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Bollywood Is Finally Showing The True Colors Of India's Holi Festival

Holi is much more than just throwing petals and colored powders. In addition to being a celebration of life, family and fertility, its songs and dances can also be a vehicle to warn against life’s dangers, or depict intimate moments where the saris are wet and the bodies can touch. And the Bollywood film industry too is progressively moving away from a sanitized depiction.

Photo of women throwing petals and colored powders as part of ​Holi celebrations in Vrindavan, India, on March 15

Holi celebrations in Vrindavan, India, on March 15

*Rachel Dwyer

My first Holi in India was not an enjoyable one.

Amritsar. 1990. I’d missed the train to Pakistan — seriously... — so I took a three-wheeler to the border at Wagah. Although the driver was somewhat anxious, the fare was too good for him to turn down.

Ignored by lurking terrorists (were there really any?), we did astonish several jawans soldiers crouched behind their sandbagged posts, but were soon hit, inevitably, by a carrier bag of cold water, the rest of the journey being bumpy, chilly and soggy.

Holi is often called the "festival of colours", but this is only one aspect of its core components.

A bonafide carnival at heart

It’s a spring festival celebration that varies across India, even going by different names.

Holi brings together different stories, the key one being of Vishnu protecting his devotee, Prahlad, by burning his murderous aunt, Holika, and, then taking the form of Narasimha, to kill Prahlad’s father, King Hiranyakashipu. But for many, the festival is dominated by the Braj celebrations of the love of Radha and Krishna.

The festival in Braj shows a true carnival in the inversion of the hierarchical order of society — caste, age, gender, social status — in a way which enforces the hierarchy as it is not chaos but a precise order of inversion.

The flinging of mud and dung feature alongside colored powders and water: All representing fertility and spring.

Holi allows some license for contact, wet saris, touching bodies ...

There is also a very aesthetically refined celebration, usually associated with Krishna, in art, poetry, songs and food, notably gujiyas. The more sanitized version is the form of Holi which normally makes it into films, where Holi features in song and dance sequences which are usually public events which extend beyond the family circle.

People throw water or use pichkaris, large syringe-like water pistols, to spray colored water, while also throwing and smearing each other with colored powder (this is based on the poetic trope that dark-skinned Krishna changes color with light-skinned Radha).

The songs allow some license for contact, wet saris, touching bodies and so on, which otherwise was restricted in films as it was in real life.

Songs and dances of celebration

The Holi songs serve many other functions in film. Sometimes the focus is the fun: So, in "Are ja re hat natkhat"(Navrang, 1959), Sandhya dances when an elephant also joins her to provide immense entertainment as the pichkaris spray away.

The whole village comes together to celebrate in "Holi aayi re Kanhayi" (Mother India, 1957), which, despite the lyrics’ reference to the story of Krishna in Braj is set between giant statues of Shiva and Nandi in what seems to be a temple complex. The villages dress in Gujarati costumes and dance in the round.

The song "Holi ke din dil khil jaate hain"in Sholay, 1975 shows the village celebrating, the dance led by Basanti (Hema Malini), just before armed robbers attack. While Veeru (Dharmendra) and Basanti dance, Jai (Amitabh) watches Radha (Jaya Bachchan) who keeps her distance from the celebrations as her widow status means she does not participate in Holi.

However, in "Aaj na chodenge" (Kati Patang, 1971), Madhu (Asha Parekh) is wearing widow’s white as she is pretending to be Poonam, and sings of her sorrow at Holi, but Kamal (Rajesh Khanna) sprays her with colour.

"Are ja re hat natkhat" — Navrang, 1959

Warning of life's dangers

A more recent depiction of Holi shows it not as a public festival which unites villagers as one family but as a private occasion in someone’s garden. In Baghban (2003), Amitabh Bachchan and Hema Malini join again as Raj and Pooja in "Hori khele Raghuveera", one of the few times that the family celebrates together in the film centered on duties and responsibilities.

The fun of Holi allows Raj (Shah Rukh Khan) to put a tika on Narayan Sharma (Amitabh) in Mohabbatein (2000), as the latter yields to the plea to allow students to celebrate Holi, while in "Balam pichkari’" (Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, 2013), Naina (Deepika) comes to life and impresses Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor).

