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02 November 2016

The Lost Legacy

It is in darkened theatres across the various Indian cities that I lived in that I first became acquainted with films. There, sitting alone amidst many strangers, I lost myself in a world that was populated by good looking heroes and beautiful heroines, where love and conflict and revenge and drama all played out in three hours, usually with a very satisfying end – they all lived happily ever after. 

The ‘happily ever after’ was very important. One just didn’t get that satisfaction with ambiguous or outright sad endings. As you can see, my masala roots go very deep. By the time I entered my teens, television had entered our drawing rooms, and the beautiful people had moved out of the dark, musty theatres into our well-lit living spaces. They were still beautiful, their conflicts were still engaging, and coupled with songs by Mohammed Rafi or Kishore Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar or Asha Bhosle, we were sufficiently entertained for a few hours.  

It wasn’t long before I began noticing – almost unconsciously – the production houses that made the movies I so loved. We, sort of, knew what to expect from each. So it was that the minute you saw the NH logo, the N and H sharing the upward stroke, and you heard ‘Kya ishq ne samjha hai, kya husn ne jaana hai…’ you relaxed in your seat and prepared yourself for2.5 hours of sheer entertainment.

For Nasir Hussain, the man behind it, was an unabashed – and unashamed – proponent of ‘entertainment, entertainment, entertainment.’ It is he, who is the subject of Akshay Manwani’s latest book, ‘Music, Masti, Modernity – The Cinema of Nasir Husain’. I had been introduced to Akshay by fellow blogger, Dustedoff, who knew of my love for all things masala. And so, after many emails back and forth with Akshay about Nasir Husain’s films and what I thought of them, it was with great eagerness that I awaited the book itself. Having an insatiable curiosity for all things filmi, I was quite frankly interested in knowing more about the man who, quite famously, said that he had come to the film industry with a single plot in his pocket.
HarperCollins Publishers India
ISBN 978-93-5264-096-6
Rs599, 402 pages
The book begins with a foreword by Aamir Khan, Nasir Husain’s nephew, who credits his uncle for his career, and an introduction by the author, in which he explains that this is not a biography of the prolific film-maker, but an attempt to understand his films, to accord him a place of respect in the history of Indian cinema, and to record his legacy for posterity.

The book doesn’t follow a linear narrative or Husain’s filmography, preferring to focus instead on ‘the dominant themes, tropes, styles, sensibilities, and impact of Husain’s cinema’. So each chapter is a trope, and Manwani makes the case for them, using examples drawn from Husain’s oeuvre.

It is clear that the book is a labour of love;  it is extensively researched, and many of the facts – taken from Husain’s interviews, or mentioned in interviews with people who worked closely with Husain such as Shammi Kapoor, are cross-checked with people who might be presumed to know – Mansoor Khan and Nuzhat Khan, Husain’s children; Aamir Khan; Subhash Mukherjee (the nephew of S Mukerji, a man whom Husain considered his mentor); Javed Akhtar, Nasreen Munni Kabir (who interviewed Nasir Hussain herself), besides journalists and other film historians.

It quickly mentions how Husain’s formative years shaped his influences – Urdu poetry and English literature – and how, despite family uproar, he joined the film industry. Manwani mentions the close relationships that Husain forged – with the Mukerji brothers (an apprenticeship that influenced his own brand of film-making), Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, OP Nayyar, Majrooh Sultanpuri, RD Burman, Asha Parekh, etc. He examines how Husain’s own nature – spendthrift, extravagant, insouciant – came to be reflected in his heroes, who often embodied these ‘virtues’ on screen. 
From Music Masti Modernity. Pic: Courtesy: Rauf Ahmed
Manwani also brings to light the various features of Husain’s cinema, that he claims were pioneering in their own right: how Husain changed the face of the Hindi film hero by doing away with the seriousness of earlier heroes; how  he believed in the 'wooing' part of romance, and made it an integral part of his stories; how his stories moved away from hearth and home to quaint hill stations far away (thus doing away with ‘go to a hill station for a song’); how Husain’s women are more ‘modern’ than those that came before, venturing into night clubs and restaurants which were once considered the domain of the vamps [more about this later]; indeed, of changing the face of restaurants and clubs from dens of iniquity to a place where the rich and the upwardly mobile middle class could go to relax.

Husain is also probably the first to make [most of] his heroes (Western) musicians by profession (nor are his heroes seemingly bothered by their lack of steady employment). This allowed Husain to better integrate songs into his narratives. Manwani pays tribute to Husain’s incredible sense of music, and examines how much of an input Husain had in the music of his films. (A lot.) He talks of Husain’s close relationship with RD Burman and Majrooh Sultanpuri, and how both stalwarts were in tune with Husan’s cinematic idiom. He quotes Sunil Dutt on RD Burman – ‘He understood youth like no other music director did.’ That could perhaps be said of Nasir Hussain as well, and not just about music. Husain stayed relevant to modern youth, reinventing himself again and again, attuning himself to their music, their dress and their attitudes.

