Given the current, tragic takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in the wake of the American withdrawal of forces, I wanted to pay tribute to a contemporary phenomenon that we will probably not be seeing there anymore. In fact, I may write about a few of the people and groups in Afghanistan that are going to be in peril right now. But for this particular post, I wanted to pay tribute to Skateistan.
Skateistan, for those who are not acquainted with it (though it is so familiar to me now that I always assume everyone must be) is an international non-profit project that was originally started in Kabul in 2007 to encourage and teach skateboarding to children in Afghanistan, with a special concern about bringing in girls. The project developed further to become a general educational institution with classrooms teaching children all basic subjects, but with skateboarding as their special reward. The first Skateistan school was established in Kabul in 2009. In 2014, the project was expanded to a second Afghan city, Mazar-e-Sharif, but before that – by 2011, according to Wikipedia – it had also already set up in another country, Cambodia. And within a few years after that, they would build a new school in South Africa, beginning a truly international trend. But I believe that the efforts in Afghanistan are the ones that Skateistan will always be known for, especially because of so many well-circulated and publicized videos and pictorial features starring Afghanistan’s cool-looking hijabi skateboarding girls.
There are several videos or film clips about Skateistan that I wanted to point out here, and probably the best place to start would be a British-made documentary that won an Oscar/Academy award in 2020. That film is Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you’re a girl). (By the way, I tried to embed a copy of the film – from Vimeo – but it doesn’t seem to be working in this case. Fortunately, the link above should take you there.)
I have to say that I very much enjoyed this film, and I would highly recommend it. I am not going to supply a full kind of review here, but suffice to say that it contains excellent photography, very well-paced narrative, and some very moving interviews. There is one section of the film, about two-thirds of the way through, in which a couple of women relate how terrible it was when the Taliban controlled Afghanistan in the late ’90s. One predicts that many things would be lost – including, we assume, Skateistan – if they came to power again. Needless to say, it’s heartbreaking to think of those interviews now. But while it may be a little rough-going to watch interviews like those after the events that unfolded this week, there is actually fun and joy to be found in this movie too.
However, there is one kind of fun that I thought the film could have contained to a greater degree. And that is, I wish there were more actual skateboarding scenes! Maybe this film contained enough skateboarding scenes for the average viewer, but I do actually like to watch skateboarding. Fortunately, there have been a lot of videos put out by or about Skateistan, and if you watch enough of them, you certainly will see plenty of good “shreds.”
I first got my introduction to Skateistan from this fine video below, posted in about 2012. The video consists of on-screen typed descriptions of the Skateistan project accompanied by visuals, first of the Skateistan girls getting some regular education and then of the moment we’ve all been waiting for, when they get to do the stunts that they’ve learned on their skateboards. The music for the film is excellent; it’s a song by the rock group Florence and the Machine. Sometimes I grumbled – kind of jokingly – that they should have used some good Pashto music (and I also know where good Pashto music can be found!). But, actually, this Florence song works very well, making this little introduction to Skateistan quite memorable.
There is a good short video documentary about Skateistan skaters that was made at about the same time as the clip above. Actually, given the available dates, it seems to have been made a year or two earlier (although I did not see it until much later). It is called To Live and Skate in Kabul. This one starts off by following a few boy skaters, but soon it moves on to girls, too. It is very bleak for a while, describing and showing the skaters’ war-torn and poverty-stricken surroundings. But later, the mood picks up a bit, as we get to see the skaters doing what they love. Toward the end, there are some great scenes of boys and girls together (well, at least one girl…), skating through ruins (ancient ones, it appears, though we see plenty of signs of recent war damage too). But judging by the interviews with these kids, the feeling even during the best skate scenes is not exactly cheery – rather, we see prevailing anxiety and uncertainty (moods which turned out to be more than wholly justified, unfortunately).
I have seen a number of interesting short clips focusing on individual skaters (usually entitled “[So-and-so]’s Story”). A lot of them that used to be posted on YouTube, some actually showing some very good skateboarding moves, too – most of which were done by girls. Unfortunately, looking for these videos tonight, I have found that most either have disappeared or were turned “private.” This has to be a result of the recent Taliban takeover, and that thought is a bit unnerving, to say the least. But I have found one very good one, “Faranas’ Story” (from the “Ride Channel,” not from Skateistan’s own). This one does not contain a lot of skateboard moves, but like the award-winning documentary, it does contain a lot of very moving observations (on the part of this girl) and speculation about the future that can be a bit heart-wrenching when looked at from the present moment.
There is a ton of other video material to be found within news programs and the like, but I would not consider those to be as special as the independent videos specifically devoted to the skaters of Skateistan. Unfortunately, as I’ve mentioned, it seems that videos are being deleted and Skateistan’s own website already seems to be omitting Afghanistan as one of the places where they do their work. But Skateistan belongs most in Afghanistan – even the organization’s name says as much. Sadly, it seems that this is going to be the end of an era for this project. This is hardly one of the biggest worries for the people of Afghanistan at the moment, but it is a loss to mourn nonetheless.
