November 27, 2000


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Varsha Bhosle

Backstage at Eternal Asha

For all those who've been waiting for me to take off against PM Hajpayee's Ramzan deal to appease the Islamic terrorists, this is it: Bhosle is all for the second edition of the ceasefire in Kashmir. No, you're right... this is not your favourite psycho's original and natural reaction. But, on Saturday evening, I casually mentioned it to a friend, who then said a few things which zinged home.

Colonel Lalit Rai To tell you the truth, the things he said weren't all that different from what the peaceable secularists have been saying all along -- the difference lies only in the emphasis. More significantly, when THIS guy speaks, Bhosle listens -- with her big mouth tightly buttoned up. For he's none other than Colonel Lalit Rai, Commanding Officer of 1/11 Gorkha Rifles, who led the successful bid to recapture Khalubar peak on the night of July 5, 1999, clearing scores of enemy bunkers and killing 23 soldiers of Pakistan's 5 Northern Light Infantry:

It is not usual for an officer of the rank of Colonel to personally lead attacks. But, armed with just an assault rifle, Lalit Rai led his battalion from the front, even though he had been wounded on July 4: the valiant officer had refused to be evacuated. And they say that our soldiers are simply doing their "duty" as it is their paid job...

It was to be the final attack to take over Khalubar from the Paki troops. At the beginning, there were 60 men; they silently slithered forward, painstakingly scaling the rough terrain at Batalik sector in the bitter cold. When the heavy firing began from two sides, Lalit commanded 30 men and asked Captain Manoj Kumar Pandey to take the rest and go for the enemy sangars. When the ammunition fell short, they fell back on the kukri. By the time Lalit reached the top, he was left with just 7 men. These ragged eight braved the enemy onslaught for three days without food and water. Lalit suffered injuries but held on for over 25 hours till reinforcements arrived. And he hoodwinked Death twice: In the first instance, he was saved by his men who managed to overcome the enemy before he could fire his last bullet; in the other, the bullet lodged in the binoculars he held close to his chest -- which caused "a little heartburn." Lalit still carries the bullet with him as a souvenir, and the binocs sit amongst his trophies at home in Pune. So yes, when Col Lalit Rai, Veer Chakra, commander of "The Bravest of The Brave" speaks, Bhosle listens.

Ramu Ganesan Ok, what Lalit said, I'll tell you another day. For most of it was drowned out by the excited interjections from the guy sitting on my other side -- Ram Kumar Ganesan, son of the legendary Chevalier Sivaji Ganesan, Lalit's langoti yaar, and a dear friend who's adored by the entire Bhosle clan. Ramu's the one from whom I get most of my tips about South India -- he's the one who once wouldn't (not "couldn't") speak a word of Hindi, and who's now well on his way to produce a Hindi-language film. I hold the likes of him in greater esteem than the "nationalists" who press for a strong India and who yet push the defunct Sanskrit, based on no more than their parochial hatred for the "northern" Hindi; such are, at best, another version of the pinkos I so despise. I'd cornered Lalit while he was waiting for Aai's concert to begin, her first one in Bombay after a gap of 15 years. Uff, I'd started to write just about that, but you know how giddy-headed I am...

What can I, or anybody, say about an Asha Bhosle concert? Only this: you have to experience it yourself. I suppose I should write such things when she has a tour lined up, but I'm virulently against advertorial plugs (and hence my contempt for The Times of India group). Aai veni-vidi-vici'ed not only the audience but also her cynical daughter who's seen almost all her concerts, sung in very many, blueprinted some, organised a few, and thought that nothing could surprise her anymore. So much so that I forgot all about my digi-album project and got lost in the music like the hoi-polloi. I say "hoi-polloi" not in a socially judgmental tone, but just that it's more difficult to please people in the music "groove" than those who are casual attendees.

Truth, I'm so full of Aai's performance that I can't think of Kashmir or what-have-you; music -- though temporarily -- washes away all that's awful in the world around you. I won't tell you how great Aai is, for even the dumbest of you would know that artists don't stay on top for more than half a century without being exceptionally exceptional. Even so, that was brought home to me when somebody called and said, "My mother-in-law and my two children and their three children were thrilled by her recital and range of songs." That's four generations... Ask The Beatles or Elvis -- who gave up long, long ago -- to beat that. So what I'll do is give you jhalaks of the backstage - things you'd never learn from the gossip mags.

