Book Review: Nabendu Ghosh’s Dadamoni: The Life and Times of Ashok Kumar

The 1936 Hindi film Jeevan Naiyya begins with a telephone conversation. An engaged couple, very much in love with each other, whispers sweet nothings on the phone. It’s all a bit awkward, and the young man in particular comes across as distinctly uncomfortable with all this koochie-kooing. This is not quite the mellifluous, effortless romance of a Jalte hain jiske liye, but it is, in its own way, a landmark scene. Because this is the very first onscreen appearance of a young actor who went on to become one of Hindi cinema’s biggest stars: Ashok Kumar Ganguly, better known simply as Ashok Kumar.

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Pehla Aadmi (1950)

Today is the birth centenary of one of Hindi cinema’s most familiar character actors, the very well-known Nasir Hussain (or Nazir Hussain, or Nazir Hussein, or Nazir/Nasir Husein, whatever; Hindi cinema credits are famous for being inconsistent). Not the same man as the film maker of the same name, but an important personality in his own right. Born in Usia (Uttar Pradesh) on May 15, 1922, Nasir Hussain came to cinema in a roundabout sort of way. Having worked briefly in the railways (where his father too was employed), Nasir had ended up joining the British Army, and was posted overseas—in Malaya—during World War II. Taken captive, he was freed and subsequently went oj to join Subhash Chandra Bose’s Indian National Army, the INA.

After his INA experience, Hussain could not find an alternate career and wound up doing bit parts in theatre. From here, a chance meeting with Bimal Roy finally brought him into cinema. Their very first film together (they were to go on to make several more films, with Nasir Hussain in front of the camera and Roy behind, such as Parakh, Do Bigha Zameen, and Devdas) was this one: Pehla Aadmi, in which Nasir Hussain was not just an actor, but also assistant to the director—as well as the writer of the story and the dialogues.

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Wahan (1937)

Aka Beyond the Horizon.

When I began this blog, it was with the intention of indulging in my love for old cinema. While that has remained the main objective of my writing here, I’ve added to it a desire to make this a means of documenting old cinema (especially Hindi cinema) too. Not all old cinema, since that would be too mammoth a task for one person to take up; but films that I think are worth documenting, in particular if they seem to be otherwise obscure now. Films that are landmarks in Hindi cinema history; films that were somewhat different, perhaps, from the usual.

Or, as in this case, films that allow us a glimpse of familiar faces that we know from another, later, period. Leela Chitnis, the perennially poverty-stricken and very distressed mother of 60s cinema, stars in Wahan as an Aryan princess, and Ulhas, the well-known character actor of the 50s and 60s, appears in his debut role as her fiancé.

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Do Phool (1958)

I have watched hundreds of Hindi films. Many of these I’ve reviewed here on this blog, and for many of those, I’ve had readers mention that so-and-so film was actually a remake of so-and-so Hollywood film, or was inspired from this novel or that play. In some, of course, I’ve been able to spot a source immediately: the grand mansion being run as a hotel by its manager who then forces the owner to pretend to be a guest is lifted from Come September and used—without any credit for the original idea—in both Kashmir ki Kali and Mere Sanam. Adalat is a remake of Madame X; Aradhana of To Each His Own; Gumnaam of And Then There Were None… all uncredited. And umpteen others.

This is something I find very irritating. The amount of work that goes into coming up with a good plot is substantial, and if you’re acknowledging that by thinking it worthy of being copied, then you should certainly think it worthy enough to pay for. But by calmly hogging all the credit and assuming that Indian audiences won’t cotton on to this plagiarism, and Hollywood (or foreign writers), too far from the world of Hindi cinema, will be oblivious.

Anyway, that’s a long, convoluted and messy topic, which I should probably leave for later. For now, the reason why all of that came to my mind: because this film does give credit where it’s due. Not, unfortunately, to the writer of the book (Johanna Spyri), but at least to the book itself.

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Ten of my favourite Hasrat Jaipuri Songs

Today is the birth centenary of one of Hindi cinema’s greatest lyricists, the very prolific and versatile Hasrat Jaipuri. Born in Jaipur on April 15, 1922, ‘Hasrat’ was named Iqbal Hussain, and took to writing poetry fairly early in life. In 1940, not even 20 years old, Hasrat moved to Bombay, where, though he attended mushairas and wrote (and recited) a good deal of verse, he was also obliged to take up a job as bus conductor. This job helped him make ends meet for the next 8 years, when Hasrat had the good fortune to be noticed by none other than Prithviraj Kapoor at a mushaira. Kapoor was so impressed by the young poet, he recommended Hasrat to his son Raj, who was then in the midst of planning Barsaat (1949). Hasrat was taken on to write songs for the film, and that was the start of a very long association with RK Films—Hasrat wrote lyrics for all of Raj Kapoor’s films for the next two decades and more, invariably alongside fellow lyricist Shailendra.

