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.