Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece. I’m not a Coldplay fan. Nor am I an academic in cultural affairs. I’m an Indian fan of music, and art, and this piece is written with that perspective.
Yet another Western music video set in India, yet another controversy. Only, it really doesn’t need to be.
The primary charge leveled against the music video for the Coldplay/Beyoncé collaboration, Hymn For The Weekend, is that it is an instance of cultural appropriation, pointing particularly to the Bey-as-Bollywood-star and the ‘exotic India’ trope present through the video.
Or at least, that’s what the accusations amount to. In my opinion though, the entire situation has been blown way out of proportion, owing to the fact that this video fits into the theme of Coldplay’s new music and the song itself.
Let me first get out of the way the issue I personally have with this video: the terrible costume Beyoncé dons in her sections. This was honestly the only aspect of the video I saw as blatant cultural appropriation, given that what she’s wearing is far from any actual Indian attire, her hair’s blond and those hand gestures aren’t from any known dance form.
With that being said, I have to bring in my point of contention here: the video, as a whole, is the riot of colours it is so as to be in sync with the crux of Coldplay’s latest album, A Head Full Of Dreams. It is bright, vibrant, colourful, and definitely saccharine (that’s a whole another issue altogether). It is evident, then, that the visuals seek to complement this vibrancy.
Just take a look at the album art. It’s a brilliant spectrum of hues, alongside some trippy imagery. This reflects the music contained within the album, a lush soundscape with a joyously upbeat tone.
Is it really any wonder then, why the video for one of the most celebratory tracks off the album has been made the way it has? Let me try to break it down.
A few of the opening frames themselves were criticized for depicting “sadhus” in a video set in India. But this is a hymnal track, in tone and name. Does it not make sense for the video to depict persons evidently belonging to Hinduism, the dominant religion of the setting?
This juxtaposition of religious imagery with bright colours reappears in the opening shot of Chris Martin, reiterating the deliberate cinematography at play here.
This continues with the sections that show Holi celebrations on in full swing, paints and powders splashing on-screen in festive chaos. For a song that endorses unbridled joy, I’d say this visual is as good a parallel as it gets.
My point here is that the music video calls for a setting rich in vivid colours, spirituality, and celebrations that reconcile the two. And isn’t India a unique tableaux of these details? Certainly, the depicted scenes aren’t an all-encompassing view of India. But it isn’t trying to be. The intent in this video is to portray the aforementioned elements, and it is undeniable that these very much exist in abundance in India. Doesn’t the very premise of Holi involve people running in the streets, painting them in the brightest hues possible? Aren’t these elements an intrinsically Indian celebration of life?
The key aspect,then, that many ‘commentators’ seem to be missing is that the video acts plainly as a lens. In one instance, the kids dancing as the band plays are freestyling; there is no shoehorning in of any “Indian dance’. This is a bunch of people having fun, cutting across cultural lines. Coldplay aren’t the orchestrators of a grand, exotic play here; they are participants in aspects of Indian culture that they evidently admire.
Aside from a few obvious missteps, I strongly feel that Hymn For The Weekend is an appreciative glance at some of India’s many hues. An outsider’s glance, yes, but not one of an appropriator.
After all, atithi devo bhava, right?
PS: I’m actually very annoyed that this controversy has overshadowed the beauty of the video itself. It is a spectacular piece of cinematography. Can we at least enjoy that?