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Madhuri Dixit in her career-altering number ‘Ek do teen’ from N. Chandra’s ‘Tezaab’ (1988). Photo: Kamat Foto Flash
Madhuri Dixit in her career-altering number ‘Ek do teen’ from N. Chandra’s ‘Tezaab’ (1988). Photo: Kamat Foto Flash

100 years, 100 great movie memories | Part 9

To Hindi cinema, with love and exasperated fondness


Oh, by the way, she’s a star.

Kajol was the most casual of stars, all the more alluring because she didn’t care about her appearance. She dressed like she was in a 1980s production, but her naturalistic acting is straight out of a 1950s movie. The last of the old-fashioned actors has now undergone an image makeover, but she remains as idiosyncratic as ever. Read our essay.

Madhuri Dixit

The two-step formula to success.

Heaving bosom, swinging hips and sighs indicate Sushma’s longing for her love in Sailaab. She lies gasping and writhing under a fish net. She is sensuous bordering on risqué as she sings Humko aajkal hai intezaar, koi aaye leke pyaar. She is at once hopeful and shy; mysterious and accessible. Of course we understand her anguish—she is Madhuri Dixit.

Dixit, with immeasurable help from choreographer Saroj Khan, made reel magic time, and her dance sequences acquired a life of their own, quite separate from the movies. Growing up in the 1990s, there was an element of watching something forbidden in some of their partnerships. The “Dhak dhak" girl wooed her simpleton future husband by thrusting her breasts in 1992’s Beta. Of course there’s a technical term for that move in dance—it’s called isolations—but it falls so woefully short of describing the abandon with which Dixit threw herself into the performance.

Dixit’s dance was more than the sum of its parts. In Khel the same year, she rendered the Idli doo song in two ways—the cabaret version poking gentle fun at the genre, and the bhajan version also poking gentle fun, but at the gullibility of the other characters. It didn’t matter that the film about three con artistes was borrowed heavily from a successful Hollywood picture. Dixit made the moves her own.

Of course, Dixit had her misses. There was the aerobics-like dance routine in Tamma tamma loge in Thanedaar (1990)—a fast-tempo number choreographed with jazz hands (fingers splayed out), jumps and disastrous attempts at the hitch-kick and flat back. But for all that, the number went viral—in the limited way things went viral back then, before so many had access to high-speed broadband and YouTube videos, watching movies and film songs on that now extinct animal called a VCR and during parties with school friends.

Meena Kumari

A ‘bibi’ like no other.

Really, it is just that one shot in the song Na jao saiyan from Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam (1962). Meena Kumari slants a look up at Rehman, asking him to stay on, and, in the process, defines sexuality in black and white Hindi cinema forever. Some say her performance as a neglected wife starved of love and sexual attention is her best ever. When you see “Chhoti bahu", as she is known, alternate between hope and hopelessness, you cannot but feel her agony being transferred to you with every passing frame. Waheeda Rehman told Dinesh Raheja and Jitendra Kothari, authors of Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam: The Original Screenplay, that she was keen to play the role, but that both producer Guru Dutt and director Abrar Alvi refused. All we can say is that a major miscast was averted.

Bollywood jazz

Putting the swing into film music.

It started with love on a Sunday, but it didn’t take long for India to start loving Hindi film tunes inflected with jazz—the world’s first pop music—every day of the week. For two decades after C. Ramchandra wrote Sunday ke Sunday for Shehnai in 1947, almost every movie seemed to contain a tune or two revved up by jazz, featuring wailing clarinets, searing saxophones and hot trumpets. Traces of the African-American style are everywhere if you’re listening: jazz throbs insistently when the credits roll, in the incidental music that accompanies car-chase sequences or walks along Marine Drive, Mumbai, but especially in the cabaret songs, signifying boldness (and badness).

Jazz travelled a circuitous route to Bollywood. African-American musicians performing in Bombay’s luxury hotels in the 1930s filled a whole generation of Goan musicians with a passion for the melodies of New Orleans. After independence, many of these Goans found jobs in the Hindi film studios, assisting composers to score their tunes so that orchestras could play them, and as performers in the ensembles. The result was Mera naam chin chin choo, Eena meena deeka and a whole genre that’s now being recognized as Bollywood jazz.

