Beginning with Bollywood

Reconnecting with my culture through Bollywood music

When I was three years old, I got my ears pierced. I remember it hurting a little, but I think it was just the shock that made me burst into tears. I cried quite a bit, much to my piercer’s annoyance, and apparently caused quite the scene at Claire’s. However, less than five minutes later, I sat happily in the car, singing along to my parents’ favorite Bollywood CD, tears long forgotten.

A couple of years before I was born, my parents had 17 songs burned onto a CD. They were the full soundtracks for two Bollywood movies — “Lagaan” and “Dil Chahta Hai.” We listened to the CD often in the car until I was three or four years old, which was when we bought an iPod and began listening to other music.

An illustration of a CD | Graphic by Sophia Ma

Buried under 13 years of memories, I completely forgot about that part of my life — ear piercing, car rides and music — until recently.

This past summer, my parents and I attended my second cousin’s Indian wedding, which took place in Napa. On the first night of the wedding, there was a party — everyone, tired of being stuck in their homes for more than a year, clearly had a lot to get out of their system. In the midst of all the chaos, a song played that I distinctly recognized, but couldn’t name.

“Your dad really likes this song, doesn’t he?!” My cousin yelled over the music. 

Yeah, I thought. But where do I know the song from? 

The immense nostalgia I felt at that moment was overwhelming. The dance floor was sticky, the air around me was thick and suffocating, bright colored clothing flashed around me and bass shook the room, but the only thing I could focus on was that I couldn’t remember a thing about how I knew the song, just that I knew it well enough to sing along without missing a word. 

Turns out, the song, “Koi Kahe Kehta Rahe,” was one of the songs on that CD from so many years ago. The first thing I did after getting home from Napa was listen to the full soundtracks for both movies and add them to a Bollywood playlist which I had created at the beginning of summer. 

That playlist is now my go-to when I need something to pick me up, but more than that, it has given me the opportunity to reconnect with so many aspects of my culture which I had previously shunned due to internalized racism. 

When I was younger, I hated the fact that my skin was brown. I didn’t like my name, I didn’t like wearing Indian clothes and convinced myself that I didn’t like Indian food when in actuality I did. I don’t entirely remember what factors contributed to the development of this mindset, but I imagine it was a combination of several things — seeing characters who looked like me being portrayed as racist caricatures in movies and the “popular” Indian kids at school distancing themselves from their heritage. 

In addition, I simply didn’t enjoy speaking in Hindi or learning how to read and write in it because I saw it as an unnecessary chore, so once I began attending elementary school, I completely forgot how. However, I’ve discovered that by connecting something I love — music — with my efforts to relearn my culture, I started having fun with it, which encouraged me to pursue relearning the language.

Illustration of a woman wearing a saree, a traditional Indian outfit | Graphic by Kripa Mayureshwar

I began to exclusively speak Hindi to my parents at home, just so I would get more opportunities to practice. I paid attention to song lyrics, Googled words I didn’t know or asked my parents what they meant when I didn’t understand. I’ve been making an effort to call my grandparents more so I can practice speaking Hindi with them, which has also given me the added benefit of being more connected with them. I even started watching Indian news channels to further increase my understanding of the language and culture.

After actively fighting my heritage for years, I’m finally starting to undo the damage that my internalized values caused — and all it took was one Bollywood song. It’s an ongoing process, one that I don’t think will be easy, but one that I’m willing to put in the effort for.

As school gets more intense and I get busier, I don’t know how much time I’ll be able to devote to learning a language that I’m not getting a grade for. But I will continue casually speaking to my parents in Hindi, calling my grandparents more often and listening to my new favorite Bollywood playlist. At the end of the day, Bollywood will always hold a special place in my heart for the second chance that it gave me.