I have been watching Hindi cinema for most of my life. And for most of my life, too, I have been happily swallowing all the many outlandish tropes and elements that are part of this realm. Not the least the many obscurities and questions that surround songs: how do people think up a tune and words at the drop of a hat, with no rehearsals whatsoever? How do two people who are not even within earshot of each other, manage to sing—perfectly—a duet? Where does the music come from? And how do people who are dancing about energetically manage to sing at the same time?
The naachne-gaanewaali so derided by the ‘shareef’ of Hindi cinema is, in essence, an unlikely character. The Vyjyanthimala of Sadhana, who dances with so much energy, or even the Meena Kumari of Pakeezah, her dance often more sedate, but a dance nevertheless… or the many, many other onscreen naachne-gaanewaalis, from Minoo Mumtaz in Saaqiya aaj mujhe neend nahin aayegi to Kumkum in Dekh idhar o jaadugar: they must be having Olympic athlete-standard fitness levels to be able to dance so vigorously and sing so well at the same time.
But there is the occasional naachne-gaanewaali who doesn’t dance. She only sits, or, at the most, stands up a bit and languidly moves about. No proper dancing. Not, I think, because she realizes that it’s well-nigh impossible to do both at the same time or that she’s conserving her energy, but perhaps because that’s the filmmaker’s way of showing that she is relatively pure. This invariably happens in cases where the heroine is the naachnewaali, sitting in a kotha or other similar house of ill-repute and forced to use her beautiful voice to earn her living. Only her voice, mind you. No more.
So here they are, ten songs that are picturized on a woman who is sitting in a kotha or similar setting, singing to entertain or amuse or titillate or whatever one or more men. Another woman may or may not be dancing, but the singer sits through most of the song: if there’s any standing up, it’s relatively low-energy: there is no energetic dancing.
As always, these songs are all from pre-1970s films that I’ve seen (except for one, and that’s on the cusp, especially as it feels more like a late 1960s film), and are in no particular order.
1. Na hanso humpe zamaane ke hain thukraaye hue (Gateway of India, 1957): This was the song that triggered this post. Madhubala is a runaway heiress in this film, a young woman who is being pursued for her wealth by her own uncle. In the course of one night, on the run from her uncle’s henchmen, she finds herself in all sorts of situations. In one, she ends up being bullied into entering a ‘dancing school’ where she’s dressed up by the local madam and made to sing for a client. Our otherwise feisty heroine manages to put up a convincing show as the pathetic and poignant victim of fate as she sings a lovely song about her downfall.
2. Yoon hasraton ke daag (Adalat, 1958): A far cry from Madhubala’s deceptive gaanewaali is Nargis’s one, in Adalat. This is a woman who has had a very hard time indeed: her life has been wrecked by a lecherous and nasty enemy who has assaulted and kidnapped her while her husband has been away. Discarded by her suspicious in-laws, who are convinced she’s a slut, she ends up in a brothel run by her old enemy. She sings. Does not dance, because that would be admitting to sluttishness (only loose women dance). But oh, the songs she sings. Tragic, full of self-pity, but also so very beautiful: about how life has dealt her a bad hand, one blow after another—and the only one she can turn to for solace and comfort is herself.
3. Rehte thhe kabhi jinke dil mein (Mamta, 1966): While the score of Mamta is known mostly for Rahein na rahein hum, this film had some other exquisite songs—including this one, in which a popular courtesan is summoned to a client’s home to entertain his guests. The client doesn’t sit there in the mehfil, but she knows very well who he is: the lover whom she had been separated from many years ago, and who believes her to have jilted him for a life of filth, unaware that she has been ill-treated by all around. Her song becomes a bitterly anguished and angry cry of pain, railing against the man who should have been her support and friend, but who has ended up being just like all the others: unfeeling, cruel, judgemental.
4. Bekasi hadd se jab guzar jaaye (Kalpana, 1960): As in Mamta, in Kalpana too, Ashok Kumar acted the part of a man in love with a tawaif. In Mamta, his character accepts that his love is not to be; he is resigned to the fact that his love is now platonic, no more. In Kalpana, aware that his sweetheart can be rescued (she is in this profession because of her mother—also a former tawaif—and some enemies), he is less understanding, more furious. Here he comes to attend a performance, and she, pained and hurt, obliges. Padmini did sing and dance in several other songs of Kalpana (including a mujra), but here, beyond some graceful movements of the hands and arms, there’s no real dancing. She devotes herself to her singing.
