Meri Dosti, mera pyaar … Musings on Friendship Day.

dostiIndian cinema has no shortage of movies glorifying friendship, specifically male friendship. The concept of male bonding, or bromance (to use the modern term) has always been vigorously promoted by Bollywood. The hero giving up his life, his worldly wealth, even his lady-love for the sake of his friend, and similar tear-jerking stories are the bread-and-butter of Bollywood.

Of the hundreds of bro-movies (if I may coin a term) that Bollywood has given us, one movie stands head and shoulders above the rest. 

Dosti, released in 1964, is for my money the best friendship movie made in Bollywood. This was only the second movie to come out of Rajshri Productions, the movie house that specialises in family movies like Chitchor and Hum Apke Hain Kaun. (Well, they did make Agent Vinod too).

The lead pair, Sudhir Kumar and Sushil Kumar, was seen on the screen for the first time. So was Sanjay Khan, who played a secondary role in the film. Dosti was perhaps the first movie that did not have a female lead. There was no heroine as such, and even the two young men who made the lead pair were not conventional hero material either. One was blind, the other was a cripple, and they were both in dire poverty. 

Dosti is a simple, heart-warming story about the honest friendship between these two challenged young men, as they struggle to make their way in a tough city.  

In addition to Dosti’s story and the acting performance of its lead pair, what makes Dosti an Indian classic is its truly exceptional music – and the voice of Mohammad Rafi. 

Penned by Majhrooh Sultanpuri, and composed by Laxmikant Pyarelal, each song is a precious gem. And no one else could do justice to those songs, but Mohammad Rafi.

Dosti was Rafi, all the way. Just one song was rendered by Lata Mangeshkar, and hardly made an impact. 

Did you know – Dosti’s signature harmonica tune that Sushil Kumar plays in the movie was actually performed by RD Burman? Although he was a rival music director, RD gladly helped out L-P by playing the harmonica for them. It was a movie about friendship after all, and RD was a good friend. 

Mohammad Rafi once said that Dosti was one of his toughest assignments. Rafi had the unique ability to modulate his voice and could subtly change his singing style to suit any actor he sang for. But he found it hard to modulate his voice for the teenage Sudhir Kumar. That is perhaps why he sang at a slightly higher pitch than he normally did. 

Rafi did a remarkable job and won his fourth Filmfare award for Dosti. The movie swept every major Filmfare award for 1965 and became a huge commercial hit. 

When Dosti was first released, I was hardly two years old. I saw the movie for the first time when it was re-run in 1980, during my under-graduate days. Since I never had good friends in those days, I saw the movie all alone in Rupam Talkies at Sion. And I found myself yearning for such a friend as Sudhir Kumar in Dosti. 

Fifty years after Dosti, I still find myself yearning for such a friend. 

Ah well, here is Mohammad Rafi’s award winning song from Dosti. If it doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, then there’s something wrong with you. 

Cheers … Srini.

Death of a comedian …

The month of July is a sad one for Bollywood, for it contains several death anniversaries. Two of Bollywood’s funniest men died during this month. Last week, it was Mehmood. And July 29th is the death anniversary of a forgotten comedian from the golden years of Hindi cinema. Although he was a strict teetotaller, Badruddin Jamaluddin Kazi was known by his screen-name, derived from a famous whisky brand.

The name was given to him by Guru Dutt, on his first screen test for a comedian’s role in Baazi, made in 1951. The scene was that of a drunken man, and Badruddin was so convincing that Guru Dutt would not believe that he was not actually drunk. Guru Dutt was known for his fondness for alcohol, and he named Badruddin after his favorite tipple, Johnnie Walker. And the name stuck.

Johnny Walker always said that he owed his success to two men – Guru Dutt and Mohammad Rafi.

Rafi, being the humble and generous soul that he was, would never refuse to sing playback for any actor, even if he was a rank newcomer like Johnny Walker. He sang playback for Johnny Walker in each one of his movies. As he did with Shammi Kapoor, Mohammad Rafi altered his voice to suit Johnny Walker’s acting style, and that resulted in many evergreen hit songs like the famous maalish song ‘Saar jo tera chakraye‘ from Pyaasa, ‘Ae dil hai mushkil‘, from CID, and Johnny Walker’s award winning ,’Jungle main mor naacha‘, from Madhumati (1958).

In a touching TV interview soon after Rafi’s death in July 1980, Johnny Walker paid a tearful tribute to India’s finest playback singer, as he stated that no other playback singer was willing to sing for him, while Mohammad Rafi was the only singer who readily gave him his voice, in spite of his stature in Bollywood.

The 1950’s belonged to Johnny Walker, as he carved a special niche for himself and brought respectability to the comedian’s role in Bollywood. Roles were created and film songs were written specifically for him, and he shared top-billing with the lead actors.

Johnny Walker had a style that was uniquely his. Cheap mimicry and slapstick routines were not for him. His manner was suave, his mannerisms controlled and his comedy subtle, his one-liners were genteel but rib-tickling. He had the ability to make people laugh without saying a word. His huge grin and his body language would do it for him.

