Ten of my favourite Shamshad Begum solos

This is an important year when it comes to Hindi film music—because 2019 marks the birth centenary of some of classic Hindi cinema’s greatest in the field of music. Music director Naushad was born a hundred years ago; lyricists Kaifi Azmi and Rajendra Krishan were born a hundred years ago; and two of Hindi cinema’s most popular playback singers—Manna Dey and Shamshad Begum—were also born in 1919, less than a month apart.

Born in Lahore on April 14th, 1919, the day after the horrific Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar (which is just about 50 km from Lahore), Shamshad Begum never had any formal training in music. Her prowess as a singer, however, came to the fore very early, and by the time she was 10 years old she was singing in family marriages and religious functions. In the teeth of parental opposition, she was helped by an uncle who got her an audition with Ghulam Haider. In 1937, she began singing with All India Radio Lahore, and this proved a breakthrough—such a breakthrough that Shamshad Begum was offered a role as an actress and even bagged it after a screen test. Thanks to a very conservative father (who had insisted she wear a burqa even to sing!), Shamshad Begum had to finally decline the role and focus on her singing.

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Ghar Sansar (1958)

Balraj Sahni ranks as one of my favourite actors. He brought a sense of dignity to pretty much every role he essayed, and there were very few roles which he could not pull off convincingly. That said, there was a certain type of film that he very often got slotted in: the family drama. These films, often made by production houses like AVM Productions, equally often followed a fairly predictable pattern.

A close-knit joint family (with Balraj Sahni as its head, usually as elder brother) lives in one home, each member of the family devoted to the other, each going out of their way and being self-sacrificing to smoothen the way for the others. Then, as the result of a wedding (usually of a younger male relative, often a character who’s the younger brother of Balraj Sahni’s character), a somewhat headstrong chhoti bahu enters the household. She is warmly welcomed and is inclined to be as sweet to others as others are to her [after all, the hero has fallen in love with her; she cannot be out-and-out bad]. But, someone evil and self-serving or just plain old malicious lurks in the vicinity. A neighbour, a close relative (often a step-relative, step-brother, step-sister, etc, of the bahu—since, again, blood relations can’t be all bad) or other person who despises the family for its saccharine sanctimoniousness, decides to throw a spanner in the works.

With the result that poor Balraj Sahni’s character gets the short end of the stick. He and his long-suffering spouse lose their home, their child (or children) fall ill, someone goes blind, they are nearly [not definitely, since they have so much self-respect] reduced to begging in the streets.

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Maya Bazaar (1957)

When I did a post on food songs as part of Food and Food Movie Month on Dustedoff last year, blog reader magi posted a link to a very interesting song Vivaaha bhojanambu and told me about the film it was from. Maya Bazaar, which several others also praised as being a very entertaining mythological.

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Gateway of India (1957)

Hindi cinema has a tendency towards stories that stretch over long periods of time. Days, at the least, but often months, often many years too (that old trope of children growing up has been a part of too many films to name). It is the unusual film, especially in the 50s and 60s, that extends over just a few hours. Solvaa Saal was one such; Gateway of India is another. Both films are about runaway girls who meet the loves of their lives in the course of one night. That, though, is where the resemblance stops.

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Cat Ballou (1965)

As a child, I was surrounded by music. On the radio, on the LPs my parents played so often. The LPs, thanks to the fact that my maternal grandfather had worked with HMV for many years, were a very mixed bag, ranging all the way from Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia to Runa Laila and Geeta Bali to The Golden Gate Quartet, Harry Belafonte, Jim Reeves, Engelbert Humperdinck…  and one of my absolute favourites, Nat King Cole.

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Somewhat Cross-dressed Women ‘Romancing’ Women in Performances: Ten Songs

The title of this post will probably require some explanation before I launch into the list itself.

Several years back, I did a post on female duets. Commenting on that, fellow blogger and blog reader Carla wondered about the rationale or thought behind songs like Reshmi salwar kurta jaali ka, where a dance performance featuring two women dancers has one woman dressed as a man, supposedly romancing the other (who’s dressed as a woman). I had no explanation to offer, and over the years, while I’ve mulled over this plenty of times, I’ve still not figured out why this became popular.

