Somewhat Cross-dressed Women ‘Romancing’ Women in Performances: Ten Songs

The title of this post will probably require some explanation before I launch into the list itself.

Several years back, I did a post on female duets. Commenting on that, fellow blogger and blog reader Carla wondered about the rationale or thought behind songs like Reshmi salwar kurta jaali ka, where a dance performance featuring two women dancers has one woman dressed as a man, supposedly romancing the other (who’s dressed as a woman). I had no explanation to offer, and over the years, while I’ve mulled over this plenty of times, I’ve still not figured out why this became popular.

You know the type of song: there’s a fairly conventional love song, often teasing and playful, being sung—and the two people onscreen, while both women, are dressed as man and woman. The woman dressed as a man isn’t (unlike Geeta Bali in Rangeen Raatein), however, actually pretending to be a man: it’s very obvious that she is a woman, and that she’s supposed to be a woman (even the playback singer is a woman).

But why? The obvious intent, to someone not familiar with old Hindi cinema, could be that they are supposed to be lesbians—but I’m 100% sure that was not the case. Then what? Because it’s easier to find good female dancers? (This used to be the case back when I was in school, and almost all the dances for Annual Day were girls-only, the boys invariably possessing two left feet). That can’t be the case, either, since there are plenty of excellent male dancers in old Hindi cinema.

Another possible reason, again stemming from back when I was a schoolgirl: girls are shy of dancing with boys, especially in romantic songs. Not true for cinema, though, since everybody knows that this is acting, no more, and so there are innumerable songs where men and women do dance together, sometimes really close too.

So, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t know. If anybody has any other explanations to offer, I would be happy to read them! Meanwhile, here’s my list of favourite songs which fit the bill. As always, these are from pre-1970s Hindi films that I’ve seen. These songs are in no particular order.

1. Reshmi salwar kurta jaali ka (Naya Daur, 1957): At a village, a pair of dancers who’ve arrived to entertain the villagers perform a ‘romantic’ duet. Kumkum is the ‘woman’ in this case, and Minoo Mumtaz acts the ‘man’, smartly dressed in a Punjabi-style lungi, kurta, and brocade-edged little waistcoat. The tone of the song is pretty typical: ‘he’ heaps praise on her, ‘she’, while chastising this roadside Romeo, is all smiles, singing and dancing along happily. And the audience, of course, is all agog.

2. Chaakuwaala chhuriwaala (Al Hilal, 1958): From a very popular song to one that’s relatively little-known (but which I personally like a lot, because it’s got such an infectious beat to it). Here, Shakila plays the ‘woman’ and is accompanied by another actress (who is this? Does anybody know?) who acts the ‘man’. The amusing bit here is that in this film, Shakila’s character spends almost all of the story acting as a girl who pretends to be a man—so in Chaakuwaala chhuriwaala, her character has been roped in to pretend to be a girl, because ‘he’ looks so girlish! And a woman is called on to pretend to be the ‘woman pretending to be a man’. All very confusing, but the song is so much fun.

3. Gore-gore o baanke chhore (Samadhi, 1950): Samadhi was not the sort of film one would expect to have a song-and-dance like this one: it was, for most of the story, a fairly tragic, often melodramatic, tale of doomed love during the heyday of the Indian National Army. But Nalini Jaywant and Kuldeep Kaur, playing sisters, are performers here. And they’re performing for the soldiers of the INA, with a young and handsome Ashok Kumar among the audience, watching eagerly (and falling in love). It’s interesting to note that this isn’t just a case of cross-dressing, it’s a case of a love that crosses barriers of race too, considering the ‘woman’ here is East Asian (Chinese? Japanese?) and the ‘man’, with Kuldeep Kaur dressed in coat tails and trousers and sporting a very floppy-brimmed hat (not very masculine, that), obviously supposed to be a Westerner.

4. Dupatta mera mal-mal ka (Adalat, 1958): The single biggest reason to watch Adalat is for its songs, from the romantic Zameen se humein aasmaan par to the poignant Yoon hasraton ke daag and the tragic Unko yeh shikaayat hai. Dupatta mera malmal ka does get overshadowed a bit in the process, but it’s a good song in its own way—a strongly Punjabi way. There’s somewhat of an echo of Reshmi salwar kurta jaali ka here: in the fact that it’s Minoo Mumtaz who’s the ‘man’, that she (or he?) is dressed in typically rural Punjabi attire, and that the attractiveness of clothing—dupatta, kurta—plays an important part in the lyrics. Here, the woman gets to praise the man too, though.

