A viral dance trend on TikTok that’s caught on with everyone from “RushTok” pledges to Jimmy Fallon is based on an unexpected beat — the song “Kala Chashma,” which started in a small Punjab village and made its way to Bollywood.
The song, which was a part of the soundtrack for the 2016 Bollywood movie “Baar Baar Dekho,” also has an unexpected lyricist — Amrik Singh Shera, a Punjab police constable who was just 15 when he wrote the song in 1990. Originally written and performed in Punjabi, the song found its footing in Europe in 1991 and became popular after a Hindi version of the song was included in the Bollywood film’s soundtrack.
A few years ago, he received 11,000 rupees (approximately $133 USD) for the song. This summer it became a viral hit. He says he feels the recognition is payment enough.
“We didn’t have much while growing up in my village. I couldn’t even imagine that something like this could happen to me. I am so grateful for the recognition I’m receiving now,” Shera told NBC Asian America in a translated interview. “I’m seeing videos from all over the world where people are dancing to the song and it makes me so happy.”
The TikTok dance version goes something like this: One person in a group fakes everyone out by falling to the ground with back pain. As others, genuinely concerned, bend down to help, the “victim” starts twerking on the ground, gets up and goes wild dancing with the group and all is right again.
“Kala Chashma,” which means “black sunglasses” in Hindi, begins with the sound of an autotuned tumbi, a traditional Punjabi musical instrument used in a variety of Indian songs. It’s followed by a turntable scratch and several components of contemporary sound effects used in Western music and electric dance music before the autotuned lyrics begin.
Jayson Beaster-Jones, a professor of music in the Global Arts Studies Program at the University of California, Merced, said the autotune and instrumental for the song are accurate to the era. He said Bollywood musicians generally had training in Indian music but also Western styles, which influence the Bollywood songs of their respective eras.
“In the 1950s, you hear a lot of jazz, for example. In the 1960s, the most popular songs were often rock 'n' roll songs. In the 1970s and 80s, there’s disco,” he said. “These days, it’s much more inflected by electric dance music. And I think ‘Kala Chashma’ is actually a part of the lineage of the 2000s and onward, where certain kinds of electronic dance music actually formed the basis for a lot of what Bollywood is doing now.”
“These days, it’s much more inflected by electric dance music. And I think ‘Kala Chashma’ is actually a part of the lineage of the 2000s and onward where certain kinds of electronic dance music actually formed the basis for a lot of what Bollywood is doing now.”
— Jayson Beaster-Jones, University of California, Merced
The song describes a beautiful woman wearing black sunglasses and describes how everyone around her thinks she’s gorgeous and needs to stop to admire her, including the police officers patrolling the area.
The song further compliments the woman in sunglasses, admiring her beauty mark and fair skin. The singer continues to express how desirable she is to everyone around her.
The chorus begins with repeats of the lyrics “Tenu kala chashma,” which means “black sunglasses on you.” The chorus continues and repeats, “Tenu kala chashma jachda ae, Jachda ae gore mukhde te” which means “the black sunglasses look good on you, it suits your fair face.”
Katrina Kaif, a well-known light-skinned Bollywood actor who had a lead role in the film, is the subject of compliments in the music video.
Colorism in the South Asian community and white idealization in Bollywood have long been topics of conversation as the largest movie industry in the world continues to favor light-skinned actors, many of whom participate in skin-lightening campaigns. The desire for “fairness” is deeply rooted in the long history of casteism, which is still a significant part of South Asian culture.
Shera, 48, said as a teenager he couldn't imagine his song could make its way into a Bollywood movie and later in thousands of videos globally.
Shera was born and raised in Talwandi Chaudhrian, a village in Kapurthala district, one of the smallest districts in Punjab. He said everyone in the village wanted to be different and become famous. For Shera, his goal was to be a songwriter.
He said he found his inspiration for the song during a visit to meet a friend in the city of Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab.
“Chandigarh is such a big city and everyone is so different there compared to my village. I wanted to see what it was like,” he said.
The bus he took to Chandigarh was stopped in a roundabout, where Shera said he spotted a beautiful woman.
“She was wearing black sunglasses and jeans,” he said. “I knew if she was in our village, everyone would stop and admire her beauty.”
Beaster-Jones said Shera’s inspiration for “Kala Chashma” is common for Punjabi songs.
“Punjabi-inflected songs are often so much about the beautiful woman walking down the street, who’s both approachable and unapproachable at the same time,” he said.
Shera said he knew the song sounded like it could be a hit after writing it and enlisted the help of singer and friend, Amar Arshi, to find a potential artist for the song. When Arshi couldn’t find anyone, he proposed singing it himself during his own tour in England for his Punjabi album “Fullan Vangu Ang Mehkde.”
