Like a demonic wormhole or Candy Crush Saga, the world of Bhojpuri music videos is a soul-sucking vortex at worst, and a guilty pleasure at best. There comes a moment when you have an out-of-body experience of sorts, where you're hovering above the action, looking down at yourself; trying to rationalise the endeavour, trying to buy yourself a cheap, pursuit-of-knowledge excuse. Somewhere amidst 37 straight double entendres, you hear the voice of reason and turn the thing off, lest it draw you in its whirlpool once and for all.
It's really, really tough to acknowledge the existence of a man like Guddu Rangeela. If you accept the hypothesis that he does exist, it makes pretending his songs don't that much harder. Towards the end of Vishal Rawlley's essay in Visual Homes, Image Worlds (an anthology collecting essays from Tasveer Ghar (tasveerghar.net), an online archive of South Asian visual cultures), we see him leering complacently at Kim Sharma, on the cover of a music album called Jeans Dhila Kara (Loosen Your Jeans). When I mustered up the courage to look past this disturbing sight, I found Rawlley's essay, called Miss Use — The sexy lady on Bhojpuri music album covers, to be a fascinating read. Even where he indulges in a broad stroke or two, his arguments are as plausible as some of the lyrics he talks about are... not. Here, he talks about a phase in the '90s, where illustrations of a voluptuous tribal woman would be accompanied by strictly non-subtle phallic imagery and names like Bhojpuri Baingan and Bhojpuri Rasgulla.
"These luscious objects were obviously phallic, or indicated a woman's breasts, or equated the craving for the delectable food item with sexual desire. Unlike the bashful beauty of the 'nubile series', this woman looks directly at the viewer in a pose of sexual challenge, or longingly gazes at the giant phallic fruit depicted alongside. The sexualised woman on these covers has lost her coyness. (...) This woman is a crude illustration of an urban male desire for a raunchy tribal woman. She is obtainable in the urban male imagination by exercising the power equation of superior might and wealth. She is not an innocent beauty but a bewitching temptress."
Rawlley is on to more than sexual politics here. He also observes the economic changes of the late '90s and the way they impact the Bhojpuri music industry. "Since the cover girl on most VCD albums did not appear in the accompanying videos, she served the same purpose as the cassette cover girl: to dish up allure and serve as a visual 'indicator' of the album's content and its intended audience. (...) Conversion to the VCD format also ushered this media into the digital age — in the way the songs and videos were produced and also the way the album covers were designed. The 'indicator' images are often freely recycled — the central picture from one cover becoming the side picture in other albums. This re-use of images was also a way to reduce production costs as increased piracy forced music labels to make their product almost as cheap as the pirated copy in order to defeat the practice."
Visual Homes, Image Worlds has 19 essays in total, Rawlley's being the last one. The uniting thread is Indian popular visual culture; photography, calendar art illustrations, films and more. All of the essays are immaculately researched. Some, like Miss Use and Sabeena Gadihoke's Selling Soap and Stardom, are interdisciplinary gems; exceptionally written mini-treatises that not only map popular trends efficiently but also deconstruct them very neatly indeed. Gadihoke writes about Lux advertisements down the years, starting from the 1920s. Back then, this was the case of a British soap company trying to figure out what caught the attention of the natives. This led to some very interesting developments, like the illustration of a Caucasian-looking woman in a sari.
"When advertisements started to target Indian homes very directly, they featured housewives, offering them the promise of beauty along with the hygiene and mobility associated with modernity. Some featured the Indian housewife in modern bathrooms, accompanied by 'shrines of cleanliness' such as bathtubs. Products of transnational flows, it is not surprising that many such advertisements reflected a hybrid visual iconography. For instance, the Urdu text of a Vinola soap advertisement promising the freshness of 'an Indian rose' features a woman in a sari, but she seems Caucasian and holds an unmistakably English basket of roses!"
Gadihoke also latches on to a crucial fact about the evolution of the Lux advertisement: that it became de rigueur for the leading Bollywood diva of the age to appear in a bathtub shoot with Lux. A few years ago, we saw Shahrukh Khan in one such commercial, enjoying a Cleopatra-like beauty bath inside a tub, flanked by actresses who have previously appeared in Lux advertisements. In the '70s and '80s, when gender roles in Bollywood films were still very strictly defined, this would have been unthinkable. Although Gadihoke does not talk about Khan's example in detail (except to rightly note that the move "was not very successful"), she does point out several other ways in which these advertisements reflected Bollywood's idea of stardom and a cine-star's mystique.
"As an unofficial awards ceremony, the Lux campaign could be seen as one of the many extra-cinematic forms of stardom that celebrated different kinds of female performance. A close look at the trajectory of the Lux advertisement allows us to map the parallel movement of several stars as they appeared on the horizon, shone brightly and faded away, some to be lost forever from public memory. The first Indian Lux girl in 1941, Leela Chitnis would start to play the role of a mother by the end of that decade, a sober reminder of the ephemeral and transitory nature of stardom."
We live in an era where the visual is threatening to overwhelm every other medium of expression. We spend more hours watching cookery shows than cooking. The fine art of getting hits on YouTube is one inspired professor away from being on a curriculum. We are, in short, already in the middle of a new visual culture: the click-bait, which uses images to entice readers online; never mind if they spend less than 30 seconds on the link, the click is all that matters. If all of this sounds futuristic to you, or if you think the response time of the consumer has decreased phenomenally over the years... you're wrong. As Visual Homes, Image Worlds tells us, even something as seemingly innocuous as bidi packets leveraged nationalist feelings and motifs to build a patriotic brand image.
This book, besides being an invaluable tool for students of about half a dozen disciplines, is also a very entertaining volume for the general reader. Who knows, you might even start looking at advertisements closely after reading these essays.