(With much thanks to blog reader Dr TN Subramaniam, who suggested the theme for this post, and who also supplied the first three examples of the actors that appear on this list).
I did not watch too many regional Indian films until fairly recently. True, Doordarshan did show regional cinema back when I was a child, but I was never tempted to watch (now that I think about it, I’m not even sure those films were subtitled). But in recent years, ever since I began to make a concerted effort to watch more non-Hindi films, I’ve been struck by the gap between regional cinema and Hindi cinema. A gap in many ways. For one, in the types of films made; in the production values; in the standard of acting and directing (note: I do not at all think that Bombay’s Hindi film industry outdid its regional counterparts in these areas. In a lot of cases, it was the opposite: regional cinema turned out a lot of films that were more original and generally of a higher standard than Hindi cinema, enough for Hindi remakes to be churned out).
And then there were the people who acted in these films. On the one hand, there were the many actors who confined themselves to the cinema of the region they belonged to. These were the majority, some of them even very fine, well-respected actors (think Tulsi Chakraborty, for instance) who were never seen in Hindi cinema. On the other hand, there were actors, big stars of regional cinema, who were also fairly successful in Hindi cinema. Bengalis like Suchitra Sen and Utpal Dutt; stars of Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada cinema like Padmini, Vyjyanthimala, and Waheeda Rehman: stars in their own regions, and stars familiar to Hindi filmgoers as well.
But there were some regional stars who, for some reason or the other, never could make it big in Hindi cinema. Perhaps they never felt the need to pursue a career in Hindi cinema (Soumitra Chatterjee, I know, was one of these), and never had the time; perhaps they could not be bothered with the language skills needed (though I can think of several people who did make names for themselves in Hindi cinema without being too good at Hindi). Perhaps they just didn’t have what it took to make them popular with a Hindi-speaking audience. Perhaps they were pure unlucky.
So here is the list: ten songs featuring people who were big stars in regional cinema, but who didn’t quite achieve the same success in Hindi cinema. These are, as always, from pre-70s Hindi films that I’ve watched. Also, while these are otherwise in no particular order, the first three songs feature actors suggested by Dr Subramaniam to illustrate the theme.
1. Sun le meri paayalon ke geet saajna (Sasuraal, 1961): Jayshree Gadkar. Jayshree Gadkar is not a total non-entity when it comes to Hindi cinema, but most viewers would remember her from her frequent appearances in mythologicals and family dramas. But Jayshree Gadkar was a much greater presence in Marathi cinema, where she starred in many more films (and won awards, too, for several of them). Having started as a child actress in the 1950s, she went on to act till well into the 1990s, even turning director later in life.
Here, in a family drama that is best known for its songs, Jayshree dances onstage with a troupe of extras to a song beckoning a lover. Lovely music, and fairly competent dancing by Gadkar.
2. Khoya-khoya chanda khoye-khoye taare (Door Gagan ki Chhaaon Mein, 1964): Supriya Chowdhury. Born in Burma, Supriya Chowdhury had so early on shown a talent for dance that the Prime Minister of Burma had personally given her an award for her dance when she was just seven years old. Her dance lessons continued once her family (forced to flee Burma during World War II) arrived in Kolkata. Supriya Chowdhury went on to debut in the 1952 Uttam Kumar-starrer Basu Paribar. Over the course of some five decades, she worked in many films, including much-acclaimed ones like Meghe Dhaka Tara. She won numerous film awards, as well as the Padma Shri.
… and she acted in a handful of Hindi films, including Kishore Kumar’s home production, Door Gagan ki Chhaaon Mein, where she played the role of a young woman who befriends a mute boy and his widowed father. This song, a lullaby, serves to build a bond between the boy and the woman, and inadvertently, with the boy’s father as well.
3. Mann re tu hi bata kya gaaoon (Humraahi, 1963): Jamuna. Jamuna was a big name in Telugu cinema, having first shot to fame with her performance in Missamma (1955), which as most Hindi film buffs would know, was remade in Hindi as Miss Mary (interestingly, Jamuna played the role of Sita, the precocious teenager daughter of the household, in both the Telugu and Hindi versions of the film). Over the course of her career, Jamuna acted in close to 200 films, and won several awards. She even appeared in a few Hindi films, her role in Milan (1967) getting her a Filmfare Best Supporting Actress Award as well.
