My Page: Mike Doughty ‘Once Upon a Time in Bollywood’
My intention, when Relix kindly offered me this space to write about whatever I wanted, was to write something that would obliquely tie into my new band, Ghost of Vroom, and our new album, Ghost of Vroom 1. We made a record; it’s really good, and you should listen to it. It sounds more like Soul Coughing than other music I’ve made in this century.
Instead, I’m taking this opportunity to talk about my man Shammi Kapoor. Shammi was one of the great Bollywood stars—that is, a leading man of Indian cinema—of the 1960s. He started making movies in the 1950s and wasn’t very successful at it. He got kind of pudgy for a movie star and shaved off his pencil mustache, which was kind of an admission of defeat. Then, in the 1960s, a director told him that he had to dance in a scene. When Shammi admitted that he couldn’t dance, the director made him dance anyway. That’s when Shammi’s magic was born.
He was hilarious. The goofy facial expressions! The manic hair-flopping! The pudginess, which is extremely charming.
Throughout, he’s also lipsyncing to Mohammed Rafi’s vocals. (The female vocals are by Asha Bhosle, subject of Cornershop’s Brimful of Asha.) This was how it worked in Bollywood: a convention still called playback. There were only a handful of singers—the male vocals are mostly courtesy of Rafi and Kishore Kumar, the female vocals are usually by Asha and Lata Mangeshkar—and these same singers were in hundreds of movies! (What was the average working day?) There were comic sequences, of course, but Shammi took it to a new level—full-on parodic leading man. He developed a one-word catchphrase, “yahoo,” which became synonymous with his name.
There’s a Bollywood stock scene in which the leading man declares his love in a scenic environment—I’ve seen it in dozens of movies, and it’s almost exactly the same scene in every one of them. But Junglee is the only Bollywood film I know of where that scene opens with the protagonist diving chaotically into the snow and sliding down a hillside.
In the early ‘90s, in New York, I used to hear Bollywood music all over the place—in cabs, in bodegas and in the multiple Indian restaurants that stood together in a row on East 6th Street (most of which were actually owned, operated, and staffed by Bangladeshi people). It was shockingly funky: a big string-section sound that was rendered out of tune by a wobbly, thirdgeneration cassette tape; those tabla rhythms and spooky, There wasn’t a Bollywood section at Tower Records. It was just this music you’d hear all the time in random places—just out of reach.
One day, I was in a bodega, and I asked the guy behind the counter what the music was, and where I could find more of it.
He sold me his tape for $10, which was likely a ripoff, but who cares?
It was titled Vivah Geet, which I later learned meant “wedding songs.”
There aren’t many experiences that I can point to which have led me to get super into a form of music that I didn’t really know anything about. (It didn’t occur to me to take the 7 train to Jackson Heights, walk into a music store and start asking questions—partially because my many visits to various groovy-people East Village record stores had long taught me that an earnest request for information was gauche and partially because I was, as I am even now writing this, cringing at the prospect of thoughtless cultural tourism.) And, eventually, my bass player stole the tape.
There are Shammi movies up on Netflix, but I really recommend picking up the English-subtitled Teesri DVD on Amazon. Shammi plays Rocky, an Elvis-esque nightclub idol. (I’ve read that it was widely believed in India that Elvis stole his moves from Shammi.) The nightclub sequences are unbelievably over-the-top 1960s. The plot, like many Bollywood plots, otherworldly vocals; that huge and mysterious sound.
Ten years pre-Google, there was no way to learn about this stuff, other than to talk to the guy who was playing the tape— who was usually suspicious of every question and would give some blow-off answer about it being music from a movie. is actually several plots crammed into one movie, for maximum appeal.
A murder mystery story at its core, “Teesri Manzil” means “third floor.” In the opening scenes, a woman jumps—or does she?—from the third floor of the hotel that Rocky/Shammi’s nightclub is in. (One of Shammi’s co-stars in Teesri is the actress and dancer Helen, about whom Merchant Ivory made a 1973 documentary called Helen, Queen of the Nautch Girls, and if anybody out there can find it for me, I’ll love you forever.)
The soundtracks to both Junglee and Teesri can currently be found on various streaming services—the former has some amazing Nashvillevia-Mumbai steel-guitar, and the latter has a great 1960s-spyguitar vibe. If you search for Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhosle, or any of the other playback singers I mentioned, then you’ll find hundreds of songs, stretching from the 1950s to the 1990s. Bollywood voraciously devoured and Bollywoodized every genre it came across, from rockabilly to disco, and it’s very much worth a deep dive.
Shammi Kapoor became spiritual late in his life—a Bhakti devotee and a follower of the guru Haidakhan Babaji. He also became an early proselytizer for the internet in India, and founded the Internet Users Community of India. Pictures of Shammi late in life show a gray-bearded man who looks more like a wizard than the handsome-yet-spazzy guy who once yelled “yahoo.” Also, please listen to Ghost of Vroom’s new album, Ghost of Vroom 1. It has very little to do with this article, but it’s really good and you will like it.
Mike Doughty released his first album with Ghost of Vroom in March via Mod y Vi Records. The project also features his longtime bassist/cellist, Andrew “Scrap” Livingston.