5. Aa dil se dil milaale (Navrang, 1959): A somewhat unusual (and beguilingly so, I think) setting for a song: a courtesan’s home, yes, and a courtesan singing—but not for an audience, or at least not that she realizes. This woman (does anyone know who the actress is? Vandana Karmakar or Asha Nadkarni are among the guesses people seem to have hazarded) is alone at her kotha, doing riyaaz, singing a sensual song, with the only other people present being the musicians who accompany her. She begins the song standing, moves about a little bit, stretching her arms gracefully, and then doesn’t just sit down; she lies down, looking up and singing all the while, oblivious to the fact that a client has been ushered in in the meantime and is watching her, listening to her song. Although I know lots of people who don’t like this song, I am very fond of it—it has a sort of sensual beauty to its picturization, the music is lovely, and Asha Bhonsle’s rendition, while very different from her usual voice, suits the speaking voice of the actress perfectly.
6. Intezaar aur abhi (Chaar Dil Chaar Raahein, 1959): In the same year as Navrang came this film which brought together, for the first and last time, Raj Kapoor and Shammi Kapoor in the same film. Chaar Dil Chaar Raahein was a multi-starrer, with three sets of couples: Raj Kapoor and Meena Kumari; Shammi Kapoor and Kumkum; and Ajit and Nimmi. Nimmi played the courtesan here, and appears in this achingly beautiful song of waiting. A lonely woman waiting for true love to come her way, yes; but also a woman waiting for dawn to come—or for the patron who has bought her services for the night to fall asleep. Because Anwar Hussain’s imperious nobleman doesn’t want the courtesan’s body; he merely wants her to sing him, a chronic insomniac, to sleep. Until he falls asleep, she cannot stop singing. So she sings, on and on, waiting for him to sleep. Nimmi does dance a little bit in the beginning of the song, but it’s very languid movements, that do not really count (at least for me) as proper dancing.
7. Raina beeti jaaye (Amar Prem, 1972): Like all the other originally-good, forced-into-the-profession naachnewaalis of the previous songs (I’m not including the woman from Navrang), Sharmila Tagore’s character in Amar Prem is a good woman who, disowned and discarded by her bigamous husband, ends up in the red light area of Calcutta. There, she draws the attention of a man who will come to value her as not just a lover, but more. This is the scene where the two lead characters of this film first meet: Pushpa (Sharmila) is singing for a small audience when Anand Babu (Rajesh Khanna), tipsy as usual, hears her and enchanted, comes upstairs—and insists on hearing her song. A beautiful song, too, of waiting.
8. Ae ri jaane na doongi (Chitralekha, 1964): Meena Kumari’s most popular role as a naachne-gaanewaali was probably her role in Pakeezah (where, interestingly, all the mujra songs are actually mujras (dances)—Inhi logon ne, Thare rahiyo, Aaj hum apni duaaon ka asar dekhenge, and Chalte-chalte yoon hi koi). However, several years before Pakeezah was released, Meena Kumari had also acted in another important role as a courtesan (I’m not counting Benazir, which was relatively low-key compared to both these films): as the eponymous Chitralekha, a courtesan of ancient India. Here, the courtesan entertains an important client who isn’t merely a client any more, but a lover—and a powerful, influential one too. But powerful as he is, he is powerless in front of Chitralekha, who calmly seduces him and tells him so. She will not let him go.
It’s interesting to note that while this might be a fairly intimate song, the fact that this is a courtesan singing allows that intimacy to be public. Even as she sings, four dancers dance; musicians (all women, unlike the males of the other songs) play music, and servants come and go, bearing refreshments, missives, etc.
9. Badi mushkil se hum samjhe (Zindagi ya Toofaan, 1958): From what I’ve been able to gather, Zindagi ya Toofaan was not released in India (though it was released in Pakistan). A pity, because it had some lovely songs, of which only a couple appear to have survived in the collective memory of the more ardent fans of old Hindi film music (and I mean the really ardent fans: these are not well-known songs). One song which I especially love is this one, an interesting crossover between a mujra and a qawwali. Two tawaifs, played by Nutan and Minoo Mumtaz, perform for their clientele, and though their song (sung playback by Asha Bhonsle and Shamshad Begum) is sung by both women, the only one who dances is Minoo Mumtaz. Nutan sits all through the dance, only moving her hands a little now and then. I love the music (by Nashad): a classic qawwali.
10. Churaake dil ban rahe hain (Chhote Nawab, 1961): To end, a song that exemplifies the point I made at the beginning of this post: that the ‘purity’ of a ‘good woman’ is defined by whether or not she gets up and dances. If it’s only her voice that is on show, her purity is not compromised. Here, though the setting is a kotha, and there are other ‘guests’, plus a kothewaali baai as well as two dancers (Bela Bose is one; I can’t identify the other), Ameeta, as the ‘shareef ghar ki beti’, is only acting a part. Aided by her friend and confidant (Johnny Walker) she’s masquerading as a tawaif in order to bring home to her erring fiancé the error of his ways. A beautiful song, and Ameeta doesn’t move a muscle. She just sits there, ghoonghat held firmly in place.
Which other songs would you add to this list?