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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Aakhri Dao (1958)

This was one film where I had a tough time making up my mind: should I review it? Should I not? It’s not a great film, but it’s not absolutely abysmal either. And it has a luminously lovely Nutan, plus some superb songs (courtesy Madan Mohan and Majrooh Sultanpuri) to compensate for other drawbacks in the film. It’s also a film about a murder (as macabre as that may sound, always something that catches my attention).

If for nothing else, as an example of a film that could have been pretty good but ends up a damp squib, this, I decided, was worth reviewing.

The story centres round Raj Kumar Saxena ‘Raju’ (Shekhar), a mechanic who works in a garage, and lives in a tiny room above the garage along with his friend and colleague Popat (Johnny Walker). Popat has been having a chat with a wealthy customer, Muthuswami Chetiyar (Mirajkar) and is keen on getting Muthuswami to invest in a garage for Popat. The incentive Popat offers is a match for Muthuswami’s daughter: Raju, he says, will be a fine bridegroom. Because he guesses Muthuswami will not be eager to marry his daughter to a mechanic, Popat takes care not to let on that the groom he has in mind is that figure hunched over a car at the other end of the garage…

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Apradhi Kaun (1957)

The world of Hindi cinema is peppered with names that anyone familiar with the industry (at least the industry of the 50s and 60s) can quickly slot into categories. Star. Villain. Comedian. Character actor. There are many, many names that automatically fall into (almost exclusively) one of these categories. Those that have shifted from one category to another—like Pran, for instance, once the quintessential villain but in later years the more interesting ‘good man’, or Ajit and Premnath, both initially hero and later villain—have again usually not done too many shifts.

Abhi Bhattacharya is one of those relatively rare individuals who seem to have appeared in a wide variety of roles, a wide variety of films. He was the idealistic school teacher of Jagriti, the ‘other man’ of Anuradha. The kind-hearted, principled example of the bhadralok in films like Amar Prem, and the straying older brother of Dev Anand in Love Marriage. He played Krishna and Arjun and Vishnu (the latter in a slew of mythologicals). He even played the villain, in the Vinod Khanna-Yogita Bali starrer, Memsaab.

This year marks the birth centenary of Abhi Bhattacharya (as far as I’ve been able to find out, he was born in 1921, though I’ve not been able to discover exactly when in 1921). To commemorate his career, I wanted to watch a Bhattacharya film, but a dilemma presented itself: which one? Hindi or Bengali? (since Bhattacharya had what seems to have been a very successful career in Bengali cinema as well). Eventually, I homed in on this film, a rare whodunit in Hindi cinema that’s pretty well made too.

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The Clerk and the Coat (1955)

Aka Garam Coat, though The Clerk and the Coat is the title as it appears in the credits of this film, and is also the title for which the Censor Certificate was issued.

This film had been among my bookmarks for a long time, but I’d been putting off watching it because I had a suspicion it would turn out to be very depressing. And I’ve not been in a state of mind conducive to being able to watch depressing cinema. But after having watched several rather ho-hum films (Kismat ka Khel, Passport) I figured I should take the plunge and watch something good, even if not exactly frothy and cheery. Garam Coat, after all, was written by Rajinder Singh Bedi, for whom I have a great deal of respect.

The story is set in an unspecified North Indian town, where Girdhari (Balraj Sahni) lives with his wife Geeta (Nirupa Roy) and their three children: two girls and a pampered toddler named Chanda. Girdhari is a clerk at the post office, where he handles money orders. His two best friends are his colleagues Munilal ‘Muni’ (Rashid Khan) and Sher Khan (Jayant). Girdhari’s salary is so meagre that he and Geeta have to carefully monitor every paisa. This for the rent, this for the milkman, this for the kiraane ki dukaan from where they buy their groceries. This much for the insurance premium, for the electricity bill, for the girls’ school fees.

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Ten of my favourite Majrooh Sultanpuri songs

1919 was a good year for Hindi film music (though, at the time, Hindi cinema—then only six years old, since Dadasaheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra was released in 1913—did not know it). Because this year saw the birth of several people who went on to define the music of the industry from the 1940s onwards. From singers like Shamshad Begum and Manna Dey, to music directors like Naushad and Sudhir Phadke—and three of Hindi cinema’s finest lyricists: Kaifi Azmi, Rajendra Krishan, and Majrooh Sultanpuri.

