Brand Baaja Baaraat


Brand Baaja Baaraat

New Delhi : Punjab’s effervescent culture is Bollywood’s hottest beat and it’s also spreading its influence across India, from music to food, fashion to language.

It could have been any night but it was a Punjabi-themed night at a many-splendorous wedding. It could have been any girl but it was Shruti Kakkar in Band Baajaa Baaraat who, with partner Bittoo Sharma, made a binness out of being cheeky. It could have been Rajasthani bangles but it is the Punjabi chooda that today’s Bengali brides want to wear for their honeymoon. Savouries could have been labelled Sindhi Curry or Rasam Ragaa, but they are called Dal Biji and Chilli Chataka instead. Across the country, coffee shops like Barista and fast-food stores like Subway include chicken tikka sandwiches in their menu, not jhaalmuri or upma. Hip-hop singer Hard Kaur and pop singers Mika and Punjabi MC, whose numbers keep gyms and pubs pulsating with excitement, are theth (pure) Punjabis. After Jab We Met, Love Aaj Kal, Singh is Kingg and Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, films like Rocket Singh, Band Baajaa Baaraat and Patiala House have made Punjabiyat a poster symbol of Hindi cinema.

It’s not just a collection of random anecdotes. Draw a matrix of Hindi cinema, Indipop music, cuisine, sangeet ceremonies at weddings, SMS lingo, college slang or fashion trends, and you notice a Punjabi takeover. Punjabiyat is the flavour of the moment. We may still associate it with golden mustard fields, the utopian backdrop of Aditya Chopra’s We Shall Overcome love story Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (DDLJ), but it has become much bigger. The popularity of Punjabi characters in Bollywood, the super success of Punjabi pop in dance clubs, the Big Fat Punjabi wedding as the propeller of the most commercially viable consumer market in India, the ‘sweety’ (ah, such a Punjabism) new avatar of the Patiala salwar as a trendy garment and the spurt of oye, virji, paaji and soniye in everyday vocabulary has made Punjab a leading character in the life of modern India. Not a Santa Banta caricature.

In the words of social anthropologist Dipankar Gupta, it is the North-Indianisation of India. “There used to be Sanskritisation, but now before being Westernised, we must become North-Indianised,” he says. Gupta explains popular Punjabiyat through familiar words: boisterousness, optimism, prosperity, exuberance — the sum total of which is the good life. “I noticed it even in a Punjabi dhaba in Jehanabad in Bihar. The place was just about modest but the pervading mood was that everyone was having a good time,” says Gupta. The name of Akshay Kumar’s character in Singh is Kingg (Happy Singh) says it all.

If Punjabiyat is a sense of casualness coupled with gregarious warmth, it seems easy to borrow. These values exist in other cultures, too, but among Punjabis, they are in your face, almost infectious.

Consider this. Last year, when Bangalore-based engineer couple Ruchika and Ramesh Chinappa got engaged, they wanted a big fat Punjabi wedding. “My mom is Punjabi and my dad and husband are Kannadigas, but that’s not why we chose a Punjabi wedding. We wanted to feel special,” says Ruchika, 28, who took three months off from work to plan her three-day, 1,000-guest, 14-ceremony wedding at a farmhouse on Kanakapura Road near Bangalore.

In true Punjabi sho-sha, the mehendi-sangeet featured a gaggle of professional dancers swinging to bhangra beats and the reception was a loud-and-lavish cocktail party. “We have never had so much fun. And we had never eaten so much butter chicken,” says Ramesh, laughing. “When I went back to work after the wedding, I wore my chooda as a token of respect for Punjabi tradition,” says Ruchika.

It’s similar to the story of Neha Mittal, a beautician in Pune who got married recently. “We are Marwaris, but the joota chhupai ceremony was a must,” she says. The Mittals also had opulent mehendi and sangeet ceremonies. “We hired dhol players, who did the bhangra and entertained our guests. The dance show our families presented at the sangeet had latest Punjabi tracks from films. We wanted these Punjabi-isms in our wedding. They added zing,” says Mittal.