It was three weeks shy of Kumkum’s first death anniversary. I had already thought about that and about how I and several of my fellow and sister bloggers had rushed to post our tributes last year because we all loved Kumkum. I was watching a bunch of dances – including some from Kumkum – and I even entertained the idea of doing a First D.A. tribute to Kumkum to follow up on my tribute from last year. And then I saw The News…
Wow. Now, I can’t say that the death of Dilip Kumar was all that surprising . . . I had already read news about his health sinking again in the past month or two and had already seen rumors of his death. He was 98 years old and his health had been notoriously bad for quite a long time – and we’d seen a few other batches of death rumors too. But for any fan of classic Hindi films, this news still had to be sad as well as jarring. A truly great one is gone.
I have seen many films starring Dilip Kumar. Among the classic actors in Hindi films, I have probably seen more starring him than anyone else. It makes sense, though, because probably no male Hindi film actor was more in demand than Dilip even – or especially – during the Golden Age.
Now, to be quite honest, if asked to pick my favorite male Golden Age actor in terms of the screen persona that he most often presented, I don’t know if I would pick Dilip Kumar. Probably, I would choose another Kumar, named Ashok. But Ashok Kumar has been gone for almost 20 years. In addition, Dilip Kumar might actually be the most skilled among all the actors, as many people assert. And he’s probably been more in the public eye in recent memory simply because he outlived all the other famous men. Recognizing all this, I should consider it my responsibility in this particular corner of the blogging world to write a full and thoughtful tribute to him. But, no, I’m afraid I’m not up to it. Fortunately, quite a few other bloggers have done very well at that. Not surprisingly, I see good posts from Madhu at Dustedoff, Anu at Conversations Over Chai, Karan Bali at Upperstall . . . And there are many, many more. Do a search and you’ll find so many Dilip Kumar tributes, you won’t be able to read them all. And for that, I am grateful. Thank you to all of you!
Meanwhile, yesterday, since I had been thinking of both Dilip Kumar and Kumkum, I had to do the most obvious thing that came to mind: I watched Kohinoor again.
I don’t watch films multiple times all that often, but Kohinoor definitely deserved a second viewing, especially since it had been so many years since I watched it all the way through. I’ve watched the songs – and especially the dances – countless times, but not the whole film. I don’t think I had watched the whole film since the time when I reviewed it on this blog, more than twelve years ago! (Wow, is it really that long? Yes it is. You can see the review here.)
In light of the time that had passed, I thought that I might write a new review, but when I reread the old one, I decided that it summed up the film pretty well. If there is any difference in my opinion upon viewing it the second time around, it’s that I love the film even more. With the second viewing, I was able to notice additional little touches in the performances of all these great actors that I hadn’t noticed before. What a great cast this was! And, by the way, though I have been emphasizing Kumkum’s role, I don’t want to understate Meena Kumari, who did a terrific job, as always. I think that Kumkum’s character was more interesting – from my perspective – and if I were Dilip’s character in this film, faced with those two sides of the triangle (poor fellow), I would have chosen Kumkum’s character – definitely. (Isn’t it great how movies can sometimes inspire the nicest personal fantasies?) But that doesn’t mean that Meena wasn’t great in this film.
Of course, the world lost Meena Kumari in a very tragic way a very long time ago. And now, I guess that every major actor in Kohinoor is gone. We haven’t yet lost everyone from the Golden Age. For instance, among those still standing, we still have Dilip Kumar’s first famous love in the film industry, Kamini Kaushal, now age 94. (Although I have read that she is not in the best of health and maybe I should not even be writing that line, if you know what I mean.) But with the death of someone as significant as Dilip Kumar, it’s understandable to agree with the already widely circulated declaration from Amitabh Bachchan that “an epic era has drawn curtains.”
I admit, it’s been a long time since I last wrote a post on this blog. One of the reasons has been a plethora of problems and distractions (as readers of this blog surely know, we are living in a troubled world). But I also have spent a lot of time delving into some old interests too.
As I may have mentioned in some “About” sections and other autobiographical materials, for a number of years before I started this blog, I was a part-time rock/pop music critic, writing tons of reviews for several small-to-medium-sized magazines specializing in lesser-known, independent or “alternative” kinds of pop music, rock music, electronica, and “world”/”global” music. I also have been fairly obsessed with rock music and the people who perform it ever since I became deeply involved in some punk and post-punk rock scenes during my mid-late teens and 20s. I suppose that most people are supposed to grow out of such interests, but I never really did. However, when I started falling in love with old Indian film music in the 2007 or so, I let that new obsession occupy the front of my mind while the older interest (and some others) receded a little toward the back for a while. But in the past several months, the old rock/pop obsession has reemerged in a big way.
And this time, I became very interested in exploring some of the historic rock/pop music that I might not have been as focused on before. At the beginning of the year, I became quite fascinated with a lot of the “girl group” music (which I have actually always loved to hear) and related music by female artists who emerged in the 1960s. After that, I let my mind wander into some of the psychedelia and other music of the later ‘60s, but rather than focusing on the big names with heavy production, I preferred the “garage rock” sounds as well as, simply, the relatively more modest and less bombastic pop singers of that day (some of whom also performed quite well in the areas of folk and jazz).
But I still do love old Indian film music, too, and that was why I was ripe to fall for a singer who could easily cross into both worlds; that is, someone who could do really good performances of these classic Western pop songs of the ’60s and ’70s and maybe even became known for that but who also was in demand as a performer or playback singer in at least few Indian films, fitting into those films nicely too.
In other words, I was ready to fall for Usha Uthup (formerly known as Iyer).
