Ten of my favourite Kumkum songs

Rest in peace, Kumkum.

I was in the middle of watching a film to write a tribute to Hollywood star Olivia de Havilland, who passed away on 25th July at the age of 104, when I heard that, closer home, there had been another death. Another actress, much loved. Kumkum, of the dancing eyes and the bright smile. Kumkum who could dance up a storm in Madhuban mein Radhika naache re and be the demure heroine opposite leading men all the way from Shammi Kapoor to Rajendra Kumar to Kishore Kumar.

Kumkum (it was her screen name; she was born Zebunissa, the daughter of the Nawab of Hussainabad in Bihar) was a trained dancer, having learnt Kathak from Pandit Shambhu Maharaj. Guru Dutt is supposed to be the one to have given Kumkum a break, bringing her onscreen to lip-sync to Kabhi aar kabhi paar laaga teer-e-nazar. She went on to act in several films for Guru Dutt, including CID, Pyaasa, and Mr & Mrs 55. Kumkum racked up more than a hundred films, from item number appearances to films where she was the leading lady (Son of India, Mr X in Bombay, Ek Sapera Ek Lootera, etc).

Though she also made quite a name for herself in Bhojpuri cinema, for me Kumkum will remain the effervescent and pretty belle of dozens of Hindi films—from fantasy to adventure to crime to the occasional melodrama—singing and dancing her way through them all.

Kumkum passed away yesterday, July 28th, 2020. To remember her: ten of my favourite Kumkum songs. Ten songs to which she lip-synced, either by herself or in company with others. As always, these are from pre-70s Hindi films that I’ve seen. These are in no particular order.

1. Kar gaya re mujhpe jaadoo (Basant Bahar, 1956): One of the many films which featured Bharat Bhushan in the role of a poet-musician, Basant Bahar starred Nimmi opposite him, but Kumkum had a substantial enough role too. Here, the two women feature in a performance. Nimmi, as the dancing girl Gopi, does no dancing here; she is the one who plays the sitar while Kumkum dances—and both sing a song about the man who’s charmed them both. An infectious, interesting duet which has a slight difference of tone between the two women and the song they sing: Kumkum’s character is flirtatious and peppy; Nimmi’s character rues the heartlessness of her beloved.

2. Tera teer o bepeer dil ke aar-paar hai (Sharaarat, 1959): Kumkum starred in several films opposite Kishore Kumar, most of them (Sharaarat, Mr X in Bombay, Ganga ki Lehren) notable for their excellent music. While Sharaarat is mostly known for some lovely songs sung by Kishore (and the unusual Ajab hai daastaan teri ae zindagi, sung playback by Rafi for Kishore), it also has this playfully romantic song ‘sung’ by Kumkum’s character to her sweetheart. Melodious and lovely, and how graceful Kumkum is, even when she’s not doing much in the way of dancing!

3. Mera naam hai Chameli (Raja aur Runk, 1968): A Kumkum list has to contain the quintessential Kumkum song, a song once very popular and also very unpopular—a lot of irate Bikaner-wallahs are said to have protested that Mera naam hai Chameli slandered the women of Bikaner, implying that they went gallivanting about without a care in the world (and obviously without a thought for their reputations). But these protestors hadn’t paid attention to the other side of the matter: Chameli (actually the Rajnartaki Madhavi, played by Kumkum) is a very brave woman who’s probably risking her life by participating in this ruse to enter a prison and help an innocent prisoner escape. All in a good cause. She’s so feisty and fun: a pleasure to watch.