Maharashtrian, Bengali or Gujarati brides wearing the red-and-white chooda isn’t just a stray trend. Pune-based DJ Avneet Sawhney, who also organises events and weddings, confirms the increasing popularity of the Punjabi wedding as a package. “With inter-caste marriages creating ritualistic confusion in families, Punjabi weddings are becoming the universally acceptable trend,” he says.

Based on the beats of the dholak, Punjabi sangeet is inherently celebratory in nature. Its universal popularity maps the journey of boisterous, back-slapping and happy-go-lucky Punjabis from Malerkotla to Manchester and is, in fact, the oldest plot in our new story. It began in some way with Channi Singh, the founder and director of music group Alaap. When he left Malerkotla, Punjab, for the UK in 1975, he took the bhangra spirit with him. He and his group produced modern Punjabi music, which got fused into what’s now known as the UK Bhangra. Then came Malkit Singh and Gurdas Mann and, of course, Daler Mehndi. And later Bally Sagoo, Punjabi MC, Hard Kaur and Mika Singh to name a few. Music that says caste, creed, religion no bar. All are invited to this party. “Punjabis welcome everyone. Our music and compositions are rich, grounded and very close to reality. That is what makes them so popular all over the world,” says singer Hans Raj Hans.

Punjabi songs don’t just rule sangeet events; they are the surround sound in gyms, clubs and pubs, on car stereos and music decks, on YouTube videos and iPods, at farmhouse revelries, in residential colonies, PG digs and banquet halls, whether it’s New Year’s Eve, Holi, Diwali, or Lohri. Music stores say remixed Bhangra CDs are among their bestselling items. An anecdote told by deputy chief minister of Punjab Sukhbir Singh Badal about running into a cosmopolitan crowd dancing madly to Punjabi music in a bar in Tokyo brings the reality home. “We love the beat, man,” one clubber told him. It generates, almost instantly, what director Imtiaz Ali’s film Love Aaj Kal dubbed as raunak-shaunak.

If Punjabiyat has wattage in Brand India’s new packaging, its credit goes to Hindi cinema, with Yash Chopra as its godfather. He loved Switzerland, but he did not love the mustard fields of Punjab less.

His Sridevi in Chandni too was a Punjabi beauty, who combined grace, gregariousness and lovelorn commitment. But it was DDLJ, a Yashraj Films (YRF) production, which formally inaugurated Punjabiyat as a glocal idea in Bollywood. “That movie put Punjab in mainstream cinema. We are in demand now,” says Darshan Aulakh, a part of YRF’s production team in Punjab.

Fame is a potent manipulator of opinion. Once the films became hits, they diverted attention to a frothy tale of accomplishment and wealth. This is the discourse that Indians, in their current self-congratulatory mood, want to be a part of. The direct transference from Bollywood’s growing reliance on Punjabi rituals to real weddings is a business story. Colour, pageantry, pomp, parandis, paranthas and bhangra may be outwardly reasons but they signify a conspicuous consumption that elite India wants to be a part of. Not to forget the success and influence of the Punjabi diaspora. “There is a strong link of Punjabiyat as realised now with the community’s diasporic prosperity,” says sociologist Patricia Uberoi.

There are few things that attract the ostentatious more than a Punjabi wedding. And who isn’t now? Films have not only glamourised its idea as a larger-than-life event but have also offered a blueprint for it. It is actually Bollywood which is India’s biggest wedding planner. “The Bengali bhadralok who initially felt that their genteel weddings made a point now feel left behind. Punjab is in Bengal too. Kolkata clubs, including Tollygunge, are full of Punjabis,” says Gupta.

The Punjabi wedding as an enterprise that starts from middle-class day-dreaming and morphs into career success wasn’t lost on the scriptwriter of Band Baajaa Baaraat (a Yash Raj Film again). A pair of business partners convert the Janakpuri style chatak wedding into a fashionable must-have for the elite. Chatak is the buzzword.

