By Vivek Nityananda
If you think insects belong only in monster movies such as The Deadly Mantis (1957) or fascinating documentaries like Life in the Undergrowth (2005) – you haven’t been paying attention. In fact, you’re almost definitely Bollywood fail! Never mind Barjatya’s pigeons and pomeranians, insects are Bollywood’s true Agents of Ishq. All we need to do is recall a childhood lived intravenously on Rangoli and Chitrahaar to find all the right clues.
Let’s begin with the best kind of love – doomed love. The love that makes Heer Ranjha, Romeo and Juliet and QSQT so enduring. And the best kind of doomed lover is of course, the parwana whirling around the shama – the moth burning itself on the love it cannot resist. Yes, English might use the phrase ‘like a moth to the flame’ but that barely scrapes the surface. Bollywood lyrics use layers of emotion from Persian poetry and Urdu ghazals to create a resonant millefeuille of meaning. The flame can be caring and concerned about the moth as Rajesh Khanna sings in “Pyaar Diwana Hota Hai” in Kati Patang (1971):
Or it can be scornfully mocking as Mumtaz sings in “Gore Rang Pe Na” in Roti (1974):
But what the moth is always telling us about is the crazed stupidity of a love that cannot change its course. Happy love stories might be the majority in Bollywood romances, but the sad ones will never go away. They’ll keep popping back like the moths in our cupboards – I’m looking at you, Ishaqzaade (2012), Goliyon Ki Ras Leela (2013) and Raanjhana (2013).
Moths are such losers na? But I’m sure you can already guess who the hero is amongst the insects of Bollywood. Of course, that’s the bumblebee romancing the flower. Every attribute gets to be rhapsodised about. The hum of the bee is the beating of the heart in the socialite parties of Kal Aaj Aur Kal (1971):
It’s the heartbeat again on the echoing stairs of the Qutub Minar in Tere Ghar Ke Saamne (1963):
The free flight of the bee inspires Urmila Matondkar and Sanjay Dutt on crazy bike trips in flashy clothing in “O Bhavre” from Daud (1997):
The darkness of the bee finds its way into “Bumbro” in Mission Kashmir (2000), which always made me think there was a quiet comparison with Krishna. Bumbro also has an all-singing, all-dancing bee (presumably Hrithik Roshan in his black kurta) bringing gifts to the flowers – so there’s some recognition of pollination there. Except that the gifts are kajal and garden flowers:
“Sunn Bhavara” in OK Jaanu (2017) ups the gift list and the bee here comes on a flying vehicle, bringing the bright morning and a palanquin of love. Pollination in the movies is a tall order – love makes impossible demands of us all.
One thing unites all these bees though – they’re all male. Yes, never mind that it’s the female bees that call the shots in the natural world or that the majority of bees out foraging or working in the nest are female. In Bollywood, it’s all about the female flowers or buds and the male bees. So in Chand Aur Suraj (1965), Tanuja sings “Baag Main Kali Khili” about the bud blossoming in the garden but waiting for a bee to arrive – and sure enough the song ends with the entrance of Dharmendra, when he was still charming in black and white.
In Aradhana (1969), Sharmila Tagore and Rajesh Khanna are just using the lyrics of “Gun Guna Rahe Hai Bhaware” to advance their flirtations, but the song still has the bees humming and smiling while the flowers and buds are shy and retiring girls:
Even in “Bhawara Bada Naadaan Hai” from Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam (1962) where the bee is an innocent and naïve guest of the flowers, it’s still male:
There’s a fun bee connection to the next insect on parade. It begins with “Dheere Se Jaana Bagiyan Mein”, an SD Burman song from the 40s imploring the bee to go quietly into the garden and not disturb his love.
