Book Review: Akshay Manwani’s Music Masti Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain

If there’s one film maker whose films tend to feature fairly prominently on this blog, it’s Nasir Husain. Of all the films he wrote and/or directed in the 50s and 60s, only two—Paying Guest and Anarkali, both of which he wrote—haven’t been reviewed on Dusted Off (though I have watched both, Paying Guest on several occasions). Rarely is a song list posted that doesn’t have at least one song from a Nasir Husain film. And when it comes to posts like this, where would I be without Nasir Husain?

But, all said and done, and while I may poke fun at the formulas and tropes Mr Husain was so good at dishing up (as delectable concoctions, too), one thing I acknowledge: he knew how to make cinema entertaining. Whether it was pure eye candy you were looking for, or the most fabulous music, or pretty locales and total paisa vasool plots, Nasir Husain was the film maker you could safely turn to. Like Bimal Roy or Hrishikesh Mukherjee, this is one director whose films I’ll happily watch simply because he’s the one directing them.

Which is why this book (ISBN: 978-93-5264-096-6; Harper Collins Publishers India, 2016; Rs 599, 402 pages) caught my imagination from the very beginning. No, not when I bought a copy, but when Akshay Manwani first approached me, saying he was going to write about Nasir Husain’s cinema and if I’d be willing to answer some questions. From that very first discussion till now, I’ve been looking forward to reading this book.

Akshay Manwani's 'Music Masti Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain'

Music Masti Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain is aptly named. This is emphatically (and Akshay makes a special point of mentioning it at the beginning of the book) not about Nasir Husain’s private life, even though—to introduce Husain and to provide the background to his work—Akshay does explain briefly the family Husain grew up in and how he came to Bombay. There is a delightfully romantic little anecdote about how Husain met his wife, Margaret Francina Lewis (who changed her name to Ayesha after she married him), an assistant choreographer at Filmistan with whom S Mukherji used to get Husain to help compose shots before the stars arrived on the sets. There are a few reminiscences from people like Mansoor Khan, Asha Parekh, Aamir Khan, Rishi Kapoor and others, which shed light on what sort of person—fanatically fond of music, with a great sense of humour, always youthful—Nasir Husain was.

Nasir Husain

Other than that, though, this book is about Nasir Husain’s cinema. Like Jai Arjun Singh in his book on Hrishikesh Mukherjee (which, in some ways, this book reminded me of), Akshay Manwani focuses not so much on individual films, but on the tropes, the broad themes, the motifs that bind his subject’s films together. The romances, the lost-and-found trope, the comic side plot, the gorgeous countryside, the prolonged courtships: everything.

Each of these is examined, with examples, references, and possible sources of inspiration (was Husain, as I have often wondered, inspired by PG Wodehouse? It seems likely, since he liked Wodehouse’s stories so much). Reasons for recurring motifs and themes are suggested—for instance, why does Husain set most of his films outside cities, in the countryside, even though, unlike contemporaries like Bimal Roy, he does not really include the ‘locals’ in the scene? Why do his characters, even when they’re in the country, still remain steadfastly urban?

Asha Parekh and Dev Anand in Jab Pyaar Kisise Hota Hai

What struck me the most about this book, even when Akshay was still in the research stage of it, was that he was noticing so many things I hadn’t even paid attention to before. I have been watching Nasir Husain’s films since the early 80s—his were perhaps among the very first films I watched on TV, back in the good old days of Doordarshan. Some films, like Tumsa Nahin Dekha, Dil Deke Dekho, Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon and Teesri Manzil, I have watched so many times on so many formats, that I know every scene, can sing every song, and pretty much know what’s going to happen next.

... and Joy Mukherjee and Tabassum in Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon

Despite that, I had never really noticed that some themes (besides the more obvious lost-and-found, the crook-posing-as-heir, etc), are repeated so often. The fact that there are so many journeys, and that the journeys are accompanied by songs that help further the romance. That letters play an important part in the stories. Or that most heroes and heroines have only one parent present. Or that Nasir Husain gave the hero (in Dil Deke Dekho to start with, and later in Teesri Manzil, plus his 70s films) a profession hitherto overlooked in Hindi cinema for leads: that of a Western-style musician, the man with the guitar, the drums, the sax (as opposed to the man with the sitar, already well-loved).

