Late last year, an editor from ForbesLife India wrote to me, telling me they’d be doing special ‘100 years of Indian cinema’ editions this year. Would I be interested in contributing an article? That was a no-brainer (or so it seemed), but when I got over my initial excitement and began to think, I realised that:
(a) I know virtually nothing about Indian cinema in general. Hindi cinema, yes; other Indian cinema, almost negligible.
(b) It was too vast a canvas. What would I write?
Much thought later, I offered to write about something I know something about: Hindi film music. What follows is a version of the article that appeared in the April-June 2013 issue of ForbesLife India. Do buy yourself a copy to read the final article—and to read some more interesting writing on a century of Indian cinema.
This post came about because of my recent review of Rangeen Raatein. Another film-lover, an American, noticed that post and said that she thought it was time she began branching out into watching Hindi cinema too (she’d already seen a good bit of Satyajit Ray’s work). She thought she’d begin with Rangeen Raatein. I was quick to dissuade her, of course—even I, die-hard Shammi Kapoor fan that I am, probably couldn’t stomach a rewatch of that film.
But it made me think: if I had to introduce a newcomer to Hindi cinema (or, more specifically, pre-70s Hindi cinema, since that’s what I love most), which films would I recommend? They would have to be films that are available with English subtitles, of course.
So here it is: my list. I do not claim that these are the best Hindi films of that era; by no means. They just happen to be ten of my favourites. These are in no particular order.
This is another of my ‘prize posts’, dedicated to one of the people who participated in the Classic Bollywood Quiz I hosted on this blog last year. One of the quiz questions was a toughie that no-one was able to answer: Which was Sahir Ludhianvi’s first ghazal to be recorded in Hindi cinema? I did provide one clue: the operative word is ‘ghazal’.
This post therefore is dedicated to Ravi Kumar, the only person who guessed which song I was referring to, though since his guess came in the wake of his submission, it didn’t count. The song was Tadbeer se bigdi hui taqdeer bana le, from Baazi (1951) – a song which is, in my opinion, a good example of what a ghazal is and isn’t. No, it’s not defined by its music – so, it needn’t be slow and soulful; it can be fast-paced and peppy. What does define a ghazal are its lyrics: rather, its structure and its rhyme scheme.
Why not begin, I thought, where I left off in my last post? The last song I listed in my post on my ten favourite Waheeda Rehman songs was Jaane kya tune kahi, from Pyaasa. Interestingly, this was also the first song in the film. It’s a film I’ve seen a few times – always with increasing appreciation, as I begin to see more nuances, more things to admire about it. But do I really have anything new to say about Pyaasa that hasn’t been said before?
What made Bees Saal Baad such a good watch was its music, its fairly good suspense – and its lovely heroine.
Waheeda Rehman had it all: an immense amount of talent, a rare beauty, a grace and dignity that few possess – and she was a superb dancer. What’s more, as I discovered in a TV interview a couple of years back, she’s also very modest. “When I was a girl, my siblings would call me the ‘ugly duckling’”, she said. A flash of that trademark smile, and she added, “The camera was very kind to me.” As fellow blogger Sabrina Mathew remarked when I recounted that on her post, “I want that camera!”
Among the most popular posts on this blog are my top ten lists of songs. They’re also among my favourites; old Hindi film music is one big, big reason for my watching these films in the first place. Which is why I’ve ended up doing so many lists of songs—for music directors (S D Burman, O P Nayyar), singers (Rafi, Mukesh, Hemant, Manna Dey, Talat, Lata, Mahendra Kapoor), even for actors (Madhubala, Asha Parekh, Johnny Walker). But lyricists tend to get left out. A song wouldn’t exist without someone to write the words, would it? So, a post honouring one of my favourite lyricists: Sahir Ludhianvi, on his birth anniversary.
My major complaint against Hindi cinema has been that we’ve never given comedy the sort of status it’s received in the West. True, there has been the occasional classic comedy – Chalti ka Naam Gaadi, Dekh Kabira Roya, Dholak and Padosan, for example – but as a genre it seems to have been largely neglected. Which, in turn, has meant that comic actors have also often not been given due respect for their talents. Making people laugh is I think more difficult than making them cry: and Johnny Walker is one of the very few who’ve excelled at the art. Here, therefore, are some of his roles that I find the most memorable. All, of course, from films that I’ve seen.
Some months ago, Bawa—to whom I will always be indebted for inspiring me to watch and review films in languages other than English and Hindi—sent me an interesting article. It listed selected scenes that leading film critics pegged as cinema’s most memorable. Bawa’s suggestion: why not do a list like that for Bollywood?
It’s taken time and effort, but this is it: ten scenes from 50’s and 60’s Hindi cinema, which are for me the most memorable—for whatever reason. These are in no particular order, though the scenes that came immediately to my mind (so, I suppose, the most memorable for me) are grouped at the top.
Note: some of these have spoilers.
My maternal grandfather used to work in the Gramophone Company of India. Mummy grew up in a house full of LPs, and a lot of those—including dozens of albums from Hindi films of the 50’s and 60’s—ended up in our house. I grew up listening to music; but for a long time, I couldn’t tell one singer from another. The first singer whose voice I learnt to identify (I must have been about 11 or 12 at the time, I think) was Hemant.
Hemant Kumar Mukherjee was born on June 16, 1920, and went on to become one of Hindi cinema’s great music directors—and a singer with a very distinctive voice, rich and deep and sonorous.
So, as a birthday anniversary tribute: my ten favourite Hemant songs. These are all from the 50’s and 60’s, from films that I’ve seen, and in no particular order. Frankly, each song is a masterpiece in itself.
The other day, after a long gap of 16 years, I met someone who used to teach me in college. I never knew back then that he was a Mohammad Rafi aficionado; and now, chatting with him about Dusted Off, I got a request: do a Rafi post.
So, as a sort of gurudakshina, here it is: a Rafi post. And since I cannot even begin to think of trying to narrow down my favourite Rafi songs to just ten (or even a hundred), I’m taking the easy way out. Rafi, in ten moods. Ten songs that showcase the breathtaking versatility of this man and his voice. There will always be dozens of other Rafi songs out there that reflect the same emotions behind these songs, but these are my favourites. And, in keeping with the rules I always set for myself, they’re all from the 50’s and 60’s, from films I’ve seen.