Sunday, January 17, 2010

Filmi Girl Talks to... Hard Kaur!

Since Hard Kaur just came up on my stereo and I hadn't transferred this interview over yet - she remains my number one crush in Bollywood! So, if you've got a Google alert for your name, HK, you better take me out when I get to Mumbai in February!

While I was certainly thrilled to have the chance to see Sonu Nigam and Sunidhi Chauhan perform in person, the only one of the three of the Explosion 2009 tour that I was really interested in meeting was the one and only Hard Kaur. Not only did she rank number one in my Top 10 Songs of 2008 podcast with “Main Talli Ho Gayi” but her offbeat public persona and seemingly overnight success in Bollywood had left me very, very curious. There had to be more to this woman than the gorgeous Mala Sinha cheekbones and a couple of very catchy tunes about drinking.

The local promoter of the Explosion 2009 tour had set up a welcoming dinner for the artists on the day before the concert. For me, it was one of those events where the gulf between what I feel comfortable and competent in dealing with as Bollywood culture and NRI culture appears extremely vast and forbidding. I am perfectly comfortable being the only white person in a room when the context is Bollywood, as it was during the Explosion 2009 concert itself, but when the context is desi, I feel out of place. (And just for the record, I’m not trying to steal anyone’s culture or boyfriend or husband and I have no intentions of becoming a bahu at any point in the future – I just like the music, yaar!)

I like to think that Hard Kaur recognized a kindred spirit and outsider when she agreed to speak with me but it could be that she just wanted a break from the aunties and uncles asking about her family and having her pose with their children. Either way, I was thrilled when she pulled me outside to talk with her while she snuck a quick cigarette outside the building.

I had written up a lengthy list of questions but, as it turned out, I only needed to ask one: Why did you decide to try playback singing after rap? “I just wanted to start a new revolution in India - there is a lot of hip hop heads out there but it’s like they don’t believe [in you] until you can break anything in India – and what do you sing in India? Bollywood,” says Hard Kaur. “You kind of put the flavor of hip hop in there – start drip feeding them slowly so people who used to go [in a hilarious auntie-ji accent] ‘What is this rap music? I don’t understand.’ Now they sing it. So if I kind of do ‘singing’ versions, [Bollywood is still] too far off from Dr. Dre and Busta Rhymes but it’s a slow way of kind of teaching the country.”

That is Hard Kaur in a nutshell, her mission is nothing less than to bring the gospel of hip hop to the Indian people. And lest we forget, she is quick to point out that all it took was one person to bring disco to Bollywood: Bappi Lahiri. Who is to say that Hard Kaur can’t do the same for hip hop? (Not me, certainly, I think girlfriend has already made a good start.)

And Hard Kaur wants to make it very clear that her rapping is not a novelty act. “I didn’t think ‘Oh, right, you’re a rapper - just go like this [she makes the trademark HK sign] and you’re a rapper.’ No, I mastered my skills; I practiced my writing. Before 1991 I didn’t know how to speak English - at all. By 1993 I started speaking English and by 1994 I started running with the black girls at school. I discovered reggae, hip hop, jungle music…” Hard Kaur gets more animated and I can sense the music junkie waiting to burst forth. “You know the first video I watched? Lords of the Underground “Chief Rocka”. And I thought, ‘Look at this music! You can say what you want - you can wear what you want - do what you want… And I was kind of sick of this ‘you’re a girl, you’re a girl’ thing. So I shaved my head. And if I look like a boy, you won’t fancy me but you’ll [listen to] my work. But… I noticed that when you show up with cleavage and little skirts and sing about alcohol, you get more success.”

I have to admit that my heart skipped a beat or two when she said that because she had just summarized the past 15 years of my life. (Yes, I shaved my head, too, back in the day.) I can’t help but empathize with Hard Kaur’s mixed feelings about success. Success does have a bitter component, even when you have accepted the terms. “See when I’m talking about real shit, nobody wants to know. But when I’m wearing mini-skirts and talking about ‘Glassy’ - everybody wants to know.”

If you’ll allow me a slight digression, to put my reactions into a bit more context, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Audio Engineering from a prestigious music school. I was one of the only women in the department. I also played the bass guitar in bands until just a few years ago. And I can speak from very personal experience that it is difficult to get men to take women seriously as musicians or artists in the music industry. You have to get tough and you have to be able to play on their terms.