The grimmest Holi in Hindi film is in Damini (1993) when Damini (Meenakshi Sheshadri) sees her brother-in-law and his friends gang-rape their maid.

The danger of Holi is also seen on the Holi sequences of Yash Chopra. These are private celebrations of Holi in gardens which present two different dangers. The first is "Ang se ang lagana" (Darr, 1993), where Rahul who is stalking Kiran (Juhi Chawla) gets into the family’s celebrations as part of a band. The first shot of the film is the dafli tambourine played by Vijay (Anupam Kher) as the couples celebrate, transferring color on to one another by hugging.

But it is Rahul’s dhol drum playing which intrudes into song dialogues between Kiran and her fiancé Sunil (Sunny Deol) that highlight his invasion of the family’s space and his insertion of himself between the couple as he manages to rub color onto Kiran.

"Ang se ang lagana" — Darr, 1993

A private affair

In Silsila (1981), Amit (Amitabh) and Chandni (Rekha) say that they didn’t marry the person they loved. When Amit begins to sing (in his own voice), he is so stoned on bhang that he sings to and dances with Chandni in ways that clearly show their love for each other. Their spouses look on with increasing dismay, then horror as his meaning becomes more obvious when he sings that the lover gets all the fun while the husband looks on.

Chandni’s awkwardness begins to fade as she too shows her love for Amit, laughing as he showers her with flowers, lies in her lap until they finally unite in an embrace under her dupatta shawl. The song is a turning point in the plot as all the characters are now aware of what we, the audience, already knew, namely that Amit and Chandni’s love did not stop when they married others.

Holi has become even more of a private affair in Padmaavat (2018), where the king and queen celebrate Holi alone in a world of beige and gold hyper-romance, as she smears color on his feet. Meanwhile, Khilji dips his face in saffron powder to join in the celebrations.

In Braj, the celebration of Holi lasts until Rang Panchami, a day for reconciliation and new beginnings. I wish everyone a happy and colorful Holi.

*Rachel Dwyer is professor emerita of Indian culture and cinema at SOAS, University of London.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Doubts About The Evil Of Putin's War? The Torture Chambers Of Melitopol Are A Chilling Reminder

Melitopol, Ukraine has been occupied by Russian forces since Feb. 2022, and the occupiers have set up prisons where residents are routinely tortured. Russian independent news site Vazhnyye Istorii/Important Stories spoke with people who have escaped these nightmarish prisons.

Close up of debris in Melitopol, Ukraine​, with a man standing in the background

Debris in Melitopol, Ukraine

Polina Uzhvak

In Ukraine's Zaporizhzhia region, the city of Melitopol has been under Russian occupation since the beginning of the full-scale invasion in 2022.

Stay up-to-date with the latest on the Russia-Ukraine war, with our exclusive international coverage.

The city has transformed into a hub of partisan resistance, while also becoming the largest prison in Europe. Russians have kidnapped and subjected hundreds of local residents to torture. These are the stories of some of the residents who have survived.

On Feb. 25, 2022, Russian military forces entered Melitopol, Ukraine. Initially, residents resisted the Russian invaders, demanding that they vacate their land. As one resident, Maxim Ivanov, a 29-year-old landscape designer from Melitopol, recalled, "The first week [the Russian military] reacted with restraint. They didn’t fight. When people asked: 'Why are you here? Get out of here!' they lowered their heads and looked away in shame. But then they began to bear their fangs, they brought in the special services, opened commandants’ offices and torture chambers. And then they started taking people away."

Russian occupation of Melitopol

Maxim and his girlfriend Tatyana Bekh were among the first to be kidnapped in early April 2022.

"We left the house,” he said. “I had a [Ukrainian] flag with me. An armored personnel carrier was driving nearby, I took out the flag, waved it and shouted: 'Get off our land.' They stopped and about 10 people surrounded me, threw the flag to the ground, and forced me to the ground. They said: 'Now we’ll take you to be re-educated.'"

When I said that I wouldn’t shout this crap, they started beating me with rubber batons.

They were held overnight at the local commandant's office, where other detainees were also held for pro-Ukrainian sentiments or violating curfew.

"[The Russian military] said: 'Did you shout 'Glory to Ukraine'? Now shout: 'Glory to Russia.'” Maxim recounted. “When I said that I wouldn’t shout this crap, they started beating me with rubber batons." Two days later, they were pressured to sign a document stating they supported Russian leadership and were eventually released.