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Irrfan Khan in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ (2012)

The actor who redefined ‘crossover’.

In 1988, fresh from training at the National School of Drama, Irrfan Khan got a small role in Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay!. His scenes did not make it to the final cut. Khan had to survive many such disappointments early in his career. Success came late to this actor—who can be a seriously instinctive actor as well as someone who excels in Hindi film style “dialogue-baazi" acting. But to call him a late bloomer is to miss the point about his mettle, chiselled over the years. When parallel cinema lost its champions and the term “crossover cinema" became a joke, Khan gave both these genres a new gravitas. After The Warrior in 2001 and Haasil in 2003, Khan did not look back until his big lead in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar in 2012. Like all great actors, it is difficult to pigeonhole Irrfan Khan. You never know what is coming next.

Mohammed Rafi

Ask the fans, they know best.

Aside from Kishore Kumar, Mohammed Rafi is probably the singer most remembered in our cities today. Just attend any of the musical shows organized on his death anniversary, 31 July, and watch dapper men—company secretaries and media planners by day—don their embroidered jackets and toodle Rimjhim ke tarane in humid auditoriums populated mainly by well-dressed, lively senior citizens. Often the celebrations take place in odd locations, such as the banquet hall of the Kerala legislative assembly in Thiruvananthapuram. Older men do their Shammi Kapoor moves on stage (usually under a rotating light) and belt out those super-hit romantic songs. Rafi’s voice and Shammi Kapoor’s histrionics together felled an entire generation of women. Catchwords like Yahoo and Uff Yuma provided that requisite shiver.

In Mohammed Rafi My Abba—A Memoir, Yasmin Khalid Rafi recalls how Kapoor would tell her father-in-law: “Rafi Bhai, I will act the way you are singing." When Rafi sang Dil ke jharoke mein tujko bithakar, it was Kapoor’s idea to sing the first verse of the song in one breath. The relationship, which began with Tumsa Nahi Dekha, with O.P. Nayyar as music director, went from chartbuster to chartbuster. Why just Kapoor? Rafi was the voice of every big star from Dilip Kumar to Dev Anand to, yes, even Rajesh Khanna.

Personally, we prefer the sad songs. Don’t laugh but Babul ki duayen still has the power to make us cry. And all that angst he channelled in Dosti (1964) will never be forgotten. From childhood, Rafi was always sure he wanted to be a singer. He came to Bombay in 1942 and lived on railway platforms, like all the strugglers before and after him. He finally got his first big break singing with Noorjehan in Jugnu. Who can forget the scorching Yahaan badla wafa ka where he was the voice of a very gloomy Dilip Kumar. Who can forget Mohammed Rafi.

Santosh Sivan

When camera became the script.

No Indian director-cinematographer other than Santosh Sivan has been praised with these words: “He scripted the movie with his camera." Sivan did, in 1999. The Terrorist, which was feted at film festivals around the world, is an unforgettably searing portrait of a young terrorist played by Ayesha Dharker. Sivan’s camera enters his character’s mind, revealing her inner workings of guilt, anger, sadness and fear without dialogues. Sivan has made many films thereafter. He told Lounge in an interview in 2008, prior to the release of his film Before the Rains, that the light in his home state Kerala is the light he knows best, and that his best works are done there. That is the Malayali boy speaking. He has shot around 50 films under various conditions and experimented with a variety of visual templates, which include a particularly pioneering collaboration with director Mani Ratnam (Iruvar, Dil Se, Raavan, among others). Sivan’s wizardry with the camera can create extremely glossy and poster-pretty effects, sometimes with shafts of artificial light enveloping characters, or hues of natural light captured in amazing detail.

SD Burman

The bardic voice.

Wahan kaun hai tera, musafir jayega kahan, Dam lele ghadi bhar, ye chhaiyaan, payega kahan"

This lilting, existential ode to the traveller from Vijay Anand’s Guide is in the voice of Sachin Dev Burman. Composed also by him, the raw and raspy sound adds to the song’s appeal. Burman voiced and composed many other haunting beauties such as O re majhi from Sujata and Mere saajan hai us paar from Bandini. He has composed all kinds of songs in Hindi cinema—from Sujata and Bandini to Tere Ghar Ke Samne, Jewel Thief, Guide, Aradhana and Mili. Burman’s idiom was distilled from the folk traditions of Bengal (especially the Bhatiali tradition, which is about depicting a mood which may have philosophical connotations) but made mainstream seamlessly.

