Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?

Nov 21, 2018, 05:50 IST | Mayank Shekhar

Why did they really make the Freddie Mercury biopic Bohemian Rhapsody? So you can totally revisit the Queen discography

Scaramouche, will you do the Fandango?
Rami Malek, totally fired up as Freddie Mercury, is on his way to an Oscar nomination

Mayank ShekharThose born in the Internet age might find this hard to believe: Up until 15 years ago, India's Top 10 English songs, chiefly rock, and to some extent pop — at college campuses/fests/dorms, and the odd pub — give or take a few tracks, had remained exactly the same; dating all the way back to over a minimum couple of decades or so! This could be because our access to Western pop (or rock) culture had been rather limited. Or, like comfort food, we simply chose comfort music, passed on to us by previous generations, like some kind of oral tradition.

Either way, stepping into a smoky room full of late teenagers, or blokes in their early 20s, lazing under the purple haze, you were more likely to listen to Pink Floyd ('Wish You Were Here'), or Deep Purple ('Smoke On The Water'), from the frickin' '70s! You got into any regular bar any given evening, the sight of a white-collared work-horse — his tie loosened after a long day — sitting on tall stools with friends, crying himself hoarse over The Doors ('Roadhouse Blues'), or Bryan Adams's 'Summer Of 69', for the 69th time that same week, was an expected sight.

Was it the same with Queen, founded in London in 1970, arguably one of the most popular contemporary bands in India, in the late '90s, early 2000s? Especially their most ambitious, overlong song, the gibberish lyrics of which multiple generations had fully mugged up to impress, whenever the opportunity arose? Yes and, no. I'm of course referring to 'Bohemian Rhapsody'. But, as Bryan Singer's Freddie Mercury biopic, named after the track (playing at a theatre near you), mentions in the end credits: 16 years after Bohemian Rhapsody came out, the song catapulted to global Number One again, merely two weeks after Mercury's death, in November 1991.

In Singer's film, you watch how the song comes about, at a natural meadow where the band holes itself up to cut their path-breaking album, A Night At The Opera. The opera being the derived inspiration for a deeply experimental band that refuses to box itself into a set genre. In turn, they lose their lucrative contract with EMI, because the record label boss is unable to imagine how anybody, especially the young, would take to a track with cooked up words — 'Scaramouche… Fandango… Galileo Figaro Magnifico' — flying all over the place, along with the notes. Or how radio stations would play a song that's six minutes long, when three is the norm.

Here's the irony though. Can't speak for everyone, but the reason Bohemian Rhapsody remains my all-time favourite teenage song is because it featured — over full six minutes, without a break, blaring from a car stereo, with all the characters alternatively lip-syncing, head-banging to it — right in the middle of a cult, fanboy film I worshipped back then (and perhaps continue to, even now, with its poster right over my bed): Wayne's World, starring two dudes (Mike Myers, Dana Carvey), to die for.
So Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, to a lot of us growing up, was seemingly as contemporary as it was retro (the only music you can say that for still, is probably Michael Jackson's entire discography!) Does the film live up to the song though? For a lot of people: not really.

Which is to take away nothing from a radiant Rami Malek, totally fired up as Mercury, on his way to a Best Actor Oscar nom, for he ticks two of the three boxes for that category anyway — a British biopic (the third one, ideally produced by Harvey Weinstein, doesn't count anymore). The film — with fairly obvious ingredient for a rock-n-roll story — explores sex, and drugs. What it surprisingly shies away from is the crucial conflict centred on how Farrokh Balsara, of Parsee-Indian descent, who moved to England in his teens, with his deeply rooted parents, wholly shunned his origins and family in order to fit into a British society that dissed him initially for a brown 'Pakee' (local pejorative) anyway.

He saw his ancestry, even his own name, as unnecessary baggage on a flight to rockstardom adopting the moniker Mercury instead. That story is unique to Balsara. Or perhaps, in a less significant way, for some time, even shared among many rock 'n' roll desi bands of my childhood, from Delhi neighbourhoods, with esoteric/demonic/angelic names, wearing fake merchandise tees from Palika Bazaar, switching to indecipherable accents, playing '70s rock covers at college fests; because that's what they knew, and we loved.

Inevitably, the crowds at these desi concerts would go quiet. The drummer would slowly knock the drum-sticks against each other. And we'd collectively go crazy to: 'I Want To Break Free!' As you do when the lights go off in the theatre, Karaoke-like lyrics appear in bold on the screen, in Singer's Bohemian Rhapsody. You lean back and simply tap your feet to the Queen tracks that follow, one after the other: 'We Are The Champions', 'We Will Rock You', 'Under Pressure', 'Radio Ga Ga', 'Another One Bites The Dust'… What a fabulous way to relive some of India's all-time, top-100 English songs, ever!

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14 Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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