Catchy phrases and cliches that leap out of Punjabi language and get dressed up as Oye kithe hai tu kudiye SMSes among the phoneratti are also cinematic cues. That’s what Nikhil Advani, who directed the recent Patiala House, points out. “The name was catchy and reminiscent of the Patiala peg, related to whisky. It expresses the true emotions of Punjab,” he says.

The buzz quotient available in their culture and an urge to popularise it through merchandise made the Delhi-based owners of a small chain of shops called 1469 (named after Guru Nanak’s year of birth), Harinder Singh and Kirandeep Kaur, turn Punjabiyat into T-shirts: tag lines range from “Pure Panjabi” and “chak de phatte” to “Torh Forh Singh”, “Kaurageous”, “Pritam Di Icecream”, and a hilarious consortium of Punjabi blokes like Pillo, Bittoo, Deepu, Sweety, Pappi and Twinkle. But what sells most, Kirandeep Kaur says, is deadpan Sikh humour, with labels like “Proud by Birth, Sikh by Choice”. It vindicates television actor Vindu Dara Singh’s argument. He feels the infectious hearty laugh of the Punjabis, their zest for life and their generosity as a community makes their culture a hit. “We can take a joke and crack a joke. Not many can do that,” he says.

What’s unmissable in 1469 is the Lambretta scooter on T-shirts, posters and art objects. “When the Lambretta was around, it sold most in Punjab; till today you will see old Lambrettas in our state,” says a store manager. Unknowingly, he puts the story in fifth gear. If it was the Lambretta in the Seventies, now it is the Mercedes. Ludhiana has the highest density of Mercedes in India in terms of per capita ownership. “The DNA of Mercedes gels very well with the DNA of people in Ludhiana and Punjab. Punjabis are enterprising and innovative people. They also have an attraction for good things in life,” Wilfried Aulbur, the automobile giant’s managing director and CEO, told interviewers a couple of years ago. And not just cars. “Luxury labels sell in India because of Punjabi buyers,” says the representative of an Italian luxury brand, explaining how wealthy Punjabis with their appetite for visibly pedigreed consumables work the math of the luxury business in India.

He is right. The salwar kameez, called the Punjabi in Gujarat and south India, is treated as a liberating garment for married women there, but it is an enslaving one for Punjabi women in Ludhiana and Chandigarh. They wouldn’t be caught dead wearing them. Prada dresses, 7 for All Mankind jeans and Louis Vuitton bags interest them more.

What appears as an enjoyable filmi blur or a lovely new detail expressed through a turbaned Sikh as a Bollywood hero (Saif Ali Khan in Love Aaj Kal, Akshay Kumar in Singh is Kingg, and Ranbir Kapoor in Rocket Singh) is not just an accumulation of cliches. It is a very nuanced tale of a once displaced community.

Punjabis are adventurers, they aren’t intimidated about setting out for work or love anywhere in the world. Wherever they go, they take their culture with them, converting others fast — Kolkata’s Tollygunge or Southhall. “Punjabis are mobile and enterprising and are re-starters, they were displaced during Partition but started all over again,” says Uberoi. She adds that once Punjab meantthe area from Delhi to Rawalpindi to Peshawar. After Partition, it became the Indian Punjab from Delhi to Amritsar. Then, after Haryana was carved out of it in 1966, Punjab became a rather small province. “This story of Punjabiyat in popular consciousness is also a fascinating story of recovery of what it means to be a Punjabi despite displacement,” she says.

It’s a survival instinct that Chandigarh Sangeet Natak Akademi’s chairman Kamal Tewari puts down to history. “Because we were looted and plundered, it made the Punjabis live life more, take every day as a blessing and enjoy every minute of it,” he says.

Punjabiyat is a freely accessible Bible of fun and happiness for everyday living and laughing. Well, who would disagree?

(With inputs from Amrita Jain, Debesh Banerjee Jaskiran Kapoor, Jagmeeta Thind Joy, Nupur Chaudhuri, V Shoba and Somya Lakhani)