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25 October 2021

When an era passes

The ‘Golden Age of Hindi Movies’ was truly golden because it allowed many unique talents to flourish simultaneously. While the spotlight shone the brightest on those on the top echelons of the profession – the actors, directors, music directors, and some (not all) of the lyricists) – the fact is, the industry wouldn’t have functioned without the second and third tiers of performers, technicians, and writers. And one amongst the many, who carved a unique place for herself, was Malika Begum or Malikunnisa, better known by her screen name – Minoo Mumtaz.

When her father, Mumtaz Ali, fell on bad times, it fell to her brother, Mehmood and little Malika to become the bread winners for their family. Not much was/is written about her, perhaps because she kept to herself most of the time. Or perhaps because no one really pays attention to a dancer or second-rung heroine. At best, she was referred to as “Mehmood’s sister’ – despite the fact that Minoo had entered films earlier. Which, to me, was always a puzzle – I couldn’t stand Mehmood or his comedy. But I could always watch Minoo Mumtaz dance. And act – as she did, among most of the famous comedians of the time, from Johnny Walker to Om Prakash. She even acted as the heroine in a host of films, one of which was opposite Balraj Sahni in Black Cat.

Minoo herself credited Kuldip Kaur for spotting her when she was shooting for her first film (Sakhi Hatim) and offering her a dance sequence in Miss Coco Cola (1955) for which she was paid Rs250. But her real break came with C.I.D. The film and its songs became a super hit, and so did Minoo. And it was mostly for her dances that she was most known and appreciated – whether it was her dance with Helen in Halaku, to the stylized set in Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam to the rakish appearance she presented as the man opposite Kumkum in Reshmi shalwar kurta jaali ka. She had a vivacity that made her sparkle on screen. She may never have received her due then, or later, but to me, she truly was part of the great artistes of the golden era. And so, in tribute some of my favourite Minoo Mumtaz songs, in no particular order.

Saaqiya aaj mujhe
Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (1962)
Singer: Asha Bhosle
Music: Hemant Kumar
Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
One of my favourite songs of all time, it is usually lost in the stellar score composed by Hemant Kumar. Yet, like in all of Guru Dutt’s films, this song serves to illustrate the decadence of the zamindars in the haveli. If they are not visiting the kothas, they are holding mehfils in their own homes, and the tinkle of the ghungroos and the beat of table echo among the dark corridors of the haveli, reaching the rooms where the chhoti bahu (Meena Kumari) is waiting desperately for her husband to come to her. Picturised on Minoo Mumtaz, VK Murthy’s camera focuses only on her – the background dancers appear in silhouette, making for a beautiful tableau that the na├»ve Bhootnath (Guru Dutt) gazes on in awe.

Saba se ye keh do
Bank Manager (1959)
Singer: Asha Bhosle
Music: Madan Mohan
Lyrics: Jaleel Malihabadi
How often do you see a woman reciting poetry, much less sing a song at a mushaira? I love this song, not just for the way Asha has sung it, but also for the sweetness of Minoo’s expressions. It’s a far cry from her mujras where the expressions are more blatant, more come-hither. Here, her eyes show her deep love for the man (Shekhar), whose beauty and presence she praises – in song. Can you blame him for being taken in? Watch it to see how expressive Minoo could really be, even in more ‘sedate’ performances.

Janu janu ri
Insaan Jaag Utha (1959)
Singers: Asha Bhosle, Geeta Dutt
Music: SD Burman
Lyrics: Shailendra
If you really wish to see how expressive Minoo could be, watch this song – a ‘teasing’ song in which Gauri (Madhubala) comes upon Munia’s (Minoo) silent appreciation of her swain (Sundar), and can’t help teasing her. At first abashed, Munia retorts in kind. The two friends teasing each other while their respective beloveds watch from hiding is one of the best examples of female companionshop on screen. “Raunak aa gayi mehfil mein’ was what was said of Minoo when she appeared on the sets of her film. One can see why. She seems to be filled with such joie de vivre that one can’t help but smile when she appears on screen.

Aji chale aao
Halaku (1956)
Singers: Lata Mangeshkar, Asha Bhosle
Music: Shankar-Jaikishan
Lyrics: Shailendra
What can be better than one good dancer? Two good dancers, of course. And that’s just what we get in this song from our own biography of Halaku, the grandson of the Mongol invader, Changez Khan (or Genghis Khan, if you prefer the westernised name). It is a song that (I think) is gratuitously inserted for the sheer pleasure of watching Helen and Minoo dance up a storm, but I’m not complaining.

