Towns and cities. Not countryside, not rural hinterland.
As a family, we’re very fond of travelling. At least once a year, we make sure we go on a road trip (usually) that would take us through several towns, spending a couple of days here, a couple there. Exploring places beyond what we’re familiar with.
Of course, with the pandemic, that’s on hold for the time being. Though my husband and I are vaccinated, the LO (the ‘Little One’, our seven year old daughter) isn’t, and we don’t want to run any risks. So, we’re stuck at home, and I confine myself (and occasionally the LO, who is also fond of old Hindi film songs) to watching videos that take us places. Songs that are filmed in places far and wide, songs that go beyond the usual tourist attractions. Songs which make you feel you were, for those brief few minutes, in another town.
That’s what this list is all about: ten songs which are set in an Indian town or city. Not necessarily songs where the lyrics are about the city (though there are some songs in this list which do, to some extent, fulfill that criterion too), but songs which have been shot in the place in question. While I follow my usual rules for this selection (all songs from pre-70s films that I’ve seen, and no two songs from the same film), I’ve added a further criterion: these songs show portions of the town and city in question that are outside of famous tourist attractions or landmarks. So while Ek shahenshah ne banwaake haseen Taj Mahal showcases the monument in all its splendour (and has been covered in my post on songs picturized on UNESCO World Heritage Sites), the song itself shows nothing of Agra. This post is not about specific monuments, not about specific gardens and tourist sights: it’s about the towns and cities that are home (at times) to those places. These songs show off more of the towns and cities, not just the famous sights in them.
Without further ado, here’s the list, in no particular order.
1. Mumbai. Ae dil hai mushkil jeena yahaan (CID, 1956): This was the city where I came up against an embarrassment of riches. With nearly 95% (or more? I don’t know) of Hindi films back in the 50s and 60s being set in Bombay, the city was pretty prominent in most songs. From the sea front to Gateway of India, from Flora Fountain to the Koli fishing villages somewhat further out of town: film makers picturized their songs all across this iconic city. Which to choose, then? I was mostly torn between two of my favourite wandering-through-Bombay songs, Baaju samjho ishaare from Chalti ka Naam Gaadi, and this one. Ae dil hai mushkil was what I finally settled for, because not only does its picturization showcase Bombay, so do the lyrics—and so well, too, highlighting the brashness and ambition and competitiveness of the big city, but in its way, also the go-getter attitude, the urge to get ahead in life. As they make their way past crowds sitting along the sea front, past cricket grounds and apartment buildings, riding along in a Victoria (so much a Bombay institution, too), Johnny Walker’s and Kumkum’s characters serenade Bombay in the quintessentially classic song about the city.
2. Shimla. Haseenon ki sawaari hai (Love in Simla, 1960): With a name like that, Love in Simla had to have at least one song actually picturized in the hill station. Haseenon ki sawaari is just that: a song that doesn’t just serve to show off the beauty of its heroine and the blossoming romance between its two protagonists, but also the charm of Shimla. While some of this song is obviously rear projection, a good bit of the song has equally obviously been really filmed with Joy Mukherjee pulling a rickshaw with Sadhana seated in it, through Shimla. They go down the Mall, they pass Christ Church and the Band Stand, they go down several roads lined with shops, restaurants, beautiful old Swiss chalet-style half-timbered houses. It’s a pleasant enough song, but the setting is the icing on the cake: a lovely view of a Shimla which has actually changed quite a bit (for the worse) in the decades since.
3. Kolkata. Eent ki dukki paan ka ikka (Howrah Bridge, 1958): Sunoji yeh Kalkatta hai sings Om Prakash’s taangewaala as he drives his tonga through the city. The song is, all said and done, a ploy to try and hide (from the passenger sitting beside him, part of the gang of villains) the hero (Ashok Kumar) who’s travelling inside. But while he’s about it, Om Prakash sings a paean to Kolkata and to Bengalis that’s in a class by itself when it comes to describing a city. The song’s lyrics speak of Ballygunge and Chowringhee as the tonga travels through those areas, and of the Jheel (with several Anglo-Indian couples promenading on its bank). The tonga goes past Victoria Memorial and Park Street, and finally goes down the iconic Howrah Bridge, which is where the song climaxes.
4. Darjeeling. Main chali main chali (Professor, 1962): From the late 1950s on, for the one decade when he was a major star, Shammi Kapoor acted in several romantic blockbuster hits set in India’s hill stations: Kashmir, Ranikhet… and Darjeeling. Professor, set in Darjeeling, had several songs (Humre gaon koi aayega, Aawaaz dekar humein tum bulaao, and Ae gulbadan among them) which fully utilized the picturesque views of the hills and mountains around this beautiful ‘Queen of The Hills’. But this song, though it too is mostly filmed on the hills outside the town, has some views of Darjeeling itself. Main chali main chali begins on the Mall Road, after which Kalpana (followed by Shammi Kapoor) climbs into the Toy Train, and goes all the way to Batasia Loop. Not much of the town, but yes, it’s there; and Darjeeling can be seen in the distance later in the song as well.