“I’m seeing videos from all over the world where people are dancing to the song and it makes me so happy.”
— Amrik Singh Shera, Lyricist of "Kala chashma"
The song became a hit in the U.K. and a heavily autotuned version of the song was included in Punjabi-English music producer Dr. Zeus’ 2008 album “Kangana” after Arshi met with Dr. Zeus.
After finishing high school a year after he wrote the song, Shera joined the Punjab police force to have a steady income while he continued to pursue his passion for songwriting.
Shera said he had received little recognition for his song over the years.
In an interview with BizAsia in 2019, Dr. Zeus said he apologized to Shera for not giving him credit for the music and blamed it on a misunderstanding between him and Arshi, who he initially believed was the lyricist.
Dr. Zeus did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
Shera said Punjab-based music label Angel Records Entertainment reached out to him in 2016 asking to buy the rights to the lyrics for 11,000 rupees to use for a commercial for a cement company. Shera said he had no idea the song was used in “Baar Baar Dekho” until a friend who saw the movie informed him.
Kamal Boparai, the owner of the record company, confirmed to NBC Asian America that Shera was paid that much but said he had no idea the song would be a global hit or that it would end up in the film and said he also thought it just be would be used in a commercial.
“If I had known this song would be a hit, I would’ve paid him more for it,” Boparai said. “You never know if a track will be a super hit or a super flop — it’s all luck.”
He said he sold the rights to the song to Dinesh Aulakh, the owner of Dinesh Production and Speed Records, who sold it to the movie’s production company. Aulakh confirmed the transaction.
Boparai said now that the song is so popular, everyone is saying they didn’t receive enough money. “I even think that I didn’t receive enough money but I’m not blaming anyone, that was my decision,” he said. “Everyone should just be grateful the song received international recognition.”
“Baar Baar Dekho,” starring famous actors Katrina Kaif and Sidharth Malhotra, flopped with underwhelming reviews from critics and audiences.
Dharma Productions and Excel Entertainment, the production companies behind the film, did not respond to NBC News’ request for comment.
Beaster-Jones said he’s not surprised by Shera’s situation and says it’s a common issue in the music industry in India.
“This has been the situation for musicians since the beginning of popular music, where you have a music director who overhears a song and often, simply doesn’t acknowledge the source of the song at all,” he said. “This has been a consistent complaint, not just of lyricists, who I think are treated the most poorly, but also of music directors and musicians.”
The trend exposed a new and diverse audience to the song, giving it a newfound global recognition.
The original TikTok, which was a small part of a dance routine performed by a dance troupe at a wedding in Norway, garnered over 4 million views on TikTok and over 66 million views on YouTube. The beginning of their dance to the song was the inspiration for the trend.
The trend has received praise and criticism from the South Asian diaspora, with some being grateful for the recognition of the song and participating in the viral trend and others expressing concern about the “othering” that may come from it.
“Us brown girls have gone through it in life. Always losing to the Sophies and the Beckys of the world. But the one thing we always had was ‘Kala Chashma,’” Zaria Parvez, an online content creator, said in a TikTok.
Many commenters agreed with Parvez, citing the lack of diversity in the trend and previous dismissal of Indian music in their personal lives.
“the thing that irks me is the comments under all the white creators where they go ‘best one yet!!’ but brown creators get no recognition,” one commenter said.
“No bcs when I first played this song for my white friend she said I didn’t have taste in music but she hopped on the trend recently,” another commenter posted.
Other South Asian users loved the trend and hopped on it themselves. Several commenters commended the South Asian creators for participating in the viral trend.
“Finally some desis here to set the record straight,” one commenter said.
Beaster-Jones said the TikToks he saw showed people from a wide variety of ethnicities and linguistic backgrounds participating in the trend. He said a trend like this has the opportunity to validate someone’s personal experiences in the same way bhangra music did in the U.K. during the 1990s.
He said he had students familiar with the scene voice concerns about whether the trend would provide mainstream recognition or continue to “other” South Asian culture but Beaster-Jones is weary about whether this trend will have any real impact on the users doing it.
“At the same time, it’s not really clear to me how much a meme actually sticks with someone other than being a time capsule in the same way as the sneezing panda or other things on social media,” Beaster-Jones said.
He said the trend and its virality are based on one particular recording from the original dance troupe and refer to that specific recording and dance rather than the song’s music video.
“This is one of the dangers that can happen with really any kind of meme that emerges where the context gets removed from it,” he said. “Suddenly, it’s something that just becomes ‘the other’ and then we move on to the next thing.”