Revisiting the Bollywood dream sequence: A tour of the world, and within

The Bollywood dream sequence helped stretch my imagination in a way that I believed the whole world was within me. This self-sufficiency helped me get through the physical setting I was in, from awkward social gatherings to the confines of my home during the pandemic.

Devansh Sharma September 18, 2021 11:48:25 IST
Revisiting the Bollywood dream sequence: A tour of the world, and within

Movies and shows, old and new, have helped us to live vicariously through them. They have allowed us to travel far and wide at a time borders are shut and people are restricted to homes. In our new column What's In A Setting, we explore the inseparable association of a story with its setting, how the location complements the narrative, and how these cultural windows to the world have helped broaden our imagination.

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I have to confess I didn't encounter any traces of wanderlust during the COVID-19 lockdown. I know, it's a cliché to claim movies were my 'windows to the world' but when have they not been? Even before the coronavirus chased us away into our homes, movies made for the best travel brochures. And at times, they even outlive my own memory of that place.

Do we really believe New York can look more splendid IRL than it does when Shah Rukh Khan spreads his arms to invite you for an embrace on the Brooklyn Bridge in the Kal Ho Naa Ho title track? Our eyes can't oscillate between the scale and the detail as swiftly as the camera does. The tulips in Keukenhof, Netherland cannot compete with the rush of assorted scents in 'Dekha Ek Khwab' from Yash Chopra's Silsila. And can we hear the whistle of the wind as distinctly as when Manisha Koirala lets go of her honeyed dupatta atop the Dalhousie hill in 1942: A Love Story?

The sensory experience stems from not only the collective talent of a gifted and diligent crew but also the world of within that movies tap into. The Bollywood dream sequence is termed so not just because it offers a narrative breather by transporting many like me to dreamy locales, but also because it also allows us to peek into ourselves through the world on display.

When I watch say Rajinikanth and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan evoke Mohenjodaro (in Sindh, Pakistan) and Kilimanjaro (volcano in Tanzania) while singing in Tamil and dancing to atrocious steps in atrocious costumes in Machu Pichu (Peru, South America) in Enthiran, I'm reveling in my own crazy than that of the film. Or when I see Aamir Khan roll down the luscious green Ooty hill in slow-mo in 'Pehla Nasha' from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, it's my puberty hitting me all over again.

I have come a long way from being the impressionable moviegoer in my childhood and teenage to becoming the film critic who decodes the 'magic' of cinema for his daily bread. Impressionable is an understatement because I genuinely wept at the death of Lakshmi Chachi (from Chachi 420) and Raju Chacha like they were my real chacha-chachi. I couldn't wrap my head around the fact that they didn't exist (not only in life, but even in the films!).

The Bollywood dream sequence helped stretch my imagination in a way that I believed the whole world was within me. As pompous or profound as it sounds now, it helped make me more self-sufficient.

I no longer needed friends, summer vacation trips, and adventures to make life more thrilling. There was a shooting location for every mood, a song for every occasion, and a tune for every spare minute. It didn't matter whether I was in the classroom, the school bus or a family gathering. I always had company and a familiar adventure to look forward to.

Bollywood came of age in the 2000s and so did I, discovering more reasons to fall in love with the movies. Today, I can make sense of every frame that Bollywood throws at me, but the magic of transporting to a new setting (in fresh clothes but the same mood) has faded. I'm not sure whether I can be awed again by another dream song sequence in a contemporary Bollywood film, also because I'm unsure whether anyone can pull it off as convincingly anymore. If that's the case, I'd rather watch Bollywood push the envelope with new forms of storytelling, and wallow in the '90s nostalgia by revisiting those stunning numbers.

As I try to recall and make sense of the first Bollywood dream sequence I watched, I can't help but feel the same way I did when I first witnessed it. Was it 'Baazigar O Baazigar,' where I felt the same sinking feeling Kajol probably does as she falls in love with her would-be executioner. Shah Rukh Khan advances towards Kajol, standing at the edge of the Maldives hill (not the most secure feeling if you've seen Shilpa Shetty thrown off a skyscraper earlier in the film), riding the white steed, but he is no prince in shining armour. Dressed like death with a black cape, hat, and mask, he makes sure the act of falling in love does not come without its share of red herrings.

[imgcenter]Revisiting the Bollywood dream sequence A tour of the world and within[/imgcenter]

The first Bollywood dream sequence I watched could also be 'Tanha Tanha' from Rangeela. Urmila Matondkar running alongside Goa sea waves as untamed as her locks is the stuff of every man's dream — except that it wasn't a dream. Mili, Matondkar's character, is living her dream of being a Hindi film heroine, posing as the camera's darling in every shot of that song. But 'Tanha Tanha' is in fact her reality, and even more exotic than 'Rangeela Re,' her actual dream shown earlier in the film. The milieu is more familiar there — the concrete Mumbai streets (as opposed to the natural topography of Goa), neighbourhood faces (as opposed to none in 'Tanha Tanha'), and the Bambaiya lingo in lyrics (unlike the more poetic musings of 'Tanha Tanha'). The dream gets trumped by reality, which turns out to be even more dreamlike.

