Growing up as an army kid, Holi was one of those festivals that were a huge deal. It meant early-morning water balloon fights, a party at the mess, and an evening of scrubbing yourself sore under the shower. Over the years, the ickiness of colours (and on one occasion, an egg), the difficult-to-get-off paint, and the shrivelled skin after hours of water and soap got to me, and Holi lost its charm.
But Holi songs never did. Thanks to Bollywood. Every year there would be one song that would capture the nation’s attention and become the song to groove to, on Holi, but some songs stood out. From the classic dance favorite ‘Arre ja re hat natkhat’ from V. Shantaram’s Navrang to the slightly more ridden-with-tense-undertones ‘Rang barse’ from Silsila, and the absolutely silly but extremely addictive, ‘Do me a favour, let’s play Holi from Waqt, these songs have long been the ones that got even the most proper people to gyrate with abandon on the dance floor.
My obsession (though dance was a huge part of my growing up years) was always with the pristine white apparel (or clothes in pastel shades) that actors wore in these songs. Where my mother would hound us about wearing clothes no better than rags to Holi dos, here were actors who seemed to have clothes made specially to drown themselves in colour..
The Hindi film industry single-handedly catapulted a fun festival into an interplay of colour and sensuality, a symbol of things to come in the story and what is left unsaid, somehow always with a white canvass as its background. In Mother India’s ‘Holi aayi re kanhai’, the head-to-toe white and multi-coloured lehengas were almost a symbol of conservatism of the times, and in ‘Aaj na chhodenge’ from Kati Patang, Asha Parekh’s white sari (a symbol of her widow status) being stained with gulaal by Rajesh Khanna became an act of unexpected rebellion against societal norms.
An iconic moment in on-screen Holi fashion came with Silsila, the cult-classic movie about infidelity. The song ‘Rang barse’ not only overtly depicted a couple flaunting their forbidden relationship under the guise of festivities, but also showed the difference in the two women in the protagonist’s life; with his wife wearing a traditional white and pink saree, hair open, face free of makeup, and his lover wearing figure-flattering churidar kurta, accessorized with jhumkas and red bangles, and face made up, complete with red lips. It was an understated war between shy and adventurous, daring and demure.
Forward to the early noughties and the sarees and salwar kurtas were replaced by white tees, capris, and in the song earlier mentioned from Waqt, this happens during the song with Priyanka Chopra changing from a churidar kurta into capris and a tee. In some cases, the outfits became more risque, like in ‘Soni soni ankhiyon wali’ from Mohabbatein, sports bras and micro minis with transparent shirts and sneakers. Maybe it was the first nod to the fact that the girls were more footloose, they could enjoy the colours of the festival without being categorized as vamp or heroine.
Now we have Deepika Padukone in ‘Balam Pichkaari’ from Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, wearing shorts, teasing the hero to join her, lip syncing to lyrics that are making men the objects of attention.
Is it possible then that Bollywood uses Holi as a lopsided way of depicting societal progress? Are the costumes meant to be symbolic of feminine liberation and generational shifts? Maybe, but maybe it’s just a mirror of the stereotypes still propagated in our society, albeit with a little more skin.