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March 23, 2009

Nicole Scherzinger's Feelgood Bellydancing Roils Indian Elections

The Pussycat Dolls performing "Jai Ho" on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.

by Guy Martin

The power of world music is nowhere more apparent than in the home of Bollywood. Bollywood's signature dance troupe routines are, themselves, excellent narrative: flashing eyes, rampant vogue-ing, and all the footwork absolutely synchronized without the use of our restrictive, Western, eight-note scale or time signatures. A musical monument to universal longing, via Busby Berkeley and Krishna! Awesome cribbing everybody!   

However.  The world's current most popular Indian song--the Oscar-winning "Jai Ho" (You Are My Destiny), played as the credits roll over the fabulous synchronized dance in Slumdog Millionaire--is a halfbreed Bollywood tune, performed as it was by Nicole Scherzinger and the eponymous Pussycat Dolls. Just as the film itself is not a full-on Bollywood flick, but a Western (Anglo/Irish) interpretation thereof. Personally speaking, the DT is fine with that. Cultural robbery can cut both ways. Sting! David Byrne! Brian Eno! Olly-olly-in-free!

But: After last month's Oscar sweep, India's politicians woke up to the fact that Slumdog was doing something for the mood of the country, namely, infusing the common man with pride via its real-Hollywood feel-good hit at the end. And specifically, that song! "Jai Ho," which translates as "be victorious," is a common salutation in Hindi. Although performed by Scherzinger (a native of Hawaii) in her video and at the Oscars in excellent belly-baring sari-drag, "Jai Ho" was written by "India's Beethoven," the double-Oscar winner and real-Bollywood schlockmeister A.R. Rahman.

Putting two and two together--meaning, the monthlong national elections commencing on April 14 with the anthemic, universally appealing message of "Jai Ho"--the ruling Congress Party, headed by Sonia Ghandi, widow of the (assassinated prime minister) Rajiv, daughter-in-law of the (assassinated prime minister) Indira, and herself Italian-born, bought the Bollywood disco number to use in its spring campaign. Cost: GBP140,000, or about $280,000. Unlike Bruce Springsteen, who turned down Ronald Reagan's campaign's offer to buy "Born in the USA," Rahman took the cash. The Congress Party announced that they'd use the song in commercials and at rallies over the next couple of months.

Cue the Bharatiya Janata (BJP), the main opposition party, which has also been playing the song at rallies for the last few weeks. Lawyers for the Congress Party's campaign have threatened legal action if this continues. No way, say the BJP: "Anyone should be able to use the song, 'Jai Ho' should not belong to anyone, it belongs to the country," says BJP spokesman Atul Shah.

Whatever their legal success, the Congress Party lawyers may not physically be able to control the music at the number of BJP rallies mounted in an Indian election. There are five tranches of voting spread out over a month, and countless rallies leading up to them in the world's second most populous country. In this environment, possible trademark infringement has about the value of a flattened Coke-bottle top. Traditionally, Indian elections have been spread out like this to avoid sectarian violence in the three-religion state--and especially in the tinderbox regions of Jammu and Kashmir.

And however the elections turn out, BJP politician and unrepentant opposition figure Narendra Modi may have scored the ultimate rhetorical victory. "If it were not for Congress misrule for the last 60 years, there would be no slums, and no Slumdog, and no Oscar." As they say in Holly- and in Bollywood: Touché, Baby.    


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