Who among us would not have heard the song ‘Chaudhvin ka chaand ho, ya afataab ho…’? It was one of the most popular tracks of its time, showing a man singing to a woman who lies sprawled on a bed. You may even recall that the actors in it were Guru Dutt and Waheeda Rehman. But who remembers the plot of the film Chaudhvin ka Chand, in which the song arose?
As discussed in the previous chapter, it’s the story of a chap who inadvertently marries a woman that the nawab he is beholden to fancies, and how he tries everything to undo this mistake. But perhaps not many remember the story of the film.
This tells us something fundamental about our recall of cinema – that we don’t think first of the stories or of the values that drive them. We think scenes, faces, songs. We’ve seen the hero’s necessary disdain again and again for wealth and desire but that is still not the first impression we carry away. We never look back and think of the storyline of any film first, if we think of it at all. And we certainly do not think of the Gandhian influences that drive his most decisive steps through the story. If our memory doesn’t pick out the repeated pattern of heroic surrender through cinema, blame – or perhaps thank – above all else, the song.
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So, the song ‘Chaudhvin ka chand ho…’ is to us Mohammed Rafi’s voice, Guru Dutt’s face, and depending on just how crazy we are about music, Sahir Ludhianvi’s words and Ravi’s music. We’ve probably heard the song more than we’ve seen it. But look closely at the song and see just how sexual it is.
It appears when Guru Dutt’s character, Aslam, is alone with his beautiful bride through that mistaken generosity of his benefactor, who had actually wanted her for himself. It starts at the moment the hero discovers her, discovers that he has her. Starting with a humming prelude, the hero’s desire advances upon her all the way from a welcome she hints at to the consummation she invites. She’s stretched out on her back on the bridal bed, knees drawn up. The hero opens the song staring at her with naked intent. The words comparing her beauty to a full moon seem to touch her, she stirs. Her breasts, in a shimmering white blouse, rise up and down, in a rhythm more urgent than normal breathing might demand. She feels his gaze upon her; she rolls over on her stomach and turns around to look back at him. He leans over her, she arches herself. He advances to sit on the bed. She now lies still to watch him move in close. She sighs deeply, with her breasts thrust forcefully upwards. The song now sings of the beauty of her eyes, we see them full-screen. They announce the intimacy she is waiting impatiently for. She turns her back teasingly to him to face the camera. The eagerness in her eyes says more than lyrics could.
She lies back again to settle her head on the pillow in languorous prostration. The hero leaps upon the bed, and would have leapt upon her too had she not slipped away in teasing avoidance. Just some fully clothed foreplay. But the teasing must stop some time during this nuptial night. He walks towards her with arms open. She walks straight into them.
She disengages again to lean against a post on the balcony. He reaches out this time from below. Slowly, she lowers her gaze until her eyes seem to weigh straight down upon his. Enough song and dance, they seem to say; she wants him to make the move. Except that there’s another verse waiting to unfold more foreplay. The singing voice sounds too aroused to continue. He takes a step to her again; she holds him this time in intimate embrace. The camera pans to a reflection of the embracing lovers in the pool below, until a pebble blurs the reflection for the sake of modesty.
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Going back to the couple, we see the wife’s lips brush the husband’s shoulder. She now heads purposefully back to the bed; he follows. She looks back almost reproachfully for his delays; he, poor chap, still has the song to complete. It ends with the two in coital closeness, her lips parted in an inviting smile. The scene ends from outside the blinds as the lights go out within. The song drips sexual desire. But it’s the only time we see the protagonist’s desire for a woman. Once he discovers he has married his benefactor’s dream woman, he spends the remaining duration of the film trying to get rid of his much-loved wife.
This is what songs do in just about every film – they express the desires that the heroes sacrifice or reject in the actual story. Desire in song, surrender in prose – the pattern is repeated with near uniformity over generations. The song resolves a great dilemma in the presentation of the hero.
The story needs a hero who is a figure of stoic restraint, of noble resistance to the temptations of wealth and desire. But the hero must have another, more desirous, face. The love story will need that ‘electric’ moment, however sacrificing the hero may otherwise be. A moment must come when he must show he wants her. That’s when the song floats into the film to give his want a voice. Past the song, he will relapse into noble surrender. But at least for a few minutes, we have a lover. The two faces of the hero – in script and in song – do not look unrecognizably apart only because audiences have become so accustomed to the switch. What should have been an oddity – that when a hero desires, he must sing – became a matter of course. The change is odd, if you come to think of it.
But we don’t sit down to think of it; we just watch a story we know will keep breaking into song. That stylistic switching between story and song cloaks an underlying switch from surrender to desire. We almost do not notice that the hero of Chaudhvin ka Chand went one way in song and the other in story. It all blends when it shouldn’t. We know the inseparability of song from story in the cinematic package. The blend of contradictions gave us the surrendering seeker; it gave Bollywood the character we know it for.
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Like the bilingual sentence spoken across India, the film brought differences into a single whole. It is obviously odd how in the most visual of expressions, we see some things but don’t take notice of them. It is, of course, intended to be that way. The screen slips things to us. We don’t need to freeze every element of the picture to get the picture.
In a properly conservative society, ‘one doesn’t say these things’ that express desire. And so, they get said, and shown, in song. The hero is Gandhian when he speaks, flirtatious when he sings. Casting a romantic Gandhi would, of course, need extraordinary measures.
This excerpt from ‘A Gandhian Affair: India’s curious portrayal of love in cinema’ by Sanjay Suri has been published with permission from Harper Collins in India.