There are few things I find as enjoyable as subversion. It speaks to the adolescent in me when I stumble across a thing posing as innocent and sweet as a daisy on a sunny morning only to discover it a clever ploy of hundreds of deadly carnivorous insects bent upon devouring the simple-minded bird or small animal who lands nearby to check it out.
Um. You get my drift. Translate as needed to less serial-killer terms.
In my house, a lullaby was something Talat Mehmood sang when my parents had turned out the lights and left me tucked up in bed. Alternatively, it could be Mohammad Rafi or or Hemant Kumar or Geeta Dutt and for a period of two months it was a collection of duets sung by Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhonsle. After a few weeks, my parents refused to let me hear it last thing at night because the songs were all pretty zippy and weren’t doing a very good job of lulling me to sleep much as I enjoyed them.
Anyway, at some point I realized Talat Mehmood wasn’t just singing, he was singing words. Word I understood. Call me dim but until then I could sing all these songs entirely by phonetics without understanding a word of it. I was that annoying toddler who’d run around the house singing some totally inappropriate song at the top of her voice, beaming with equal parts puzzlement and satisfaction at all the laughing attention my “talent” was getting me.
It took me years – this was back in the pre-Google era, if you can remember that far back, when we didn’t have awesome people like Atul just a click away – to put the different sounds of a song from Teen Deviyan together and end up with: “Aha maano kaha, ab tum ho jawan” which was a significant deviation from the way I first heard it as an admonishment to some Hawaiian woman called Ahamanokaha. My incomprehension-fueled, imaginary Dev Anand had a far more exotic career, obviously.
Anyway, when I was a little older, I realized that some of these songs my parents were blithely blasting around the house, lent themselves to certain interpretations that would have horrified my poor parents. So I wisely held my peace and have been sniggering about them ever since.
What? It comes from a place of deep love. I don’t want to ruin their favorite songs for them, after all. Besides, it never made sense that the finest poets of the Independence and post-Independence era like Sahir Ludhianvi, Majrooh Sultanpuri, Kaifi Azmi and others (stalwarts of the Progressive Writers’ Movement for the love of God!) would be entirely content churning out sentimental verses without sneaking in a few sly references for those who were paying attention.
Of course, some of them were vocally and most emphatically not happy with film work and pursued parallel writing careers, and wrote some blazing lines of poetry for film when given the opportunity as seen by the examples of Pyaasa or Phir Subah Hogi, which Sahir set on fire with his writing.
But I’m referring to the love songs. They were far prettier and a ton more meaningful than the songs that would follow, but let’s face it – there’s a limit to the number of times you can dwell lovingly on the line of some girl’s eyebrow without wanting to play a little with the form.
You see it all the time in movies made under repressive regimes. Everything so sweet and proper or full of the right sentiment on the surface, until you deconstruct it and all of a sudden it means something else entirely.
Hindi film isn’t and wasn’t as dire as that but when you’re making movies for a nation of a certain conservatism, there are bound to be things you keep in check. Sexuality being at the top of the list. Casting the more explicit desires in the character of religious hymns was a neat trick that allowed you discuss things like the “fire in my body” without anyone batting an eyelid. Or you could go the other way and have the visuals say something at the other end of the emotional spectrum from the lyrics which say “I can’t bear this sweet sweet fire”.
The tricky vickys! Love it. Here’re just a few of my favorites:
Aaj Sajan Mohe Ang Laga Lo (Pyaasa)
(click here for better quality video with subtitles)
Let’s start with one of my absolute favorites, written by Sahir Ludhianvi with music by S.D. Burman and sung by Geeta Dutt.
A woman sings a hymn in the street about Radha’s helpless desire for Krishna. As Radha plaintively begs her lover to take her in his arms and “slake my thirst”, Gulabo, a beautiful but despised courtesan desperately in love with the poet Vijay, listens to it and her face fills with yearning. Against her will, her steps lead her to the rooftop where Vijay standing idly smoking a cigarette, oblivious both to her and the drama of the moment, his back set against her and her love.
I love everything about this song so much. Without the principals saying so much as a single word, the scene perfectly portrays Vijay’s self-absorption, his emotional poverty that he covers up with his take-no-prisoners-self-righteousness. Gulabo, however, well-accustomed to earthly passions and the dregs of humanity, is overwhelmed when a hymn speaks directly to her emotional state. It is a depth of feeling and suffering that Vijay will only begin to understand at the very end of the movie.
Jaadugar Saiyan Chhodo Mori Baiyyan (Nagin)
Written by Rajinder Krishan, with music by Hemant Kumar and sung by Lata Mangeshkar, this charming little song has a lot going on.
If I remember correctly, Nagin is about a girl from a tribe that worships snakes who falls for a young man from a tribe of snake charmers. (I could be wrong, it’s been a long while since I saw this movie.) Suggestive, wouldn’t you say?
And here, in this song, we have a very sinuous Vyjyanthimala pleading with her snake charmer boyfriend to please let her go. Every time she tries to step away from him, however, a flute joins the score and she immediately begins to dance instead.
“Sexy” is not a word that Pradeep Kumar’s most devoted fan would apply to him and Vyjyanthimala is far too studied an actor for that kind of spontaneity (remember this?), so it’s little surprise that the two leads play it without an iota of sexual tension for all the leaping and running about they do in the flora. Not that they need it with Lata Mangeshkar soulfully singing her heart out on lines like:
Jhuki-jhuki ankhiyaan dekhengi sari sakhiyaan
Dengi tana tere naam ka
All my friends will see my lowered eyes
And tease me with you name
Hm. Is that so, missy? And what exactly will you be doing to make you so shy, eh? Vyjyanthimala unleashes her usual chirpy expressions on these lines, but Lata invests them with a great deal more excitement and coyness. The actors might invite you to imagine the two of them plan on playing hop-scotch through the night, but Lata clearly has different ideas about what these two crazy kids might get up to.
Chhoo Lene Do Nazuk Honthon Ko (Kajal)
Written by Sahir Ludhianvi (I love him dearly, can you tell?) with music by Ravi and sung by Mohammad Rafi, here is a song that isn’t afraid to say what it means.
There were, of course, a few songs that didn’t mind coming out of the closet, as it were. Usually so the audience could shake their heads in disapproval even as they were titillated by it.
This one cracks me up every time I see it. Mainly because of Meena Kumari’s expression as he offers her a drink – the way she reacts to it, he might as well have given her a cup of poison. I don’t know if her real life alcoholism was public knowledge when she made this movie, but if it was, there is an added level of irony to the whole affair.
As for Raaj Kumar, I don’t know what he was aiming for with this performance, but if “drunken lech” was it then he did a stellar job – although Meena Kumari can wipe that look off her face; if anyone is going to get molested, it’s that poor glass. The only reason he wants her saree is so he can polish it before nomming on it.
Mohe Panghat Pe Nandlal Chhed Gayo Re (Mughal-e-Azam)
Written by Shakeel Badayuni with music by Naushad and sung by Lata Mangeshkar, this is arguably the best Ras Leela song ever shot for Hindi film.
Krishna and Radha are obviously the easiest metaphors to use for a great passion that could be as chaste and pure as the most conservative member of the audience would like or as intense and earthy as the more adventurous members would have.
But when Madhubala bites her lip and gives a naughty little smile as she sings about Krishna wringing her arm and how mad she’s at him for doing it, it’s clear that the beaming royal parents are getting a significantly different vibe from the song than their son with his sultry eyes fixed on the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen.
By the time she crosses her arms and sings about her wet clothes, Dilip Kumar looks like he needs restraints to keep him in his seat. And his parents have no clue!