Usha Uthup has a very special voice as far as Indian film singers go, especially for the years that she has been active, starting in the late 1960s. When I (and most people, I gather) think of the Indian film singers of that time, I (we) think of higher voices, including some voices might also even be called “thin.” I suspect some people who just saw that word “thin” know exactly what I’m talking about, because that was one of the criticisms that was leveled at Lata Mangeshkar when she started out. And then by the 1960s, the “Mangeshkar sisters” came to dominate the world of film singing in India. Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, especially, ended up defining female singing in Indian films.
So I had no idea until the past few years that the Indian film world of the ’60s and early ’70s could have made even a little room for a voice like Usha Uthup/Iyer’s. Usha’s voice can be a bit lower and thicker even than many western female singers’, and it often has a certain unusually appealing hoarseness too. (And by the way, I did not come up with that word “hoarse” all on my own to describe her. I recall an interview with her in which she talked about how she was kicked out of a choir because the teachers, etc., could not find a way that she might fit in, in part, because – as she was told – her voice was too “hoarse”! But that’s part of what gave her such special appeal later on.)
There certainly was a huge contrast between Usha Uthup – or Usha Iyer – when she started out and the voices of Lata and her sisters – and that’s why it was doubly fascinating when Asha Bhosle and Usha Iyer were brought together to do a duet in the film Hare Rama Hare Krishna, in the song of that same name (sometimes referred to as “I Love You”). When I saw that film sequence, I thought to myself, wow, who is the lady singing the English part? And while it was not difficult to find answer to that question, for some reason, I took a few more years to get a good picture in my mind regarding who she was.
It is commonly known (as explained in Wikipedia, etc.) that Usha Iyer started out not as an aspiring playback singer but an increasingly popular singer in nightclubs. And while she was performing in those nightclubs, a number of interesting things happened to her. As a nightclub singer, she got to perform in a few cities, including Chennai, Calcutta, and Delhi. In Calcutta, she met her future husband, a man from Kerala whose last name was Uthup. (And that’s how the name change happened, in case anyone was wondering – in 1971.) Then when she sang at a club in Delhi, she was seen by a Navketan film crew (including Dev Anand), and that’s how she ended up singing in films.
Actually, before she sang in Hare Rama Hare Krishna for R.D. Burman, she got a role singing as part of a Shankar-Jaikishan soundtrack in Bombay Talkie, the 1970 English-language film directed by James Ivory (and produced by Ismail Merchant). She did not do playback singing in this film but, instead, her role was split between playing herself in a nightclub performance and singing as part of the background soundtrack. The night club scene in this film was the first of a couple of film scenes in which I have seen Usha Iyer simply play the role of nightclub singer, as she did in real life. I have to admit that this one is not my favorite (which I will get to soon), but it’s certainly noteworthy as the first.
As an aside, I will say that I wish Usha Iyer’s nightclub performance had been given a more prominent – and less tainted – spotlight in this film. The performance is basically provided as a background for a pretty unpleasant dialogue involving the main characters, who are fairly despicable characters too, if you ask me. (But that’s another matter – maybe I will get more into it if/when I write a review of this film some day). I have not been able to find a separate clip of her performing in that scene, but maybe it is just as well. I have found an audio clip of her performing the full song, which is kind of nice. The song is “Hari Om Tat Sat” The lyrics of the song are in English, and it is apparently a praise of truth – a theme that is also contained in the Sanskrit mantra that comprises the title of the song and the main verse. By the way, it could be that the message of the song was meant to connect to the characters and/or a general theme of the film in some way, but all I could think when I saw the scene in the film was that I would have liked to hear her sing the whole song without rude distractions. Anyway, this clip also shows a very nice picture of Usha, which is from Usha Sings Love Story and Other Hits, a compilation that came out in 1972. (This song is not actually on that album, but l will get to something that is a little later on.)
(Incidentally, I have noticed, just from a quick glance at YouTube, that she has done a number of other versions of this song through the years, sometimes in a very disco vein. But I think I would rather stick with this one, thanks.)
The other song that she is given in Bombay Talkie is “God Times and Bad Times,” which is used for opening and closing credits. This is a really soothing and sweet-sounding number, but, unfortunately (and I hope I am not spoiling anything by saying this), the second time that it is used, it directly follows a pretty horrific scene. So, in this case, Merchant and Ivory chose to distract us from a nice Usha song by tainting it with some terrible irony. But once again, still worthwhile… Here is another nice audio clip:
There was a film made a little later, in 1972 – Bombay to Goa – which also featured Usha Uthup playing herself as one of the singers in a nightclub, and as far as I am concerned, this is a place where she is much more given her due. (By the way, this was the second film in which she worked with R.D. Burman – a pretty good combination, apparently.) She never gets to complete any of the songs that she sings here, but she is given a chance to sing a piece of each song in the spotlight, and she is provided with a diverse batch of pop and rock’n’roll standards that allows us to see a good range in the type of singing that she can do. It starts out with Jose Feliciano’s “Listen to the Pouring Rain,” but it quickly moves on to other numbers, such as a jazzed-up version of the song “Temptation” (which has been performed by Perry Como, Bing Crosby, and others), the song “Fever” (made famous by Peggy Lee, among others), and even Gene Vincent’s rockabilly classic, “Be Bop-a-Lula.” The scene also offers a nice challenge for her in another way, as the two characters – played by Amitabh Bachchan and Aruna Irani – each keep throwing new requests at her as a result of some kind of rivalry between them. At the end, she is forced to go back to one song and then the next faster and faster, and it gets pretty funny. But we also know at this point that she would be perfectly capable of doing a great full version of any of these songs too. (And I believe there might be clips of her doing full versions of these songs. I have not looked for all of them, but I know, for instance, that you can find a full clip of “Fever” somewhere. But the bit of that song that she does here is also good enough for me.)