In March, such abductions became widespread, prompting the launch of the Ukrainian hotline "Vikradeni Melitopoltsi" (Kidnapped Melitopol Residents). This hotline provided guidance to people reporting the abduction of their relatives, offering advice on what to do next and connecting them with psychologists for support.

Natalya, a call center employee, said that initially the Russians targeted individuals from local government bodies. As the occupation continued, school directors and teachers who resisted teaching according to Russian programs were also kidnapped. “They took away veterans who had fought in 2014,” she said, “And a lot of businessmen were kidnapped for ransom."

Since the start of the full-scale war, hotline workers have documented 311 abductions, with 107 people still in captivity, and 56 individuals whose whereabouts remain unknown. The Vikradeni Melitopoltsi hotline estimates that the actual number of abductees may be three to four times higher.

Torture chambers

Russian security forces, especially during the initial year of occupation, tried to compel residents of Melitopol to cooperate with the occupation authorities through kidnappings and abuse.

Sergei, a businessman in Melitopol who worked on equipment repair, refused to collaborate with Russia from the outset. He was persistently pressured to change his stance.

"I refused to work with Russia from the first day,” he said. “They told me that I could be useful to them, but I refused. I wanted to sit quietly until my release, but they didn’t let me."

In Sept. 2022, Sergei was abducted and taken to what had once been a school. According to him, Russian Guard personnel occupied the first and second floors, while torture chambers were set up in the basements, warehouses and gym.

"There was a room with chains inside,” he said. "Next to it there was a small gym in which they kept people. They sat on the floor in the corners with bags over their heads."

Sergei endured several hours of beatings, during which he was subjected to false claims propagated on Russian television. He resisted these claims, insisting that there were no Nazis in Melitopol, where he had lived his entire life. For each "incorrect" response, he faced further punishment and threats against his family's safety.

An individual identifying himself as an "FSB colonel" later arrived and issued an ultimatum: either Sergei accepted a job within the new administration or left the "liberated territories" within two days. To seal this arrangement, the "FSB colonel" demanded $6,000. Sergei complied and handed over the money, and within days, he and his family left the city.

Photo of Melitopol's police HQ, where Maxim Ivanov says he was tortured for two months.

Melitopol's police HQ, where Maxim Ivanov says he was tortured for two months.

Melitopol City


On the morning of Aug. 22, landscape designer Maxim Ivanov and Tatyana Bekh ventured out into the streets to distribute leaflets in support of Ukraine's Independence Day (Aug. 24). Their efforts were cut short when they were apprehended by what Maxim described as a "squad of so-called policemen."

The police found the leaflets and other incriminating messages on Maxim's phone, leading to their second detention at the police department on Chernyshevsky Street. Tatyana believed that someone from the local community had reported them, stating, "There are people who will turn you in. If they call the Russian police and report you, they can earn money."

Occupation authorities in some areas launched Telegram bots, encouraging people to report information about "saboteurs." Those whose reports resulted in detainment were promised a reward of 500,000 rubles ($5,000).

Maxim admitted to sharing coordinates of Russian equipment movements via a Ukrainian chatbot on Telegram. He understood the risks but felt compelled to resist the Russian occupiers in some way. He recounted his ordeal, explaining that during his initial interrogation, he was beaten at the police station and ended up with multiple broken ribs. The following day, he endured further severe beatings.

He described one particularly gruesome incident: "A bag over my head, they took me out. They threw me down and started beating me with metal poles and wooden sticks. I felt it all in my ribs, in my back. Then they put a metal bucket on my head and started hitting it hard with something. I began to lose consciousness.”

The beatings persisted over several days, with Maxim and fellow detainees eventually being allowed to shower, which came as a welcome relief.

Kidnappings are common in Melitopol

Another resident, Alexey, who had been living in a village near Melitopol, was also captured.

He faced extreme physical violence and threats, including an attempt to break his finger with pliers.

"I had been driving home, and the Russian military stopped me. They asked my name, I answered, and they immediately pulled me out of the car and laid me on the ground."

By this point in Nov. 2022, abductions had become so commonplace that Alexey was not entirely surprised. He believed that a fellow villager may have tipped off the authorities about his pro-Ukrainian sentiments, though he had not openly expressed them. Following his arrest, he was taken to an apartment where a search was already underway. Despite not being a Ukrainian partisan, they accused him of having ties to the underground resistance.