He rightly called himself a clean comedian, one who could bring laughter to children and adults alike, without bringing a blush to anybody’s cheek. They don’t make them like that any more.

Here’s a memorable song number from Pyaasa, 1957. The song was based on a real-life maalishwalla whom Johnny Walker and Guru Dutt observed at a garden in Calcutta.

Cheers … Srini.

Afsana likh rahee hoon …

tun-tunA nubile nymphet she certainly was not. She was perhaps the heftiest actress in the film industry, and yet, she lasted much longer than all the leading ladies of her time, through a career spanning half a century.

Other leading actresses would starve themselves to maintain their figures, while she would merrily gorge on sweets and oily food, to maintain hers.

Bubbly, jovial and immensely talented, the cheerfully rotund Uma Devi Khatri, better known as Tun Tun, is one of my favorite yesteryear stars.

Born in a village near Mathura to an orthodox family, Uma Devi was orphaned at a very young age and was brought up by her uncle. Girls in her community weren’t allowed to go to school in those days. With little else to do, young Uma would spend most of her time playing in the fields and listening to songs on the radio. She had dreams of becoming a singer herself, and one day, at the age of eight, Uma Devi Khatri decided she would sing for none else than Naushad himself.

Formal instruction in music was forbidden to her, and so Uma Devi simply taught herself to sing. She also taught herself to read and write. At the age of thirteen, she caught a train to Bombay, where she got herself introduced to actor-producer Arun Ahuja, who in turn introduced her to music directors of the day. Arun Ahuja, by the way, is Govinda’s father.

Eventually, she came to the attention of Abdul Rashid Kardar, a leading movie maker of his time. Kardar was looking for a fresh voice for Suraiya, the female lead in his movie, Dard. The music director of the movie was Naushad, who initially refused to consider her because she was not formally trained. The story goes that Uma Devi threatened to jump into the sea, which was just outside Naushad’s bungalow, if he did not listen to her sing. Ten minutes of listening to Uma Devi, and Naushad was convinced.

The song she sang for Naushad, ‘Afsana likh rahi hoon‘, became an enormous hit across the country and took her to the topmost bracket. At the age of fifteen, the self-taught Uma Devi Khatri, shared top billing with legends like Noorjehan and Zohrabai, and stayed there for a decade.

Here’s a good selection of Uma Devi’s top hits from the 1940’s and ’50’s.

After Noorjehan migrated to Pakistan during the Partition, Lata Mangeshkar took over her mantle, and quickly became a major singing star. Uma Devi’s genteel style of singing fell out of favor with the viewing public and the offers stopped coming her way.

To add to her woes, her mentor AR Kardar stopped working with her, because she sang playback for SS Vasan’s Hindi remake of Chandralekha (1948).  The movie was a hit, and Uma Devi’s songs in it were all hits as well, but Kardar considered this a breach of contract, and ended his agreement with her.

Anyone else would have probably faded away, but Uma Devi Khatri was made of stern stuff. She always was a jovial person, with a keen sense of comic timing. Naushad cast her in a comic role in his Babul (1950). The movie’s leading man, Dilip Kumar, felt that Uma Devi Khatri needed a screen-name to suit her rotund personality, and suggested the name Tun Tun. And so was born India’s first comedienne, and a forty year acting career. Tun Tun starred in 200 movies and made audiences across three generations chuckle, as she merrily celebrated her rotundity on-screen and off it.

I remember her TV interview hosted by her friend and co-star, Tabassum. Tubby was literally rolling on the floor, laughing till she cried.

Have you wondered why most Indian comediennes are fat? That’s because Tun Tun is still the benchmark for comediennes in Bollywood. She set the standard for funny femmes in Bollywood.

Tun Tun died in 2003, Bombay at the age of 80, but her songs and her comedy live on.

Here is her most popular song, from Dard (1946). Mind you, Tun Tun sang this timeless masterpiece at the age of fifteen. Sixty years later, it is still a haunting melody. I fondly hope no none makes a remix!

Cheers … Srini.

Mehmood, Monarch of Mirth.

Mehmood with Shammi Kapoor, in Dil Tera Diwana, 1962.

Mehmood! The very mention of his name still makes people chuckle. Mehmood Ali set the gold standard for comedy in Indian cinema, and is the most successful comedian in Bollywood history.

Before he came along, the comedian in Indian movies was relegated to two-bit roles and the occasional song and dance number.

Mehmood changed all that. He proved to Indian audiences that a comedian could alone carry a three-hour movie on his shoulders. Even in movies in which he was not the male lead, he would steal the show from the main hero. He did this time and again in movies like Dil tera diwana (for which role he won the Filmfare award), Waris, Pyar Kiye jaa, Bombay to Goa and Humjoli.

Gumnaam was a multi-starrer suspense thriller that had big names in its star cast – like Manoj Kumar, Nanda, Helen, Pran, Manmohan and Madan Puri. And yet, Mehmood in his iconic role as a Hyderabadi cook made the movie a hit with his single dance number – Hum kaale hai to kya hua. People no longer remember the story-line of Gumnaam, that was inspired by Agatha Christie’s Ten Little Niggers. But they do remember Mehmood’s dance number in the film.