5. Varanasi. Log toh markar jalte honge (Gauri, 1968): Varanasi is probably one of the few cities, neither a metropolis nor particularly scenic (though it does have a fine collection of beautiful old temples), which appears fairly frequently in old Hindi cinema. Its religious significance (and in some films, like Sunghursh, its overall importance as a town of wealth and power as well), Banaras/Varanasi/Kashi makes this a fairly-frequently seen town in cinema. In Gauri (not a film I otherwise liked; it was too melodramatic and silly for my liking), this song really showcases the riverside of Banaras. The Ganga, the ghats, the temples and buildings beside the river, as a despairing Sanjeev Kumar walks past, trying to make sense of life. Or of death, of both.
6. Haridwar. Ek paisa ka hai sawaal (Ganga ki Lehren, 1964): The Ganga again, and at another of the important towns along its way. Haridwar, though not specifically named as such in Ganga ki Lehren, was the setting of this very melodramatic and tiresome film. While the title song, the peppy and delightful Machalti hui hawa mein, is also picturized along the Ganga (and in it! Kumkum ends up literally rolling about in the shallows), not very much of the town itself can be seen in it, apart from a few distant shots. In Ek paisa ka hai sawaal, though, all the action, so to say, happens along the river front, as Master Shahid’s character wanders about, beseeching passersby to give him some money. The temples, the ghats, the riverside homes and other buildings: as in Log toh markar jalte honge, here too the town is seen from the river in all its (somewhat seedy, in this case) glory.
7. Delhi. Chal mere dil lehraake chal (Ishaara, 1964): Given that Delhi is the national capital, and has been a city of considerable cultural and historical significance as well, it’s a little odd that so few films were set in Delhi (or, even if they were set in Delhi, they weren’t shot here). But perhaps that was a result of distance from the cinema industry centre of Bombay, as well as the bureaucratic hurdles that were to be encountered if one wanted to shoot in Delhi. But some films and some songs have been shot in Delhi, and here is one of them.
Ishaara was set in Delhi, and perhaps its best-known ‘Delhi song’ was Dil beqaraar sa hai, which was picturized at Humayun’s Tomb, there was this song too. Part of it is rear projection, but there are sections—for example, coming from Jama Masjid, near the railway bridge, around Connaught Place and just beyond—where Joy Mukherjee is actually cycling through Delhi.
8. Lucknow. Yeh Lucknow ki sarzameen (Chaudhvin ka Chaand, 1960): Yeh shahar laaldaar hai, yahaan dilon mein pyaar hai wrote Shakeel Badayuni in the credits song for this film. While Chaudhvin ka Chaand is known mostly for its title song, its credits song often goes undiscussed, even though (like Eent ki dukki paan ka ikka) it is an interesting paean to the city it talks about. What I also like is the way the song is picturized: while it may look at first glance like just a series of stills, it isn’t; there is stuff happening there. A boat being rowed down the Gomti. A burqa-clad woman climbs up into a domed pavilion, and another walks through an arched gateway. The pages of a book, lying open on a book stand, flutter in the breeze. A very elegant and subdued representation of a city.
9. Srinagar. Humko tumhaare ishq ne (Ek Musaafir Ek Haseena, 1962): Through the 50s and 60s (and beyond), Kashmir was probably the most sought-after destination for Hindi film-makers eager to show off its beautiful locales; many films had—if nothing more—at least one song picturized in the flower-bedecked Mughal gardens, or on Dal Lake, or among the meadows and groves of the Kashmir Valley. There were many films, among them Kalpana, Junglee, Kashmir ki Kali, Mere Sanam, and Ek Musaafir Ek Haseena, which were mostly set in Kashmir.
While most of the Kashmir songs are picturized in very touristy settings—Nishat, Shalimar or Chashm-e-Shahi Bagh, Pari Mahal, and so on—Ek Musaafir Ek Haseena is that rare film where the songs (OP Nayyar at the top of his game, with some memorable tunes) are set against somewhat unconventional backdrops. This song is one such: Joy Mukherjee, playing a harmonium as he stands in a shikara, goes along the backwaters of the Dal Lake, sings to his beloved as he searches for her. The quiet serenity of the canal, the traditional old wooden houses lining it: all very Srinagar.
10. Bengaluru. Main albela jawaan hoon rangeela (Humraahi, 1963): And, to end, a city from the South. It’s not as if South India doesn’t feature in Hindi cinema; thanks to major film production houses like AVM Productions and Gemini Studios, based in Chennai, there were a lot of Hindi films, big banner ones too, being filmed in Southern India. Most of these, however, tended to have songs set against some predictable backdrops: the Ooty Botanical Gardens was a popular setting, for instance, as were the Brindavan Gardens near Mysore.
Humraahi, however, began with this credits song, picturized against a backdrop of what was then Bangalore. Rajendra Kumar, as the inveterate flirt, drives through Bangalore, past the VIdhan Soudha and its environs, stopping briefly in Lal Bagh and Cubbon Park. While the two parks are tourist sights, the bulk of the song is on the road, along the well-manicured fringes of lawn near the Vidhan Soudha area. Interestingly, from what I can tell, the spire-topped monument one can see in the upper left quadrant of this screenshot seems to be a cenotaph that was demolished in 1964, just a year after this film was released. (A reader informs me that the cenotaph was situated close to Hudson Memorial Church, and the road approaching it was known as Cenotaph Road; it’s now called Nrupathunga Road).
(Note: I haven’t been able to find a video clip of just this song; the link, therefore, is to the film itself—if you click on it, you can watch the song at the beginning of the film).
What other cities and towns can you add to this list? I’d like to see more songs in somewhat off-the-beaten-track parts of the country!