During his 36 days in captivity, Alexey endured three interrogations. He was asked the same questions over and over about other pro-Ukrainians, weapon locations, and his Telegram messages. He faced extreme physical violence and threats, including an attempt to break his finger with pliers.

He managed to secure his release after his friends and relatives, who lived outside the occupied territory, drew attention to his disappearance. Negotiations led to his eventual release, albeit at a high financial cost.

Electric shocks

In their quest to apprehend spies and partisans, the Russian military resorted to abducting individuals who had no connection to the resistance movement.

One such individual was 23-year-old Leonid Popov, who had initially come to Melitopol from the Poltava region to celebrate the New Year in 2022 with his father. As the occupation unfolded, Leonid began documenting his observations in a diary, sharing some of the grim details with his mother, Anna.

His entries chronicled the constant gunfire, people's descent into madness and the looting of grocery stores. He even witnessed a man shot dead on the streets. Despite Anna's persistent pleas for him to evacuate, Leonid insisted on staying, believing he was needed in the city. He used the money his mother sent him to aid needy Melitopol residents and refugees from Mariupol.

They tied me to the wall, laughed at me, threw knives, and tortured me with electric shock,

In May 2022, Leonid was abducted for the first time. He was forced into a vehicle and taken to the commandant's office, where he endured a horrific ordeal of interrogation and torture over three days.

"Drunk men working for Kadyrov tied me to the wall, laughed at me, threw knives, and tortured me with electric shock," he said.

Photo of a street in Melitopol

In Melitopol, Zaporizhzhia Oblast

Wikimedia Commons


In another incident, Leonid's younger brother, Yaroslav, was among several Melitopol residents who fell victim to mass kidnappings when mobile communications became unavailable in the city in May 2022.

Yaroslav and others were detained for venturing out after curfew, and they were all crowded into a cramped cell. They shared the cell with a man whose incessant screaming provoked threats from the military. The man ultimately died from the abuse.

He had gone without food for days and was given minimal water.

Following his initial kidnapping and torture, Leonid chose to remain in Melitopol for an entire year. Only in April 2023 did he agree to leave the city with volunteers, but two days before his planned departure, he disappeared once more.

Leonid's father reported his disappearance to the police, where he was reassured that his son was likely undergoing a two-week check. However, weeks turned into months, and Leonid was not released. Despite promises from civilian and military police representatives to locate him, Anna only learned of her son's fate from one of his cellmates.

In June, an individual contacted Leonid's father, revealing that Leonid was being held in the commandant's office basement alongside the caller's son. Leonid was in a dire condition, severely malnourished, and suffering from harsh treatment. He had gone without food for days and was given minimal water. Anna was deeply concerned for her son, as he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 17, and stress could have a severe toll on his mental health.

Leonid's health deteriorated significantly during his captivity. Three months after his abduction, he was brought to the gastroenterology department weighing just 40 kilograms.


After Maxim and Tatyana endured electric torture, Tatyana was released, but Maxim continued to be subjected to beatings for another month. Maxim's condition deteriorated to a critical state. "I couldn’t walk anymore,” he said. “I was literally crawling on all fours and was leaving streaks of blood everywhere I went."

In late Oct. 2022, Maxim was deported to Ukrainian-controlled territory. When he reached the Ukrainian checkpoint and saw the Ukrainian flag, he felt an overwhelming sense of relief..

Both Tatyana and Maxim now reside in Zaporizhzhia. Tatyana found employment at a factory, while Maxim, still grappling with the physical and psychological aftermath of torture, is unable to work. He experiences excruciating pain from his ribs and toes, which have not yet fully healed.

Alexey, who was released a month after his brothers paid a ransom on his behalf, described his emotions upon regaining his freedom. “I was overwhelmed,” he said. At the same time, he felt “disgusted by friends who had collaborated with the occupation authorities. I no longer wish to see them.”

Anna Makhno, Leonid's mother, remains in the dark about her son's whereabouts. Five months have passed since his abduction, but she still has not received any news.

These harrowing accounts underscore the grim reality faced by individuals caught in the conflict in Melitopol, where torture and abuse are key tools for Russian occupiers to assert their authority.
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