Ye duniya usi ki hai
Gharana (1961)
Singer: Asha Bhosle
Music: Ravi
Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
I must confess that I chose this song purely for the dance picturisation – because it showcases Minoo’s versatility in dance forms. Keeping pace with Asha Parekh, who is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer, is no mean feat. That Minoo succeeds so well is a tribute to her talent and grace.

Main tumhi se poochhti hoon
Black Cat (1959)
Singers: Lata Mangeshkar, Mohammed Rafi
Music: N Dutta
Lyrics: Jaan Nisaar Akhtar
When faced with Minoo as his heroine, Balraj Sahni is reported to have said, “Who’s this child you’ve paired me with?” The age difference obviously bothered him. However, one cannot miss the sweetness of this song, or of the emotions expressed. Unlike the other songs in this list with the exception of Saba se ye keh do, this was not a ‘dance’ song. For Minoo was playing heroine, and this is a very romantic number. She did complete justice to both song and emotion, and it’s a shame that she didn’t get many chances to explore that facet.
Dil ki kahani rang laayi hai
Chaudhvin ka Chaand (1960)
Singer: Asha Bhosle
Music: Ravi
Lyrics: Shakeel Badayuni
The classic mujra. In a film that takes no notice of female agency, that treats women as objects to be palmed off from one to the other like so much collateral, that – even if we give it the benefit of place and time – was still deeply sexist to the core, the only thing that made it even semi-palatable were the songs. (I might have to rewatch it to see if my opinion will change.) Minoo has always had some good songs picturised on her, especially in Guru Dutt’s movies, and in this film, she has two (the other being Bedardi mere saiyya.n). As always, the songs make sense to the narrative – Aslam realises that Jamila, his wife, is the same woman that his friend and patron, the Nawab Pyaare Mian is in love with, and is of course, heartbroken. Rehana (Minoo), is the courtesan who guesses what is wrong with Aslam, and who attempts to console him.

Thodi der ke liye mere ho jao
Akeli Mat Jaiyo (1963)
Singer: Asha Bhosle
Music: Madan Mohan
Lyrics: Majrooh Sultanpuri
I don’t know what category of music this would be – it’s definitely a ‘club’ song, but the lilt is middle eastern and so is Minoo’s outfit, but there are also some Spanish castanets – Minoo dances like a dream, however. She also gets a better part than just ‘dancer’, even though she's a club dancer at an upscale restaurant, but she also plays Shobha, Seema’s (Meena Kumari) friend. Their shenanigans get Seema into a lot of trouble, but while the film may not have lived up to the songs, the songs – and Minoo – were worth the time. (On second thoughts, just watch the songs.)

Gore rang ki chunariya
Howrah Bridge (1958)
Singers: Mohammed Rafi, Asha Bhosle
Music: OP Nayyar
Lyrics: Qamar Jalalabadi
A street dance with siblings Minoo and Mehmood playing lovers scandalised so many people that this was the only film in which she paired opposite her brother. In fact, according to her, neither she nor Mehmood had thought much about their romantic pairing while they were shooting; they were simply having fun. However, many of their scenes together were cut due to these objections. Be that as it may, you can see the sheer joy Minoo finds in dancing in this song, so carefree and light-hearted that the romance seems oh-so-natural.
Woh chup rahe to
Jahan Ara (1964)
Singers: Lata Mangeshkar
Music: Madan Mohan
Lyrics: Rajinder Krishan
Jahan Ara
was scripted more as a Muslim social – or soap opera – than the historical it is supposed to be. The real story of Princess Jahan Ara is actually dramatic enough to make for a very good film. However, this film is not that film. Doesn’t really matter, when Madan Mohan scored a fabulous score with one beautiful melody after another; and then, we have Minoo as Shabnam, a danseuse who falls in love with Mirza Changezi (Bharat Bhushan), the exiled lover of Princess Jahan Ara. In this song, she not only addresses the man she loves, but also confesses her attraction to him. Unfortunately for her, Mirza is mourning the loss of his love.  

From Sakhi Hatim (1955) to Palki (1967), it was a short, but eventful – and successful – career. Minoo may have joined films on sufferance, but she acted in them on her own terms, and left the arc lights on her own volition. Thereafter, she kept away from the limelight. Yesterday, 23rd October, she breathed her last at her home in Canada, where she lived with her family. In one of her rare interviews, she ended by saying “Duaon mein yaad rakhna” to her fans and well-wishers. The ghungroos may have stilled a long time ago, and she may never have had the recognition she truly deserved, but she lives on – captive on celluloid, blessed by our memories of her.

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