Nothing says epic romance like a timeless wonder of the ancient world!
The popular cinemas of India face a unique problem when it comes to the escapism that makes a significant component of their recipes. If your characters need to get away, to dream, where should they go when they already live in the culture so many other people consider the go-to for wondrously exotic?
For decades, a common answer to those questions has been Switzerland. It is used as a beautiful foreign locale for songs or sequences in Indian movies so often that there are organized tours of famous Bollywood filming locations. But when Indian cinema wants to get off the well-traveled path, it heads Egypt—sometimes literally, with love songs set amid the sand and ruins, and others just stylistically, borrowing architectural and other artistic vocabulary to decorate its discos.
Egypt represents many desirable traits to the creative filmmaker. India has deserts, but they aren’t punctuated by pyramids. Egypt offers human-made awe on a scale and in forms found nowhere else in the world.
Its legacy is both permanent and timeless. There really isn’t a better visual analogy for the endurance of love than the pyramids: rising out of the earth, reaching for the skies.
The cultures of Ancient Egypt are as old as India but more safely in the past and far away. Dabbling with their religion and heritage is unlikely to offend anyone who needs to be taken seriously. India’s own historic sites can be complicated to use in films for a variety of reasons. First, archaeology, genetic study, religion, and politics often clash over the origin of some of India’s ancient peoples: where they came from, what languages they spoke, how long they’ve been in land that is now India, and their significance to the development of Hinduism. The famous Indus Valley Civilization sites—which are contemporaries of many of Ancient Egypt’s most famous landmarks—are mostly in Pakistan, where Indian film crews are unwelcome. There is a 2016 Bollywood film called Mohenjo Daro set in a fantasy version of the Indus Valley in 2016 BCE. The makers seem to have had a lot of fun taking a few set decoration and costume cues from actual archaeology but going bananas with other elements. Unfortunately, they completely ignored the importance of a good story. In my opinion, they missed a great opportunity for some ancient noir. If this trailer intrigues you, the film is on Netflix. Second, there are violent political protests over even fictional stories from India’s own past. Right-wing Hindu political groups burned costumes and damaged sets of the film Padmavat (released in January 2018). They also threatened to cut off a leading actor’s nose for playing a character from a 500-year-old poem.
Modern Egypt is of little interest; I think I’ve only seen one Indian film set in contemporary Cairo. There is brief mention in Mishawr Rawhoshyo of Egypt’s recent revolutions, but the modern city serves mostly as home base for a detective researching a treasure.
The invitation to time travel also means we get to avoid nasty contemporary problems like wires, plastics, industrial pollution, and authenticity. It’s no problem to imagine, just for a song, that the past was uncluttered, healthy, and musically synchronized.
Songs set almost anywhere else in the world—the UK, Europe, North America, Australia, South Africa, Malaysia—often have confused-looking locals in the background, particularly in decades before globalization and internet increased knowledge of and access to Indian cinema outside India. But there are rarely onlookers or passers-by in songs filmed in Egypt. Maybe it’s just a factor of being in the desert or archaeological sites that can be closed off. There is a solitude in these locations, which is probably an important part of romantic fantasies. Characters long to be away from the eyes of anyone who can whisper or condemn, and so do audience members who live in huge cities or multi-generation families. To travel, even in the imagination, is to be free.
Ancient Egypt, whether on site or recreated, is exotic. There’s nothing new about that; it was exotic to the ancient Greeks too. Styles and symbols that no one else has used are a safe toolbox for creating whatever wonderland the makers need. Hieroglyphics were translated two centuries ago (unlike the Indus Valley script), but they still convey mystery, as do passageways lined with huge stone blocks or the shadows cast by giant columns.
The stylistic vocabulary of Ancient Egypt actually has some points in common with popular Indian cinema, but it’s different enough to be intriguing. There are snakes, polytheism, piles of gold jewelry, thick eyeliner, elaborate ancient stone structures, and deserts. The idea that snakes are divine and may take human form isn’t too visually different from gods with animal heads, is it? Liz Taylor’s Cleopatra snake hair ornament is exactly what Indian film snake ladies wear. And before you ask: the earliest Ancient Egyptian motifs I have found in an Indian film song is from a year before Cleopatra (1963) was released!
My theory is that this is why Ancient Egypt speaks to Indian filmmakers more than China, Greece, Rome, or other easily visually identifiable cultures of the past. (Rome and Greece do pop up from time to time, but they’re very rare, and most often they appear in songs that are using multiple ancient cultures for design. I can picture set designers thinking “Quarrelsome gods and buildings made of marble? Pffft. We’ve already got all that—times 10.”) The most quintessentially Egyptian characteristics (to a non-specialist) map directly to features popular Indian cinema has tended to love in its escapism: spectacle, luxury, and vastness.
Actually filming in Egypt is wonderful, but so is liberally borrowing elements for decorating a nightclub, stage performance, or villain lair. Some of the meanings travel with the motifs. Opulence, decadence, monumentality, and of course sparkle are all relevant to the glamour of movie songs.
Evil, anger, and egotism find a home in these sets too, probably as the flip side of the decadence more often implied by gold and fleets of backing dancers. There’s a certain power exuded by huge, ornate edifices.
Dreaming of a love that’s monumental, everlasting, sunny, and gold? Take your own tour of Ancient Egypt through Indian film songs! Click here for the playlist.