How to Win Friends & Influence People, Kumar Sanu-Style

Pop Culture

How to Win Friends & Influence People, Kumar Sanu-Style

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The screechy abomination that is “Ek Do Teen’s reboot” dropped in a few days ago, almost instantly drawing well-deserved flak from all corners. Loud and garish, it is everything that the Madhuri masterpiece was not and never intended to be.

“Why even try?” someone on my social-media feed wondered, “Why ruin perfection?” while frantically sharing the YouTube links for the old version, hoping to save our souls from being scarred by Jackie’s lovely, but in this case totally misplaced, thighs.

Why indeed?

Has Bollywood really run out of ideas to an extent where recycling old songs is the only hope? Are we doomed to rinse and repeat the ’90s because nothing that Bollywood produces is ever going to be as memorable ever again?

It is easy to take a brick to Bollywood’s pretty but empty head, but the industry’s fixation with remakes, is not just because heartwarming nostalgia is good business. And definitely not because the ’90s were musically good – they were awful. The recent tyranny of reboots is merely Bollywood catching up to the fact that ’90s music has continued to persist as a force of popular culture that continues to bind people together across generations, defying the logic of both musical tastes and quality.

Much to my personal delight, “Kaali Kaali Aankhein”, Sanu’s idea of a party song, is once again a hot favourite, as is “Cheez Badi Hai Mast Mast”, lyrical misogyny notwithstanding.

Music from that decade has an uncanny ability to bring people together. From the veterans of the cool jamming in some abandoned garage in Mumbai to seasoned hippies grooving around a bonfire in remote the Himalayas, the ’90s is a theme that finds resonance in the unlikeliest of the settings and with the unlikeliest of people. I have found more friends based on our shared ability to belt out the most obnoxious Kumar Sanu songs with gusto than any networking app can even imagine. I have revived forgotten bonds based on collective memories of singing “Ek Do Teen” and “Tip Tip Barsa” (because is it really raunchy if Sanu does it?) during every single round of antakshari we had ever played. For years now, announcing the rains via Anu Malik’s inimitable “Dekho Baarish Ho Rahi Hai, It’s Raining” is a tradition for my brother and me, drawing reactions that range from nervous giggles to scandalised horror. “Channa Mereya” may be the new jam for the broken-hearted but really, nothing I know brings lovelorn souls together like the ultimate curse the beloved anthem “Acha Sila Diya Tune”. And when Anu Malik resurrected Kumar Sanu and nailed the ’90s in 2015 with “Dard Karara”, the resulting sound of squealing delight echoed across my WhatsApp groups for days.

It may be as a joke or sincere admiration or just a fond memory, in my personal experience, ’90s music is an icebreaker that works like a charm in almost every setting. It doesn’t matter how many strangers are there with me in an elevator (or a bus or a solo trip or literally anywhere), I know I can always find a kindred spirit and even form lifelong bonds, based on whether or not they can sing (off-key, of course) “Jhanjhariya” aloud while giggling about Suniel Shetty’s legendary black poncho.

In the ever-changing landscape of cool, Kumar Sanu and his ilk have become a permanent fixture. Older millennials like me who may struggle to find their way around Prateek Kuhad know they can get easy access into hipster clubs based on our vast, unbeatable knowledge about every one of the 17,000 Sanu songs, cashing in on the moony-eyed fascination of the new-age cool crowd still trying to fathom the enigma of the Arijit Singh of the ’90s.  

The ’90s in Indian popular culture is like Elvis Presley’s ghost. It refuses to die. And ’90s music is not just music — it is our one direct connect to an era we somehow have refused to outgrow. An era that retains a charm that is as authentic as Alisha Chinai’s “Made in India”, as sexy as Milind Soman’s rippling abs, as romantic as Sonu Nigam’s “Deewana”, as melodious as Falguni Pathak’s payal, as cocky as Anu Malik’s defiance of all laws of copyright, as groovy as Govinda’s pelvic thrusts, as cool as Baba Sehgal’s definition of rap… and as unforgettable, as unavoidable as Kumar Sanu’s ever-relevant anthems for the love-struck and broken-hearted.

And it is not just confined to Kumar Sanu or the angst of the griever. I have danced to “Saat Samundar Paar” more times in the last year than I did in the entire first grade when it used to be everybody’s go-to song at birthday parties. Much to my personal delight, “Kaali Kaali Aankhein”, Sanu’s idea of a party song, is once again a hot favourite, as is “Cheez Badi Hai Mast Mast”, lyrical misogyny notwithstanding. Every DJ worth his salt knows that ten different versions of “Gajar Ne Kiya Hai Ishara” are a must to make any wedding-dance party happen, not to mention the entire collection of recreated as well as yet untouched list of Punjabi songs that headlined the Indie-pop scene. After all, nothing says “happening” like a bunch of excited strangers screaming“Oho Ho Ho” to the chorus of Sukhbir’s “Taare Gin Gin” on a pitch dark dance floor.

The cassettes in our cupboards have long been thrown away and the walkman is an antique that deserves a spot next to the Tazos being sold on eBay. The appeal of the music that first floated through those cassettes and walkmen in our lives, however, lives on. In a way, it is ironic because minus the rose-tinted nostalgia, it is not hard to remember that the ’90s were not really as iconic as our post-millennial obsession is making them out to be.

A whole chunk of that era in terms of music and films was loud, cheesy, cringe-worthy, and lacked self-awareness at every imaginable level. And perhaps that is what makes it a popular-culture fixation in our hyper intellectual times. The naivety adds to the allure, as does the utter lack of sense of irony. It is a joke that keeps running on a loop, getting funnier the more aware we become. And of course, the nostalgia about the good ol’ times adds to the flavour. It is no wonder that leading the post-millennial army of Sanuphiles and ’90s admirers are a bunch of millennials who were perhaps sucking on pacifiers when Sanu was at his peak. Their love for the ’90s is partial nostalgia, based on snatches of personal memories and large chunks pop-culture imagery. For them, it is a celebration of a longing that is not their own. And why not? The ’90s is a gift that keeps on giving, even if you missed them the first time around. Just as Kumar Sanu had famously crooned, “Tere Dar Par Sanam Chale Aaye…”