The first time I ever saw Jamuna was in this film about a woman married to a reformed rake: his history, of which she’s aware, is such that she regards her unwanted husband with utter contempt, unaware that he has fallen so deeply in love with her that he’s changed his ways. The bitter and miserable wife’s angst comes pouring forth even in public; when, at a party (as is always the case in Hindi cinema) she’s asked to sign something, this song of woe and accusation is all that comes forth.
4. Jai jai hey Jagdambe Mata (Ganga ki Lehren, 1964): Savitri. Jamuna was a major star, but her mentor was even bigger. At one time the most sought-after and the highest paid actress in Telugu and Tamil cinema, Savitri was an acknowledged superstar, an actress who could carry a film on her shoulders in an era when cinema across India was dominated by male stars (which it still is, to be honest). Watch the absolutely brilliant performance of Savitri in the delightful Maya Bazaar, for instance, and you can see just what a phenomenon this woman was. But. Like so many others (including her husband, Gemini Ganesan), Savitri’s stint in Hindi cinema was brief and forgettable. She acted in a handful of films, mostly in a supporting role, and even then, the characters she played weren’t especially memorable. For instance, in the very melodramatic and tedious Ganga ki Lehren, she played the self-sacrificing wife of Dharmendra’s character, and spent most of the film weeping or singing bhajans or other sad songs.
5. O raat ke musaafir (Miss Mary, 1957): Gemini Ganesan. A colossus of Tamil cinema, Ramasamy ‘Gemini’ Ganesan ruled as the ‘Kaadhal Mannan’ (the ‘king of romance’) in Tamil films. While the other two ruling superstars of Tamil cinema—Sivaji Ganesan and MGR—predominantly acted in dramatic films and action movies respectively, Gemini Ganesan made a name for himself in romantic roles. In a career that spanned several decades, Ganesan won many awards, including the Padma Shri.
Most Hindi-speaking audiences would at least have heard of Gemini Ganesan, as the father of the very popular Hindi actress Rekha. But it’s not as if Gemini Ganesan himself was a complete disaster in Hindi cinema; he was pretty good opposite Meena Kumari in the very enjoyable Miss Mary (where he reprised his role from the Tamil version of the film). Miss Mary, while a big hit, ended up being the only major Hindi film Gemini Ganesan is remembered for. There were other films too, again remakes of Gemini Ganesan’s Tamil hits, but most of those made little impact, and/or are now mostly forgotten.
Miss Mary, however, is still loved, and this song, in which two lovers petition the moon, is a classic.
6. Chhoti si mulaqat pyaar ban gayi (Chhoti Si Mulaqat, 1967): Uttam Kumar. I have to admit that this is one of the cases of a regional superstar failing in Hindi cinema that I find most inexplicable. I can imagine that some of the other regional stars who appeared in Hindi cinema may not have had looks that appealed to a pan-Indian audience; some may not have had the language skills that would make them believable. But Uttam Kumar? Uttam Kumar was still quite handsome when he starred in Chhoti Si Mulaqat, and his Bengali accent was no worse than (say) Biswajit’s. And while Chhoti Si Mulaqat was a film with rather regressive tones, it was really worse than many other Hindi films of the period.
But yes, Uttam Kumar—possibly the greatest star of Bengali cinema (so great that it’s said Satyajit Ray wrote Nayak with Uttam Kumar in mind), loved by millions, acting in hundreds of films, and winning accolades left, right and centre—did, oddly enough, end up in a flop with this film, which he had produced. Uttam Kumar went on to act in several other Hindi films as well, which fared marginally better, but he was past his prime by then. For now, the title song from Chhoti Si Mulaqat, where he matches steps with the beautiful Vyjyanthimala.
7. Kuhu kuhu bole koyaliya (Suvarna Sundari, 1957): Akkineni Nageshwar Rao. Akkineni Nageshwar Rao or ANR was, along with his contemporary NT Rama Rao, one of the greatest Telugu film personalities ever. Not only was he instrumental in establishing the Telugu film industry in Hyderabad (having helped move it away from Chennai), he also founded Annapurna Studios and established a school of film and media in the studios in recent years. With a slew of awards (including the prestigious Dada Saheb Phalke Award and the Padma Bhushan, Padma Vibhushan and Padma Shri), ANR was definitely one of those regional stars who left a mark on Indian cinema as a whole.
