Mumbai:It has been noticed that whenever queer issues have to be reported on in India, news channels fall over each other trying to compile the 'ultimate gay package' for prime-time viewing, irrespective of the slant of the story. Footage from pride parades, check. Embracing women, or kissing transsexuals, check. A motley crew of gay activists paraded out, check. A sound-byte from Dolly Thakore, check.
One of the TV channels unearthed a 'gay song' written by Firaq Gorakhpuri, featuring two courtesans in a mujra jugalbandi no less. There was nothing conjugal in their actions, but subtext there was aplenty in the few lines being sung, and the voice was that of Lata Mangeshkar.
Funnily enough, there was nothing incongruous about having a so-called 'gay song' in her voice, despite it having been ascribed a pristine purity over the ages, which gay sex is anything but, if only we were to believe everything they tell us.
Sometimes in those ordinary lives on which the impact of an icon has been immense, just lofty terms like 'towering' or 'legendary' are not enough. Such is the case with the parallel narrative that has been provided to the lives of gay men by the music of Lata.
It may be that she has recorded too many songs to even count, or that her voice spans three octaves, or that All India Radio (AIR) was once accused of being the institution designed for the promotion of two women: Indira and Lata.
2009 was the 25th death anniversary of Indira Gandhi, while Lata continues to sing, even if her last song was a much-derided anthem from that monstrosity of a film called Dunno Y Na Jaane Kyun, incidentally also gay-themed. But all these things don't matter, really.
"After all, her music had become the soundtrack to the lives of gay Indians everywhere,"says Ghalib Shiraz Dhalla, the writer of the book, Ode to Lata. Of course, the book by Dhalla is not so much a paean to Lata as it is the searing saga of a somewhat disaffected gay Indian man called Ali.
When I managed to get hold of an old, second-hand, dust-worn edition, I feverishly rummaged through the pages hoping to find those quaint little passages that would illustrate, as was advertised so succinctly in the blurb, how Lata "cued in at every opportune moment" in Ali's life, exactly as I imagined she did in mine.
Instead, I uncovered a few set pieces on homosexual ardour that turned out to be rather guilty pleasures to savour. Lata herself was seamlessly woven into this licentious narrative. Like opera works so well with sex, and Lata, with her perfectly negotiated high pitch, had raised the music of Bombay cinema to the level of a fine art.
Freddie Mercury, gay icon and front man of Queen, had counted Lata amongst his formative influences (he had watched her perform live in Bombay (was called Bombay then) where he grew up as a child). Listening to tracks from his rather prolific repertoire, sometimes his distinctive falsetto does indeed offer us glimpses into Lata's own virtuosity.
On stage, they were a study in contrasts milkmaid plaits and a white sari, reading out from a little black book, tapping her bare feet (since work was worship!), and Freddie in his prime, truly, madly, utterly manipulating his audience with his sexually charged presence, his writhing body pounding with every raised register. It was his full-throated articulation versus her canary-like irrepressibility.
In the West, Lata has often been upbraided for what is termed a munchkin delivery or even helium-voiced vocals. There are people who don't quite understand why she has to sing so high since it isn't quite natural for the classically trained Indian voice.
Of course, opera singers the world over are allowed all the shrillness they have at their disposal, despite the racks of wine glasses that are immediately imperiled as a result. In an equally stereotypical world, gay men are all supposed to talk with high-pitched voices.
The incriminating queer appeal of the falsetto voice, has caused more straight-laced performers like Bono (from U2) to seldom use their entire range, whereas someone like Mica Penniman displays breathtaking alacrity in the kind of vocal calisthenics he allows his voice, that he's now called the second coming of Freddie Mercury.
Some people say that riding the notes up (as her frequent collaborators Shankar Jaikishan would inexplicably have her do) has caused Lata to lose her voice. Maybe that's why she detests opera, as she's mentioned in her interviews.
Or sexed-up cabaret (which her sister was happy to build into her own repertoire). Mr. Mercury has been anointed as arguably the greatest vocalist of all times, but that's only because the millions in India and the diaspora don't really count when such plaudits are doled out a-dime-a-dozen. Maybe that's why Ghalib's book needed a name-change from Ode To Lata to just The Ode in its screen adaptation.