You know the type of song: there’s a fairly conventional love song, often teasing and playful, being sung—and the two people onscreen, while both women, are dressed as man and woman. The woman dressed as a man isn’t (unlike Geeta Bali in Rangeen Raatein), however, actually pretending to be a man: it’s very obvious that she is a woman, and that she’s supposed to be a woman (even the playback singer is a woman).

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Talaash (1969)

There are a bunch of films that I’ve read a plot synopsis of, found it interesting, thought I’d try and watch it—and then taken a look at the cast, only to discover it starred someone I didn’t like. It’s happened time and again; with Talaash, having discovered that the film starred Rajendra Kumar, I decided to put the film on the back burner, even though the synopsis sounded interesting.

Then, reading Anirudha Bhattacharjee and Balaji Vittal’s SD Burman: The Prince Musician, and seeing the list of songs (some of them truly lovely ones), I thought I may be able to sit through the film. Perhaps the rest of the cast, the interesting story, and the good music, would compensate for Rajendra Kumar.

Talaash begins with the graduation of Raj Kumar ‘Raju’ (Rajendra Kumar), who is being congratulated by all his classmates for having once again come first in the class. Raju goes off to meet his friend Lachhu (OP Ralhan, who also directed this film, which was produced by Rajendra Kumar). Lachhu has, after seven tries, finally managed to graduate too. They congratulate each other, and talk briefly of their futures. Lachhu will be roped in to work at his wealthy father’s cloth shop; Raju doesn’t know what he’ll do, but he’s certain: the wealth of his family will only be doubled. Yes, he’s not known want, ever, and he will continue to enjoy all that wealth, now through his own hard work.

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Rani Rupmati (1959)

Considering this is a period film—a ‘raja-rani’ film, so to say—and it has some great music, I’ve not made much of an effort to watch it. I don’t mind Nirupa Roy in leading lady roles (she could look really pretty, and as long as she wasn’t playing the self-sacrificing and long suffering Sati Savitri, she was fine). But Bharat Bhushan isn’t my cup of tea. Along with Pradeep Kumar and Biswajeet, he is one of those actors whom I invariably see lip syncing to great songs, and wish the songs had been picturized on someone else.

But I finally decided it was high time I watched Rani Rupmati.

The story begins by introducing us to the town of Mandavgarh (now better known as Mandu), part of the kingdom of Malwa. Malwa is ruled by Pathans: its Sultan is Shujat Khan, whose elder son, Baazid Khan ‘Baaz Bahadur’ (Bharat Bhushan) seems to be an effeminate, music-loving hedonist who spends all his time doing riyaaz with his ustad.

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The Guide (1965)

In 1960, RK Narayan won the Sahitya Akademi Award for his novel, The Guide, published in 1958. The story is of a small town tourist guide who has an affair with the lonely wife of an archaeologist, an affair that has a lasting impact on his life.

Of course, anybody who knows anything about Hindi cinema would recognize the plot (and the name) immediately: this, after all, was (minus the ‘The’) the name of one of Hindi cinema’s most popular films ever made. The Dev Anand-Waheeda Rehman starrer Guide, directed by Vijay Anand, won an impressive seven Filmfare Awards (and that excluding what should definitely have been an award, for SD Burman’s brilliant score for the film).

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Vachan (1955)

I started my first draft of this post by writing that “I watch some films because of the people who made them”. Then it struck me that that, almost invariably, is the only reason I do watch a film. After all, everybody—the director, the music director, the lyricist, and of course the cast (besides the many hundreds of other, often unnamed, people) who work on a film are those who made them. Sometimes, it’s the cast that appeals to me: give me people like Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, Sadhana, Waheeda Rehman—oh, and many more—and I will happily begin watching any film they’re in (whether or not that experience will end up being as rewarding a one I’d hoped for is another matter). Sometimes, it’s just the name of a well-loved and much-respected director—Bimal Roy, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Vijay Anand among them—that’s enough.

Sometimes, it’s the music. Sometimes, it’s just one song.

In this case, it was just one song. I was singing Chanda mama door ke to the LO the other day, and I thought: that’s a nice song, and Geeta Bali looks so pretty; I wonder what the film’s like.

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