I have already, in the course of this year, posted tributes to Kaifi Azmi and Rajendra Krishan; today I celebrate the birth centenary of Majrooh Sultanpuri.

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Sitaaron Se Aage (1958)

When I was reading Balaji Vitthal and Anirudha Bhattacharjee’s The Prince Musician, I came across a mention of this film, which I had never heard of. But the songs listed as being part of Sitaaron Se Aage were familiar to me, and both leads—Ashok Kumar and Vyjyanthimala—are among my favourites. Recently, reading HQ Chowdhury’s Incomparable Sachin Dev Burman, I was reminded again of Sitaaron Se Aage, and decided it was high time I watched it.

And what a showcase of SD Burman’s music this film is—right from the start. It begins with Sambhalke yeh duniya hai nagar hoshiyaaron ka, with Lattu (Johnny Walker) and his cronies, the pickpockets Bajjarbattu and Nikhattu, going about relieving passersby of their belongings. The three end up outside a theatre, where the superstar actor Rajesh (Ashok Kumar) has just completed yet another highly-acclaimed performance.

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12 O’Clock (1958)

Years ago, in the good old days when the single channel on Doordarshan was our main source of entertainment and we therefore watched everything that was telecast, I watched 12 O’Clock. I’d already seen Guru Dutt’s big films—Pyaasa, Sahib Biwi aur Ghulam, Kaagaz ke Phool, Chaudhvin ka Chaand. I assumed, based on those (I had yet to watch Bahurani or Saanjh aur Savera, and had thought Mr & Mrs 55 a flash in the pan), that 12 O’Clock would be along the lines of the serious stuff Guru Dutt churned out.

… which this is not. Because this is one of a handful of the films Guru Dutt acted in but did not direct.

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Dastak (1970)

In Rajinder Singh Bedi’s Dastak, there is a scene well into the film which offers a glimpse of both what this film is about and what its tone is like, how it conveys its messages.

Hamid Ahmed (Sanjeev Kumar) is about to leave home for office. His wife Salma (Rehana Sultan) brings him a cup of tea. In a large cage that sits in their room is a mynah which has been mimicking Salma’s voice so perfectly that Hamid has mistaken something it’s said for his wife’s words. Salma, smiling mischievously, points out his error and tells Hamid about a so-called brother of hers from her village.

Salma: ‘… woh kaha karte thhe, “Pinjre mein panchhi ko band karne se bada paap lagta hai”.’ (He used to say, ‘It is a great sin to imprison a bird in a cage.’)
Hamid (smiling): ‘Chhod dene se bhi toh lagta hai.’ (‘Releasing it too can be a sin.’)
Salma: ‘Woh kaise?’ (‘How is that?’)
Hamid: ‘Baahar sainkaron baaz, shikre… koi bhi khaa jaaye.’ (‘There are so many birds of prey outside. Any of them might eat this one up.’)

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Oonche Log (1965)

A scene near the beginning of Oonche Log is an interesting revelation of some of the themes that govern the film, and eventually have a bearing on its climax.

Major Chandrakant (Ashok Kumar) is a blind, widowed ex-officer of the Indian National Army. He now lives in Ooty. One evening, he receives at his home a friend, the school teacher Dhuni Chand (Kanhaiyyalal). There are more dissimilarities than similarities between the two men: Dhuni Chand is poor, barely managing to make ends meet on his salary and what he makes from the odd tuition, while the major is comfortably off, spending his time writing his memoirs.

Major Sahib receives DhunI Chand

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Bahaaron ke Sapne (1967)

I can blame my not having watched Bahaaron ke Sapne all these years on my father: when I first expressed an interest in the film because it had been directed by Nasir Husain (back then, a teenaged me associated Nasir Husain only with frothy and entertaining films like Dil Deke Dekho, Tumsa Nahin Dekha, and Phir Wohi Dil Laaya Hoon), my father said, ‘It’s a serious film.’

And that was that. Because, back then, I didn’t care to ask how serious. Anything that smacked of reality rather than escapism was not to be touched with a barge pole.

Rajesh Khanna in Bahaaron ke Sapne

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