In the Hindi film song universe, the intoxicant is a relatively new addition to the festival of colours.
In the infectious Holi song Balam Pichkari (Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, 2013), lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya writes, “Itna mazaa kyon aa raha hai, tunay hawa mein bhang milaaya” (Why am I having so much fun, you have mixed cannabis in the air).
When bhang is floating in the air, the atmosphere turns into a frenzied spectacle of music and dance. In most Holi songs, the cannabis plant preparation is implied through lyrics or depicted through visuals of revellers downing tall glasses of thandai, a concoction of milk, dry fruits and bhang.
Bhang is a relatively recent addition to the depiction of Holi in Hindi films. Popular tunes celebrating the festival of colour between the 1940s and the ’60s were more religious in nature, focusing on the legend of the god Krishna, who coloured the face of Radha to match his blue skin tone.
Songs such as Phagun Ki Rut (Holi, 1940), Bheegoyi Mori Saree (Shaadi, 1941), Holi Ka Din Hai (Renuka, 1947), Khelo Rang Hamare Sang (Aan, 1952), Holi Khele Nandlala (Raahi, 1953), Holi Aayi Re Kanhai (Mother India, 1957), Arre Jaa Re Natkhat (Navrang, 1959), Tan Rang Lo (Kohinoor, 1960) and Holi Khelat Nandlal (Godaan, 1963) refer to the playful interactions between Krishna and Radha. None of these songs has any room for bhang.
Bhang is strongly associated with Shiva. In folk tales, he is often cited smoking the ganja form of the cannabis plant. So when did bhang swing into the Holi melody?
Mehmood flops about like a thirsty bird in need of a cool drink in Zara Si Aur Pila Do Bhang from the 1968 movie Kaajal, but it is in the ’70s that bhang appears to have become indispensable to Holi festivities.
The jaunty RD Burman tune Aaj Na Chhodenge (Kati Patang, 1970) features portly men grinding the cannabis leaves into the bhang paste. Swooning men wait with empty glasses for a thandai refill. Kamal (Rajesh Khanna) implores merrymakers to drop their guard, while Madhu (Asha Parekh), dressed austerely as a widow in white, pines for the same happiness as others.
In the 1974 film Aap Ki Kasam, Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz dance to the trippy sounds of Jai Jai Shiv Shankar. The song, composed by RD Burman and written by Anand Bakshi, acknowledges Shiva’s contribution to the intoxicant thandai through the words “Ke pyala tere naam ka piya” (We toast our goblet to you). The pyala is spiked with bhang, since the actors consume the libation on Shivratri.
The tune also doubles up as a Holi special, presumably because of its association with Rajesh Khanna and bhang.
Jai Jai Shiv Shankar from Aap Ki Kasam (1974).
After Khanna, another superstar, Amitabh Bachchan, famously gulped down a glass of thandai and sang Rang Barse in Silsila (1981). Bachchan formalises the presence of bhang and its wonderful side-effects on anyone with an off-key pitch and two left feet. Although lyricist Javed Akhtar does not include bhang in the words, the visuals suffice.
Songs such as Hori Khele Raghuveera (Baghban, 2003) and Rang Dalo (Banaras, 2006) incorporate visuals of people grinding the plant into a paste. In Anu Malik’s composition Koi Bheege Hai (Mumbai Se Aaya Mera Dost, 2003), Abhishek Bachchan carries forward the legacy of his father’s enthralled spirits when he lip-synchs the lyrics written by Sameer, “Koi bheega tarang se, koi bheega hai bhang se” (Some are intoxicated by music, others by bhang). No truer words have been sung.