I must admit that I have never seen the full film Bombay to Goa, but I will get to it one of these days. I know that I should have watched it a long time ago!
Although the Bombay to Goa scene shows that Usha could cover a pretty wide range, it doesn’t really show the entire range that she could cover, even just during the short time between the late ’60s and early ’70s. For something quite different, let’s go back a few years, to 1969. After I saw some of her film songs, I was very pleased to discover some real ’60s rock’n’roll numbers – including some classic psychedelic/garage kinds of stuff – that she recorded with a band called the Flintstones. I was actually pretty blown away (as the hip saying goes) by her performance of these songs, and I was very curious to find out who the band was that she collaborated with at this time. It took a little searching, but eventually I did find a very good entry in a blog called Seven 45rpm. I strongly recommend this post, as the writing – the description of the music, etc. – is very good, as are the details that this blogger managed to find. But I’m just going to give a very abbreviated version of the information I found there: The Flintstones were a psychedelic/garage rock group who performed regularly at Trincas, the club in Calcutta where Usha sang in 1969. (By the way, per Wikipedia, this is also the place where Usha met her husband.) These Flintstones seem to have had a very strong cult following. Usha Iyer did not join the band, but she collaborated with them on a couple of great records. The record called “The Trip” is a roaring work of psychedelic garage rock. Usha’s vocals on this are really strong; she has no problem rocking as hard as the band. Plus, as the blogger at Seven 45rpm pointed out, there are some very interesting lyrics in this song, and we can pretty safely conclude that Usha, herself, wrote them.
Just as Usha Iyer was no stranger to psychedelic rock, she certainly was no stranger to folk rock and and other music that came out of the 1960s folk revival. The 1972 album Usha Sings Love Story and Other Hits is a testament to that fact. “Where Do I Begin (Love Story)” is actually the least interesting song on the album, but I can only suppose that it was made the title track because the film Love Story was popular at the time. Some much more interesting songs on the album include her rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne” (which is very good – as I expected it would be) and the spiritual number “Sinner Man,” which had been performed previously by Nina Simone, the Seekers, and the Weavers. The one song from this album that really fascinated me was “White Winged Dove,” which is a pure anti-war song originally done by the American folk singer Mark Spoelstra, who, per Wikipedia, had sung right beside Bob Dylan when Dylan first came to New York City. This artist is a little before my time, so when I heard Usha’s version, I had to go to Spoelstra’s version just to hear what the original sounded like (because I was not quite sure if I ever had before). And after I did that, I realized that I don’t like the original nearly as much as I like Usha’s version. Curiously, when I went back to find Usha’s version of this song again, I happened upon a performance that she did of it in 2014. That was surprising, but I don’t see why she wouldn’t do it in 2014, since it was just as relevant then and it is just as relevant now – in the U.S., where Spoelstra wrote it, in the UK, in India, and everywhere else.
Also in the general area of folk-rock and mellow ballads that you might find most easily in the ’60s and ’70s, I wanted to close with this other film song, “Love Is Just Around.” There’s some orchestration in this song, but it is also quite simple and laid back, and very catchy. Out of all the Usha songs that I considered for this post, this song was the one that got stuck in my mind the most. It’s in a different category from the other film songs, because it’s from a Malayalam film, “Chattakari,” from 1974. The music for this film is composed by G. Devarajan, who I understand to be one of the great music composers of Malayalam cinema. The film won a bunch of awards in its day and also was remade in 2012. I definitely like the look of this clip, too, and I’m going to make sure to see this movie some day.
I think that 1974 is the latest point where I want to go with Usha Uthup/Iyer right now. I know that a short time later, she started working with Bappi Lahiri, so there must be plenty of Disco Usha that I will need to catch up with sometime. And I know that there is plenty more that she’s done over the years, and I suspect that she is singing somewhere right now, at the age of 73. But if I wanted to do an adequate summary of Usha Uthup’s incredibly diverse repertoire, I’d probably end up writing a book. So I guess that for now, I’m just going to stick to the part that would be the first chapter – a few of her performances from this early, five-year period that have splendidly and perfectly matched my musical mood of the moment.
I am calling this post “Tributes to Bollyviewer” mostly because I want to recommended two fine tributes to Bollyviewer that appeared on other blogs. The blogs are Conversations over Chai (by Anuradha Warrier) and Dustedoff (by Madhulika Liddle). Both Anu and Madhu apparently became good friends with Bollyviewer both in the blogging world and outside of it. It is therefore fitting that they ended up writing the most moving farewells. I don’t imagine that this post is going to be nearly as moving, but I do feel the need to say a few things . . .
I trust that many people who read this blog have also read a blog by Bollyviewer, whether it was Masala Punch or the earlier Old Is Gold. To be frank, I also hope that you already know the following news and I am not the one to break it to you: Bollyviewer died on February 12 after a battle with cancer that hardly any of her readers even knew about. Because I had no idea, myself, I was very surprised when I found out a couple of weeks ago and, needless to say, it made me feel very sad.
