Dharmendra dances into danger
If you know the mainstream Hindi film of the early 1980s, this scene should be familiar. A villain’s ornate lair, stocked with henchmen, dancing girls, Vat 69 bottles and gaudy wall art. The good guys—including the second hero, the heroine and a long-suffering mother—trussed up together like chickens in a coop. Everyone dutifully waiting for the arrival of the rescuer, the main hero—and there he comes, right on cue, and he’s played by Dharmendra, which leads one to expect much dhishoom-dhishoom preceded by blistering dialogue-baazi.
However, the climactic sequence of the 1982 film Teesri Aankh has a surprise in store. Foregoing his usual “kuttay-kameenay” tirade, Dharmendra launches into song—and continues singing for the next 6 minutes as he takes the minions down one by one.
“Salaam, salaam, salaam, salaam, main aa gaya,” he begins, and the rest of the number is as polite and good-natured, even affectionate, as those lyrics would suggest—though it is punctuated by the sound of fists meeting noses and elbows pounding abdomens. Directed at the lair-meister—played by a very surprised-looking Amjad Khan—it includes respectful lines like “Mere laayak koi khidmat ho toh phir farmayeeay (Please let me know if I can be of service to you)”. And it is all in Mohammed Rafi’s gentle voice. Imagine Pete Seeger smacking the Ku Klux Klan about with his guitar while crooning If I Had A Hammer and you might start to get a sense of how otherworldly this scenario is.
But that still wouldn’t be enough. It wouldn’t prepare you for the game-show quality of this scene—how the hero must negotiate his way through antechambers in a multi-level art-deco nightmare, menaced by dangers: chubby men in their underwear, wielding spiky weapons; giant incendiary golden owl statues with red eyes; and most memorably, a bevy of lethal dancing girls led by Helen, their nails long and sharp as knives, sparks flying as they caress the walls (if Un Chien Andalou, the 1929 classic of the surrealist movement, was the result of Salvador Dali and Luis Bunuel throwing their dreams together to construct a film, this Helen vignette might easily have come from a collective dream of Russ Meyer and Quentin Tarantino).
For this series about Hindi-film song sequences, I had in mind the elegantly crafted work of auteurs like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt and Vijay Anand. In deference to my baser instincts, though, I begin with this scene from a not-very-good movie.
Calling Teesri Aankh formulaic would be kind: It pivots around such tropes as lost-and-found siblings and revenge as a dish served 20 years late, and it is usually content with being derivative. A scene where Amjad Khan, being led to jail in handcuffs, threatens the cop who caught him, is a straight reprise of the Gabbar-Thakur confrontation in Sholay, with none of the intensity of the original. This film’s “prose” sections are barely worth sitting through.
The glorious exception is the Salaam Salaam song, which represents everything that is brassy and unrestrained about the masala movie of the era, yet goes further than you would expect. Even with hyper-dramatic movies that mix emotional registers, there are (narrow) concessions to structure: It is understood that a song-and-dance sequence occupies a separate space from a fight scene. But here, both things come together, and the conception is so bold that you’re willing to overlook the tackier moments (such as the many insert shots of Khan in a neon-lit chamber looking worried and gloating in turn).
Watching it, I get the impression that everyone, from set decorators to actors, was having fun during the shoot. Many old-time Dharmendra fans rue the generic action films he made in the 1980s, but his energy here is infectious, and the scene provides a good showcase for his ability to mix goofy comedy with the demands of being an action hero.
The song itself is catchy and robust, without being anything close to a classic. And if you’re offended at the thought of the great Rafi’s voice having to share space with fight sounds, you might console yourself with the reminder that the singer was a fan of boxing and Muhammad Ali; he probably enjoyed this too.
Musical numbers in these tense climactic scenes are usually the preserve of the heroine, who tries to buy time by performing for the leering villain (while also catering to the audience’s predominantly male gaze). On the rare occasions where the heroes do this (think Yamma Yamma in Shaan), they are undercover.
But in Teesri Aankh, we have a male lead openly singing a sort of love song to the villain, even as he coaxes him out of his hiding place.
“Mere saahib, chhup gaye kyun, saamne aajayeeye,” he sings, and the “mere saahib” here feels like a close cousin to the “mere mehboob” of other songs.
And this makes an odd kind of sense. In popular literature, good guys and their nemeses share a mutual dependence—a Batman needs a Joker to define or complete him—and this has also been the case in the archetypes used by mainstream Hindi films. So why can’t a lavish song sequence—one of our cinema’s distinguishing features—be used to underline the bond between hero and villain? Why not let them waltz together for a while, until the ticking time-bomb—or in this case, the golden owl—explodes?
Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. This is the first in a series on Hindi film song