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Ten Hindi films You Mustn’t Watch

Over the years I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve watched hundreds of films. Some I’ve praised, some I’ve dismissed. Some films I have found just too tedious to review; they’ve not necessarily been outright atrocious films, just not films I wanted to invest the time and effort in reviewing.

Every now and then, though, especially when I’ve reviewed a film with the aim of warning people off it, someone or the other has asked me to make a list of films I wouldn’t want people to watch.

This is it. My list of ten films that I found so painful, I wouldn’t wish them on my worst enemy (well, perhaps not). They’re all, of course, from before the 1970s.

I must explain here that I have not listed films that were merely boring or predictable (as a lot of films actually end up being); even fairly mundane, humdrum stuff like the B- and C-grade action/thriller films of Dara Singh or NA Ansari may have been rather shoddy cinema, but I’ve found them mostly only a little monotonous, or at the most, unintentionally hilarious. Those are not the films I list here. In this list are not those which I merely found tedious, or not worth watching again: the films on this list are the films I actively hated.  

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Sadhu aur Shaitan (1968)

Cinema looking at itself is not an uncommon feature; there have been several notable films, both in India (Kaagaz ke Phool, Sone ki Chidiya) as well as abroad (Cinema Paradiso, 8½, The Bad and the Beautiful, etc), which are about cinema and film-making. But this film, relatively obscure, really should be part of the annals, simply because of its sheer devotion to Hindi cinema. Not because it’s about film-making, not because there is even (as in Solvaan Saal), a single scene on the sets of a film. But because it celebrates Hindi cinema in so many ways, on so many levels.

Sadhu aur Shaitan begins by introducing us to the eponymous ‘sadhu’ of the story: Sadhuram (Om Prakash), a widower who lives with his two children Ganesh (Master Shahid) and Munni (Baby Fauzia), and the maid Ramdeyi (Dulari) who looks after home and the children. Sadhuram is a somewhat excessively ‘good and righteous’ man, the living image of piety (all a little over the top as far as I’m concerned, but at least he isn’t stuffy about his righteousness).

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Chandralekha (1948)

When I did my post on double roles in Hindi cinema, someone mentioned Ranjan as having done a double role in Chandralekha, the 1948 film which was made both in Tamil as well as in Hindi, and was a big hit. Some years ago, I would have probably filed that bit of information away and not acted on it. Ever since I saw Ranjan in Nishaan, however (and liked him), I have been open to the idea of watching other films starring this dashing actor (who, by the way, was a trained pilot as well). Besides, I remembered that Chandralekha was supposed to be a pretty big film: good production value, opulent sets and so on. Why not see it, I thought.

(By the way, Ranjan does not have a double role in this film).

The story is set in a kingdom ruled by a king with two sons. The elder son, the crown prince, is Veer Singh (MK Radha): a ‘good man’, a devoted son and an upright, just would-be ruler. The younger son, Shashank (Ranjan) is the complete opposite of Veer Singh: ambitious, greedy, demanding the throne for himself. The king keeps trying to put him off, to defy him when Shashank tries to bully him, but nothing works. Finally, the king is obliged to banish Shashank.

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Book Review: Manek Premchand’s ‘Majrooh Sultanpuri: The Poet for All Reasons’

Three years ago, celebrating lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri’s birth centenary on my blog, I wrote that it was a tough ask to select just ten songs from the more than two thousand that he wrote in the course of a film career that spanned a whopping five decades.

For a blog post, restricted (admittedly by its writer) to just ten songs, that can be a challenge; but it is also a challenge for a full-length book to do justice to a colossus of the size and stature of Majrooh. It’s not even as if, when discussing Majrooh, one could get away with just talking about the songs he wrote for Hindi cinema: to be able to portray, with any veracity, not just the poetry of Majrooh but also his personality, the man he was, the work he did, how he thought—all of this requires a lot of research, a lot of organization and careful planning.

Manek Premchand’s Majrooh Sultanpuri: The Poet for All Reasons (Blue Pencil Publishers, 2021) is an ambitious project, an attempt to capture, within the pages of a book, the life and career of one of Hindi cinema music’s greatest personalities.  

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Apna Desh (1949)

Happy birthday, Manmohan Krishna.

Today is the birth centenary of one of Hindi cinema’s best-known and most-loved character actors, the very versatile Manmohan Krishna of the beetling brows and the prominently curved lips, who could assay pretty much any kind of role film makers cared to throw his way. Usually slotted as the avuncular older gentleman—the now blind former taxi driver of Dil Tera Deewaana, the philosophical mendicant of Railway Platform, the saintly Abdul Rasheed of Dhool ka Phool, who brings up a foundling to be neither Hindu nor Musalmaan, but a human being—Manmohan Krishna did show, in the rare film where he was given a chance to act a rather less predictable character, that he was perfectly capable of that as well. He could be the evil Lalu Ustad in Sadhna; the wolf in sheep’s clothing in Bees Saal Baad, and the imperious daddy, disapproving of forbidden love, in many films.

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