A few weeks ago I was watching an episode of Friends and heard an old familiar song playing in the background. It was Cornershop’s toe tapper “Brimful of Asha.” I first heard that song in college and I loved it from the very first listen, but of course, like most Westerners, I had only the vaguest idea of what the song is about.
Fortunately, I knew where to turn. You see, one of my very good friends is Sanford Allen. Sanford is a gifted writer and a musician, and happens to know just about everything there is to know about Bollywood. (You can learn more about Sanford Allen here.) So I sent him the following email:
I confess to being out of my depth on this song. I like it, but I have no idea what it means. I do get the impression that it’s about modern Indian movie-making, possibly even the whole Bollywood thing, but that’s as far as I can go with it. Any words of wisdom?
I thought he’d send me a few lines of explanation, maybe even a link or two to some of his favorite Bollywood films. I had no idea he would go all out and write me a full blown essay on the song. (Really, it’s not even an essay; more like a loving tribute.) But I’m glad he did. I was so impressed by his answer that I asked if he’d let me reprint here, on my website, and he agreed.
So with that I’m going to turn the reins over to my good friend and trusted authority on all things dealing with the Indian subcontinent and let him explain it all for you.
Sanford Allen on Cornershop’s “Brimful of Asha”
British alt-rock band Cornershop’s song “Brimful of Asha” is an earworm that’s wriggled across continents and decades.
The tune charted both in the U.S. and U.K. in the ‘90s. And, last October, Britain’s NME named a Fatboy Slim remix of “Brimful” one of its “150 Best Tracks of the Past 15 Years.”
It’s easy to see why. With its insistent rhythm guitar and hooky chorus, the song is plenty catchy.
Beyond that, though, “Brimful of Asha” continues to resonate as a powerful testimonial to music’s ability to connect us to our roots.
The song is a loving tribute to the Indian film music that Cornershop singer Tjinder Singh and countless other Brits of South Asian descent grew up hearing. Spinning 45-rpm records of those songs provided an aural connection to their ancestral homeland.
Bollywood films typically feature a half dozen or more song-and-dance numbers, and even today, most popular music played on the radio in India originates from the movies. With a handful of exceptions, actors just lip-sync the songs. The actual singing is supplied by “playback singers,” of whom Asha Bhosle — “Brimful’s” namesake — is the reigning queen.
The legendary Asha’s voice has adorned hundreds of film soundtracks since the early ’60s. By some estimates, she’s recorded more than 12,000 songs, although it’s hard to know the exact count. When Cornershop’s Singh dashes off lines about “dancing behind the movie scenes” and “keeping the dream alive,” he’s doubtless referring to Asha’s significant place in Indian cinema even though she’s seldom physically appeared on the silver screen.
Unlike the Bollywood actors and actresses, who are mostly youthful, svelte and stylish, playback singers can be any age and physical appearance. Although moviegoers hear Asha’s high, lilting voice emanating from the mouth of the film industry’s sexiest leading ladies, she’s anything but a sultry temptress. In reality, she’s a matronly woman now in her 70s.
It’s likely that “Brimful’s” repeated line that “everybody needs a bosom for a pillow” refers to Asha’s motherly appearance. Most likely, the line also refers to Mother India and the cultural comfort embodied by the spinning 45-rpm record of Asha’s songs.
Later, Singh namedrops two other Bollywood playback singers: Mohammed Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar (the latter of which is Asha’s sister and quite famous in her own right). He also mentions several Western singers, including T-Rex’s glam rocking Marc Bolan, a reminder that the ears of many Indo-British music fans face both East and West.
“Brimful’s” lines about ignoring government warnings “about the simple life they’re promoting and new dams they are building” may seem out of place among its celebrations of both Eastern and Western music. But I believe Singh throws them in to remind us of music’s ability to help us escape from our hardships.
While some Indian filmmakers use the medium to make important social statements, the majority of moviegoers are looking to escape. Bollywood’s sweeping, colorful musicals are all about giving people a three-hour reprieve from their daily lives — which for a great number are hardscrabble beyond Western comprehension.
“Brimful of Asha” will continue to worm into our ears and psyches as long as South Asia’s far-flung diaspora seeks connections to its roots and Western music fans continue to explore the East for new sounds.
In the twilight of her career, Asha herself recently received her first Grammy nomination, collaborated with the Kronos Quartet and was sampled by the Blackeyed Peas.
One of the songs that best encompasses the singer’s straddling of exotic East and worldly West is “Dum Maro Dum,” a psychedelic rock-inspired ’60s tune which has been remade and remixed numerous times. Check out footage from the movie, where the indescribably gorgeous Zeenat Aman lip-syncs Asha’s song. This second clip is of Asha actually singing it live at a recent movie awards show. (Look for Zeenat in the audience, still a stunner after all these years.)
Brimful of Asha video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lM7H0ooV_o8
Movie footage: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUqEPS6Mq8I&feature=fvsr
Asha live: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=spynZz_wMFI
Okay, Joe McKinney here again.
I should add that Sanford and I will be appearing together again sometime next year as part of the JournalStone Double Down Series. If you’re unfamiliar with that series, you can learn more about it here. In the meantime, you should check out Sanford’s website. This guy is a serious talent. I’m in a writer’s group with him called Drafthouse, and from the get go I knew that Sanford was a talent to watch. Just as my horror often touches upon police procedure, so does his upon music. In fact, he writes about music, and perhaps more importantly, the act of performing music, in such a way that his passion often transports the scene into something far more than horror. I urge you to check this guy out.