by Parth Pandya
The hero wins a bet and places a condition to the girl that she must confess her love to her with the words “I love you” in front of everyone, which, when one realizes is a spectrum of random onlookers to the hero’s parents to his nosey relatives, is a big deal. The heroine has a gargantuan task in front of her. Luckily for her, a brilliant idea from the movie’s director, Sooraj Barjatya, comes to her rescue. An Antakshari ensues. To the uninitiated, Antakshari is really an amalgamation of two words: anta (meaning end) and akshari (meaning letter). The game is fairly simple. A participant sings a song and the next in line has to sing a song that starts with the last letter with which the previous song ended. Back to our heroine in distress. An Antakshari ensues and like a truly competent family, everyone in the group belts out Hindi numbers, passing the baton so to speak from one person to the other. The songs range from ‘Hum to chale pardes’ to ‘Hothon pe aisi baat’. The clincher however is that the heroine ends the Antakshari with the song ‘Kaante nahin katate yeh din yeh raat’. Why was it a great choice? Well, it ends with the words, “I love you”. With a deft move, the heroine meets her challenge and everyone gets a happy moment to remember the movie by.
In retrospect, the brilliance is not the lead-up to the Antakshari or the heroine’s confession. It is the director’s nod to a very popular game that is embedded in the psyche of the average Indian. A game to pass the time. A game to relive that which comes to the tip of their tongues. Movies may be integral to the Indian landscape, but the music of the movies is even more so. It can be argued that the quality of the music in the early decades (40s-70s) exceeded that of the films that they were a part of. More people remember ‘Mahal’ for ‘Aayega aanewaala’ than the plot that drove it. Rafi’s rendition of ‘Chaudhvin ka chaand’ is the best part of the movie of the same name.
Antakshari as a game has been around for a while now. It consisted of singing folk songs and the like once upon a time. My anecdotal learning is that it was around the 1970s that Antakshari of Hindi film songs became popular. For as long as I can remember from my substantial years on this planet, every road trip, every college gathering, every dull moment in search of an inspiration found an outlet in this game. Form two teams (generally divided along the middle road of the vehicle being traveled in), sing the Antakshari kick off song (‘Baithe baithe kya kare …’) and off you go.
The first thirty minutes of the contest clears up the most common songs of the ground. Everything from ‘Na na karte pyaar’ to ‘Nanha munha rahi hoon’ to ‘Dum dum diga diga’ and ‘Lekar hum deewana dil’ get out of the way. It is as if everyone is wired to sing these songs up front. As if these are the most obvious conclusions one can draw to the puzzle of what to sing when a common letter like ‘Na’ or ‘Da’ is presented to them. The length of the game of Antakshari before someone struggles to come up with a song is directly proportional to the number of people in each team. The most beautiful part of the game is the fact that it encourages even non-singers to channel their inner Kishore Kumar or Lata Mangeshkar. It essentially takes the singing out of a competition that is all about songs. The most reluctant of people find the first three bars of a song and someone else will readily join him or her. An hour or so down the line, the repetition of “Na” might put someone in a spot. It could also be that some Hindi purist might start differentiating and insisting that the songs start with the right letter. I have never seen an Antakshari contest end in blows, but it does tend to get heated occasionally.
A striking part of this is that almost everyone universally gravitates towards old songs. And while I agree that the definition of old varies depending on who you ask, I’d wager that anything pre-1995 qualifies. ‘Ghum hai kisike pyaar mein’ comes to mind a lot quicker than ‘Ghumshuda, ghumshuda’. I have often wondered why that is the case. Why is it that even popular Rahman songs don’t strike me as easily as a Usha Khanna composition? Is it the fact that I grew up with these numbers, passed onto me like a family heirloom? Is it the fact that these compositions were inherently very simple and melodious, where the words mattered and did not dissuade? Or was it the case that the words simply got to the point? It was perhaps a mixture of all of them. Think about it. Take the case of the title track of “Rock On”. Now quickly try to remember how it starts. Do you remember the first word? If not, you aren’t going to sing it in an Antakshari. One of the thrills in Antakshari is to focus on what your opponent is singing and jump to the last word even while they are in the middle of the song. With limited time on offer, you are not likely to sing songs whose beginnings aren’t at the tip of your tongue.
Antakshari hit prime time on TV when the contest aired on Zee TV with the very knowledgeable Annu Kapoor enthusiastically hosting the show. Its form has evolved from the humble contest to a game with complicated rounds and variations. Its rounds span anything from identifying a song from its video with the sound off to singing only duets in a given round to singing as many songs as you can where the given word occurs in a mukhda (the initial lines of the song)
No matter what shape and form it takes, the simplicity of the game is never lost. Without any electronic device, without a pen or a paper and without a high degree of intellectual involvement, one can play Antakshari. It is the way a long lost song finds its way back into your heart once you hear it in an untrained voice singing it with enthusiasm. It is a game that gives you the impetus to go to the Internet and seek that long lost song again, for your heart now calls out to it.