In 1972, when the 11th and final mission of NASA’s Apollo program was taking place and Americans were exploring the moon, one of the most iconic romantic musicals was released in India. “Pakeezah” (“The Pure One”) has some of the most celebrated love songs of Hindi cinema. One song, “Chalo Dildar Chalo, Chand Ke Paar Chalo” (“Let’s Go Beloved, to the Other Side of the Moon”), penned by the Urdu poet Kaif Bhopali, sees lovers embarking on a romantic journey beyond the moon. The veteran Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta made this connection, in jest, as he concluded the episode of his YouTube show on the success of India’s moon mission, Chandrayaan-3, last week.
He is not the only one. Ever since the news arrived that India had landed on the moon — only the fourth country to join this elite space club, and the first to land on its south pole — Indians have been euphoric. One of the ways they’ve been celebrating is by revisiting pop culture dedicated to the moon.
Over the decades, there have been plenty of songs, cinematic moments, poems and prose works that celebrate the moon. It represents long-distance love and serves as a confidant in moments of pure solitude and separation, while at other times the beloved is compared to the moon. When Sayantan Ghosh, the executive editor of Simon & Schuster India, tweeted, “Many congratulations to science, but poets have been soft landing on the moon every night for centuries,” many shared it on social media. Even I found myself returning to many of these songs and made a playlist to mark the moment.
In South Asia, one of the most popular terms of endearment is “chanda” (moon). A core childhood memory of mine is of my mother singing this lullaby to me: “Chanda Hai Tu, Mera Suraj Hai Tu” (“You Are My Moon, and My Sun”), which originally featured in a 1960s film. One of the most popular children’s songs is dedicated to “chanda mama,” or moon uncle. It was even invoked by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the congratulatory speech he delivered from South Africa last week. He said, “In India, we all refer to Earth as mother and the moon as ‘mama’ (mother’s brother). There was a time when we used to say ‘chanda mama dur ke’ (moon uncle is far away), but now that day is not far off when the children will say ‘chanda mama tour ke’ (the moon is just a tour away).”
In Hindi film music — which draws its roots from Urdu poetry — the moon has always been a symbol and muse for romance. Sometimes used as a metaphor for the beloved’s beauty, at other times it is used as a simile, in which the beloved is likened to the moon themselves. The imagery is used to celebrate beauty and express joy, and also while yearning for a reunion with the beloved. In being lovestruck, one is also moonstruck. In the 1960 film “Chaudhvin Ka Chand” (“Moon of the 14th Day”), as the heroine lies on the floor covered in moonlight, the besotted hero croons: “Chaudhvin ka chand ho, ya aftab ho, jo bhi ho tum khuda ki kasam, lajawab ho” (“Are you the full moon, or the sun? Whatever you are, I swear to God, you are beyond compare”).
In the 1964 film “Kashmir Ki Kali” (“The Bud of Kashmir”), the hero compliments the heroine’s beauty with “Yeh Chand Sa Roshan Chehra” (“A Face Brighter Than the Moon”). In another classic from the same era, the lover yearns for her beloved with “Chand Phir Nikla Magar Tum Na Aaye” (“The Moon Has Risen Once Again but You Have Still Not Come”). The reunion with the lover, too, is equated with the rise of the moon in Hindi music, and the moon also tells the lover it has not seen anyone more beautiful than his beloved. Sometimes, the lover becomes the moon and the beloved is the moonlight, or “chandni.” The moon has been romanticized in all forms, be it the half-moon, full moon or “badli ka chaand” (the moon hidden in clouds).
“Chand par daagh,” or scars on the moon, are another classic trope invoked time and again to convey that the moon may have faults, but you, my beloved, are flawless. The moon is also a symbol of the poet’s promise to the beloved. Lovers in Indian pop culture have often promised to pluck out the moon and stars. In fact, this imagery was twisted in a recent Bollywood song: The hero instead asks them to wait, saying he’ll pluck them once he’s done making love.
In another scenario, reaching up to the night sky conveys the height of one’s dreams. When the superstar Shah Rukh Khan congratulated the scientists and engineers at the Indian Space Research Organization, he recalled one of his popular songs from the ’90s, about reaching for the moon and stars and being famous all over the world.
The moon is also tied to religious festivals in South Asia. Eid, of course, is dependent on the sighting of the moon. The proverb “Eid ka chand hona” (“being the moon on Eid”) is a close equivalent of “once in a blue moon.” Several Eid songs in Bollywood are also centered around it. Meanwhile, on Karva Chauth — a Hindu festival celebrated in parts of north India, and popularized by Bollywood — wives fast for the long lives of their husbands and eat once the moon is sighted. In recent times, many have criticized the festival for being patriarchal, but in Indian pop culture, it has been used by lovers to express their love for each other, oftentimes in secrecy. In another popular song from the ’90s — “Chand Chupa Badal Mein” (“The Moon is Hidden in the Clouds”) — the female protagonist, who has been married against her will, imagines celebrating this festival with her lover, only to be woken up to her reality.
Apart from the songs, which are plentiful, Indians have also turned to the handful of films and web series made about India’s space missions. The Indian web series “Rocket Boys,” which was released just last year, is, of course, at the top of this short list. Based on the lives of Homi J. Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai, who established India’s nuclear and space programs, respectively (Chandrayaan’s Vikram lander is named after Sarabhai), it recreates the early years of India’s nation-building. A scene doing the rounds on social media has Sarabhai, played by newcomer Ishwak Singh, asking what India’s future should look like. One young man replies landing on the moon, the other says Mars.
While India landed on the moon just recently, the ISRO launched its orbiter around Mars in 2014, becoming the fourth space agency to do so after Roscosmos, NASA and the European Space Agency. The 2019 Indian film “Mission Mangal,” starring the popular actors Vidya Balan and Akshay Kumar, was loosely based on the lives of the scientists who worked on the project. The 2022 film “Rocketry: The Nambi Effect” — a passion project of the actor R. Madhavan — was a biopic of the ISRO scientist Nambi Narayanan, who was accused in an espionage case in the ’90s, though later exonerated.
Stills from Khan’s 2004 film “Swades” (“Homeland”) were also shared on social media. The film is about a NASA scientist, who, while visiting his long-lost nanny in her village, experiences the struggles and reality of rural India and decides to move back to work for the betterment of his country.
This love for one’s country hit a high point in India last week. Over the past few days, Indians have literally been over the moon.
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