12 August 2011

My Favourites: The Courtesan's Song

The 'mujra' was an important part of Hindi films until the 60s, after which, it went the way of the piano songs, only to be resurrected briefly in a couple of movies. Only, the lilt of the song changed in the interim - what were poetic, lyrical, and deeply philosophical songs reappeared as a means of titillation. (There were rare exceptions.)

On screen, the mujra was often used to show the decadence of a character (if hero) or his debauchery (if villain). The settings were almost identical - glittering, elaborate, lavish- and helped to set the atmosphere. The sets were complemented  by the costumes - intricately embroidered Kameezes, gauze dupattas, exquisite jewellery, and above all, the ghungroos on the alta-stained feet. Mostly, the mujras took place in kothas, but were sometimes held in the havelis - if you wanted to especially show the moral decline of a character. 

The best mujras showcased classical steps from Kathak, and the songs ranged from thumris to ghazals - the lyrics, the music, the dances, all combined to give us an on-screen experience that has withstood the test of time.

Here then, are my favourites from this genre, in random order:

Vyjayanthimala in Sadhna (1958)
Directed by: BR Chopra
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Music: N Dutta 
In a reversal of roles, Vyjayanthimala shone as a courtesan who takes on the role of Sunil Dutt's wife for money. It was a towering performance and she was nominated for the Filmfare Best Actress Award. The movie also contained the scathing Aurat ne janam diya mardon ko, with Sahir at his cynical, misogynistic best. 

Meena Kumari in Pakeezah (1972)
Directed by: Kamal Amrohi
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics: Kaif Bhopali
Music: Ghulam Mohammed 
This was Meena Kumari's swansong. She played Nargis and Sahibjaan (mother and daughter) in a film that took years to complete. Meena Kumari used her lyrical voice with great efficacy to express the pain that her titular character felt. Chalte chalte didn't require much dancing but while Meena was no great dancer, she was infinitely graceful. Watch her in Inhi logon ne, for instance. Sahibjaan has just returned from a journey, where a fellow traveller has left a note for her saying आपके पाँव देखे, बहुत  हसीन है, इन्हें ज़मीन पर मत उतारियेगा; मैले हो जायेंगे| (I saw your feet. They are very beautiful. Please do not place them on the ground, they will be soiled.

This is ironical considering she is a tawaif and she is (metaphorically) soiled. The mujra ends with the recurring leitmotif of the film - the whistle of the train in the night.  

3. Raat bhi kuch bheegi bheegi
Waheeda Rehman in Mujhe Jeene Do (1963)
Directed by: Moni Bhattacharjee
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics: Sahir Ludhianvi
Music: Jaidev

Produced by Sunil Dutt, the film was directed by Moni Bhattacharjee, who had assisted Bimal Roy on DO Bigha Zamin and Madhumati, and opened to critical acclaim and commercial success. Thakur Jarnail Singh (Sunil Dutt) meets courtesan Chameli (Waheeda Rehman) at a village celebration and falls in love with her. She will have nothing to do with him however, so he abducts her, and is snubbed by her at every turn. 
Waheeda shone as the courtesan turned wife who exhorts her husband to reform his way of life, and she effortlessly conveys the pain and agony of a mother who wants to keep her son to the straight and narrow path. The film had one of the most realistic depictions of dacoits, and the story was complemented by an awesome music score. It also set Sunil Dutt's Ajanta Arts well on its way to being a production house of standard; this was its second critical and commercial success - the first being Yeh Raaste Hain Pyar Ke.

4. Dil ki kahani rang laayi hai
Meenu Mumtaz in Chaudvin ka Chand (1961)
Directed by: M Sadiq
Singer: Asha Bhonsle
Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Music: Ravi 
Even though I love Muslim socials, and this film depicted the lifestyle of the Lucknawi Nawabs, this was a movie that had nothing going for it except Waheeda Rehman's ethereal sensuousness and Ravi's music. It was also Mohammed Rafi's triumph with the soft, romantic, almost-awestruck title track (Guru Dutt had this song  shot in Technicolour too, better to showcase his heroine's stunning looks) and the heartbreaking Mili khaak mein mohabbat, among other gems.

