Learn Indian Primary Narratives Through Film Songs!

I considered “myths”, but that’s not quite right.  There are a combination of Persian legends, Punjabi folk tales, and of course the Puranic stories of Ram and Sita, which are all important to know if you watch Hindi film because they influence the way the narratives play out.  Luckily, many of them are summarized and represented through simple songs!

I first thought of this when I was recommending Aaja Nachle, which has the most amazing summary of the Laila-Majnu legend.  Laila and Majnu are in love as children, are separated, find each other as adults, Laila is married off to someone else, Majnu goes insane and goes off into the desert (“Majnu” meaning crazy, he was called “Laila-Majnu” or “Laila crazy”), Laila eventually dies, and Majnu dies of sorrow.  So, this version changes the ending a bit, but it gives you the general idea of the story,


Speaking of simple village shows, there is also the story of Ram and Sita in Swades.  Sita receives Ram’s ring, which tells her that Ram is coming to rescue her from Raavan while she sits under the tree in Raavan’s courtyard.  Raavan tries to break her faith, but it cannot be broken.  And then Ram and his brother Lakshman arrive with their monkey allies to rescue her.


Lagaan has another village performance.  This time with Radha-Krishna.  Radha and Krishna were another pair of childhood sweethearts.  But Krishna was a flirt who loved all women, which frustrated Radha. (classic “hey baby, don’t be that way” line: “The other girls are just stars, you are the moon!”)


Mirzya-Sahiban !  One of the 7 popular folklore stories of Punjabi/Sindhi culture.  Mirzya and Sahiban were passionately lost in love, but then separated by their families.  Sahiban was to be married off to another man, but Mirzya rode into the wedding and carried her off.  Sahiban’s family gave chase.  Mirzya rested beneath a tree and, while he slept, Sahiban broke the arrows in his quiver, hoping to avoid bloodshed once her brothers reached them.  Mirzya woke as her brothers arrived, saw the broken arrows, and was shot, dying believing that Sahiban betrayed him.  Sahiban fell dead next to him of a broken heart.


Heer and Ranjha is a sad legend (okay, they are all sad legends, except for Ram and Sita and Krishna and Radha).  Ranjha works for Heer’s family, and the two of them fall in love.  Her family disapproves, Ranjha is sent away and Heer forced to marry.  Ranjha becomes an ascetic wandering the world and eventually finds Heer again at her new marital village.  Heer is unhappy, Ranjha brings her back to her parents, and her parents give their blessing for the marriage between Heer and Ranjha, finally.  But on the day of the wedding, Heer is given a poisoned sweet by her uncle who still disapproves of the match.  She is found too late, already dying, and Ranjha finishes the sweet after her so they die together.  And then Imtiaz Ali took this whole thing and turned it into Rockstar (Ranbir and Nargis are in love sort of, she is married off, he wanders the earth becoming an ascetic, finds her again, has the blessing of her family, but it doesn’t matter and she dies anyway.).


What makes Heer-Ranjha a bit different is that they are so passive.  Ranjha responds to his broken heart by wandering away and becoming an ascetic, there is no railing against fate or anything like that, he finds Heer again by accident even not on purpose.  And Heer as well, marrying the other man after being convinced by her family.  Even the manner of their death, passively eating poisoned sweets (ooo, now I really want sweets!).  While Mirzya-Sahiban is all active.  Mirzya taking Sahiban away from her wedding, Sahiban breaking the arrows.  And this brings me to my favorite legend song!  “Heer” from Jab Tak Hain Jaan, in which Katrina asks “Don’t call me Heer, I’ve become Sahiban, Mirzya take me away”.


And then of course there are the classic films which have created their own new legends.  Mughal-E-Azam, the royal prince and the dancing girl.  Sholay, Basanti who must dance on broken glass to save her tied up lover from death.  And Shree 420, the young innocents in love and huddled together under an umbrella.


Or the tomboy and her best friend playing basketball in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the naughty boy shooting marigolds in Hum Aapke Hain Koun, and the charmer leaning out to help the girl running for the train in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge.



Now I know I haven’t covered every legend or every possible song!  Or probably covered completely each individual legend.  Feel free to tell me what I am missing in the comments!

11 thoughts on “Learn Indian Primary Narratives Through Film Songs!

  1. This is very usefull for people like me. I tend to mistake one legend with another especially Laila-Majnu and Heer-Ranjha.
    And I always promise myself to learn more about Ramayana and Mahabharata but without result.


    • It’s always about childhood loves who are separated and die tragically! I keep waiting for some cheerful folk legend about grown up people who fall in love as adults and live happily ever after.

      On Thu, Mar 22, 2018 at 3:24 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  2. Useful for me as well.

    And I still haven’t started reading Mahabharat which has been sitting on my coffee table for a month or two…


    • It is very very long, it’s true. And now Aamir’s finally making his movie, so you can just wait and watch that instead!

