One of the world’s most famous videos, at least outside of the US, is for A.R. Rahman’s song “Chaiyya, Chaiyya,” from the Indian movie Dil Se. Dil Se (From the Heart), which was written and directed by Mani Ratnam, concerns a radio news producer (played by superstar Shahrukh Khan) who falls in love at first sight with a mysterious woman (Mannish Koirala) whom he meets at a railroad station. I am going to spoil the story here, so skip to the next paragraph if you plan to see the movie. The producer pursues the woman for a week and gradually finds out that she, having been raped by Indian soldiers as a girl, has joined an insurgency against the government. She plans to be a suicide bomber. In the end our protagonist begs her not to blow herself up and to come away with him. He embraces her as the bomb explodes, killing them both. You can read more details about the film here.
Although the movie features a number of song-and-dance sequences, it is not Bollywood fluff. Our protagonist is a serious person and gets beaten up and drugged in his quest for the woman he loves. The political and military conflict in the film is realistic and frightening.
The video sequence comes a few minutes into the movie. Our protagonist has just been rebuffed by the mysterious woman and is standing in the rain, when apparently he has a vision, starring himself. Note that despite the label, this version does not contain subtitles.
The title of the song, “Chaiyya, Chaiyya,” means “[Walk in] the Shade,” and it speaks in poetic terms of the beloved. It states that when one walks in the shade (or shelter) of love, one’s feet are in heaven, and continues in the same vein. I cannot find a version of the video with running English subtitles, so here is the song without the action but with the subtitles. Slightly frustrating, but it’s worth listening to the song twice anyway.
As you can see, the number was filmed on top of a moving train. What is not so obvious is that it was filmed without CGI or rear screen projections. It is just what it appears to be. The vocals were dubbed by Sukhwinder Singh and Sapna Awasthi.
The flowing train and the rhythmic song and dance induce a lucid trance in me, an integration of the apollonian and the dionysian. The female dancer, played by Malaika Arora, is not a character in the film. She is not our protagonist’s lady love. She does not show up again, not even in another musical number. Her presence has been construed by some critics as a stage in Arabic poetry’s idea of the journey of love. I am of course distorting this symbolism by Westernizing it, but for me she is an Aphrodite, a Goddess of Love.
Our Goddess is frankly sexual, showing off her breasts, midriff and hips. Yet she is in no way lewd. She represents the ideal of healthy Eros. She gazes upon our hero, and he appreciates her charms, but they are not flirting. He, after all, adores someone else. I take it that she is a divine inspiration, which means, as the etymology suggests, that she is filling him with spirit, the spirit of love.
And inspired our protagonist is. He is moved to great eloquence in the song. At 3:25 he assumes a heroic stance on the locomotive, solitary and proud. The Goddess has turned an ordinary man into a hero. His perseverance and willingness to suffer in order to win his beloved is similarly heroic, demonstrating the connection between passion and heroism as it is commonly understood: the willingness to risk all in the quest for an ideal.
“Chaiyya, Chaiyya” has been covered and re-used in many different places, including, incongruously, in the Spike Lee film Inside Man. But nothing can top the original context of the elevation and journey of romantic love.
If you liked this essay, you may also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life