The living room

Drawing inspiration from the hall.

If Hindi movies had their way, every single scene could have been shot in the living room aka drawing room aka the hall and we would not have missed any of the fun. Take Maine Pyar Kiya (1989), for instance—the girl’s father leaves her in the boy’s living room, the boy rides around on a bicycle while his beloved and his mother plan his wedding while shelling peas in the living room, the boy and girl declare their love in a dance sequence in the living room, the boy’s father throws out the girl and her father from his living room…. Whew!

Dancing (Mumtaz and Shammi Kapoor in Brahmachari, 1968), singing (Sadhana traipsing around her living room singing Kaun aaya ke nigahon mein, Waqt, 1965), fighting (Pran and Rishi Kapoor quarrelling, as well as Premnath and Pran’s epic battle in Bobby, 1973), plotting (Lalita Pawar in Sau Din Saas Ke, 1980), birthday celebrations (Shashikala on the piano while her friends sing Tum jiyo hazaaron saal, Sujata, 1959), weddings (Salman Khan and Kajol in Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, 1998), defying parents (Shashi Kapoor and Mumtaz in Le jayenge le jayenge, Chor Machaye Shor, 1974), and of course barbed complaints (Guru Dutt singing Jaane woh kaise log the, Pyaasa, 1957)—the living room has proved that no Hindi film can ever be complete without this one grand set. And while in the earlier days curved staircases, sometimes with two flights of steps, Renaissance statues, large sofas and Steinway grand pianos were a must, the living rooms in this decade of moviemaking seem to be shrinking, with pianos disappearing completely.



What Shailendra was doing to Hindi film lyrics in the 1950s and 1960s is something that’s all the rage now—infusing local words, thoughts and cultural elements from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh into folk-style songs. Who can forget the haunting Chadh gayo paapi bichhua (Madhumati, 1958), the peppy Chalat musaafir moh liya re pinjare wali muniya (Teesri Kasam, 1967) and heartbreaking Ab ke baras bhej bhaiya ko babul (Bandini, 1963), or the one song that almost always must be sung at any antakshari competition—Ramaiya vasta vaiya (Shree 420, 1955), which apparently was inspired by a folk song sung by building workers in Mumbai.

A vital part of the Raj Kapoor, Shankar-Jaikishan and Hasrat Jaipuri quartet, Shailendra almost did not end up in movies because he had refused to sell some of his early poems to Kapoor. It is hard to imagine Hindi cinema or, for that matter, even Kapoor without these iconic songs: Awara hoon (Awara, 1951) Sab kuch seekha humne (Anari, 1959), Mera joota hai Japani (Shree 420, 1955), Dost dost na raha (Sangam, 1964), Yeh raat bheegi bheegi (Chori Chori, 1956). As much as Shailendra wrote for Kapoor’s wronged-by-the-world, common-man characters, he is also the man behind songs that portray Raju and Rosie’s (Dev Anand and Waheeda Rehman) tormented love (Aaj phir jeene ki tamanna or Tere mere sapne ab ek rang hai, Guide, 1965) or Shekhar’s (Shammi Kapoor) crazed antics (Chahe koi mujhe junglee kahe or Aai aai ya sukoo sukoo, Junglee, 1961).

Also, perhaps no other lyricist has serenaded the moon as beautifully and as many times as Shailendra did: Khoya khoya chand (Kala Bazar, 1960); Ruk ja raat, thehar ja re chanda (Dil Ek Mandir, 1963) or Ae chand zara chhup ja (Latt Saheb, 1967). Wait in the wings, Varun Grover and Piyush Mishra (Anurag Kashyap’s lyricists for Gangs of Wasseypur), while Shailendra takes a bow here.

Sanjukta Sharma, Arun Janardhan, Kushal Gopalka (a Mumbai-based musicologist and musician), Seema Chowdhry, Chanpreet Khurana, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, Shefalee Vasudev and Rudraneil Sengupta contributed to this story.


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