As an examiner of Husain’s legacy, Manwani is also very observant about some interesting (and amusing) ‘trends’ in Husain’s films. Have you noticed, for instance –?  
  • That the couplet that plays against the NH logo at the start of every single Nasir Husain film has interchanged the ‘husn’ and ‘ishq’ in Jigar Moradabadi’s couplet? (I hadn’t.)       
  •  That Husain’s films consistently had red as a motif? Whether it was his earlier heroes who tended to carry a red sweater casually draped around their shoulders, or his heroines who were draped in red at some point? (Who can forget Zeenat Aman’s 'laal kapdewaali memsaab' in Yaadon ki Baraat?) Or even the sets as in Yaadon ki Baraat,  or the dancers in Hum Kisise Kam Nahin?
  •  That Husain’s characters – heroes, heroines, paternal figures, comic side actors, et al, break into English phrases amidst their dialogue?
  • That a lot of the action – multiple disguises, infiltration into a household under false premises, etc., are Wodehousian (Husain’s favourite author) in their scope and feel?
  • That ‘Sugar in the morning’, which inspired a tune in Dil Deke Dekho was legally obtained? Husain paid Columbia Records a royalty for the use of the tune.

The book moves into poignant territory when it tackles the fall of Nasir Husain – three flops, the movies terribly out of sync with what came to be associated with the ‘Nasir Husain touch', bad movies as both Mansoor and Aamir admit it shattered Husain, and led to his withdrawal from the world of making movies. 
It would take Qayamat se Qayamat Tak (QSQT) a title that he provided – to bring Husain back as a writer. But that wasn’t enough for the man who felt that he had lost his connection with his audience. Nor was Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikander (JJWS) or Akele Hum Akele Tum, for both of which Husain wrote the dialogues. Whether it was the inherent tehzeeb (a word that both Manwani and Javed Akhtar use in connection with this film) in the dialogues for QSQT, or the language and idiom of the youth in JJWS, Husain remained relevant, even if he didn’t feel so. (Mansoor Khan notes how he once walked in on his father watching one of his old movies and sobbing inconsolably.)   

Manwani has done a yeoman job of keeping the narrative flowing smoothly, and is – to a very large extent – an unbiased narrator of history, preferring to let Husain’s work speak for itself. His appreciation of all that Husain had to offer is evident in every page. I agree with Manwani’s argument that Husain has been unfairly relegated because his films focused on fun and frolic. Certainly, I am indebted to Mr Nasir Husain for giving me some of the most entertaining hours of my life. 

However, Manwani's admiration for the man behind the cinema does break through now and then, turning him from an author recording a man’s legacy into a fan. I got the feeling that Manwani sometimes stretched too far to find explanations to fit his theories; for instance, while talking about Sar par topi laal, Manwani mentions how the use of ‘laal’ must have been due to Husain’s prescience about the coming of the colour film, instead of Majrooh Sultanpuri’s dire need to rhyme his line with the succeeding one, ‘haath mein resham ki roomal’. For the use of colour, whether laal, neela or gulaabi, has been in place long enough – Hawa mein udta jaaye mera laal dupatta malmal ke (Barsaat/1948), Neele se dupatta pe hain peeli dhaariyaan (Mukhda/1951), Main toh odhoon gulaabi chunariya (Humayun/1945)… none of which, I'm sure, were foretelling the future.

Manwani also appears to give Husain a bigger share of the credit for films such as Paying Guest (script) and Teesri Manzil (script, producer); especially for the latter, I think, because despite Husain’s script, Teesri Manzil was, at least to me, a quintessential Vijay Anand movie. (Disclaimer: Akshay and I had a series of email battles over this one.*)

Also, Manwani’s need to make Husain some sort of pioneer of the ‘modern women’ in cinema seems skewed. Yes, indeed they wore Western clothes and went to clubs, they danced in abandon, etc. But I think the 'modernity' was very superficial, and it had less to do with being (or wanting to be) 'progressive', and more to do with Husain being tuned to the diktats of the box-office sari-clad actresses probably wouldn't have appealed to his target audience. Actually, very few of Husain’s heroines are noteworthy; indeed, one could argue that his films were never about his heroines; they were almost always about his heroes, his music, the songs, the sets and the locales.  

Nitpicking: the overuse of [sic]. Why? Especially in places where it wasn’t really necessary. The many different spellings of ‘Mukerji’, for instance, in the magazines from various years. There wasn’t a conformity in the spellings even in the film credits of the time, so it’s not unusual for a common surname to be spelled using its many variations. In quoting Jai Arjun Singh’s (Jabberwock) comment on Yaadon ki Baraat, where he mentions ’...but when 20 years rush by…’ Apparently, it is 15 years in the context of the film. The correction could have been made without the snark.

Or in the prologue, where we see this [sic] employed in Shammi Kapoor’s speech where he says [of Tumsa Nahin Dekha] – ‘his first directorial picture’ [‘film’ or ‘movie’]. ‘Picture’ was a very well-used colloquialism back in the day. Why mock it? Or when quoting Nasir Husain referring to himself as ‘paidaeesh badmaash’. Why the [sic] after ‘paidaeesh’? (For the transliteration?)

Secondly, the translations are wrong in many places: ‘instinctively mischievous’ for ‘paidaeeshi badmaash’, which would more accurately translate as ‘a born rascal’; ‘Shaukeen’, which is translated as ‘extravagant’ (when ‘epicurean’ might fit the bill better); ‘fikr’ as ‘sorrow’, instead of ‘worry’… and so on.

However, these are minor peeves. 

Filled with photographs that Husain’s family so generously provided, intensive interviews with people who had personal and/or professional relationships with Husain, and a detailed filmography (year, cast, story synopsis), this narrative is well-researched, well-written (and well-edited!) and does much to give Nasir Husain his rightful place in the history of Hindi cinema. Nasir Husain's story needed to be told, and it has been told well. In the final reckoning, Music Masti Modernity The Cinema of Nasir Husain is pretty much like a Nasir Husain film – completely engrossing.

*In the interests of complete disclosure: I have been quoted in the book.  

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