This post had been written up before the violence referred to in my previous post had occurred. Back then, Shaheen Bagh—and similar women-dominated anti-CAA/NRC/NPR protests across India, all inspired by Shaheen Bagh—had been foremost in my mind). Though the violence in Delhi, and now Coronavirus, seem to have pushed Shaheen Bagh to the back burner, it seemed to me a still appropriate post for Women’s Day.
The escalating lawlessness and intolerance has been a matter of grave concern over the past few years. Every act, every statement that questions the establishment, no matter how logically or innocuously, seems to be an invitation to more violence. It takes courage to even speak up now.
This is why the women of Shaheen Bagh (and, by extension, their sisters in other parts of the country) who have been sitting in peaceful protest to push for love and harmony have my vote. These are women who may have been ‘mere housewives’ earlier, but have come out of their homes to speak up against what is wrong. They are an inspiration, a now-potent symbol of how powerful women can be if they speak up. They can draw others to their cause (as the women of Shaheen Bagh have done); they can inspire others; they can frighten bullies.
So, in admiring tribute to the brave women of Shaheen Bagh—and women everywhere, from Greta Thunberg to Rosa Parkes—who dare to go against the establishment: a list of ten songs featuring women showing they won’t sit back and be docile doormats. Women who speak up, who question the status quo, who dare to go where others fear to venture. Eventually, too, filmi females who dare to sign of freedom, who don’t meekly knuckle down and sing bhajans or romantic songs or lullabies (which, I discovered when I got deep into researching this post, seem to be the most obvious choice of songs sung by onscreen females. The men, overwhelmingly, are the ones who spout philosophy or sing cynical songs, or tell the world to go take a walk). Women who assert their individuality.
As always, these songs are all from pre-1970 films that I’ve seen.
In no particular order:
1. Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko (Sadhana, 1958): Possibly the biggest bane of women’s lives across the world stems from patriarchy—a patriarchy so deeply embedded in society that women themselves propagate it, unwittingly co-operating with it and supporting it. In what is easily the most powerful song of its kind in Hindi cinema, this brilliantly hard-hitting song from Sadhana says it as it is. The double standards of a patriarchal society which trades in women, which humiliates and uses women, never mind that without woman humankind itself wouldn’t exist. Lata’s singing and N Dutta’s are superb, but in this case, it is Sahir’s lyrics for the song that especially stand out for me. He pulls no punches here in describing the brutality with which women are treated by a patriarchal society.
2. Sansaar se bhaage phirte ho (Chitralekha, 1964): Lata again, and again singing Sahir’s words, and (coincidentally enough), as in Sadhana, singing playback for an actress who plays a courtesan/tawaif. The words are more philosophical than cutting here, but the taunt is implicit, the barb isn’t just implied, it’s right there, upfront. How will you ever attain the Almighty, she challenges the would-be ascetic, when you keep running away from the world itself? “Yeh paap hai kya yeh punya hai kya? Reeton par dharm ki mohre hain,” she states baldly. What is vice and what is virtue? Just a stamp that religion places on rites and rituals—not, it is implied, what is really good or really bad. A somewhat offbeat (for the time) perspective on religion, though hardly surprising, given that Sahir was an atheist.
3. Pyaar kiya toh darna kya (Mughal-e-Azam, 1960): One of those immortal love songs of Hindi cinema. And, while Pyaar kiya toh darna kya is often discussed mostly for the grandeur of it, the spectacle, the glitter and glamour—it’s worth noting the lyrics and the situation of this song. Madhubala’s Anarkali isn’t just proclaiming her love for her man, she is proclaiming it in the fuming face of his father. Who is none other than Akbar, the Emperor of much of India. Under Akbar, the Mughal Empire was at its greatest spread (he tripled the size of the Empire over that ruled by his father Humayun), and to defy him wouldn’t have been an easy thing to do: it would have required guts. Real guts. But this is just what Anarkali does. She tells him straight out: I have not committed a crime, I have merely fallen in love; then why should I be scared?
4. Aaj Himalaya ki choti se (Kismet, 1943): A patriotic song, yes, but also one that cocks a snook at the authorities in a different, more real way. Lyricist Kavi Pradeep wrote this song about telling the world to get out of India, and (since Kismet was made during the war years) put in an anti-Axis slogan in one line where the singers mention “German ho ya Japani”—all will be countered, and how. But anybody, even the censors, would have realized that the underlying message was just as much anti-British as anything else. Except that, since the words are so seemingly innocuous, they couldn’t really do anything about stopping the song.
While there are men in this song, I think of Mumtaz Shanti’s character as the leader here (she is even, in the second part of the song, dressed up as Mother India herself). And the line her character sings—“Yahaan hamaare mandir-masjid, Sikhon ka gurudwara hai”—actually made me tear up when I was listening to it this time: it’s such a poignant reminder that India is the home of all of us, no matter what our religion.