I never met Bollyviewer in person, but I was acquainted with her in the blogging world for about a dozen years. She last posted a comment to this blog just a year and a month ago, but she had started sending me comments as far back as May of 2008. That was not exactly the time when I started this blog (which was close to a year earlier), but it was pretty soon after I had started to center it on old Indian films. Then by August of 2008, she was posting comments to my blog regularly, often offering helpful suggestions regarding things that I should look for and places where I could find those things (and others) on the Internet. She was definitely one of the bloggers whose comments below my posts contributed to my education about old Hindi films. Plus, I found her blogs to be very informative, engagingly written (they certainly had personality), and often funny, too. (If you look at a bunch of her posts, keep an eye out for the captions below her screen caps. Madhu shows a very amusing example in her post.)
If you read Anu and Madhu’s posts, you’re going to find a few things very similar to what I am saying here. That is because Bollyviewer also made a point to encourage both of them when they were new to blogging about Hindi films. She really went out of her way to make the nicest contributions to our little community of bloggers.
RIP, Bollyviewer. You are certainly going to be missed.
I have enjoyed Zakir Hussain’s superb tabla playing for a long time. And I actually even saw him live close to a quarter-century ago. That was in 1997, when I got to see him in my town, New York City, at Symphony Space (on Manhattan’s Upper West Side). (He was playing with an international array of percussionists, but I think it was clear that he was the star.) But I had actually heard his work much earlier than that, although I would not know about it until later. In 1973, he played with George Harrison on his album Living in the Material World. I had that album when I was only 11 or 12 years old, but I had no idea – I guess he was not given the same kind of billing in the rock world as Ravi Shankar (although he did accompany Ravi Shankar when they came to the U.S. in 1970 and his father was a famous tabla player who also accompanied Ravi a lot – i.e., Alla Rakha.) In any event, later, in the ’90s, when I got into a lot of rock and electronica that included Indian classical and folk influences (the early days of modern Bhangra and the “Asian Underground”), I started to see his name on special “world music” works put together by the likes of cutting-edge rock producer Bill Laswell. It’s understandable that Zakir Hussain appeared in all these rock-fusion projects because, as he has said, himself (during an interview that I am going to include in this post), he actually had an ambition in his early adulthood to be a “rock and roll star.” But he did have that Indian classical heritage; in fact, he was raised on classical tabla and had been a child prodigy in this area, too. Also, others told him that this was the area where he belonged most. So, he would dip into these rock projects now and then, but he could not escape his destiny to become one of the most famous Indian classical tabla players in the world.
In more recent years, I have had the pleasure of seeing countless performances by Zakir Hussain on YouTube. As an amusing aside, I have to mention that I have been using his tablas, playing through my noise-cancelling headphones, to remedy noise/banging problems being inflicted on me by my neighbors. Nothing blocks out the banging from upstairs like loud and rapid tablas going right into my ears!
I have also been checking out a lot of Zakir Hussain’s tabla performances more recently simply because I have become more addicted to them. But while it is always satisfying to hear Zakir on tablas, it’s even better to see those tablas accompanied by a terrific Kathak dance.
Zakir Hussain actually married a Kathak dancer; her name is Antonia Minnecola. Toni (as everyone calls her) is an Italian-American and she met Zakir in the Bay Area of California in the late ’70s, when she was in an early phase of her dance training. You can see them both talking about that marriage in the following interview, given by the actress Simi Garewal. (The first third or so of the video is an interview with Zakir alone, but Toni enters the picture at 8:04.)
Of course, Antonia Minnecola had a very interesting history as a dancer, too. Beginning in the early-mid ’80s, she trained with Sitara Devi, and (as I’ve already revealed in the title) they continued working together for three decades. Sitara also knew Zakir’s family well, and Toni was one of her favorite students. Toni and Zakir also helped Sitara to go on tours to different countries and, apparently, the Kathak training continued wherever they traveled.
There is a fascinating interview with Antonia Minnecola posted in the March 28, 2019 issue of Scroll.in. The title/headline is misleading, because it reads, ‘May I touch you?’: When kathak legend Sitara Devi met Hollywood royalty Marlene Dietrich. That incident between Sitara Devi and Marlene Dietrich is covered in just one very small paragraph in the article. Maybe the people at Scroll.in thought it would work as good click bait? But the subheading describes the article much more accurately: “Antonia Minnecola remembers her guruji, her loves, hates and fascination with Hollywood.” This is an excellent article for Sitara Devi fans, because it offers so many tidbits about Sitara – especially related to the subjects that the subheading describes. It also features some excellent pics and videos of Sitara, including a clip of one of her dances in the great 1942 movie Roti, posted at Tommydan333!
By the way, a little over seven years ago, I wrote a post about how the dance from Roti shown in this article resembles one by the great Hollywood tap dancer Eleanor Powell from a few years earlier. I even posed the direct question, Did Eleanor Powell’s dance in Honolulu (1939) influence Sitara Devi’s dance in Roti (1942)? Given what this article says about Sitara, her love for Hollywood, and even how she talked about Hollywood tap dancing, it would not be surprising to find out that Sitara, herself, was actually responsible for that influence. Maybe this would be something worth looking into more at another time.
But beyond the information that this article gives about Sitara Devi, it tells almost as much about Antonia Minnecola. While telling us about her fond memories of training with Sitara, Toni also shows the depth of her own lifelong love of Kathak and dance in general.