Dil deke dekho, from Dil deke dekho

And Akshay doesn’t leave it at that. For each element, for each theme, he goes deep into its history in cinema (on occasion, even non-Indian cinema); why and how Husain may have adopted this element, how he worked and reworked it in different ways, how he constantly modernized a theme to make it relevant to the era (and, considering Husain had a career—if not as a director, at least as a writer—of 45 years, that is saying a lot). For everything from the music in Husain’s films to the language he uses in dialogues; from the camera angles to the lighting, to the names of characters (I hadn’t realized just how frequently Nasir Husain saddled a character with the name ‘Subodh Mukerji’): Akshay covers them all.

There are some little-known anecdotes and behind-the-scenes glimpses from Husain’s films, and there are plenty of photos, including one from an ambitious multi-starrer named Zabardast that Husain shelved after falling out with Dilip Kumar, who was to have starred in it. There’s a comprehensive filmography at the end. There is an analysis, too, of the decline of Nasir Husain: the films, starting with Zamaane ko Dikhaana Hai, which flopped miserably and were instrumental in making Husain perhaps lose faith in himself, too. And there are the films that exemplified ‘clean’ cinema at the fag end of the 80s (a decade whose cinema was marked by crudity and violence): Qayamat se Qayamat Tak and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar.

I had appreciated Akshay’s earlier book, the biography of Sahir Ludhianvi, for the obvious enthusiasm and the equally obvious depth of research that had gone into it. This book, I personally think, raises Akshay’s own standard. It is as enthusiastic, as well-researched, but even better written than the Sahir book. Highly recommended if you have ever watched and liked Husain’s films. Or even if you haven’t—this just might tempt you into giving his cinema a try. And if (like me) you will rewatch, for the umpteenth time, a Nasir Husain film you’ve seen before, you might just see it with a completely fresh perspective and pay attention to details you may never have noticed before.

Daiyya yeh main kahaan aa phansi, from Caravan

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33 thoughts on “Book Review: Akshay Manwani’s Music Masti Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain

  1. Huh, I didn’t know Nasir Husain wrote “Anarkali” and “Paying Guest”. Though that certainly explains the delightful, flirtatious banter between the leads in the latter film. And with that opening line of your review, Madhu, you’ve sold me on the book. Much as I love old Hindi films and music, I generally stay away from books about them since they so often seem to be poorly-written and poorly-researched. Your favorable review of Jai Arjun Singh’s book on Hrishikesh Mukherjee prompted me to break with my own rule and acquire that book and now I think I shall do the same with this one.
    Thank you for adding to my reading stack. :-D

    • I hadn’t known about Husain having written Anarkali either, but I’d guessed about Paying Guest, because several years back, I’d noticed that Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon has a dialogue (the one from which I’ve provided a screenshot, above) between Joy Mukerji and Tabassum, which is an exact copy of a dialogue between Dev Anand and Shubha Khote in Paying Guest.

      “I generally stay away from books about them since they so often seem to be poorly-written and poorly-researched.” I agree so wholeheartedly! The very memory of Raju Bharatan’s book on Asha Bhonsle gives me the shivers. This one, though, is definitely worth reading. Well researched, well thought out, and just generally very readable. I enjoyed it a lot.

    • Thank you, Anu. Glad you liked the review! And yes, this was a very interesting read. I had been looking forward to it for a long time, and was glad to finally get it. I even bought a copy for my father, who’s also enjoyed it thoroughly. :-)

  2. “Whether it was pure eye candy you were looking for, or the most fabulous music, or pretty locales and total paisa vasool plots, Nasir Husain was the film maker you could safely turn to.”

    Agree wholeheartedly Madhu. Some producer-directors always focused on what people want to see, without overdoing it, and I think he was one of them. I think his son, Mansoor Khan also showed similar traits from the few movies I have seen directed by him.

    From your review it looks very clear that this book is backed by deep research. Excellent review as always!

    • Thank you, Ashish! I’m glad you liked the review.

      I agree with what you say about Nasir Husain managing to entertain without overdoing it. Some months back, I was watching An Evening in Paris, and was thinking that even though it does have a lot of elements that Nasir Husain would use in his films – the crime angle, the long-lost siblings, the comic angle, the prolonged courtship, even the good songs – it’s just a little over the top. Pran’s bronze wig, the rather pointless rushing about the countryside (Husain, even when his characters are travelling, never do so without reason – even if the reason is something fairly fluffy and frivolous). It occurred to me then that though Shakti Samanta is obviously trying to emulate Husain, he’s not managing to strike the perfect balance.