5. Jurm-e-ulfat pe humein log sazaa dete hain (Taj Mahal, 1962): This song has several things in common with Pyaar kiya toh darna kya. The Mughal period, for one. A prince, his parent, and a court setting, for another. The marked disapproval—even outright fury—of the royal in question. And the defiance of the woman who dares to stake a claim on the affections of the prince. But Bina Rai’s Arjumand Bano Begum, unlike Madhubala’s Anarkali, does not fling her words in her future mother-in-law’s teeth. Hers is not an open challenge, but a more subtle one. She spurns the wealth, the fame, the power that her opponent holds dear, turning it all down for love. No fanfare here, just a quiet, calm confidence in the strength and rightness of her love.
6. Lara lappa lara lappa (Ek Thi Ladki, 1949): There are several reasons for this song being on this list. For one, it proves that you don’t need to be holding a sword or spewing rage in order to make a statement: a sense of humour can be just as effective. For another, though it is a funny song, Lara lappa lara lappa also makes a point for the empowerment of women: at the end, Meena Shorey’s character makes a powerful (and prophetic) statement. That women will someday sit at these desks to which men think they have the sole right.
And, last but not least, for Meena Shorey and her all too brief career in Hindi cinema. Because, in an era when women were relegated to playing only a few predictable roles—arm-candy, damsel in distress, long-suffering mother, or vamp—she was one actress who starred as the lead in several films, every bit as crucial (often more crucial) to the film as her male co-stars. Whether it was in Ek Thi Ladki, Dholak, or Ek Do Teen, Meena Shorey played a series of feisty, go-getting girls who always managed to outshine the ‘hero’.
(Note that in this song, too, it is Meena and her gang who have the last word. The men do get a somewhat ineffectual verse in which they try to retort, but it’s the women who wind up the song).
7. Humko samajh na lijiye daali gulab ki (Kalpana, 1960): I must admit to having been a total wimp when I was a teenager. Nobody had ever told me how to handle unwelcome attention, so if anybody tried to grope me in a DTC bus, I’d try to move away. It was only later that I figured out that a sharp jab with an elbow, accompanied by a loud rebuke that could be heard across the bus, was a good way to nip any such overtures in the bud.
Ragini’s character in Kalpana seems to know how to deal with men who get too fresh. Even if that’s only her perception of the situation; Ashok Kumar’s character here isn’t actually to blame, since her practicing of her dance is what has got him irritated in the first place. But this isn’t a girl who will kow-tow to a bossy man; she will boss him right back. And give better than she gets.
8. Jaago jaago savera hua (Baaz, 1953): It is appropriate that this list should include a song from a film named for another bird of prey. A baaz is a falcon, and though it was Guru Dutt’s character in Baaz who was the anti-colonial freedom fighter ‘Baaz’, in Jaago jaago savera hua, it is Geeta Bali, playing his love interest, who eggs people on to wake up, to not give in to Portuguese domination. A performance of music and dance is being held in honour of the Portuguese General Barbarossa, and Nisha (Geeta), along with her associates, gatecrashes to jolt the assembly out of its lackadaisical attitude (or, worse, its conniving with the Portuguese in their oppression of Goa).
9. Kuchh aur zamaana kehta hai (Chhoti Chhoti Baatein, 1965): There is something to be admired in the feisty, fearless candour of female characters like Meena Shorey’s in Ek Thi Ladki or Ragini’s in Kalpana, but there is, at least for me, something even more admirable about the more mature outspokenness of this woman. Nadira in Chhoti Chhoti Baatein plays a woman no longer in the first flush of youth, and with her age there is an accompanying maturity, a self-assurance that allows her to have her say. No, she’s not abusing anybody, or being angry: she’s simply expressing her will. Should she follow the dictates of society, or should she follow what her heart says (the very fact that she even considers this is telling enough in itself). A lovely song, and such a quietly dignified expression of feminine power.
10. Hum panchhi mastaane (Dekh Kabira Roya, 1957): And, to end, a song about women asserting their freedom. From one of my favourite films comes this frothy song—frothy when it comes to Madan Mohan’s music, Geeta and Lata’s vocals, and Anita Guha and Shubha Khote’s bubbly energy. The lyrics, however, are strikingly different from what one would expect of two young women singing together in an old Hindi film (where, as my post on female duets proved, the usual trope is of a mutual teasing about each other’s lovers). In fact, the lyrics (by Rajinder Krishan) could be almost an anthem for the anti-CAA/NRC protests. Here are three of my favourite examples:
Dharti ko chhodkar peechhe baadal ke paar jaana hai (‘Leaving the earth behind, one has to go beyond the clouds’; note—for those who don’t know— ‘shaheen’ means ‘hawk’, which makes the image of soaring into the sky even more apt).
Dil ki lagi yeh kehti hai rukne ka naam mat lena; toofaan rasta roke, chhupne ka naam mat lena (‘My heart says, do not even consider stopping; if a storm blocks your path, do not hide away in fear’).
Ek saath chal pade hain toh manzil ko dhoond hi lenge (‘We’ve set out together, we will be able to find our destination’).
Happy Women’s Day!