I looked through YouTube for a while to find some clips of Zakir Hussain accompanying Antonia Minnecola in Kathak dances and, unfortunately, I could not find many. But it’s great to find any watchable video document of the couple working together.
I was delighted to find the following clip of a concert in Berkeley in 1987. It’s a long clip to embed here – clocking in at over 50 minutes – and there are some odd technical issues regarding the camera focus and the colors (or lack thereof). But I found that these problems did not at all get in the way of my enjoying this clip a lot. In the first six and one-half minutes, the attention is given to Zakir Hussain and the sitar player Peter Van Gelder. Zakir does some impressive playing here as always, producing beats that become increasingly rapid to a point where this is really flashy. Then the camera stays focused on Toni. She also gets very impressive when she keeps up with Zakir’s more rapid beats. She does very nicely at a number of things: the arm movements, footwork, and the vocal recitation (aka padhant) of the rhythm syllables (bols). Another thing that I like a lot here is her story narration. This is one of those Kathak performances I have seen fairly often in which the dancer tells us the story behind each dance segment that she is about to get into and/or tells us what her upcoming dance movements are meant to represent. In general, I sometimes get a little impatient when I see this (usually in YouTube clips), because the explanations can get a bit complicated or hard to follow and I just want the dance to get started. (That’s when I see it done in English; of course, Hindi poses a whole other level of difficulty for me.) On the other hand, while Toni’s descriptions in this video certainly don’t seem to lack any vital details, they are also refreshingly simple and direct.
The next performance is a little more contemporary. There’s no specific indication on YouTube regarding when this performance occurred, but there’s no reason not to assume that it happened at around the time when this was posted, at the end of 2007. There are some unkind comments about Antonia below the video (I’m not sure why), but there are also a whole lot of “likes,” and I certainly enjoyed it. (In this clip, Toni and Zakir are within a few years of the age that I am now, and I find that impressive, too.)
By the way, there is no story being told here; I guess you can say that this is completely abstract, “pure” (technical) Kathak. Toni says a little in this clip, too, but she merely refers to the toras that she is “going to recite.” (For those who don’t know the terminology – a category that included me before I looked it up – a tora is a sequence of bols; i.e., the rhythm syllables.) She also mentions that one of the toras was a favorite of Sitara Devi’s (which is certainly nice to know). Of course, each of those recitals of the tora is followed up by some very nice dancing.
Unfortunately, though I found a few other clips of Zakir and Toni performing together, they were not worth embedding here, because of the low quality of the camera work, angles, etc., and/or the bad technical reproduction in the videos. I had originally thought of putting together a post that would cover other Kathak performers who were accompanied by Zakir Husain (and there are a couple of very good ones out there), and that would have resulted in a few more good clips to post. But I ended up wanting to concentrate more completely on Zakir and his wife Toni, because I was so delighted by the sight of them working together as well as charmed by their stories, including the great side story involving Sitara Devi (who’s been a favorite at this blog for a number of years). If anyone out there finds any genuinely good (other) clips of Antonia Minnecola performing Kathak while being accompanied on tablas by her husband, Zakir Hussain, I would certainly like to see them. But meanwhile, I’m glad that I’ve found the two that I posted above. The longer one, in particular – despite the technical problems – does seem kind of special, especially now that I have learned so much about this exceptional couple and their history together.
Three years after its release, I have finally had a chance to watch all of Shalom Bollywood, the much-touted documentary on the Jewish stars (or a handful of them, anyway) who entered Hindi cinema between the 1920s and the early ’50s. But I had seen such good trailers and so much preview material for this film on the great Shalom Bollywood website, it was almost as though I had watched it before. I also had read plenty of reviews, quite a few of which can be found on their website, too. And unfortunately, there is really nothing more that I can say about the film in any general, full review of my own. I had hoped that I could at least pretend to have a special perspective because of my “Jewish heritage” (because I am supposedly a “Jewish” New Yorker), but I actually had very little in the way of Jewish cultural education while growing up and my childhood was also completely lacking in the Jewish religion. (Neither of my parents was a believer!) In fact, when I saw in Shalom Bollywood how much some of the Jewish stars of Hindi cinema were devoted to the Jewish faith, it merely reminded me how much I wasn’t! So, I decided that it would not work well if I tried to write this review from the angle of personal Jewish pride.
Shalom Bollywood does contain good information about the individual stars, some of it given through decent interviews with either the stars’ relatives/descendants or, in one case, the star, herself. It was certainly nice to encounter the recollections of Pramila in interviews that were apparently conducted very late in her life. Then we are treated to extensive interviews throughout the film with her son, Haider Ali, who is also a contemporary actor and scriptwriter. We also get to see extensive interviews with the film star Miss Rose’s daughter, Cynthia Khalak-Dina, and granddaughter, Rachel Reuben, who is also a contemporary film editor.
Another feature of Shalom Bollywood that I especially appreciated was the glimpses that it gave us of some of the best song sequences that most of these stars were in. Unfortunately, “glimpses” is the correct word, since no full songs could be used. The snippets of song and dance were used creatively, injected into the narrative at different times. But I thought it would be nice for people see, and reflect upon, each of these songs in its entirety.
