Suffering, Heroism, and Spirituality: Bollywood, Nagari Nagari Dvaare Dvaare (from ‘Mother India’) and a passing reference to Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’

Why have I reached the age of 30 without having watched a Bollywood film? Despite the overwhelming popularity of Bollywood, and its appeal to people across the globe, Bollywood movies seem to have passed me by – but more fool me, especially as I am now a complete convert.

On Saturday I watched for the first time the Bollywood classic Mother India ( and was gripped to the screen for the entire three hours. What particularly captured my attention was the powerful use of song. A face-value reaction might be to draw a comparison with the way music is used in a Hollywood musical, but I don’t feel this would sufficiently explain the role of music within the film. To my mind, the songs in Mother India function differently from those in a Hollywood musical; the songs not only bolster the film’s narrative, but provide the film with a philosophical depth and series of spiritual milestones or focal points.

I am sure I am not the first person to claim the song Nagari Nagari Dvaare Dvaare to underlie one of the most moving scenes in the film. This song follows Nargis’ realisation that her husband, Shamu, has left her and their children. Following a farming accident that results in Shamu losing both his arms, he descends into a deep state of depression as he feels he can no longer support his family. One night he decides it is best for the family if he leaves, and without saying a word walks out of the house and into the far distance. On realisation that he has left, Nargis goes looking for him and sings the powerfully emotive Nagari Nagari Dvaare Dvaare. As she sings the scene undergoes a series of changes of landscape as we watch Nargis (with her children) roam from place to place in search of her husband. The lyrics, roughly translated are (improvements welcome):

I have been looking for you in every city, knocking on every door, oh my beloved.
Lover-husband, I am going crazy calling out for you.
I have been looking for you in every city, knocking on every door, oh my beloved.
My heartless beloved, threw me into the fires of agony.
A saddened woman in pain of separation is pleading with you to fill her part with fire of pain.
My heart cries every moment, tears are flowing from my eyes.
I have been looking for you in every city, knocking on every door, oh my beloved.
I had come with dreams of love in my eyes.
Now I am leaving with tears in my eyes, and have lost everything.
In the fiesta of the world, I have lost what I considered worth living for.
I have been looking for you in every city, knocking on every door, oh my beloved.
My eyes are thirsty for one look at you; they will never sleep in this lifetime.
O separated beloved, for you, I will cry every night.
I don’t know how to spend my life.

To my mind, the power of the song lies in the dual narrative provided by the music and the images presented. While we hear Nargis sing about her deep loss, we watch a series of tableaux that depict her determined search for her husband, culminating in the scene where we see Nargis and her children relentlessly marching across the corn fields.

This duality is also established within the song. Lata Mangeshkar’s rendering of the vocal line which focuses on each and every word gives the music a beautifully melancholic tone, while the rhythmic pulse of the piano and tabla provide a constant sense of forward movement and of determination. This is accentuated as each poetic line flows musically into next one, the line ‘my heart cries every moment, tears are flowing from my eyes’ in particular highlights this, Lata’s melisma towards the end of the line not only emphasising the flowing of tears but also beautifully bringing the two poetic lines together and accentuating the return of the central note or vadi.

The combination of melancholy and determination reminds me of Florestan’s powerful aria from the beginning of Act II of Beethoven’s Fidelio. Although imprisoned, Florestan’s aria combines feelings of deep sadness with stoic heroism, Florestan towards the end of the aria moving beyond the image of his dark and gloomy surroundings to a vision of freedom.

I haven’t had chance to analyse this song in detail (or for that matter the film), but I can’t deny the strong impression it has made on me. It has certainly persuaded me to learn more about hindi films and to watch more. What are your thoughts on this song, the film, and on the music of Bollywood (whether hearing the song for the first time, via this blog, or from your knowledge of the film)?


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