When we think of Bollywood today, the one word that comes to mind instantly is masala, that mega-genre that combined every genre and therefore remained indefinable by genre, that improbable, eyeroll-inducing yet humongously entertaining mishmash of every human experience – romance, action, comedy, drama, emotion – and music to tie it all together.
But Bollywood wasn’t born to the masala manor, so to speak. In fact, post-Independence Hindi cinema was far more about making films with a social message, films that sought to unite an India still fractured and reeling from the trauma of Partition. When the sociocultural rifts healed somewhat and the national mood improved, the hard-hitting films of the 1950s, like Mother India, Naya Daur and Do Bigha Zamin gave way to the more cheerful frothy films of the swinging ‘60s — who can forget Shammi Kapoor rolling down a snow-capped mountain yelling “Yaaaahooooo!” in 1961’s Junglee?
It took hard work to create the mega-genre that is classic Bollywood masala, and if there is one person responsible for it, one baap of Bollywood as we know it today, it is Nasir Husain. Scriptwriter, director, producer with a near-unerring eye on the box office and an ear perpetually in the recording studio, Husain is credited with creating the masala movie, with 1973’s Yaadon Ki Baaraat. He had been around for much longer, of course, but it was in the 1970s that he truly found what was to become not just his groove but Bollywood’s groove.
In the week of Nasir Husain’s death anniversary, a look back at one his most successful masala movies, Hum Kisise Kum Naheen.
When the music is a movie’s raison d’être
Starring Rishi Kapoor, Kaajal Kiran in her debut, Tariq, Zeenat Aman, Amjad Khan, Om Shivpuri and many others, the 1977 caper is ostensibly about a hunt for diamonds.
A rich man carries his entire life’s earnings in the form of diamonds in a belt on a flight to India, but has a heart attack at the airport. He gives them to his fellow passenger, Seth Kishorilal (Kamal Kapoor) with instructions to deliver them to his son, Rajesh (Rishi Kapoor), who makes a living singing and dancing at a hotel. There are goons waiting to steal the diamonds, though, and Kishorilal ends up hiding them in the bicycle of a stranger (Sanjay, played by Tariq).
A separate track follows the childhood love and betrothal of Sanjay and Kishorilal’s daughter Kajal (Kaajal Kiran), who have been separated by fate for 12 years but have never forgotten each other — except now Kishorilal is wealthy and has no time for his old friends who aren’t well off.
What follows is nearly three hours of highly convoluted plotting and planning to get the diamonds, mistaken identity, random song picturisation (including school children doing PT exercises for some reason) some good and some gratuitous (and some incredibly crude) comedy, a hugely improbable cross-border abduction and action sequence involving helicopters and horses and performances that are not terribly convincing, although they make up for that in enthusiasm.
But the thing about a Nasir Husain movie was that it wasn’t about the plot or the acting or the editing or the willing suspension of disbelief. Or, perhaps, it was about all those things, but they were held together by one thing — music. The one thing audiences were guaranteed in a Husain film was fantastic tunes that would be loved and played on loop by future generations as well. And with his A-team of music director R.D. Burman and lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri, along with the best singers in the business — Asha Bhosle, Kishore Kumar, Mohd Rafi, Sushma and Burman himself — this is a movie that is all about the music.
The first song comes less than 10 minutes into the movie. Bachna Ae Haseeno sets the tone for Rishi Kapoor’s Rajesh — flamboyant, ever smiling and with an air of entitlement about him that often spills into arrogance (it’s a good thing he has that smile). By contrast, when Sanjay, who is also a musician, sings, the mood is completely different. Chand Mera Dil is slower, more romantic and far more soulful.
Interestingly, both songs served as inspiration for later films — while 2008’s Ranbir Kapoor starrer titled Bachna Ae Haseeno had a remixed version of the former song, Shahrukh serenaded Sushmita Sen in Main Hoon Na (2004) with Chand Mera Dil. And the title of Yeh Ladka Hai Allah (Asha Bhosle at her flirty, frothy, fun best) was used in Karan Johar’s Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham (2001). That’s called influence.
Music wasn’t a gratuitous element of cinema for Husain. It was something he took very, very seriously, and it sometimes took his story forward as well. Like in Kya Hua Tera Vaada, which proves to be a turning point in the movie. It’s the song Sanjay and Kajal sang to each other as kids, and it’s the song by which he reveals his identity to her 12 years later, when she thinks he has simply been lying to her for fun. It’s tortured and hurt and loving and, in many ways, the soul of the film.
But perhaps the highlight of the soundtrack is the four-song medley that takes place when Rajesh and Sanjay compete on stage. Except it’s done so nicely that it feels less like a competition and more like a jugalbandi. Chand Mera Dil gives way to the fiercer, thumping Aa Dil Kya Mehfil Hai Tere, which segues into the more earthy Tum Kya Jaano Mohabbat Kya Hai and finally, the ABBA influence comes in via Mil Gaya Tumko Saathi. The four songs are completely different in tone and tenor, but Burman manages to make it work — somewhat like a mini masala film in a film.