5. As-salaam alekum babu (Kalpana, 1960): The Punjabi motif is carried through in this song as well, even though that As-salaam aleikum might give you the initial impression that this is from a Muslim social. But no, this is rural Punjab all the way, with the last stanza even being in Punjabi. This is also an example of a song that is actually impossible, since it’s picturized on Ragini and Ragini—one Ragini acting the ‘woman’, the other acting the ‘man’, and all the while Ragini not in a double role. It’s not even a dream sequence (where pretty much anything can happen), but a stage show, which just goes to show how many liberties Hindi cinema thinks itself entitled to take. But Ragini is a great dancer, and the song is good.

6. Jawaani jala bedardi (24 Ghante, 1958): In the same year that she danced to Chaakuwaala chhuriwaala, Shakila also acted as a rather more conventional heroine in 24 Ghante. In this song sequence, her character gets married—to a police officer (played by Premnath)—and the two performers who dance at the wedding reception use the “If you pester me I will have you arrested” trope to its hilt in their song. The ‘woman’ here (who looks rather like Praveen Chaudhury, though I’m not sure) tells the ‘man’ (Sheila Vaz) to get lost, or she will drag him off to the thana. And he retorts, in a sly indication of the romance that’s just culminated in marriage in front of them, that he will take her along to prison. Again, a distinctly Punjabi flavour to the song, which makes me wonder if this cross-dressing (but not quite) is a common theme in Punjabi folk dances?

7. Na na na re na na haath na lagaana (Taj Mahal, 1963): Like Adalat, Taj Mahal too had a lot of really good songs (and really popular ones, too), which is perhaps why this ‘cross-dressed woman’ song gets sometimes overlooked. Even though it’s an excellent song, and with really good choreography too. The theme is the time-honoured one: he is pestering her with his flirting/stalking/whatever, and she wants him to desist. Helen is the ‘woman’ and Madhumati the ‘man’, and their dancing is so lively and graceful, it’s a pleasure to watch.

8. Sapera been bajaa been bajaa (Bhai Bhai, 1970): Asha Parekh is the ‘woman’ here, and there’s another woman (whom I cannot identify) dressed as a man—as the sapera or snake charmer to whom the song is addressed. Sapera been bajaa been bajaa nachoongi, however, differs from almost all the songs on this list in two aspects. Firstly, only one person—the ‘woman’—does the singing, and her song is all self-praise: there’s nothing here about unwanted attention or telling someone to get lost. No: she wants all the attention she can get. Secondly, unlike the all-women dancing troupes of the previous songs (Gore-gore o baanke chhore, Dupatta mera malmal ka and Chaakuwaala chhuriwaala all have dancing extras), this one has a fair number of male dancers as well. Which, of course, begs the question why a man couldn’t have acted the sapera, too: but perhaps good women don’t dance with men?

9. Jaane kahaan dekha hai (Biwi aur Makaan, 1966): This is another unusual song, in that the singing is actually being done onstage by a man—Biswajeet’s character. In a sensible departure from the norm (really, how many people have the lung power to be able to sing while dancing vigorously?), Kalpana’s character only does the dancing, leaving the singing to her beloved—while she acts as the beloved of Krishna, played by a woman. A short, sweet song about the love between Krishna and Radha, and the raas leela on the banks of the Yamuna.

10. Chhodo chhodo ji baiyaan mori (Baradari, 1955): And, to end, yet another song (this is the third in this list) in which Minoo Mumtaz is the ‘man’—in this case, to Cuckoo’s ‘woman’. Of all the songs in this list, Chhodo chhodo ji baiyaan mori is the one with the most informal setting. These women are performers, of course, but their stage is the street: they dance amidst a crowd, most of them initially consisting of lecherous-looking men, but later expanding to women and children as well. The theme is the usual: she is resisting ‘his’ advances, though in a flirty way that suggests her resistance is not really resistance after all.

Which other songs of this type would you add to this list?


62 thoughts on “Somewhat Cross-dressed Women ‘Romancing’ Women in Performances: Ten Songs

  1. Wow!
    I’m really very much enjoyed it. What a concept! It’s so beautifully written and presented.
    Meenu mumtaz is a common factor for many of the songs on the list.
    Can’t think of any song to add at present.
    I have to think a lot for this. Hats off to you to come with ten songs.


  2. It was/is very common in the ladies sangeet (and they were only for ladies), to enact songs- comically romantic, or slighlty bawdy, or plain comic, with the women dressed up as different roles. Usually a lady would take hold of chunni and tie up a rough turban (the mahi= boy), with a stick (the saura = father-in-law) etc. Scenes and insults that would get you into trouble any other time. And absolutely politically incorrect…
    My older cousins had a number of those and some women friends of the family had us in splits.

    My father says in his times you couldn´t even get a look in on the ladies sangeet. I am guessing that these songs were evoking those experiences.


  3. I remember this one from Neel Kamal, Waheeda Rehman playing both the female and male in the song despite not having a double role in the film.