Suvarna Sundari, simultaneously made in Telugu, Tamil and Hindi, starred ANR in the Telugu and Hindi versions. It was a fun fantasy film, pretty entertaining, and with this iconic classical song. This was the only Hindi film ANR worked in, and I enjoyed it enough to wish he’d worked in more.
8. Jaagi badan mein jwala (Izzat, 1968): Jayalalitha. One could probably make a pretty long list of actresses from the South who also appeared in Hindi cinema. Some like Waheeda Rehman, Vyjyanthimala and Padmini became such major stars in Hindi cinema that they didn’t do much (or any) cinema in the South anymore. Others, like Jamuna or B Saroja Devi, did a few films but never quite managed to make a success of their careers in Bombay.
And there was Jayalalitha. Jayalalitha, the stuff of legend, whom even present-generation Indians would have heard of as the four-time Chief Minister of Tamilnadu, but who, in her time, was one of Tamil cinema’s hottest stars. The ‘Queen of Tamil Cinema’ ruled the box office in the 60s and 70s, acting in close to 150 films in a little less than two decades. Acting in Telugu and Kannada films too, she made a name for herself as both actress and dancer, and won several awards.
Jayalalitha worked in only one Hindi film, Izzat, opposite Dharmendra (Tanuja was the lead actress; Jayalalitha was in a side role as the love interest of the hero’s half-brother). In this song, one of the typical ‘tribals dancing’ sequences so beloved of Hindi cinema, she shows off her dancing skills.
9. Jaiyyo jaiyyo sipahiyya bazaar (Nishaan, 1949): P Bhanumathi. An actress, a producer, director, author, playback singer, composer and lyricist: P Bhanumathi wore many hats, and seems to have excelled in pretty much all those spheres. A multi-talented woman, she acted both in Telugu as well as Tamil cinema, and (from what I’ve seen of her) won several awards, including the Padma Bhushan. India Post also issued a postage stamp in her honour.
I fell in love with P Bhanumathi when I watched Chakrapani (in which she starred opposite ANR): she was a delight to watch. Then, a year later, I happened to watch another very entertaining film, Nishaan, which starred Bhanumathi. The Hindi remake of a film originally in Tamil (and later made in Telugu, all three versions starring Bhanumathi in the lead role) was about twin brothers, but Bhanumathi stole the show. Here, in the reason I watched the film in the first place, she manages to hoodwink an entire contingent of soldiers and give them the slip—with a song.
10. Jaata hoon main mujhe ab na bulaana (Dadi Maa, 1966): Kashinath Ghanekar. I began this list with a star of Marathi cinema, and I’ll end it with another (it’s odd, though, that despite Bombay being the capital of Maharashtra, relatively few Marathi stars seem to have transitioned into Hindi cinema; perhaps that is a topic that needs much more research, especially from someone who’s equally conversant in both Hindi cinema and Marathi cinema). Kashinath Ghanekar (whose second wife was Sulochana Latkar’s daughter) may not have been as huge a star in cinema as he was on stage (in the world of Marathi theatre, he was supposedly a ‘superstar’ who was for a long time the highest-paid actor as well). Besides starring in many plays, though, Kashinath (as he was often billed) also acted in several popular Marathi films, including one with a Hindi cinema connect: he was the lead actor in Paathlaag (1964), the original version of the Hindi suspense film Mera Saaya (1966).
And he acted in—as far as I can gather—two Hindi films. In Abhilasha (where he appears, among other scenes, in the female version of Waadiyaan mera daaman) and in Dadi Maa, where he plays the role of the modern-day prince who’s been brought up as a foundling. The more well-known song from Dadi Maa is probably Ae maa teri soorat, where Kashinath shares the ‘singing’ with Dilip Raj (son of P Jairaj), but this song is picturized completely on him alone, as his character wanders through the wilderness, having left behind all those who were dear to him.
Can you add more names to this list? And, if you do have other actors to suggest, can you please also suggest some good films of theirs in their respective regional languages that you would like to recommend? While there’s very little chance that I will be able to get hold of subtitled versions of old films, hope springs eternal.