this ideal has been met with significant struggle – even by singer Asha Bhosle. Arguably one of the most important women in Bollywood, Bhosle is a pioneering force, paving the way for realistic portrayals of women in India’s film industry during the 20th and 21st century.

Born in 1933, Bhosle has a multitude of talents, but is most famously known as a ‘playback singer’ – a singer whose voice is pre-recorded for use in film, but doesn’t appear on-screen. Instead, their songs are usually lip-synced by an actor. As a result, Bhosle kicked off her career firmly behind the scenes. Yet, as anyone even vaguely familiar with Bollywood will tell you, an Indian film’s songs are its heart and soul. They’re the parts of a film that stay with us once the movie is over, being hummed and danced to at weddings long after everyone’s forgotten the characters’ names.

Over the first few decades of her life, the public never saw Bhosle’s face – but they did hear her voice. They also heard other voices too, and during the 50s and 60s, women such as Shamshad Begum, Geeta Dutt, and Bhosle’s own sister Lata Mangeshkar became renowned playback singers. The songs they sang were usually love songs – joy at union, or sorrow at parting – and they voiced the inner thoughts and dreams of heroines in films.

Being an Indian cinematic heroine at the time meant embodying a heightened notion of ‘femininity’: delicate, vulnerable, classically beautiful, virtuous, virginal, pure, perfect. But what about us ‘other’ women? Those of us who don’t fit this notion of ‘femininity’? Those of us with more complex issues that go , beyond the façade of a flawless heroine? For us, there was Bhosle.

”No story is complete without a ‘bad girl’; Asha Bhosle gave those bad girls a voice.”

Bollywood films have always allowed for the ‘other’ women – the messy ones, the funny ones, the corrupt ones. They were integral to telling stories, even if people felt uncomfortable embracing them as protagonists in their own right. Bhosle took these song parts, the ones other prominent women at the time refused. In as many as twenty different languages, she opted to sing for the villains, the sidekicks, the femme fatales, and the rejects. No story is complete without a ‘bad girl’; Asha Bhosle gave those bad girls a voice.

Take some of Bhosle’s most celebrated songs as examples of her rebellious streak. There’s “Aaja Aaja Main Hoon Pyar Tera” from the 1966 film Teesri Manzil. Composer R. D. Burman (who Bhosle married in 1980) took huge influence from Western music in creating a soundtrack which Bhosle considered potentially too hard to sing, but she took on (and effortlessly conquered) the challenge anyway. The result: a rollicking, flirtatious rock ‘n’ roll duet, the likes of which India had never heard before.

Then there’s “Dum Maro Dum” from 1971’s Hare Rama Hare Krishna, which describes the thoughts of a young woman throwing caution to the wind as she smokes marijuana. The opening lyrics:

Dum maro dum

Take another hit

Mit jaaye gham

Sadness will disappear

Bolo subah shaam

Sing from morning to night

Hare Krishna, Hare Ram!

Hare Krishna, Hare Ram!

Words of an ultimate bad girl… or so some believed at the time.

Even decades later, right up to one of the most famous Bollywood films of all time, Bhosle continued to embody the ‘bad girl’. The film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge was released in 1995 and ran in Indian cinemas for over twenty years. It tells the tale of a man and woman meeting and falling in love (naturally). The heroine’s love duets and expressions of longing are sung by Lata Mangeshkar – except in one song, “Zara Sa Jhoom Loon Main”, in which Bhosle sings the heroine’s part instead.

“Zara Sa Jhoom Loon Main” is the song where the heroine gets drunk off her face and has to be carried off by the hero after trying to flirt with him too much. It’s a rare lapse in elegance from the heroine, and Bhosle was the only one eager to sing songs of such fiery misbehaviour.

Nowadays, we see Indian cinema has finally relaxed, allowing itself to centre female characters who are more than just a pretty face. Take 2014’s Mary Kom, about the eponymous ground-breaking boxer; or 2018’s Lust Stories, where women’s stories of sexual activity are told without judgement or shame; or 2019’s Badla, where the female protagonist’s cool poker face hides a myriad of dark secrets. As Indian society has reckoned with its past of misogyny and prejudice, Bollywood has started to shed its sugar-coated veneer in favour of more nuanced stories. And as India’s outdated ideals of the ‘goddesses’ among us have begun to erode, Bollywood now presents its women as more realistic and, wonderfully, more human.

Would we have arrived where we are without Asha Bhosle? Bhosle paved the way for the women Bollywood has always needed: complex, talented, and proud to defy the rules. Back when Indian society shuddered at the concept of a woman breaking the rules, Bhosle leapt in and gave those women a voice – a dexterous, playful, melodic voice. She sang for the outcasts, the non-conformists, and the revolutionaries. In her own words, from a 1997 India Today interview: “Take risks. Never say die. It has worked for me.”

”Bhosle paved the way for the women Bollywood has always needed: complex, talented, and proud to defy the rules.”

She’s a force to be reckoned with even today, mesmerising sold-out stadiums in a 2019 tour at the age of 85. She holds the Guinness World Record for most recorded artist in history. And yes, she’s honoured in the song “Brimful of Asha” by Cornershop.

Subtly but assuredly, Bhosle took over the world, making a definitive space for the weirdest and most wonderful of women. And she did it all from behind the scenes.

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