So, that’s what I am doing in the rest of this post: I’m sharing clips of the full songs here and adding a little commentary, reflecting on either something said in the film or something that occurred to me separately. (By the way, some of these will be familiar to longtime fans of Hndi cinema, but I don’t think most people reading this post could have seen all of them. At any rate, I feel that it certainly must always be a treat to encounter these numbers, whether you’ve never seen them or have seen them many times.) I am also going to link the titles of the films to a place where you can watch them. (Most of those videos were prepared by Tom Daniel aka Tommydan. A few were not, and the quality of those other ones is more questionable. But I’ll warn you where that happens.)
Before I proceed, I also want to mention that I know that one actress is conspicuously missing at the beginning of the list, although she definitely belongs there. That is Sulochana aka Ruby Myers. She was the first of the great Jewish Hindi film actresses, but since she made her splash in silent films and early talkies, there is little in the way of available songs to show. In fact, most of the film footage of her in general simply does not exist anymore. To compensate for this in Shalom Bollywood, we are treated to cute animations with photos of her head above drawings of her body, etc. There is some discussion of one of her somewhat later films (with a brief clip from it) and other things she did in the late 1940s, but it doesn’t include a song that you can see her in. But I will post one here – in appropriate chronological order – where you can at least see her on the sidelines. For now, I want to get to two great songs starring a couple of actresses who followed her.
1. Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham) in Basant (1942) – I was actually pleasantly surprised to see that this was the video clip of Pramila most prominently featured in Shalom Bollywood. I reviewed Basant a few years ago and I included this clip in that post too, but I still might not have given Pramila the full credit that she deserved because I had decided to focus on the Three Mumtazes. But under that post, a commenter named Anup Semwal emphatically stated that “Pramila as Meena Devi overshadowed everybody on screen.” And he might very well be right! Much as I like Mumtaz Shanti and Mumtaz Ali, and fun though it was to see Madhubala’s childhood debut as Baby Mumtaz, it could be argued that Pramila overshadowed every one in acting skills as well as beauty. By the way, Mumtaz Ali also looks beautiful in this dance (I once saw someone comment – and others agree – that he “dances like a woman” – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but Pramila looks even better! The music (by Pannalal Ghosh and Anil Biswas) and the dance are great too!
2. Miss Rose (referred to in the film as Rose Ezra but on the website as Rose Musleah) in Nai Kahani (1943) – This is the only film I’m mentioning in this list that I have not seen, and Miss Rose is the only star featured in Shalom Bollywood whom I did not know about. As we are told in Shalom Bollywood, she was Pramila’s cousin and was responsible for giving Pramila her first big break. Although she obviously made a number of appearances before Nai Kahani, this is the film of hers that gets talked about in Shalom Bollywood most extensively, and we are provided with some very nice glimpses of it, too. It was made in 1943, one year after the one with Pramila. Unfortunately, the copy of the flim that I can link to here is not very good. It’s technically a bit screwed up and hard to watch. Because of that and the fact that there are no English subtitles (which I still need for the most part), I haven’t rushed to watch it, myself. But anyone who feels up to it should certainly give it a try, since it is apparently historically significant. The clip of the song below isn’t so bad to watch, but when I played it with my headphones on, I found that the sound came out through only one channel. But it’s still certainly worth a viewing – the dance is very nice!
3. Sulochana (Ruby Myers) seen on the sidelines (and this is where I am cheating) in a song from Jugnu (1947) – Of course, the true star of this song is Latika, aka Gope’s wife. I posted about this song more than seven and a half years ago. Somewhat pertinent to the subject matter here, I was at first under the impression, based on some wrong information that I had read, that Latika was Jewish. The true story about that was very different – she had a complicated religious upbringing involving Christians and Buddhists, and she became a Jehovah’s Witness. So I had to take “Jewish” out of the title (though I obviously left it in the URL). But as I pointed out after correcting this information, there was a prominent Jewish actress in this scene; that is, Sulochana. You can see a great shot of her at 3:25 to 3:28. In Shalom Bollywood, there is a part where they talk about Sulochana’s role in Jugnu, and they show a clip of her in a scene that became somewhat controversial, because she encourages the admiration of a younger man. As we are told by the narrator at this point, even in the late 1940s, she still managed to stir controversy!
4. “Uncle” David (David Abraham Cheulkar) in Boot Polish (1954) – David is the one classic male actor prominently featured in Shalom Bollywood. I loved the film Boot Polish and I very much enjoyed his performance there. I did not realize that, as it mentions in Shalom Bollywood, this was the film that really made him. And in Shalom Bollywood, there is also some discussion about this song, “Nanhe Mune Bache Teri,” which I also happen to love. We are told some interesting things about David as a personality, that he was considered extremely charismatic and was always the life of the party. There was some talk about his being a diminutive man with a huge personality. I think that description might be a bit hackneyed, but I suppose it fit. It was interesting to read about, at any rate.
