My first memory of music is sitting in my mother’s car on the way to and from school. Every morning she bundled the three of us into her golden Suzuki Cultus and we would be on our way. Schooldays in that Cultus were how I listened to so much music I still love today; Nazia Hassan, Nusrat (the Bally remixes) and old Bollywood songs. We got a pretty solid musical education in that car, but what I remember most vividly were the moments when a cheap gaana came on and my mother always turned the volume all the way up. Sharara sharara, my mother sang in the melting hot Karachi afternoons, mein hoon aik shararaaaaa. She looked at us and laughed, smacked us on the shoulder if any of us complained about her off key singing. Tum bachon ko sharam nahin aati? Itnay cheap cheap gaanay sun rahay ho tsk tsk tsk, she would say and then, throwing her head back, cackle at her own joke.
Sometimes, on the way back from school, we would get gola ganda or strawberry milkshake. When we went to Dolmen Mall Tariq Road or Paradise, she made sure to buy a new cassette or CD for the car. She liked knowing what the latest item songs were.
My mother loved cheap gaanay, but she also knew there was a time and place for everything. Once we got home and parked the car, a thousand and one chores awaited her. Cleaning, ironing, cooking, washing the dishes, supervising homework, budgeting, dealing with irate men, she managed it all with an expression so removed from the woman who came to pick us up from school. She was a strict parent and many things were not allowed; fashionable clothes, close friendships with boys, staying out late in the evenings. But, in the car she was someone else entirely. In the car she sang about jawaani while dodging traffic, speeding in celebration whenever a favourite song came on.
What is a cheap gaana? A cheap gaana is the song all male relatives shake their heads at whenever someone is surfing channels during a daawat. Of course, we can have many conversations about the sexual politics of cheap gaanay and umm and errr over whether they are truly liberatory or not, but a cheap gaana is still a kaanta in the side of patriarchy. Kaanta lagaa / haye lagaa / ha! Cheap gaanay inspire you to shout your love from the rooftops, stick a picture of the one you desire to your seena with Fevicol, while also reminding you not to take yourself too seriously. In Dabangg 2, Salman Khan claims Kareena has enslaved the entire nation of India with her beauty, saare India ko tune ghulam kiya re. She instead chooses to compare herself to tandoori chicken, mein toh tandoori haye/ mein toh tandoori murghi hoon yaar, gatkale saiyaan alcohol se (oh yeahh!)
The real tea is that it’s not just my mother, everyone loves an item number, including many of us who routinely claim not to. Even away from the suspect eyes of family, there is a shame attached to listening to cheap gaanay, as if you are admitting to being cheap yourself. An unforgivingly basic way to think about cheapness in general, but we’ll come to that in a bit. The fact is that during university, I hid my love of cheap gaanay and I know that many others did too. At that time, indie was cool and in Lahore we went to gigs where all the music was so serious. There was also EDM for parties, and a two-credit university course on classical music for real aficionados, but the only place anyone ever played a good cheap gaana or two was the female gym. Disapproval of cheap gaanay now came in the form of; they offer nothing, they’re repetitive, they are not art, they’re just a way for movies to make money, they’ve ruined local music and, most notably, they contribute to sexism in society. Against all this censure, admitting to liking the latest cheap gaana always felt like a confession, something to be shared between close friends who won’t judge you for your lack of taste.
As we can see, the idea that cheap gaanay corrupt society is one that is unlimited in scope, everyone from disapproving uncles to know-it-all professors to self-professed film critics has offered some shade of this opinion. Now recovering from my own shame, I am convinced that we critique cheap gaanay in ways that do not do justice to the genre. If Bollywood is sexist, repetitive and profiteering (a) then, by enjoying cheap gaanay, audiences are contributing to sexism, unoriginality and exploitation (b) is a class participation remark I have heard too many times to count. When I think of cheap gaanay, I think about my mother in her car, my khalas dancing at my wedding, my friends laughing when a song we love comes on, girls at the parlour humming under their breath, students singing O Saki Saki in school vans, cinemas filled with women, babies on their laps, all of us transfixed by the possibilities of seeing and being seen. How to explain to stuffy types that without cheap gaanay, there can be no revolution?
Let’s be honest, sexism is not the real reason many people take issue with cheap gaanay. The logical conclusion of this argument is Hamza Ali Abbasi begging a girl on national television to give up dancing to item numbers, as he did a couple of years ago. Paternalistic behaviour is always enlightening. For many people, the real issue with cheap gaanay lies in the proximity of its listeners to cheapness. Cheap is a word I heard a lot growing up. I’m sure you did too. Cheap aurat, cheap soch, cheap kapray; my entire girlhood was spent eluding the label of cheap. I was taught that if I got A’s at my private school, dressed tastefully and spoke good English then my value would go up and nobody would ever call me cheap. As I grew older, I found this was not true. There are countless reasons to be called cheap, and very few ways to avoid it. At the same time, avoiding it is imperative because once you’re seen as cheap then it’s game over for you, beta jaani.
For me, embracing cheap gaanay was a way to say I don’t want to be measured against this double-edged sword anymore. If someone thinks I’m cheap for liking cheap gaanay, then it’s okay. Feminism 101 tells us you’re only ascribed these meanings; how cheap and how valuable you are thanks to the patriarchy. Despite how obvious this may be, that is not to say I don’t care about being thought of as cheap. A lot of the time I care very much, but cheap gaanay have played a vital role in my unlearning. Pleasure should be cheap and available to everyone. The reality is quite simply that nobody wants us to have any fun. Nobody wants us to imagine anything for our lives other than domestication because society is built on the backs of good women. If cheap women and their cheap gaanay really do contribute to the downfall of society then we should all be singing O Saki Saki as loudly as possible. We deserve to see the day when every single one of us can sing and dance on the streets. Until then, cheap gaanay will sustain us.