Madhumati (1958)
Directed by: Bimal Roy
Singer: Mubarak Begum
Lyrics: Shailendra
Music: Salil Chaudhary
This is a beautiful song that was truncated in the film - the tawaif who is dancing for Raja Ugranarayan (Pran) in his haveli, stops dancing midway when Anand walks in to enquire about Madhumati's whereabouts. The song stops abruptly, but luckily for us, the audio records have the full version of this very elegant mujra. This was truly one of Mubarak Begum's triumphs.
Nalni Jaywant in Kala Pani (1958)
Directed by: Raj Khosla
Singer: Asha Bhonsle
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Music: SD Burman 
A young man in search of some answers runs into a prostitute who can give him some leads. She has, in her possession, some letters that just may help procure the evidence needed to prove a condemned man's innocence. Based on AJ Cronin's (a Dev Anand favourite) 'Beyond This Place', the suspense thriller was deftly directed by Raj Khosla; SD Burman composed a melodious score that included (but was not limited to) the frothy Acha ji, main hari chali maan jao na and the melancholy Hum bekhudi mein tumko pukare chale gaye.

Neelam and Kaneez (?) in Mahal (1949)
Directed by: Kamal Amrohi
Singers: Zohrabai Ambalewali, Rajkumari
Lyrics: J Naqshab
Music: Khemchand Prakash
This was a gem of a song that unfortunately got crushed under the juggernaut that was Aayega aanewala. One of the earliest mujras picturised, it is so totally unlike a mujra - the music is so understated, the setting does not look anything like a kotha and the instruments do not follow the usual sitar/sarangi/tabla/sound of ghunghroos pattern. 

Nargis in Adalat (1958)
Directed by: Kalidas
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics: Rajinder Krishan
Music: Madan Mohan
Nargis is forced by circumstances (and her in-laws) into a kotha where she has to sing and entertain clients. This is the first of the many mujras in the movie. The helplessness which Nargis portrays on screen complemented the pathos in Lata's voice. Nargis was no dancer, and all the mujras were performed by other dancers, while she lip-synced (and emoted) to the songs.

An eminently forgettable movie. I saw it a long time ago, and remember feeling totally turned off by the whole premise. However, some of the songs are truly classics, especially Unko yeh shikaayat hai, and the Lata-Asha double-sider Ja ja ja re saajna.

Jaya Bhaduri in Ek Nazar (1972)
Directed by: BR Ishaara
Singer: Lata Mangeshkar
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
Music: Laxmikant-Pyarelal
Okay, let's admit it; Jaya Bhaduri was no dancer. She wasn't even especially graceful. How they expected her to carry off the role of a dancer is beyond me! However, close your eyes when she dances on screen, and you will be able to enjoy the songs (Ae ghame-e-yaar, Patta patta boota boota, Pyar ko chahiye kya). 
Her talent was beyond question though, and this is also one of the roles that Amitabh should be proud of having on his filmography. He was beginning to channel the anger that he internalised in Anand, though it would not implode on screen until Zanjeer. The movie itself was a rather gentle love story that probably did not have any takers because though Anand had released a year earlier, he had still not had a solo hit (Zanjeer was not to happen until 1973). The movie had an intelligent script, non-stereotypical characters, and characterisations that went beyond the usual scope of a Hindi film. It is unfortunate that it did not achieve the commercial success it so richly deserved. 

Meenu Mumtaz in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962)
Directed by: Abrar Alvi
Singer: Asha Bhonsle
Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
Music: Hemant Kumar

One of those songs that inexplicably get buried amidst the other tracks. In this film especially, when the soundtrack boasted of some wonderful Geeta Dutt numbers like Na jao saiyyan, Piya aiso jiya mein, and Koyi door se awaaz de, and Asha had her own melodies like Bhanwra bada naadan hai, this Asha number is woefully ignored. 

Alcohol and dancing girls are the mainstay of the zamindars of the haveli. If they are not visiting the kothas, then Majhle Sarkar is enjoying a mehfil in his haveli; and Bhootnath, the naive village youth who has come to the city to seek his fortune, is, from his hiding place, visibly awestruck by the new experience of watching a tawaif dance.
In a film that Meena Kumari made her own, it is surely the director's touch that drew such wonderful performances from the rest of the cast, including those in the side roles (like the Badi Bahu).