So, picture me nodding in agreement when Hard Kaur talks about being a woman in the music business. “Someone like me people say, ‘Oh…you’ve done it better than boys da da da…’ I will still tell you, you’re still always going to be number two against a man,” says Hard Kaur, looking me directly in the eye. “I used to go to a gig, do a show, everyone else got paid – ‘why didn’t you pay me my money?’ And it’s because I’m a girl. ‘Yeah yeah yeah we’ll sort it out tomorrow.’ So, I started taking BIG black guys with me – my friends or my brothers. And before the show starts ‘Oh, do you want your money?’ ‘No, no, no… I’ll have it after.’ She grins. “I’m kind of gangster in that way. I’m not murdering anyone, I’m just doing music.”

Not only does Hard Kaur insist on being treated fairly, she also demands respect. “My mom said to me ‘Don’t ever do anything [immoral].’ The casting couch is a big thing in India. So I’m not going to fuck my way up - I’m going to work hard. If you like me take me but otherwise forget it because we can eat. I can work in fucking McDonalds and still earn food – the point is to do it the right way, which is why it’s taken me so long.”

The thing with working your way up is that it builds character and self-reliance and all those other things mummy and daddy can’t purchase for you at the mall but it does take time. What has been surprising to Hard Kaur, however, is not that she has found success but that her playing field was so empty. “I’m the first Indian female rap artist – so, until now, I thought there would be at least billions coming out. There ain’t. At least we’ve got M.I.A. but she’s not really a rapper, she’s alternative. But, it’s hard, man.” And in a quieter voice, she repeats, “It’s really hard.”

You can’t keep Hard Kaur down for too long and she perks back up with this. “And I will say – personally, because you’re a white girl - I’ve got the biggest balls for an Indian female!”

And the move to Mumbai, which she describes as a mixture of New York and London, from the UK has been good for her, her balls, and her career. “I didn’t struggle in India, I struggled in fucking England – ‘Oh, you’re a Paki, go away’ or ‘Indian girls should just be at home and make babies.’ The difficulty was in UK; I didn’t have difficulties in Bollywood. In India if you dance and you’re a little kid they go ‘Let’s send you to Boogie Woogie [Indian dance TV show and producer of my favorite dance clip of all time where Junior Amitabh and Junior Shashi go right from Deewar to Shaan]; let’s send you to dance competitions.’ In England, if you dance,” and she launches into her auntie voice, “‘Tsk tsk tsk. Why do you want to be dancing? Don’t you want to be a doctor?’ That’s the difference. So, in India, they’re way more [relaxed] than people are here; because I feel that people here still got restrictions.”

I can’t speak to her critique of NRI culture but the idea that Bollywood is the place to go if you enjoy dancing and singing is a powerful one for me. She continues, “Going to India was so easy because they knew me and the women were so proud – ‘Look at what our girl’s doing.’ The only struggle was to stay me – I’m not going to become all Gucci bag type, you know what I mean? Like me if you like [my music] and if you don’t, fuck off. That’s how it was. It worked. People liked the fact that I said like me if you like me or fuck off. They said, ‘Right here’s somebody who’s a real chick.’”

And inevitably, when you are me and talking to somebody involved in Bollywood, the interviewer becomes the interviewee. “Why are you so into Bollywood? I’m doing your interview, white girl who knows ‘Glassy.’” And as I explain about how a friend of mine gave me a cassette tape of the soundtrack to Maine Pyaar Kiya all those long years ago, it becomes clear that “Dil Deewana” was this gori’s “Chief Rocka” and watching the movies helped me through some very tough times in the last few years.

Hard Kaur understands. “[Bollywood movies] make you a happy girl; they make you feel like there is another world… but it doesn’t really happen.” Alas, it does not, or I surely would have already be working by day for a gang run by Danny Denzongpa and dancing away like Helen at night. “I like to think that I live in Masala Pradesh,” I explain. “I’m glad you’re more into Bollywood than the Asian Bhangra scene,” she replies. Me, too, Hard Kaur!

For all its faults, Bollywood is still a place where talent will have out and a female rapper can work her way to the top, making film songs, and slowly but surely doing God’s work bringing the gospel of rap to the people. I tried to get her to come out and see the DC scene but she didn’t have time this trip. Next time you’re in town, HK, just give me a call and I’ll take you out to “Cake and Kisses” for some freestyling, DC style!


Rum said...

Lol love the shout out to the Masala Pradesh! I really admire Hard Kaur, because she's risen above the racism og England and she still turned out brilliant! She's definitely an artist who holds her head up high and makes some wicked music too!

Filmi Girl said...

I love Hard Kaur, too! She's risen above sexism, too, I think. :)

Note from Filmi Girl:

I love Bollywood - and all the ridiculous things that happen in Bollywood - but it doesn't mean that I can't occasionally make fun of various celebrities and films.

If you don't like my sense of humor, please just move on by - Trolls are not appreciated and nasty comments will be deleted.

xoxo Filmi Girl
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