Later in the classic 1958 movie Chalti Ka Naam Gadi, Kishore Kumar reprises the song briefly in the middle of the deliciously manic “Paanch Rupaiya Baarah Aana”:
But Kishore Kumar reserves the full tribute for another song he sings for Dev Anand in Chhupa Rustam (1973). Here’s a scene that must surely rank as one of the most improbable sequences in all cinema – a love song with added bedbugs. I always thought “Dheere Se Jaana Khatiyan Mein” was a nudge-nudge wink-wink song dripping with double entendre – until I saw the video. It isn’t. This song is literally about bedbugs and a valiant couple’s struggle to rid themselves of them, reaching peak romance as Hema Malini gets to sleep on her (separate) bed newly sprayed with pesticide – if that isn’t true love, what is? The insect here is the common enemy, uniting the lovers against adversity. In other movies it’s just the parents.
Insects can totally be your rivals in love though. Shahrukh knows this in Devadas (2002) and catches the fly buzzing around Paro/Aishwarya with a killer dialogue – “Koi aur tujhe chooye mujhe acchccha nahi lagta” – he just doesn’t like anyone else touching her.
He’s right to be suspicious of insects too, as we know from the best insect movie of all time – Makkhi (2012). Strictly speaking, of course, that’s not a Bollywood movie. It’s a dubbed version of the Telugu movie Eega, but there’s no way I’m going to leave it out. Makkhi shows us how a fly is the most formidable adversary in love, especially if it’s a reincarnation of someone you just killed. That fly will cause road accidents, sauna mishaps, electric short circuits and will write the words “I will kill you” on your windscreen, eventually going on to do just that. Science also confirms that some species of flies are master predators and experts at flight control and prey interception – so we ignore the message of Makkhi at our own peril. The moral being don’t mess with an insect in love – well, unless you’re Shahrukh.
But wait, if moths, bees and flies are all always about the male, does Bollywood ever feature any female insects at all? Two insects at least are beacons for women in the movies – the first is the butterfly. For both Vyjayanthimala singing “Titli Udi, Ud Jo Chali” in Suraj (1966) and Deepika Padukone in Chennai Express (2013) singing “Titli”, the butterfly is a symbol of freedom, a dream of flying far and finding love elsewhere.
No doubt the lyricists were well familiar with the epic migrations of Monarch butterflies. Let’s not forget the guest appearance of the actual insects in “Shokiyon Mein Ghola Jaaye” from Prem Pujari (1970). Here’s a whole song where the hero carries a jaunty butterfly net seemingly full of dead butterflies. Then later in the song, when the couple lean in for a kiss, the customary cut away shot features first fire, then gushing white water. So far, an easy exercise in semiotics. Then all the butterflies (now alive) escape from the net and the couple run after them. At this point I’m no longer sure what butterflies symbolise – perhaps their lost virginity?
A common misperception, one I was guilty of as well until corrected, introduces us to the other female insect in Bollywood. The word ‘jugni’ is often thought to refer to the female firefly but the word really comes from a long tradition of Punjabi folk songs about a feminine spirit. If, however, we adopt our mistake as is commonplace now, the firefly takes on a host of meanings. It can be a stand-in for freedom like the titli – breaking cages in “Jugni” from Queen (2014) but it can go beyond – symbolising a spiritual side to the spirit of life.
It’s also an observer, a storyteller, a love that’s mocking you and always out of reach. If you’ve seen the stunning spectacle of synchronous flashing of fireflies in the forest, you can perhaps see the parallels here. This theme is developed further. So in different songs, “Superchor” and “Jugni” in Oye Lucky Lucky Oye (2008) and “Jugni” in Tanu Weds Manu (2011), the firefly’s in an AC car, speaking English, laughing, dancing western dance, and flying to foreign countries without tickets – but she can’t be caught and she won’t let you either live or die if you become her lover. The female firefly is all you desire but she’s perhaps not that into you.
There you have it – a rich variety of loves and lovers all featuring insects. Whether as metaphors, symbols or living breathing characters, how much poorer Bollywood would be without them. So, remember the next time you need some help with your love life, your advice could come from a source that’s really very close to you – in your garden, hovering above your tea cup or on the pillow on your bed.
Vivek spends most of his time figuring out how insects see and think. He also writes, illustrates, has reviewed films and made a short animation film. He once missed a phone call requesting him to audition for a Bollywood movie.