Welcome to Fix It, our series examining projects we love — save for one tiny change we wish we could make.
I have been living in fear of the Eternals Bollywood number for more than a year and a half.
As soon as rumors began in March 2020 that Marvel’s next cosmic team-up would feature a Bollywood sequence with star Kumail Nanjiani, I freaked out. I’ve written at length about Hollywood’s attempts to recreate the musical magic of Indian cinema, often about how they fall short. I was cautiously optimistic after Never Have I Ever, if only because the bar had been raised. But other than that, I had every reason to panic. It’s not like anyone involved in Never Have I Ever was going to be working on Eternals. Plus, that was a 30-second performance at a function, not a number intended to be part of a full-scale movie musical! Eternals was raising the stakes literally and figuratively, with a massive built-in audience who would watch it all fall apart if things went south.
When the film finally hit theaters, I exhaled.
Eternals‘ Bollywood number looks almost like the real thing. It’s colorful and lavish, with respectable costumes, choreography, and dancing. The set is clearly knockoff Sanjay Leela Bhansali, and I’d expect nothing less. There’s a sanitized quality in that the costumes, jewelry, and movement have all been sanded down to whatever is recognizably and palatably Indian to unfamiliar audiences. I don’t love it, but I understand and can accept it.
But the song, “Nach Mera Hero,” is goofy as heck.
I first passed this assessment when Marvel released a teeny, tiny clip ahead of the film’s release. The dance is barely in it; the clip quickly switches gears to Kingo and his history with the Eternals. Yet 15 seconds was enough to soothe my fears that the dance would resurrect my old Smash nightmares. Not once did I consider that Eternals, a film with an impressively diverse cast, global audience, and explicitly South Asian (if extraterrestrial) Bollywood star character, would make this song in English.
Like every other misstep in the history of minority representation on film, this could have been avoided.
Like every other misstep in the history of minority representation on film, this could have been avoided. There are plenty of people out there who compose and write Bollywood songs professionally, but Marvel put the task on composer Ramin Djawadi, who created the rest of the film’s score. It’s simply unfair to give the job to someone who works with instrumental music and has limited experience with classical or contemporary Indian sounds. (To be fair, the song would sound a lot like today’s Bollywood if they just let Badshah and Neha Kakkar sing it). Instead, Australian-Indian Celina Sharma provides the vocals, but her ethnicity actually doesn’t matter since — again — this song is in English.
Perhaps the most consistent failing of fake-Bollywood in Western media is the lyrics. Either they are in English — which Bollywood songs rarely do except when there’s a trashy but addictive rap section and that English lady in Lagaan — or there are none at all, which mostly kills the emotive and narrative roots of this genre. The only time I’ve seen English lyrics work on Bollywood music is in the musical Bombay Dreams, and that’s because the cast acted the heck out of it and renowned Indian composer A.R. Rahman worked with Andrew Lloyd Webber on the songs.
Whenever I teach a Bollywood dance class, I tell my students that Bollywood is ultimately not about music or movement or costumes — or any of the visual signifiers on which Eternals focused. It’s about storytelling and expression. It’s about lip-syncing lyrics even when you don’t know what they mean because they animate your face in a way no tacked-on smile ever could. It’s about soul, which “Nach Mera Hero” very much lacks.
It just baffles me that language was where Eternals drew the line on too much authenticity. This is a particularly tough look since Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings proved that audiences will gladly watch a Marvel movie spoken 30 percent in Mandarin, let alone a three-minute Hindi song. Broadway’s Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman came on to create Hawkeye‘s “Rogers: The Musical,” but when it comes to something non-American there is no such effort.
If finding an Indian composer and Hindi speaker to sing is too hard (it’s not), perhaps consider the entire library of Bollywood music ever? I know music licensing is tough, that too from an international industry. But NBC figured it out. So did Netflix. So did indie house Bleecker Street with the newly-released India Sweets and Spices, which has no less than three majorly popular Bollywood songs on its soundtrack. Don’t tell me the House of Mouse doesn’t have the right connections to repurpose “Azeem-O-Shaan Shahenshah” for an immortal superhero.
I don’t mean to be that aunty on the internet judging everyone’s singing and dancing, but in a very real sense that is exactly who I am. I think Eternals has a lot to be proud of when it comes to representation and getting most things about this number right. So, in this case I am nitpicking out of love. We’re probably getting an Eternals sequel, and Kingo still has to pay those bills so… maybe second time’s the charm? I at least promise to have more faith this time.
The Eternals is now in theaters.