    • I’ve watched Neel Kamal, but had completely forgotten Donon ke vich kar lagta. Thank you for this! (And the Punjabiness of this song seems to lend further credence to Bawa’s explanation of this phenomenon).


  4. And I remembered one song, it was a part of my asha Madanmohan post.
    A duet asha and shamshad

    From night club

    I don’t know the names of the actresses. The song sounds exactly like OP nayyar song.


  5. Oh God
    The first one didn’t appear so I sent again and again and again.
    Sorry for this Madhuji
    I thought wordpress ate my comments.
    It generally doesn’t, but can’t be sure.


  6. Lovely post…. unusual theme.
    Can recall cross dressing couple dancing… Kajra mohabbatwala…. but not any other fitting the theme. Should give it a serious thought.


  7. First song to come to my mind was “Kajra Mohabbat Wala” but then I remembered that it had two-way gender-swapping, not just one-way.

    “Didi Tera Devar Diwana” from HAHK also has Madhuri dancing with another woman dressed as a man amidst a women’s-only social gathering.

    Then I also remembered “Bhangra Bistar Beer Bater” from Dil Bole Hadippa but in that song, Rani, who is dressed as a man, is also impersonating a man which is her secret identity – so nobody else is aware of her actual gender.


    • Yes, Kajra mohabbat wala doesn’t fit the bill, but Didi tera devar deewaana (which, by the way, I’ve only seen a few snippets from) definitely sounds as if it would. I had forgotten Bhangra bistar beer even though I’ve seen the film… I wonder if that would fit, since it’s a situation somewhat similar to Shakila’s in Chaakuwaala chhuriwaala, except that Shakila’s character is a woman impersonating a man who is, in this song, dressed as a woman. So again, nobody is aware of her actual gender – but since everybody thinks she’s a man, they think she’s cross-dressing here.


  8. Thanks Madhu – very interesting theme. I am not sure if this song will make the cut with Sandhya performing both male and female in Navrang – but not as two separate persons.


    • Now this is an unusual addition to the list! I have no idea whether one should consider it a part of the theme or just a variation on it. But if Ragini in Kalpana and Waheeda Rehman in Neel Kamal could both play woman-dressed-as-woman and woman-dressed-as-man (while not actually playing a double role), why not?


    • I was hoping someone would add O babu dil kaise karoon kaaboo since that was what supplied the introductory screen shot for this post! A classic song. I have watched Kaali Ghata many years back, but had completely forgotten Mohabbat ek waada hai. It is forgettable.


  9. Great post. The custom of ladies sangeet – an essential feature of all Indian marriages – is certainly the social background of such songs.
    Perhaps one day you may like to write about heroines going about in the garb of a male character: Nau Do Gyarah, Victoria No. 203, Mera Naam Joker and several others could qualify.


  10. Madhu, in Assalam aleikum baabu, the ‘male’ is Padmini, not Ragini in a double role.

    Lovely list, though, and a unique theme.
    As for why a woman should dress as a man for songs, I know that in Uttar Pradesh, for instance, there were many ‘women-only’ ceremonies/festivals, in which one of the older women would pick up a dholak or some other musical instrument and there would be impromptu dances. A younger woman would pretend to be a man by tying a dupatta around their head, while another would be the woman. Then begins a series of songs – either romantic/erotic, supposedly between lovers, or slightly flirtatious, as between a bhabhi and devar and so on. I’m guessing these songs are an extension of those folk songs.

    I don’t quite know if this one will fit your theme, because though Tanuja is dressed as a male, this is not a duet. Chhota sa balamwa from Do Chor.


    • “Madhu, in Assalam aleikum baabu, the ‘male’ is Padmini, not Ragini in a double role.

      Are you sure? Because I checked Richard’s review of the film (and Richard is one person who would certainly know who was who, he’s so much of a fan), plus some other sites, and all seem to indicate this is Ragini (and she looked like Ragini, which is why I wrote that in the first place). Of course, I could be mistaken.

      Your explanation for this trope seems to mirror Bawa’s. Thank you for that! And yes, the Do Chor song fits, I’d say, since one song on my list – Sapera been bajaa – isn’t a duet, either. :-)


      • I’m almost 99% positive that that is Padmini. I watched that clip again just to be sure. Of course, there’s always a 1% chance I could be wrong. :)

        By the way, would you consider this one? It’s from a Malayalam film called Ummini Thanka and has Ragini and her cousin, Ambika, as Arjuna and Krishna respectively. The piece is the Geetopadesham from the Mahabharata.

        It’s a fabulous performance.