Asha Bhosle and Govinda The pace of the show was set by, not Aai, but Govinda. Before the concert, Govinda had planned on a skit, like the sort you see in the awards functions. When he informed my brother Nandu, who was the brain, hand and gut behind this concert, Nandu said, "Aap yeh kyun kar rahen hain? Do you remember your state of mind when you did your very first stage performance, which also happened to be with Aai? Do you remember Wembley Stadium of 1978? Just be what you are." And Govinda asked, "To baaki sab radd? Main sirf freak-out karoon kya?" And he did. He walked on to accompany Aai in Piya Tu Ab To Aaja and he freaked out dancing and singing -- taking the musicians and crew and Aai and the audience along with him. I saw Govinda -- the simple, lovable, spontaneous suburban boy he actually still is -- and connected with him. We all did.

Perhaps the Govinda item would've been the highlight of the show if not for that peculiar zidd that's made Asha what she is -- a formidable artist to try to best. It's a funny story: The two months prior to the concert had plunged me in confusion. I was slowly becoming convinced that my mother, a grandmom of three teenagers, had a crush on an impossibly younger man. Each time a certain song came on television, Aai would rush out into our drawing room and stare intently at the screen. And her maid had standing instructions that whenever the song played, Aai must be informed. Of course, I asked her several times why she was obsessed with the song, but she'd just brush me off with something like, "It's nice." Which was no comfort.

Asha Bhosle does a Hritik Back to concert night: Lucky Ali -- son of Mehmood -- was announced as one of the singers. I didn't think much of it; many a times, currently-popular singers, who may not have duets with Aai, do a turn in her concerts. After his solo, Lucky said on the mic that he wished Ashaji would join him for his next number. I was flummoxed -- what the hell would she sing with Lucky?? To top that, he began singing Ek Pal Ka Jeena -- another solo. And then she entered. Ok, she took over, singing most of the antraas -- but that wasn't it. What she did while singing was perform the dance steps -- the wave-like over-the-head and the mid-waist push-push hand-movements -- that have come to symbolise Hritik. I screamed with total delight! Not because I finally cottoned on to why she'd been watching its video, but because it was simply fabulous to see this woman of 68+ carry off something so young so gracefully. It felt heavenly to fall in love with my mother after all those years since Dil Ki Kahani Rang Layegi... To do that to a person who knows one's ins and outs is no task for a mortal.

Though I've no need to, I'll still be diffident about Asha: Maybe I'm overreacting to her personality because she happens to be my mother. But then what about Kajol or Tabu or Rekha or Karan Johar? What does she have that this lot haven't got or can't get from elsewhere? Why would they go out of their established ways to please her? It's not like any of them have never moved a project without her! Well, in a word: goodwill -- the stuff that vanishes from one's grasp when one consciously tries to capture it. And the kind Aai has is not what even Amitabh Bachchan or Dilip Kumar can muster.

Kajol makes a rare appearance on stage To what lengths can one's goodwill move another? I'll tell you: Karan did an early pack-up of the shooting of his movie Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham just so that the folks could attend the concert on time. Which wouldn't be such a big deal if the film didn't star Bachchan and Hritik. No sensible producer would risk losing the superstars' time and incur the enormous problems their dates can cause -- but Karan did. As for Kajol, we have shots of her on stage that are, in one television producer's words, "priceless." You see, Kajol and Ajay Devgan have a policy of not performing on stage, period. People have offered them lakhs -- which have always been turned down. But yesterday, after Kajol had left the stage and Aai was half-way into Zara-sa Choom Loon Main, Kajol suddenly dashed up again and danced uninhibitedly till the song finished. The audience of course lapped it up -- but you should've seen the faces of the tech crew and the management weenies: They could not believe their eyes.

Govinda, son of singer Nirmala Devi, had already told Nandu: "Aur koi aye ya na aye, main to aunga," but what could be Asha's link with Tabu, who cancelled her shooting at Hyderabad and flew down just to sit through the concert -- with no item lined up and no call on stage...? Just this: At the end, I saw her hugging Aai and crying like a baby. Uff, I burst into tears myself. Or what about the Morani brothers who provided the fireworks which marked the end of the concert? The sponsors had rejected the fireworks since the budget had already gone way over their expectations. But the Moranis literally blew up their rightful payment "just for Ashaji" and did it en gratis That's the kind of goodwill Aai has in an industry where dog is known to eat dog.

Yes, I've strayed very, very far from what is me and what runs in my blood from generations. This was forcefully brought home to me when, at the end of the concert, I heard a huge blast. My blood ran cold, my heart stopped ticking. In those split seconds, my life passed before my eyes. I was half-up from my seat to run towards my mother and shield her from the IED that the Lashkar-e-Toiba dorks must have planted before they were nabbed at Thane by Bombay's police. And then the confetti sprinkled down over the audience and I heaved a sigh of relief. But, no matter whom I asked later on, the response was the same -- I was the only one who had thought of that first burst of the fireworks as a terrorist attack... Is this what I set out to be...?

Varsha Bhosle

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