      The latter part of the book discusses Qayamat se Qayamat Tak and Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar, both of which were written by Nasir Husain and directed by Mansoor Khan (with, obviously, lots of collaboration on the writing), and the interviews with Mansoor and Aamir about how Mansoor’s style differed from Nasir’s make for interesting reading. :-)

      • Sounds interesting. Especially when styles merge or get influenced like the case of Guru Dutt and Abrar Alvi…A completely different league though..

        • Yes, the merged styles element is an interesting one, too. In the context of Nasir Husain, Akshay’s book has an interesting discussion on how Teesri Manzil is a good example of Vijay Anand and Nasir Husain bringing together their own strengths and styles to the film.

  3. Do you think Nasir Hussain missed Mohd Rafi for some songs of ZKDH 1981 zabadast 1985 manzil manzil 1984 and even Qayamat se Qayamat Tak 1988. I believe he did because mohd rafi was part of his team from day 1 except munimji and paying guest but I think his films had humongous good songs with Rafi which missed in the 80s even Qsqt 1988 the film was a hit but it could have been a bigger hit if Rafi had sang for Aamir and Nasir would have ended on a high. Which I believe he didn’t?

  4. I know that but I feel he was unique in terms outdoor youthful romance with outstanding songs. I feel he had more to come from him. Reading his life career especially the end makes you really think he had more. If from Rafi or someone else. But he has had a fabulous career not just a director but a writer. So unique!

    • That’s a long time, and a lot of films. Plus, not something I especially want to spend time doing… so this answer is off the top of my head. Tumne mujhe dekha, O mere Sona re, Deewaana mujhsa nahin, Shivji bihaane chale, Jawaaniyaan yeh mast-mast bin peeye, Dekho kasam se, Hum aur tum aur yeh samaa, O nigaah-e-mastaana dekh samaa hai suhaana, Chaand phir nikla, Chunri sambhaal gori udi chali jaaye re, Daiyya yeh main kahaan aa phansi, Ab jo mile hain toh, Aankhon se jo utri hai dil mein, Chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko, and the medley from Hum Kisise Kam Nahin.

    • I’m not especially fond of those songs. They weren’t bad, but you asked me to pick 15 songs from a period that included Munimi, Teesri Manzil, Dil Deke Dekho, etc… given those films (and some others from the 50s, 60s, and well into the 70s, too), I wouldn’t include anything from the later years.

  5. The 80s and 90s was also good, as for Nasir Hussain Zamane ko dhiklana hai(1981) Qayamat se Qayamat Tak(1988) Jo jeeta wohi sikandar(1992) Akele Hum Akele Tum(1995) had amazing songs and lived up to the Nasir Hussain films banner. I also like Nasir Hussains previous films and songs.

    • That would require an entire book. A slim one, perhaps, but certainly a book. I would strongly recommend reading Akshay’s book – he addresses that in it. And since he does quote me in several instances, you’ll probably also get to read about my opinion on them.

  6. Even I sometimes feel Aamir Khans career as a romantic actor finished early because of his passing away( because come on Nasir Hussain was the best in romance) aswell as other actors need him. Don’t get me wrong directors have tried copying him and inspired from him but there is only one Rom com legend and that is Mr Nasir Hussain

  7. From everyone who contributed to his cinema(Subodh,S and joy mukhrijee) Sahir ludhvani, Majrooh Sultanpuri, SD Burman, RD Burman Op Nayyar, Usha Khanna, Shankar Jaikishan, Anand Milnd, Jatin Lalit, Anu Malik, Mohammed Rafi,Kishore, Manna, Shailendra, Udit Narayan, Amit Kumar, Kumar Sanu, Lata,Asha,Alka,Sadhana. His ability to Write at a old age for youngsters, to produce and direct is one career that is under appreciated. I hope after this book people will really consider looking at bettering the music now and coming future. The music today is nowhere near Nasir Hussain Level and someone maybe a youngster will one day come to the industry and really have a thought about it. But oh well 😔

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