        • I asked Richard on Facebook yesterday too if that was Ragini or Padmini, and he confirmed that it is Ragini. In fact he had an interesting insight to offer: that Ragini, perhaps because she was a little taller than Padmini, often got to play the ‘man’ in dances of this type which featured the two sisters, though later in their careers that started to change.

          Anyway, just to make sure, I went back to the movie and watched part of it, leading up to As salaam aleikum babu. And yes, that’s Ragini, all right.

          Thank you for that link! It gave me gooseflesh, that performance was so good.


  11. In Al Hilal, is that Indira? And I think it is Kanchanmala in 24 Ghante.

    Also, I remembered this song from Aab-e-hayaat, Mara re mara re with Helen and Shashikala as a man.

    Once again, it’s a solo song. Shashikala just happens to be there, dressed as a man.


    • Oooh, I’d forgotten Maara re maara re! I wish I’d remembered this one – it’s one of my favourite early Helen songs (and a fun movie too, so entertaining). Thank you for this, Anu, very much.

      I have absolutely no idea who the two women are in those songs, so will take your suggestions as good ones. :-)


  12. Vyjayanthimala as both the man and the woman in the title song of BAHAR,1951.
    O Pardesiya O Pardesiya
    Pyar ki bahar leke
    Dil ka qarar leke
    Aajaa re aajaa Pardesiya…..

    Shamshad Begum, Rajinder Kishen, SDB

    I am sure there are a few Vyjayanthimala dance numbers where she plays Radha and Kishen Kanhaiya is another female, either a supporting actress or an extra….. usually a stage performance or a dance for a family function or a dream sequence. Trying hard to recall.


    • I’d forgotten this (or possibly never even seen it, since the only song of Bahaar that I’m familiar with, offhand, is Saiyaan dl mein aana re.

      Incidentally (or coincidentally), I chanced upon a song which I’d been trying to remember, since it fitted this theme but which I’d not listed since I’ve not watched the film. Radhike tune baansuri churaayi has Sunil Dutt taking the place of the man later in the song (in their imaginations), but for most of the song, it’s a woman who’s acting Krishna to B Saroja Devi’s Radha.


      • Madhu ji,
        You will not believe this. Many a times,I think of Vyjayanthimala and B Saroja Devi in the same breath and while writing about the BAHAR song,a part of my mind was telling me Radhike tune… could fit!!! Didn’t bother to verify!!!


  13. ANMOL MOTI,1969.
    Asha Bhonsle, Rajinder Kishen,Ravi.

    Koi mera bachpan Lauta de re
    Jawani banke Kanta khatke….


  14. This is unsurprisingly one of my favourite tropes from Bollywood, so thanks for this! The only one I could think of to add was the Kali Ghata one, which I like a lot basically because I like Aruna and Rekha so much. You’d think there’d be one in a Govinda movie somewhere but I can’t think of one.


  15. Great post idea.
    Would this one from Azaad fit. It’s picturised on Sai-Subbalakshmi. I am not sure since she wears her bindi and nose-ring with the male get-up:


    • Thank you for O baliye chal chaliye kahaan! Nice song, and of course Sai-Subbulakshmi are superb. I think the nose ring and bindi along with male attire is acceptable, rather like the jooda in the case with the woman in O babu dil kaise karoon kaboo (of which I’ve used a frame as the first screenshot in this post).


  16. Can’t really add anything but what first came to my mind was perhaps the influence of non-co-educational schools, when theatrical performances were put on students would ‘cross-dress’ to play roles of the opposite sex. Part of the performances of the Vienna Boys Choir consists of an operetta where members of the choir play the female roles. Of course historical and cultural traditions and rituals likely play a part…


    • True! Though, as I’ve mentioned in the introduction, when I was growing up, even though I was in a co-educational school and the boys outnumbered – even if only slightly – us girls, most of the dancing used to be done only by the girls, mostly because the boys thought dancing was for sissies, and the girls were too shy to want to dance with boys anyway… neither of which applies to cinema. But I think the ‘historical and cultural traditions ‘ is probably the reason here, as several people have mentioned in the comments.


  17. Enjoyed the post thoroughly and I remember the ‘aake dil ke lagi..’ of Kishore kumar and Pran but am not sure if it’s before 1970! This one has the additional voice crossover as the male singer sang as the female singer too!


  18. Am coming rather late to this post. It is a unique concept indeed. I was racking my brain to think of any other songs which fit the bill, then I remembered this one which is a slight variation on your theme of two women – here the “man” (Shyama) is romancing two women (Kumkum and Sheila Vaz)

    “Dil tera diwana o mastani bulbul” from Mr. Cartoon MA


    • Thank you for this one! I hadn’t heard this song, and enjoyed it a lot. So much fun, and unique as far as I am concerned – I can’t think of any other songs which have one ‘man’ and two ‘women’ in this sort of situation.


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