• Kurt Keefner

The Goddess of Love Makes Heroes of Us All

Updated: 9 hours ago

One of the world’s most famous videos, at least outside of the US, accompanies A.R. Rahman’s song “Chaiyya, Chaiyya,” from the Indian movie Dil Se (From the Heart). The film was written and directed by Mani Ratnam. The story 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 but here are the Hindi lyrics and English translation, from Bollynook.com.


Jinke sar ho ishq ki chhaaon The one, whose head is in shadow of love Paaon ke neeche jannat hogi There will be heaven beneath his feet Jinke sar ho ishq ki chhaaon The one, whose head is in shadow of love Chal chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya (x2) Come let's walk in the shade Chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya In the shade Chal chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya Come let's walk in the shade Chal chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya (x2) Come let's walk in the shade Chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya In the shade Chal chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya Come let's walk in the shade Sar ishq ki chhaaon chal chhaiyya chhaiyya With Your head in the shadow of love, let's walk in the shade Sar ishq ki chhaaon chal chhaiyya With Your head in the shadow of love, let's walk in the shade Paaon jannat chale chal chhaiyya chhaiyya With our feet walking on top of heaven, let's walk in the shade Paaon jannat chale chal chhaiyya With our feet walking on top of heaven, let's walk in the shade Chal chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya (x4) Come let's walk in the shade Voh yaar hai jo khushboo ki tarah That friend who is like a fragrance Jiski zubaan urdu ki tarah Whose language is like Urdu Meri shaam raat, meri kaayanat She is my evening and night, my whole universe Voh yaar mera saiyyan saiyyan That friend of mine is my beloved Chal chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya (x4) Come let's walk in the shade Gulphosh kabhi itraaye kahin maheke to nazar aa jaaye kahin (x2) Sometimes a hidden flower shows off pride, but when it fragrances then it comes into view Taaviz banaake pehen usse, aayat ki tarah mil jaaye kahin (x2) I'll wear it like a sacred amulet (talisman) if I find it someplace like a holy verse (song) Gulphosh kabhi itraaye kahin maheke to nazar aa jaaye kahin Sometimes a hidden flower shows off pride, but when it fragrances then it comes into view Taaviz banaake pehen usse, aayat ki tarah mil jaaye kahin I'll wear it like a sacred amulet (talisman) if I find it someplace like a holy verse Voh yaar hai jo imaan ki tarah That friend who is like my belief Mera nagma vohi, mera kalma vohi She is my melody, she is my holy verse (Kalma is actually the name given to verses written in the Holy book of Quran, that is sacred to Muslims) Mera nagma nagma, mera kalma kalma My melody, my holy verse Mera nagma nagma, mera kalma kalma (x3) My melody, my holy verse Yaar misaal-e-os chale She walks like the shining dew drops in the morning Paaon ke tale firdaus chale Heaven seems to move with her feet Kabhi daal daal kabhi paat paat Sometimes the branches of the trees, sometimes the leaves Main hawa pe dhoondoon uske nishaan I search for her traces in the air Sar ishq ki chhaaon chal chhaiyya chhaiyya With Your head in the shadow of love, let's walk in the shade Sar ishq ki chhaaon chal chhaiyya With Your head in the shadow of love, let's walk in the shade Paaon jannat chale chal chhaiyya chhaiyya With our feet walking on top of heaven, let's walk in the shade Paaon jannat chale chal chhaiyya With our feet walking on top of heaven, let's walk in the shade Chal chhaiyya chhaiyya chhaiyya chhaiyya (x4) Come let's walk in the shade Main uske roop ka shaidaayi, voh dhoop chhaaon sa harjaayi I am ardent admirer of her beauty, she is unfaithful (ever-changing) like the sunlight and shade Voh shokh hai rang badalta hai She vivid and she changes her colors Main rang roop ka saudaai (x2) I am the trader of color and beauty Jinke sar ho ishq ki chhaaon The one, whose head is in shadow of love Paaon ke neeche jannat hogi There will be heaven beneath his feet Jinke sar ho ishq ki chhaaon The one, whose head is in shadow of love Paaon ke neeche jannat hogi There will be heaven beneath his feet Shaam raat, meri kaayanat She is my evening and night, my whole universe Voh yaar mera saiyyan saiyyan That friend of mine is my beloved Chal chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya (x4) Come let's walk in the shade Sar ishq ki chhaaon chal chhaiyya chhaiyya With Your head in the shadow of love, let's walk in the shade Sar ishq ki chhaaon chal chhaiyya With Your head in the shadow of love, let's walk in the shade Paaon jannat chale chal chhaiyya chhaiyya With our feet walking on top of heaven, let's walk in the shade Paaon jannat chale chal chhaiyya With our feet walking on top of heaven, let's walk in the shade Chal chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya (x4) Come let's walk in the shade Voh yaar hai jo khushboo ki tarah That friend who is like a fragrance Jiski zubaan urdu ki tarah Whose language is like Urdu Meri shaam raat, meri kaayanat She is my evening and night, my whole universe Voh yaar mera saiyyan saiyyan That friend of mine is my beloved Chal chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya (x8) Come let's walk in the shade Chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya In the shade Chal chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya chaiyya Come let's walk in the shade The video was fimed 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 might also like my book Killing Cool: Fantasy vs. Reality in American Life


KURT KEEFNER - ESSAYIST

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