I discovered Hindi film songs as a teenager during the early 1980s when Channel 4 began screening a Bollywood season; a film a week around 2am on a Friday or a Saturday night. The timer mode on our VCR was so fiddly that I preferred to stay up just long enough to start the recording manually, knowing that the four-hour video tape would capture the entire thing. Whilst it was an economical way of creating a personal film library, it was actually the songs I was interested in. Clutching the remote, I’d impatiently fast forward large chunks of dialogue, looking out for moments of melodrama which were bound to be punctuated with a noteworthy song. If I liked the song, I’d rewind a few scenes for the context and often find myself getting sucked into the entire film. If it was a song I loved, I’d watch it over and over again like an MTV music video.
Capturing the songs on audio cassette took a few attempts. Having queued up the song on the VCR, I’d have to remind myself to simultaneously push down the record and play buttons on the portable cassette recorder before getting the song started, all the while holding the recorder mic as close as possible to the TV speaker to get the best possible sound. No matter my efforts, the transitions were never smooth and a few words of dialogue would inevitably seep into the recordings. Nevertheless, over the next few months, I managed to compile my very first Bollywood mixtape.
Although it was the first time I hummed popular songs that weren’t in English, I understood that like my mother tongue, these Hindi songs weren’t to be shared beyond our four walls. Wanting desperately to blend in, I was loathe to draw any more attention to our Pakistani ways. As it was, if my classmates weren’t snarling ‘garlic breath’ in the school canteen, then they’d be sniggering within my earshot about their favourite joke which was based on a TV ad for a popular mint with a hole in the centre: ‘What’s the difference between a Paki and a Polo?’ my fiendish classmates would smirk. ‘People like Polo!’ came the punchline. It was a similar story at home. When our neighbour hurled bricks at our sitting room window one Christmas, we huddled behind the sofa trying to make sense of his drunken chant: ‘Jesus Christ was born in a stable because all the Pakis have got the houses.’