Composer Sawan Dutta had scored the music for two Bollywood movies. After meetings with movie executives, long nights in the studio, these two projects would be her most high-profile work yet. And then, disaster. One film lost distribution. The other lost its mega-star talent.
The scores? Left unheard, abandoned on a hard drive.
But Dutta turned her frustration into The Metronome Song Vlog, India’s longest-running song videoblog, or vlog. Now she’s a viral internet sensation.
Dutta lives in Mumbai, where she has composed music for television,including India's version of "Who wants to be a millionaire?", and stage shows. But before that, she grew up in Delhi and trained to be an architect. Her family comes from Bengal, the northeastern state that borders Bangladesh, and in her songs, she decided to channel this heritage.
Her first major hit was about an ointment called Boroline, the Indian cousin of Vaseline, which is weirdly popular in Bengal. It’s used for everything from acne to chapped heels.
For her video, Dutta, 47, played up the stereotype of an older, intellectual Bengali aunty who takes herself very seriously. She wore a traditional saree, glasses perched on her nose and an oversized red bindi on her forehead — and then exaggerated the accent on words like “complexion” and “skin.”
The “Ode to Boroline” video has racked up more than 135,000 views on YouTube since 2016. It’s also been downloaded and forwarded on messaging apps across the globe.
There was an instant outpouring of appreciation and nostalgia, including from the Bengali community.
“Nothing rivals the feeling of 'Wow, these guys are here for something I made,'” says Dutta.
Bengali Aunty, clearly, was here to stay, making short ditties about anything and everything. As Dutta sings in the trailer, it's about things she loves, hates and the things that make her hyperventilate.
Appreciation has come in varied forms from all over the world — from Austin to Toronto, Mumbai to Munich. There are comments and likes, of course, but also tribute videos. The most memorable one, Dutta recalls with a laugh, was “from a boys’ school in Kolkata — six 16-year-old boys, all dressed up as me. In saris and chashmas (glasses), carrying Boroline tubes. They had all these actions worked out. It was bizarre.”
Her next foray into Bengali Aunty's opinions took her to a recipe and a song called Machher Jhol, which literally translates to fish curry, a favorite comfort food for the community.
Dutta has done a bunch of recipe songs, which would definitely fall into the category of things she loves, but she’s also done some about things she hates, like being unwell or even demonetization, which happened when India’s currency bills were withdrawn from circulation in 2016.
Dutta’s vlog is now 2 years old and she’s constantly trying to challenge herself with different formats and locations.
“I have a very, very low boredom threshold,” she says. “I need to change things up often.”
This spring, when she was in Europe on vacation with her husband, she decided Bengali Aunty was coming along, too. It was a bit like having a dual personality. Even in restaurants, trains and tourist spots, Dutta found herself asking, “What would Bengali Aunty think?”
At the Paris airport, Dutta admired the chic French ladies, but realized Bengali Aunty wouldn’t see them the same way. When nobody was looking she pulled on her signature glasses, bindi and a balaklava, then filmed a little song.
Her husband was less than thrilled, she says, laughing.
“He was like, ‘Are you incapable of going to any place without turning it into a blog shoot?’ He’s a bit sick of it.”
But Dutta’s not sick of Bengali Aunty. Her big Bollywood movie scores may not have made her a household name, but her own musical character is already a star on tens of thousands of small screens across the world.
Bengali Aunty’s travel diaries are up on the Metronome YouTube and Instagram channels, showcasing the things she loves (Scotch!) and the things she hates (Haggis!).
But next on the horizon is a song about something that made her hyperventilate, she says.
While abroad, her bank account got hacked.
“The only thing I can do is make a song about the incident so at the moment I’m working on that,” she says.
So when life hands Sawan Dutta lemons, she turns the metronome on and invites Bengali Aunty in for tea.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story said the blog was 4 years old. It is 2.