It obviously wasn't just the voice. While she's only once ever sung for a man a ditty performed by a comic sidekick in drag from the film Mujhe Jeene Do many gay men identify, in a very subliminal fashion, with the 'dual personality' so rife in Indian films, a composite created by the golden women of the silver screen emoting to Lata's self-possessed playback.
And these women were disarmingly alluring, some had gigantic bouffants to ferry around on reed-thin waistlines, some had false bottoms to accentuate their hourglass frames. Others draped themselves in spectacular nine-yard saris and offered prayers in makeshift temples, with the bells tolling, and Lata's voice persistently hitting the high registers since each emotion needed the requisite airtime.
And some were so redolently doleful in the way they pined, somehow epitomising unrequited love (even though there was always going to be a happy ending in the film) that gay men in the past had held on, love had been denied, as they believed was their wont.
The self-sacrificing persona of Meena Kumari had created a whole new sub-culture in the gay desi ghettos all over the world. Her mask-like face in the classic Pakeezah was a mirror for the gay man as eternal victim. Even self-pity needed cultural trappings.
Times have changed. Now, the mind-boggling diversity on the gay dating scene leads to a constant flip-flopping of courtship roles. You could make out six times on the dance floor, or get five phone numbers in ten minutes flat cruising at Delhi's Palika Garden.
But sometimes, a man could enthuse you with his charm, and the manner in which he pushes all the right buttons, while at other times you have to do the heavy lifting and treat your date for the evening with the sensitivity a diva deserves.
They say they don't really make our kind of films. I'd say they do. We get to yodel like the leading men and ham it up like the star actresses. At times we are 1960s actors going into bars, our legs in a state of perpetual Charleston, with nothing in the tank besides love for a cad.
Or we are those high-maintenance queens who dry out invisible nail varnish in the sun and use miracle foundation for our dark circles, and expect chairs to be drawn out for us, and dinner cheques to be taken care of, while we look coyly on -and trill occasionally-as our newly acquired paramour goes about his 'ched chaad' by rote.
Sometimes Lata tries a lower octave, in soft rushed tones, and she gives us goose pimples as she sings in a rare coquettish vein. My friend Muffy St Bernard, a drag queen from Waterloo who loves performing as Helen, once told me, "What? You haven't walked around in a deserted mansion in a white ghost's outfit singing a Lata song! Vikram, you haven't lived!" In Lata's concerts, the stars descend on the stage and mouth lines in her praise-sometimes pithy, but mostly corny.
Madhuri Dixit once nervously muttered, "Lataji hain to hum hain, hamari khubsoorati hai, hamari adaakari hai." When no one's looking, so we don't have to cringe at the unadulterated triteness, I realise how true that is of our lives, even if we are not great screen divas but just ordinary folk who've discovered timeless music to live along with.
At times we are 1960s actors going into bars, our legs in a state of perpetual Charleston, with nothing in the tank besides love for a cad. Or we are those high-maintenance queens who dry out invisible nail varnish in the sun and use miracle foundation for our dark circles, and expect chairs to be drawn out for us, and dinner cheques to be taken care of, while we look coyly on.
Tracks of choice
Pyar Kiya To Darna Kya
Naushad, Shakeel Badayuni
Aap Ki Nazron Ne Samjha
Anpadh, 1962, Madan Mohan, Raza Mehndi Ali Khan
Duniya Kare Sawal
Bahu Begum, 1967
Roshan, Majrooh Sultanpuri
Humne Dekhi Hai
Hemant Kumar, Gulzar
Roz Shaam Aati Thi
Laxmikant Pyarelal, Majrooh Sultanpuri
Salaam-e-Ishq Meri Jaan
Muqaddar ka Sikandar, 1978, Kalyanji Anandji
Khwab Ban Kar Koi Aayega
Raziya Sultan, 1983, Khaiyyam, Jan Nisar Akhtar
Mere Khwabon Mein
Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, 1995
Jatin Lalit, Anand Bakshi
Kitne Ajeeb Rishte Hai Yahaan Pe
Page 3, 2005
Shamir Tandon, Ajay Jhingran
Pal Mein Hi Rishte Badalte Hai
Dunno Y Na Jaane Kyun, 2010,
Nikhil, Satya Prakash
(Vikram Phukan for Mid-Day. This article first appeared in Bombay Dost. The writer is its former editor.)