The story behind the holi festival is as old as our mythologies. When son Prahlad couldn’t be destroyed after every attempt of King Hiranyakashapu, Prahlad’s aunt and the king’s sister Holika blessed to immortality, offered to sit on the pyre with her nephew on her lap. Holika was certain that the flames wouldn’t perish her. To everybody’s surprise she was reduced to ashes. “I had to take back my blessings,” proclaimed the Lord, “Because you misused my powers”.
For centuries ever since, the festival is celebrated to mark the end of evil, while dhudeti, the ritual of spreading colour on the following day is a robust gesture to soothe the angry flames! It is believed that thedeities’ sprinkled kesuda (red flower) mixed with water to calm the ravage. Over the years, the royal families replaced the red leaf paste with red powder (gulal) and gradually holi came to be identified as anational festival of colour and cheer.
That it lent a secular message and was an occasion to drop inhibitions became a reason why film writers thrived on holi to evoke nostalgia. Time and again Hindi cinema thrived on the song-n-dance situation to project the merriment hasn’t diminished in all these years. What alters is the projection. So if Yash Chopra perceives it as an occasion for indulgence (Silsila) and later fear (Darr) for Subhash Ghai, it was a moment for confrontation (Hero) and later truce (Saudagar).
For Rajkumar Santoshi it was a reason for truant (Damini) and for Ramesh Sippy, a moment of celebration (Sholay). Combining the sad with the happy moments, when a younger Jaya Bhaduri chases Sanjeev Kumar’s tonga challenging to colour his spotless kurta and later, the same sequence with Jaya as a widow, watching the gaiety from a temple perched on the top of a hill, is heart rending. So is Mani Ratnam’s Dal-Pati telling the story of a 13-year-old suffering labour pangs. It breaks your heart to watch her abandon the baby on a moving train. For years after that, on every holi night, the guilt ridden mother is hounded by visions of the villagers prancing around the bonfire destroying old belongings. Her conscience continues to haunt her for 30 years, until she meets her neglected son and makes peace with him.
My earliest memory of the festival goes back to Mehboob Khan’s Mother India. The hero Raaj Kumar has mortgaged his wife’s bangle to the sahukar. Next morning, on spotting the same bangle on the sahukar’s daughter, Birju is outraged, his fury the first flash of the Angry man roles to follow. On the other hand V Shantaram films preferred to emphasise on the fun and flirtation associated with the celebration. So ‘Ari jaani natkhat, mat chuna mera ghunghat…’ picturised on dancer Gopi Krishna and Sandhya in Navrang, after all these years remain memorable for the erotic lyrics and unusual choreography.
There came a time when the festival became synonymous with romance on screen and it was impossible to imagine a Hindi film during the 60s and the 70s without a holi song. The audience was bored of the clichéd situations and those that dared to be different made a mark. On top of the list is Waheeda Rehman-Dharmendra starrer Phagun. On the holi day Waheeda’s father, a zamindar as per the tradition has presented his daughter a new saree. Her husband, in a romantic moment splashes her with colour and ruins her new saree. Torn between the two men she loves, Waheeda feels obliged to humiliate her husband in public to pacify her father. The husband is crestfallen and walks out on his pregnant wife to return 20 years later, imbalanced and diffident.
In Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika Naseeruddin Shah playing a filmmaker has everyone believe that he disapproves of the celebration because his daughter died on the occasion. Smita Patil, playing the actress defiantly applies a dash of colour on his cheeks. The gesture is the beginning of a tentative attraction between the two. Exploring unfamiliar nuances is also Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Alaap where in Rekhaunsure of reciprocation, hides behind the door waiting in anticipation. The hero follows her and colours her spontaneously, oblivious of her feelings for him. In complete contrast is ‘Rang Barse…’ in Silsila where bhang becomes an excuse for the lovers to rekindle an old affair. The brazenness appeals to our basic instinct, evoking a heady feeling despite the social taboos.
The stigma of a widow participating in the festivities was first challenged by Shakti Samanta in Kati Patang. Rajesh Khanna applying the shagun ka tikka on the young widow’s forehead was a statement on our social customs. Ketan Mehta’s Holi about ragging in college campuses was a statement on our degrading education system. Reflecting the sinister side of hostel life, the film is the sad story of a young boy destroyed by peer pressure.
Exploring unfamiliar nuances is also Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Alaap where in Rekha unsure of reciprocation, hides behind the door waiting in anticipation. The hero follows her and colours her spontaneously, oblivious of her feelings for him. In complete contrast is ‘Rang Barse…’ in Silsila where bhang becomes an excuse for the lovers to rekindle an old affair. The brazenness appeals to our basic instinct, evoking a heady feeling despite the social taboos