[imgcenter]Revisiting the Bollywood dream sequence A tour of the world and within[/imgcenter]

By now, I'm quite convinced that my first Bollywood dream sequence was in fact 'Arre Re Arre' from Dil Toh Pagal Hai, Yash Chopra's 1997 romance which poses the very same dilemma that the Bollywood dream sequence leaves us with — Is our imagination, our subconscious more real than the tangible, the conscious? Chopra introduces this conflict with the imaginary character of Maya, that SRK's Rahul often conjures up as 'the ideal woman.' When he finds Pooja (Madhuri Dixit), a woman in flesh identical to Maya (Hindi for illusion), he finds that impossible to fathom. Pooja is in the same boat, correcting herself that Rahul is real, and hence by default, not the man of her dreams. More than the rather forced love triangle, the primary conflict here is wrestling with the feeling of too-good-to-be-true. Unlike 'Dolna,' which is set in the greener pastures of Switzerland, 'Arre Re Arre' is set in the dance studio where Pooja and Rahul work. But in several pockets of the song, both the setting and the song transcend to a pre-historic/otherworldly realm where there are no back dancers and the shots are far more intimate. Only when Pooja comes closer to Rahul on his request ("aur paas...") that he realises how real the moment is.

[imgcenter]Revisiting the Bollywood dream sequence A tour of the world and within[/imgcenter]

Dil Toh Pagal Hai sets the tone for the distant yet attainable nature of the Bollywood dream sequence. Like in Karan Johar's directorial debut Kuch Kuch Hota Hai the next year, the dream title sequence starts with SRK, Kajol, and Rani Mukerji wishing for love on a shooting star sighting. But as the next shot suggests, they are three stars who can only form a triangle and not operate on the same plain (or star-crossed lovers, pardon the pun). The ensuing dream sequence moves the action from a college campus to the lush greens of Scotland, but the ruins in the background make it amply clear that one of them is going to have their heart broken. Dreams and love can coexist and even coincide, until they come into conflict.

[imgcenter]Revisiting the Bollywood dream sequence A tour of the world and within[/imgcenter]

Another SRK sequence echoes the same idea in Yash Chopra's Darr (1991). The song 'Tu Mere Saamne' sees SRK canoodling with Juhi Chawla's Kiran as the Alps adorn the background. Theirs is a love for eternity — but only in the head of the guy, an obsessed stalker. The song, unlike the Baazigar title song, does not have any signs of foreboding here; SRK's intention is as pristine as the Switzerland snow. Juhi's character has no agency here, as she continues to dance, entertain, and get champagne splashed on her, all the while dressed like a divine beauty, and humming, "Toot gayi toot k main choor ho gayi, teri zidd se majboor ho gayi."

[imgcenter]Revisiting the Bollywood dream sequence A tour of the world and within[/imgcenter]

Even when desires coincide, societal differences creep even into the Bollywood dream sequence. Take for instance, 'Suraj Hua Maddham' in Johar's Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, the granddaddy of all Bollywood dream sequences. In a flash of intertextuality, the Kuch Kuch Hota Hai title tune plays during 'Sooraj Hua Maddham' as SRK's Rahul and Kajol's Anjali rush to embrace each other. They're destined to be with each other. There are no ruins in the backdrop here; only the Egyptian Pyramids, an ancient wonder of the world and architectural marvel. But the scorching desert is a reminder that the surroundings aren't conducive to their blooming romance. When Kajol runs out of the dream at the end and wakes up to Chandni Chowk in New Delhi, she realises it's nothing more than an oasis. "Ye khwab hai mushkil, na mil sikenge hum."

[imgcenter]Revisiting the Bollywood dream sequence A tour of the world and within[/imgcenter]

Over the years, the Bollywood dream sequence has seen a makeover. There have been the ones where the setting remains routine, but the people and the elements change to become more dreamlike ('Kuch Toh Hua Hai' from Kal Ho Naa Ho, 'Tumhi Dekho Na' from Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna). And there have been the ones relegated to the end credits under the pretext of the 'promotional song' ('Swag Se Swagat' from Tiger Zinda Hai). The last dream sequence done right, from what I remember, is 'Matargashti' from Tamasha. Set in the adventurous land of Corsica, where every colour is popped up like in the Asterix comic book, the song was used to turn the very concept of the Bollywood dream sequence on its head, as revealed later in the film.

While I appreciate this antithesis, what I sorely miss is the bittersweet warmth that the good ol' Bollywood dream sequence left behind — of desire and forbiddance, of illusion and deja vu, of waking up from a morning dream — desperate yet optimistic. One can argue it gave a false sense of hope, but let's admit it did make life easier. I'll keep falling in love with the movies, but the glorious Bollywood dream sequence shall remain my pehla nasha.

Read more from the What's in a Setting series here.

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