4. Yeh hawa yeh nadi ka kinaara (Ghar Sansar, 1958): Rather like her contemporary Shyama, Kumkum frequently ended up playing impressionable young women who, though essentially ‘good’, were hoodwinked (usually by greedy relatives, nosey parker neighbours, etc) into thinking the worst of families they married into. Ghar Sansar was no exception: Kumkum’s character here got married to her sweetheart only to be led astray by a mean neighbour out to wreak havoc on the family. But while the good times lasted, there was this immortal romantic song, speaking of the breeze, the riverbank, and a night…

5. Tera jalwa jisne dekha woh tera ho gaya (Ujala, 1959): One of those songs where Kumkum really rules: against a dim, gloomy backdrop, she shines like a beacon of hope and joy. This is the sort of role and the sort of song that had become almost trademark Helen: a woman who is a criminal’s girlfriend, professes her love for her man in front of his entire gang. Her song is for him, her dance is for him, but she doesn’t care who listens, who watches—she even amuses herself by smiling teasingly at his gang members, all of whom of course know that this woman is their boss’s girl. Kumkum is so lovely here: so alive, so vibrant and irrepressible.

6. Sambhaalo dil zara (Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere, 1960): Kumkum worked with Dharmendra in several films, including Aankhen, Lalkaar, Ganga ki Lehren—as well as Dharmendra’s debut film, Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere. While Mujhko is raat ki tanhaayi mein aawaaz na do is probably the best-known song from the film (and it has a version picturized on Kumkum, too), for this list I picked this club song. Mohan Choti begins it, lip-syncing to Mahendra Kapoor’s voice for one verse, but after that Kumkum takes over. Geeta Dutt’s voice really suits her as she dances, sashaying around the tables, her long curly hair swinging enticingly about. One can see why Balraj Sahni’s character looks on so proudly, or why Dharmendra’s character barges in, all possessive about his girlfriend, at the end of the song.

7. Kanha jaa re teri murali ki dhun (Tel Maalish Boot Polish, 1961): For me, the iconic Kumkum song is Madhuban mein Radhika naache re from Kohinoor. That, given that Kumkum doesn’t lip-sync to the song, couldn’t have featured in this list, but to compensate somewhat, here’s another beautiful song in which Kumkum’s character also portrays Radha—and sings. Manna Dey sings playback for Chandrashekhar while Lata Mangeshkar sings for Kumkum, in a lovely display of classical vocals: a superb song, and such graceful dancing too by Kumkum.

8. Machalti hui hawa mein chham-chham (Ganga ki Lehren, 1964): Kumkum starred with two of her most common co-stars—Dharmendra and Kishore Kumar—in Ganga ki Lehren; Dharmendra acted as her brother-in-law, Kishore as her love interest. While this film was pretty forgettable otherwise, it did have good music, including the whacky Chhedo na meri zulfein (which proved Kumkum could match Kishore in being light-hearted and nutty!) and the very popular devotional Jai jai hey Jagdambe Mata. For this list, I’ve chosen the song in which Kumkum’s and Kishore’s characters first meet, while singing a paean to the Ganga. Dancing while clad in a sari is not easy, dancing (and that too gracefully) while in a wet sari proves just how fine a dancer Kumkum was, if there was any doubt about that.

9. Reshmi shalwar kurta jaali ka (Naya Daur, 1957): Like Cuckoo and Helen (and later, Madhumati, Jayshree T, etc) Kumkum was such an accomplished dancer that she was often included in a film just for one dance. Unlike most of the other dancers who made their names mostly in item numbers, Kumkum however also bagged fairly important roles, including plenty of roles as the female lead. Here, though, she’s in an item number, in a film spearheaded by another formidable dancer, Vyjyanthimala. While Vyjyanthimala’s character looks on from the sidelines, two visiting entertainers (played by Kumkum and Minoo Mumtaz) perform for the benefit of the villagers. Kumkum’s pretty, and does a good job of titillating the front-benchers, what with those huge eyes, the skilful use of that dupatta, and the way she has of making everything from lips to eyebrows dance too.