      On Thu, Mar 22, 2018 at 7:14 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



  3. One of my favorites is this one about Radha-Krishna from the pov of Krishna’s wife

    Here’s a loose translation of this song from someone on the interweb.


    Subaha subaha ka khyaal aaj

    Early in the morning the thought arose

    Wapas gokul chal mathura raaj

    to go back to Gokul, in the king of Mathura’s mind

    Mathura nagarpati kaahe tum gokul jaaon?

    Oh lord of Mathura why are you going to Gokul?

    Manohar vesh chhod nand raaj

    Leaving this beautiful attire oh son of Nanda

    Sar se utaarke sundar taaj

    Removing the beautiful crown from your head

    Raj dand chhod bhumi par vaaj

    Giving up ruling this world

    Phir kaahe baansuri bajaao?

    Why are you playing the flute again?

    Mathura nagarpati kaahe tum gokul jaao

    Oh lord of Mathura why are you going to Gokul?

    Kaun sa anokha geet gaye pee kakool

    What unique song did the cuckoo sing

    Raj paat jaise aaj bhai dhool?

    That made you leave the throne like so much dirt?

    Kaun sa anokha geet gaaye pee kakool

    What unique song did the cuckoo sing

    Birhan laage phir hridaya akool

    That the pangs of separation are stirred anew?

    Raj kaaj man na lagaao

    The heart is no longer in kingly matters

    Mathura nagarpati kkahe tum Gokul jaao?

    Oh lord of Mathura why are you going to Gokul?

    Poor naari saari vyakul nayan

    Men and women watched with anxious eyes

    Kusum sajaa lage kantak shayan

    The flowers strewn on the bed felt like thorns

    Poor naari saari vyakul nayan

    Men and women watched with anxious eyes

    Raat bhar madhav jaagat bechain

    As Maadhav stayed awake the whole restless night

    Kaahe aadhi raat saarathi bulaayo?

    Why did he call the charioteer in the middle of the night?

    Mathura nagarpati?..

    Dheere dheere pahunchat jamuna ke teer

    Slowly he reached the shores of the Jamuna

    Sunsaan panghat mridul sameer

    Lonely banks, soft breeze

    Dheere dheere pahunchat jamuna ke teer

    Slowly he reached the shores of the Jamuna

    Khan khan madhav birha madeer

    Madhav felt the bittersweet pangs

    Use kaahe bhool na paao

    Why can’t you forget her?

    Mathura nagarpati?.

    Tumhari piriya ab puri gharvaali

    Your love is now a complete housewife

    Doodh navan ghivoo din bhar khaali Getting new milk and busy the whole day

    Biraha ke aansoon kab ke, ho kab ke ponch daali

    The tears of separation have long since been wiped away

    Phir kaahe dard jagaao? Then why awaken the pain again?

    Mathura nagarpati kaahe tum Gokul jaao?

    Oh lord of Mathura why are you going to Gokul?

    Also a small correction. Majnu doesn’t mean crazy as a word. Majnu sort of means possessed. Possessed by love or an otherworldly being I guess. Majnu is now synonymous with ‘guy crazed for love”.


    • Oh, that is a lovely song! And a new thought on Radha-Krishna, and the whole idea of the guy with the lost love, how does it feel for his wife when he loses himself in his memories?


        • In films in general, this is one of the things that really bothers me, there are so many heroes tragically separated from their One True Love and forced to marry someone else, but the focus is always on the agony of the husband, not the wife who is married to a man who she must be able to sense doesn’t really love her. And now I am mad at Amitabh in Kabhi Kabhi all over again.

          On Fri, Mar 23, 2018 at 9:24 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



          • Well that’s stupidindianculture for you. Everyone gets into arranged marriage and even if it’s a love marriage, you’re not supposed to be happy happy in it. That’s why shashi and Rakhi look sort of annoying in that film. Happy married couples are an anomaly and an annoyance. All our married people jokes are about how stuck people are with each other.


  4. Even Sita-Ram and Radha-Krishna do not have happy endings. Sita was sent off to exile as Ram’s state duties take priority over all. Radha was married off to a villager while Krishna left Mathura to fulfill his destiny never to come back. So no happy endings. You know Margaret that Indian women always pray for a husband like Shiva for that matter.


  5. Krishna and Rukmini did not really have a tragic love story.There is an old Thiruvathira dance song “Pankajakshan kadal varnan Vasudevan jagganathan” which is about the love between the couple.It is about Krishna challenging Rukmini to a chess game.She demurs, but the stakes convinces her.If she wins, he’ll forsake other women foreafter.But if he wins, her lips will belong to him.After staying up all night playing, the couple end it with a grand makeout session with her jasmine flowers flying hither and thither.Much better all around.


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