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.

Ten of my favourite ‘This is my work’ songs

I love it when blog readers suggest themes for song lists: it invariably provides food for thought. For instance, about a couple of years back, one of my readers, Ashish, sent me a mail with a suggestion: songs  about people selling their wares (he was spurred onto that by listening to the song Zindagi hai kya sun meri jaan, in which Dev Anand is selling ice cream—the point being that the song is used as a means of promoting the wares of the seller). A very good post on songs like that had already been done by Pacifist (as a guest writer on Harvey’s blog), but it made me think: goods, after all, are not all that’s sold. Services, equally, are sold. And the service can be anything: from transportation to tailoring, from entertainment to—well, something rather more intimate.

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Noor Mahal (1965)

Or, Ten Reasons Why You Should Watch Jagdeep’s Funniest Film

First, though, a word by way of tribute. Jagdeep, who passed away last week (on July 8th), may not have scaled the heights other comedians, such as Johnny Walker or Mehmood, did, but he had a much longer innings than most. He seems to have debuted in Madhubala (1950) as a child artiste, and worked in close to 400 films, right up to 2017’s Masti Nahin Sasti.

And, interestingly enough, somewhere between his years as a child actor (in Footpath, Do Bigha Zameen, etc) and his heyday as a comedian, Jagdeep acted as leading man in several films… including Noor Mahal, of Mere mehboob na jaa, aaj ki raat na jaa fame.

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Satluj de Kande (1964)

One of my constant gripes is that it’s so difficult to get hold of good old regional Indian films with subtitles. For someone like me, fluent only in English and Hindustani and with no other regional language to fall back upon, the field is that much more restricted.

I few years ago, with much initial hesitation, I decided to take the plunge and watch a Punjabi film. Since my husband is Punjabi and several of his family members do converse in the language, I figured I’d learnt enough to be able to grasp what was happening. The rest, I thought, I’d ask my husband to translate.

Nanak Naam Jahaaz Hai, to my surprise, wasn’t hard to follow. Satluj de Kande (a film I was keen on watching because it had won the National Film Award), on the other hand, took some effort to follow.

More on that later. For now, what it’s about.

The story is set on the bank of the Satluj River, where the Bhakra Nangal Dam is being built. Ram Prakash Malhotra (Balraj Sahni) is a dam engineer and when the story opens, he’s irate. Ishwar Das (?), a contractor, has been proved to have been dishonest, and Malhotra is furious. Ishwar Das makes a big show of being very contrite, but Malhotra isn’t pacified.

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Raat ke Raahi (1959)

What a dreadful year this is turning out to be. As if the communal violence at the start of the year wasn’t bad enough, we were then hit by coronavirus. And as I struggle to cope, trying to keep my spirits high in the face of failing economies, loss of income, and of course the threat of a lethal disease—the last thing I needed was the passing of two of my favourite actors. Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor, both very good actors, immensely watchable and with a charisma hard to match, died within 24 hours of each other.

This blog is not about cinema after 1970, so there will not be a separate tribute piece for these two brilliant actors, but yes: I did want to put it out there, my sorrow at their passing, a blow that oddly enough (given that I never even met either of them) hit really hard.

What this is, though, is a tribute to another actor, someone whose birth centenary it is today. Achla Sachdev.

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Street Singer (1938)

Look what I found!

Considering some of you might not understand the reason for all the fuss and excitement, I ought to back up and provide some context. 

I must admit that till fairly recently, I’d never been a huge fan of 1930s Hindi film music. My first brush with the decade was when I watched Main ban ki chidiya banke as a teenager—it was showing on Chitrahaar—and was in splits because it was so funny. Ashok Kumar was so awkward, the singing was so nasal, the entire song was so far removed from what I liked (the songs of the 50s and 60s), that I couldn’t bring myself to regard the song with anything but mirth. 

I still know very little about the songs of the 30s, and would be hard put to it to name even ten songs from the decade. But if asked to name just one song from the decade, the song that I would name without even stopping to think would be the utterly brilliant Baabul mora naihar chhooto (I actually went out on a limb and named this song as my pick for the 30s in this article I wrote to commemorate hundred years of Indian cinema).

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Lockdown Lyrics: Songs for Covid-19 Times

What a horrid year this has turned out to be (and we’re barely past the first quarter, even). First we had all that communal violence, and then—just as we were wondering how much worse it could get—we were side-swiped by … Continue reading

Akahige (1965)

Or, in English, Red Beard.

Today is the birth centenary of one of my favourite actors, the Japanese star Toshiro Mifune. Born in Tsingtao (China) to Japanese parents on April 1, 1920, Mifune  first appeared in Japanese cinema in 1947. A year later, having met director Akira Kurosawa, Mifune was cast in his first Kurosawa film, Drunken Angel. Over the next eighteen years, Kurosawa and Mifune worked together on sixteen films, including several classics like The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, High and Low, and The Hidden Fortress. Alongside, Mifune continued to work with other directors, both Japanese and foreign (one of the more unusual Mifune films I’ve reviewed is Animas Trujano, a Mexican film). Mifune also starred in several Hollywood productions, and set up his own film production company in Japan.

Trying to decide on a Mifune film to review by way of celebration of his hundredth birthday was a tough task: should I go with an early one, like Drunken Angel or Stray Dog? Or one of the many samurai-period films that became almost synonymous with the Kurosawa-Mifune collaboration? Eventually, I settled on this one. Akahige or Red Beard, the last film this great actor and this equally great director made together. Kurosawa and Mifune fell apart during the making of Akahige, and parted ways—but the film itself displays none of that. On the contrary, it’s a well-made, very memorable film about humanity and humaneness.

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Songs for Our Times

I have been watching with increasing despair and sorrow these past few months as India has teetered on the brink of disharmony and violence, hoping against hope that it was just a passing phase. There were moments when I felt things were looking up, for instance, when people of other faiths—not just Muslims—came together at Shaheen Bagh and elsewhere to oppose CAA and NRC. There were times I told myself it was getting better, that India was essentially secular, and that divisive forces would eventually be defeated.

Then the Delhi carnage happened. Many were killed, even more injured. Property was destroyed, people were forced to flee their homes. Curfew was clamped. We mourned. Not just for the dead, but for the way the hydra-headed monster of hatred, bigotry and violence had again reared its head.

I have lived in Delhi for most of my life, and to see the city burning like that—if only virtually, since I now live in Noida and don’t need to go to Delhi often—was heartbreaking. My Twitter and Facebook feeds were flooded with horrifying photos and articles, and I despaired, wondering where humanity had gone.

And then the heartwarming bits of news began trickling in: the gurudwaras which announced that their doors were open to victims of the violence, irrespective of faith; the Hindus who staunchly protected Muslim neighbours; the Muslims who formed a chain around a temple, the Sikh who risked his own life to ferry Muslim neighbours to safety, again and again and again… each piece brought with it new hope. Yes, humanity will triumph, I thought. This too shall pass.

This week’s blog post, I thought, merited a list. A list of songs that call for peace and communal harmony. Songs that remind us that hatred and violence go nowhere, and that religion is supposed to make you a better person, not an evil, angry one.

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Harry Black and the Tiger (1958)

February 1920 was a very important month for Hindi cinema, though of course the fledgling cinema industry in India back then didn’t know it. But that month, a century ago, marked the births of three major actors (and one not so major, but by no means a non-entity). One was Pran, born on February 12th. Another was Iftekhar, born on February 22nd (a birthday shared with Kamal Kapoor). And between Pran and Iftekhar, born on February 16th, a man who was not just actor, but also writer, director and producer: IS Johar.

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