10. Diya na bujhe ri aaj hamaara (Son of India, 1962): And, to end this list, a song from a film that was forgettable, but had some very good songs. Starring opposite Kamaljeet (who went on, years later, to marry Waheeda Rehman), Kumkum played an heiress who marries a poor man and ends up being deserted by him and having their child also separated from them—a set-up which called for songs like Dil todne waale tujhe dil dhoond raha hai and the very popular Nanha-munna raahi hoon. In this song, though, Kumkum is in her element: as the lead dancer with a troupe, against an impressive set. A dramatic dance, and inspiring lyrics.

Yes, Kumkum. Diya na bujhe aapka. May your light continue to shine, may further generations be drawn to your films.

29 thoughts on “Ten of my favourite Kumkum songs

      • “Mrs and Mrs 55” would be quite refreshing after the misogynist nightmare that Mr & Mrs 55 was. :)

        Also, thanks Madhu for this informative article, I’m in the mood to watch Reshmi shalwar for the umpteenth time now that I know who at least one of the dancers was :)

        • I agree about the misogynistic nightmare that film was! And poor Kumkum got the very worst dialogue: just the memory of it makes me shudder. :-(

          Glad you liked this post, Stuart. She and Minoo Mumtaz are so delightful in Reshmi shalwar, aren’t they? :-)

  1. Such lovely songs! I’d like to add 2 more.
    1. Daga daga Wai wai- from Kali Topi Laal Rumal.
    2. Ja ja re ja balmwa- Basant Bahaar.

  2. RIP Kumkum.
    Yet another star lost in 2020.
    One of my favourite songs of her was “Ae di hai mushkil jeena yaha” from CID (though it was essentially a Johnny Walker song)……I absolutely adored her in that film.

    On another note..don’t you think that Shamshad Begum’s voice suited her to a tee?
    Maybe you could do a list on something similar…. singers whose voice complemented specific actors so well……..

    • Ae dil hai jeena mushkil yahaan was on my shortlist, but I dropped it – because of the reason you’ve mentioned; it seemed to me more a Johnny Walker song than a Kumkum one (though I love her in the song, and in the film too – she’s such a delightful character).

      Totally agree about Shamshad Begum’s voice fitting Kumkum to a T. I was just thinking that when rewatching Kabhi aar kabhi paar and Reshmi shalwar: it is so natural a fit.

      “singers whose voice complemented specific actors so well……..

      Hmm. I think that’s somewhat predictable, I think. Mukesh-RK, Shammi-Rafi, Biswajeet/Pradeep Kumar – Hemant. And some singers seemed to fit just about anyone. Like Rafi, who was almost like a chameleon in that respect, so good at moulding his voice to whoever he was singing for. Or Lata and Asha, who pretty much suited any actress.

  3. Oh!
    I just now uploaded my post on Kumkum and now visiting yours. Some of the songs do overlap, of course those songs are so famous, have to feature on a Kumkum list. I liked your list.
    Yeh Hawa Yeh Nadi Ka Kinara, Kanha Ja Re and Tera Teer O Bepeer are the ones that I like a lot, but I didn’t add on my list (It already has 12+ songs).
    She was my favourite and I used to like many of her songs and she was a good actress as well. Her expressions and her smile, her eyes! Wonderful!

    RIP Kumkum.

    • I have just opened your blog post too, so will go and read it once I’ve finished responding to the comments here, Anupji.

      Yes, Kumkum does have so many wonderful songs picturised on her, doesn’t she? Am looking forward to reading your list!

  4. Re. “I was in the middle of watching a film to write a tribute to Hollywood star Olivia de Havilland, who passed away on 25th July at the age of 104, when I heard that, closer home, there had been another death. Another actress, much loved. Kumkum…”

    That’s interesting, because, believe it or not, I was in the middle of writing a double tribute, to Saroj Khan and Amala Shankar, when I saw news of the death of Kumkum and I decided that I must drop everything and post a tribute to Kumkum! (BTW, I also had posted about the death of Olivia de Havilland on Facebook, but as you know, even though I am American, I am much more interested in blogging about my favorite stars farther from home, in India. :) )

    Anyway, Madhu, you got your post up first (even though it is more detailed and extensive – but you can do this sort of thing so fast, it is remarkable :) )… And it is a great list, even though there is going to be little overlap with mine! (I think that is partly because you chose to limit it to songs in which she lip syced.)