Mehmood was much more that just a comedian. Like Kishore Kumar, his talent was multi-faceted. He was a director, producer, lyricist and story writer. Mehmood excelled in serious roles as well, as he proved in tear-jerkers like Parvarish. And he was a playback singer in his own right. When Manna De refused to sing some lines in Padosan, Mehmood sang them himself. Mehmood sang many of his own songs in his movies, all of which became hits. One especially remembers ‘Muthukodi kavadi hadaa‘, from Do Phool and ‘Na bibi na baccha‘, from Sabse bada rupaiya. Mehmood was the first director to recruit hijras to provide a chorus for his songs, and only Mehmood could produce a hit number with them, ‘Main mandir pahuncha‘, from Kunwara Baap (1976).

Mehmood and RD Burman in Bhooth Bangla (1965).

His first attempt at producing and directing a movie was with Bhooth Bangla in 1965. This comedy-thriller featured RD Burman in his first and only screen role. It was Mehmood who gave RD Burman his first break as a music director in Chote Nawab in 1961. Bhoot Bangla was a hit and Mehmood became a full-fledged movie maker. He made several hit movies in the next decade. Padosan made in 1968, is perhaps his best work and it is the most popular comedy ever made in Indian cinema. Mehmood’s Bombay to Goa made in 1973, featured a little known actor called Amitabh Bachchan in the male lead. That movie was seen by the writer duo Salim-Javed, and they offered the male lead of Zanjeer to Amitabh Bachchan, instead of Rajesh Khanna.

During the early 1980’s, his failing health made Mehmood seek retirement and he faded away from the limelight.  Mehmood Ali died in his sleep on this day in 2004, in Pennsylvania.

Mehmood has passed on, but his ability to make people laugh is immortal. Here is Mehmood with Om Prakash in a hilarious scene from Pyar kiya jaa, made in 1968. I rate this as Mehmood’s best comedy scene. Watch the sheer terror on Om Prakash’s face, as Mehmood displays his histrionics. Guaranteed to make you split your sides laughing.

Cheers … Srini.

Saaranga teri yaad mein …

His virtuosity was in his simplicity. Unlike classically trained playback singers like Mohammad Rafi and Manna De, he had a straightforward and simple singing style that instantly appealed to his listeners. Just about anybody could sing his songs, anyone could hum along with him. But no one could reproduce the sincere pathos that defined the unique voice of Mukesh Chand Mathur.

Mukesh began his singing career as a clone of the legendary KL Saigal. In his first song for a Hindi film, Dil jalta hai, from the film Pehli Nazar (1945) that was filmed on his mentor Motilal, he sounded so much like Saigal that Saigal himself was deceived and remarked that he did not recollect singing that song!

Two music directors, Naushad Ali and Anil Biswas, encouraged Mukesh to develop his own singing style, and prove that he was Mukesh, not a clone. Mukesh did that through the early fifties, and became the screen voice of Dilip Kumar, in movies like Yahudi, Andaz and Madhumati. Remember the evergreen, “Suhana safar aur ye mausam haseen“, from Madhumati?

However, the songs he sang for Raj Kapoor in Aag, Awara, Shree 420 and Anari were far more popular. With the song ‘Zinda hu is tarah‘, from Aag, Mukesh became the official voice of Raj Kapoor, while Dilip Kumar moved over to Rafi. Except for a few songs rendered by Manna De and Rafi, Mukesh sang playback for Raj Kapoor throughout his career, right upto his very last recorded song, for Raj Kapoor’s Dharam Karam, just before his death in 1976.

Mukesh, in fact, sang for all the leading stars of his time, including Rajesh Khanna and Amitabh Bachchan. Mukesh was considered unfit to sing playback for the deep-voiced and macho ‘angry young man’ Bachchan, but he proved his detractors wrong with his superb rendition of ‘Kabhi kabhi mere dil mein‘, from Kabhi Kabhie in 1975.

A notable feature of his voice was the clarity of his diction. No one could match Mukesh for his correct enunciation of lyrics and the sheer emotion he infused into each song he sang.

Mukesh was a modest, soft-spoken man. A benign smile always played on his face, and he never spoke harshly of anyone. A man of the masses, he was quite frank in admitting that he could barely understand English. When he was announced to audiences during his concerts abroad, he would invariably ask the compere to translate his introduction into Hindi.

Although he sang not more than 1300 film songs, Mukesh received innumerable awards through his career, including four Filmfare awards and finally the National Award from the Indian government in 1974, for his rendition of “Kai baar yoon bhi dekha hai“, from Rajnigandha.

When we got the news of his sudden death due to cardiac arrest, on August 27, 1976, at Detroit, we reacted with total disbelief. Raj Kapoor’s immediate shocked reaction was, “I have lost my voice”. And so did Indian cinema. Till date, no satisfactory replacement has been found for this modest singing genius from Ludhiana – and I don’t think there ever will.

Here’s a rare song from Saranga (1961).  Mukesh rated this classical song as the most difficult song of his career. A short version of this song was recorded by Mohammad Rafi. But for the full version, the music director Sardar Mallick insisted on Mukesh. Listen to the song, and you will understand why.

Cheers … Srini.