12. In aankhon ki masti ke
Rekha in Umrao Jaan (1981)
Directed by: Muzaffar Ali
Singer: Asha Bhonsle
Lyrics: Shahryar
Music: Khayyam 
Rekha had made the courtesan's role her very own (when she was not playing 'other woman'), but this was perhaps her crowning glory. She lived the role which also won her a (controversial) National Award for Best Actress. Like Meena Kumari, Rekha used her wonderful, well-modulated voice with great effect to portray the legendary courtesan who was reputed to be a great poet in her own right. I know Dil cheez kya hai is the more famous number from a film that was also Asha Bhonsle's (and Khayyam's) triumph (she won the National Award for the number), but in my opinion, In aankhon ke masti ke is a far better number. My personal favourite, though, is the far more gentle and philosophical number that comes next...

Rekha in Umrao Jaan (1981)
Directed by: Muzaffar Ali
Singer: Asha Bhonsle
Lyrics: Shahryar
Music: Khayyam
The pain in Rekha's eyes as she emotes the pain, the loss, and the hurt at being treated like an outcast in her own hometown is but a foreshadowing of the hurt she will feel later.
I know this film does not fall under the period which I usually write about, but the soundtrack is a personal favourite and I could hardly write a post about mujras and not include Rekha. 

Similarly, there are two other Mujras that comes to mind - both from  Raj Kapoor's heavily symbolic Ram Teri Ganga Maili. The film, which was in the news more for its nudity (Mandakini's shot under a waterfall which lasted for all of two seconds on screen, and was hardly titillating or meant to be) than for anything else was, in my opinion, a much better movie than its box-office returns indicated. If there was a weak link, it was the hero, Rajiv Kapoor.

Ek dukhiyaari kahe baat ye rote rote was a mujra where Ganga is openly defiant of her exploiters who use her baby to make her do their bidding. While Ek Radha, Ek Meera  was especially poignant - both lyrics and picturisation. Ganga is forced to perform a mujra at her lover's wedding; full of pain, she nevertheless does not  blame the bride, Radha. Instead, she sings of the different ways in which Meera and Radha loved Lord Krishna. 

© Anuradha Warrier


  1. I'm sure it isn't going to surprise you that I had a mujra post in mind too (but no, nowhere in the foreseeable future)! And yes, it's not even surprising that Chalte-chalte, Kahoji tum kya-kya khareedoge, Najar laagi raja tore bangle par and Saqiya aaj mujhe neend nahin aayegi are mujras would also have been part of my list. :-) If I included later songs, the ones from Umrao Jaan, definitely. But as far as Pakeezah is concerned, I wouldn't know - I adore so many of its mujras (including the last one, Aaj hum apni duaaon ka asar dekhenge). Thare rahiyo oh baanke yaar re is a particular favourite:


    And this one from Kaajal is a bit of an oddity... Helen dances, but it is Raj Kumar who provides the vocals:


  2. I am disappointed not to see Salam-e-Ishq meri jaan in this list.... especially since you are such a big Amitabh fan. I thought that would surely make it, especially since Sikander joins in :(

    I *love, love love* the songs from Umrao Jaan and Pakeezah - those are the two definitive 'tawaif' films for me.

  3. My favourites were always from Umrao Jaan, and I always preferred In ankhon ki masti mein to the national award winning Dil cheez kya hai. And yes, how *could* you not add Salam-e-ishq? That would be the definitive Rekha mujra. And Kishore sounded great when he joined in. I could have done without Rekha's costume though; it looked horrible.

  4. I restricted myself to the pre-70s, and that is why. Also because, and this may be heresy, I do not consider Salaam-e-ishq a 'great' song.

  5. Rekha's costume looked horrible, her dance was even worse, and it was not that great a song (though I do like it), though, yes, I would add it if I were doing a post on Rekha.

  6. Nice. Very nice. Pakeezah and Umrao Jaan rank as my favourite 'tawaif' movies. The other two films that moved out of 'tawaif' territory and into prostitution that were really, really good were Bazaar and Mandi, though the songs are not in the same league,


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