It’s hard to shrug off the ideas you form as a child. When I first watched the classic Ek Chatur Naar sequence from Padosan, I remained convinced for a time that the words were “ek chatur anaar", and that Saira Banu was indeed a clever pomegranate. She was sharp and knowing in the song, she looked great (even if the heavy eye-liner threatened to breach the Fourth Wall during her close-ups), and watching her may have been as good for one’s health as drinking anaar juice each day.

Without overlooking the splendid performances of Mehmood, Sunil Dutt and Kishore Kumar in that scene, Banu is vital to its effect: swaying unselfconsciously to the music; elbowing her music teacher when he is in danger of losing the jugalbandi against their competitors; preening in semi-comical fashion when the lyrics describe her beauty. How refreshing it was to see a glamorous 1960s leading lady (as opposed to a sidekick-comedienne) participating wholeheartedly in such a scene with a group of bumbling men.

But then Banu was one of those performers who could be impish even in a more formulaic song situation, such as the one where lovers make up after a spat: Watch her perform the opening lines of Woh Hain Zara Khafa Khafa in Shagird. Though credible within the narrative context, she gives the impression that she knows how silly this whole premise is (why sing for 5 minutes to woo Joy Mukherjee, when an eyelash-flutter should be enough to get him cartwheeling back?).

If she seems in on the joke in Ek Chatur Naar, an example of an actress playing the part of the muse dead straight—so that it becomes unintentionally funny—is Mala Sinha, rapt in self-worship, in the fantasy interludes of Chaand Aahen Bharega (from Phool Bane Angaare). You have to sympathize with Sinha here. She is basically the statue to whom Pygmalion sings hosannas, and Pygmalion is Raaj Kumar! As if that weren’t enough of a test for any woman, she is also made a guinea pig in the gruesome laboratory of cinematic inventiveness. The lyric “aankhein naazuk si kaliyan" (“eyes like delicate flower-buds") comes with a terrifying visual—an extreme close-up of Sinha’s eyes with white flowers superimposed on the pupils, making her look like something out of a Kaneto Shindo horror film.

To give Sinha some credit, at least she does something in this scene. As a sage pointed out once, if you’re overacting, it means you know how to act. In too many other song sequences of this type, actresses simply glide around in chiffon saris, looking like they hope the director will yell “Cut!" very soon.

Heroines in old mainstream films were required to be beautiful, aloof and dignified all at once, and such expectations can become a prison—in much the same way that women in a conservative society are expected not to laugh openly at men’s jokes (“hasee toh phasee"), the heroine had to be careful not to express much emotion. Leave the comedy to the supporting staff (from Shubha Khote to Farida Jalal), and the open expression of desire to the vamps; content yourself with pursing your lips, twitching your nose, refusing to make eye contact with the hero, or going “Nahin, nahin, nahin".

Which is why I’m a big fan of the well-done song sequence where a charming actress gets to be (intentionally) funny. This sometimes happens when you don’t expect it. Look at Waheeda Rehman—a superb dramatic actress but no one’s idea of a great comedienne—perform Bhanwara Bada Nadaan Hai in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam, her sardonic expressions and exaggerated gestures perfectly in tune with Asha Bhosle’s rendition of the song. Shakeel Badayuni’s lyrics take a familiar metaphor—the hero as the bee buzzing around the flower-like heroine—but the roles are flipped, with the “flower" slyly singing about the “bee" being tongue-tied in her presence (Saamne aaye, nain milaaye, muh dekhe, kuch bole na). While Bhootnath (Guru Dutt) scurries about, watching Jaba (Rehman), she comments on him watching her—it’s a wonderfully executed reversal of the Gaze, and very apt in a film that is about the conflict between old and new ways of life. Jaba is the forward-looking character here, leading the reticent Bhootnath into the modern world.

The scene makes me wonder if this avatar of Rehman would have emerged more often if she had worked frequently with actors like Kishore Kumar or Shammi Kapoor. It sometimes took a madcap co-star to get an elegant actress into the swing of things—as you can see when you watch Nutan in Cat Maane Billi (from Dilli Ka Thug) or Madhubala in Paanch Rupaiya Baara Aana (Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi), where they performed alongside Kumar.

All the rules governing filmi boy-girl behaviour quickly fly of out the window in these songs. In both, it can seem like the women are playing second fiddle to Kumar; he is the one who defines the tone of the scene and does the craziest things (yowling “Cat maane MEEOW!", for instance, in a moment that could only have been improvised). Yet his craziness frees them to explore new dimensions too, and the results are among the most magical in our films: An ethereal beauty and a jester occupy the same frame, parrying and playing off each other until you’re no longer sure who is the clown and who the foil.

Above The Line is a column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. This is the fourth in a series on Hindi film song sequences.

He tweets at @jaiarjun

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