    But Kumkum did enough wonderful scenes that there can be multiple lists of great songs picturized on her that don’t overlap at all! Certainly, she is one of my favorites.

    RIP, Kumkum.

    • I missed your Facebook tribute to Olivia de Havilland, Richard. :-( Interestingly, even the ODH film I’ve watched has a strong Bollywood connection – it was remade as a wildly successful film. ;-) Will publish my review someday soon.

      This Kumkum list was easy to do – I’ve seen lots of her films, and she seems to have featured in several which had really lovely songs, so this was a bit of a cinch.

      I’m looking forward to reading your list in a bit!

  5. All the songs of Ganga Maiya Tohe Piyari Chadhaibo, which is incredible, considering it was a Bhojpuri movie, but the songs were so famous .. so as to merit being played on regular radio programmes !

    • I have had this film on my watchlist for a while (and because of Kumkum), but I keep putting off watching it, because I don’t know how much of it I’ll understand. Maybe I should take the plunge one of these days…

  6. One song that I associated with Kumkum was in “Kohinoor” – just because she had a fairly important role in the film. If I recall right, she has a villainish role in the film that was praised. It has been years since I saw the film. Here is her dancing to “Jaadugar qaatil”. Kumkum was generally eminently watchable. While other “dancing stars” were rarely able to carry off an important role, she was a notable exception. Helen was probably the closest but even she rarely strayed far from her character as a dancer in a club.

    Are there films people here would recommend where her abilities as an actress shine?

    • Oh, yes. Jaadugar qaatil is a lovely song. This was on my shortlist, so I’m especially happy to see you link to it.

      I think when it comes to seeing Kumkum’s acting, I would recommend (this is off the cuff) CID and Pyaasa. Small roles in both films, but they give her a chance to show what she was capable of. I remember being convinced, after watching CID, that Kumkum was Maharashtrian. :-)

      She’s also usually very watchable in almost all the films where she was a lead – Ghar Sansar, Ganga ki Lehren, Son of India and so on – but most of those are not great films otherwise.

  7. Besides “ Madhuban mei Radhika “ Kumkum had two other dances in Kohinoor . Jadugar Qatil ( Asha Bhonsley) and the climax dance on the song “ Dhal Chuki sham a Gham” ( Mohd Rafi ). This movie gave her an opportunity to display her acting and dancing talents and she was nominated that year for a supporting actress award possibly 1961 .

  8. Kumkum really was a delight to watch on screen and such a lovely dancer. Your use of the phrase “dancing eyes” is so apt and exactly how I think of her. You’ve included a number of my favorite songs on KumKum(tera teer o bepeer, kanha ja re, tera jalwa, etc.) but she has so many wonderful songs to her name, here are a couple more.

    Here’s KumKum in one of her lead roles, disguised as a very elegant man!
    Mera naam Abdullah sab ka yaar – Salaam Memsaab/Asha Bhonsle/Ravi/Majrooh

    Beet gayi hai aadhi raat – Naache Nagin Baje Been/Chitragupta/Lata-Rafi/Majrooh

    I wanted to post “Zulfen uljhi hai mere kangana se” from Burmah Road” but I couldn’t find a good audio of it, so posting “daagabaaz ho banke piya” instead

    Dagabaaz ho banke piya – Burmah Road/Chitragupta/Lata-Usha/Majrooh

    • Lovely songs, Shalini! I seem to recall having heard Beet gayi hai aadhi raat, though I can’t be sure. The other two were new to me. But all three are wonderful songs. Thank you so much for introducing me to these. Kumkum is so vivacious and graceful.

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