5. Nadira (Farhat or Florence Ezekiel) in Shree 420 (1955) – And now, last and greatest, it’s time to present the Queen! There is a lot of discussion about her role in Aan, but we are given glimpses of that role through dramatic clips rather than slices of songs. Curiously, we are presented with a few slices of songs from Aan, but they are ones starring Nimmi. I have to admit, I wasn’t quite sure why they did that. But then when the subject moves on to Shree 420, we are treated to Nadira, herself, in all her glory, via a good chunk of this fantastic dance:
6. Nadira in Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayee (1960) – The song “Dil Kisko Doon” has been stored on my pretty much now-defunct YouTube channel for close to eleven years. This was one of a bunch of videos sent to me by Tom Daniel, long before I ever had a chance to see the full movie and before I even knew about it. And I knew of a few other songs from this film for quite a while before I finally watched it in its entirety. In fact, this is the Hindi film that I have watched most recently, within the last month or so. The copy that I found was not technically great (there are those aspect ratio problems, etc.), but I could follow it well enough and it did have English subtitles. It was a pretty good film, and it was pretty fresh in my mind when I watched Shalom Bollywood. So it was a nice coincidence that this song was used as extensively as it was. The scene does not appear during just one sequence of Shalom Bollywood but is scattered throughout a long expanse. We are even treated to a glimpse of Helen from this dance during a much earlier segment, describing wild, partying times for Miss Rose and/or Pramila back in the 1930s and early ’40s! But, of course, we get to enjoy longer glimpses of Nadira during the Nadira part.
There is some mention in Shalom Bollywood about Nadira being a bit too type-cast as the vamp/villain, but on the other hand, she certainly seemed to enjoy those roles. And she played them so well! While Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayee is probably best known for its stars, Raj Kumar and, especially, Meena Kumari (and this particular dance is, of course, best known for Helen), it’s arguable that in many scenes, Nadira steals the show. Her irritable/jealous expressions during this “Dil Kisko Doon” scene are just so perfect! One almost cannot avoid using the cliche that there was no one like her. That might be why – if I am not mistaken – Nadira is the best-known among the Jewish “Bollywood” actresses, by far. And when I think about Nadira, I almost want to retract something that I said at the beginning of this write-up, because she might very well be enough to give even me a little Jewish pride.
I am indebted to the blog Mehfil Mein Meri for reminding me that I have long wanted to do a full post about the Vajifdar Sisters. The post that gave me this welcome reminder was Part 2 of a Dance Duets series, focusing on Dances presented as Mujra songs. One of the dances that this post included was the wonderful dance in Mayurpankh (or Mayur Pankh, depending on how we want to type that), featuring Roshan and Khurshid Vajifdar and choreographed by Shirin Vajifdar. As far as I know, this was the only film scene that brought in the talents of all three of these renowned siblings.
A little over a decade ago (just about a decade and two weeks), I posted the same wonderful dance, as one of three Outstanding Songs from Mayur Pankh (1954). Returning to this post after not looking at it for quite a while, I also was reminded of all the interesting comments that I received in response during the next few years. The commenters included not only some of my favorite regular readers of this blog but also a few people who either had been students of one or more of the Vajifdar Sisters or were related to someone who had been a student of theirs. I have to say, I greatly appreciated all of the feedback that I got for this post! But the two most interesting comments came from Jeroo Chavda, the daughter of Khurshid and niece of Roshan and Shirin. In the first of those comments, from May 9, 2011, Jeroo provided a great amount of information regarding the Vajifdar sisters, their training, and their experiences, as well as some added information about this dance and Mayurpankh.
Some of the most interesting bits of information about the Vajifdar Sisters that Jeroo mentioned in this comment – which I saw reiterated in a number of places later – included the fact that merely by pursuing a love of Indian dance, they were breaking away from the conventions of their Parsi community (or “broke the mold,” as Jeroo put it) and that they learned several different forms of classical dance (from very different parts of India) as well as folk dances. (Jeroo added that this was “very unusual for today’s times where the dancer only trains extensively in 1 or 2 styles.” Maybe it was a little more common back in their time? Even if it was, it is still impressive.)
In a subsequent comment a month later, Jeroo added a few interesting details that her mother had related about the film shoot – such as the fact that the conditions were “appalling” and “extremely exhausting” for the supporting actors, adding, “and that’s one of the main reasons that Khurshid, Shirin and Roshan didn’t accept other film roles that were offered after the success of this movie.” It was amusing to read that this scene was so unpleasant for the performers, considering that it was so pleasurable to view. The two Vajifdar sisters danced with great agility and grace while wearing the most beautiful costumes (something that they also were known for outside of the film world), and their dance was complemented by one of the most charming duets by Lata and Asha Mangeshkar, with music composed by Shankar Jaikishan. For the music as well as the dance, this is my favorite mujra-based duet from the Golden Age.
It’s a shame that the Vajifdar Sisters never accepted any film roles after Mayurpankh. I do know, though, of at least one other film dance that was performed by a Vajifdar Sister earlier, in the 1952 film Nau Bahar. I found that one and posted it on this blog in the summer of 2013. But I didn’t even realize the identity of the dancer when I posted it; I had selected that dance simply because it was one of Five Favorite Dances to the Voice of Rajkumari. Then, within a couple of days, I was informed in a comment by “Minai Minai” (aka Cassidy or Cassidy Minai) from the blog Cinema Nritya that the dancer was, indeed, Roshan Vajifdar, performing a dance that had been choreographed by Shirin. And, of course, the dance is marvelous. Although it is mostly classically based, one cannot trace it to any specific classical tradition (nor, certainly, can you just call it a “mujra”). As Cassidy/Minai also pointed out, this scene consisted of “such an unusual South-North hybrid dance and setting.” (I think it is in this dance – as opposed to the somewhat more straightforward, Kathak-influenced mujra in Mayurpankh – where you can get a good sense of the diversity in the Vajifdar Sisters’ dance background. But in an article about Roshan Vajifdar that I discovered in a July 2012 issue of The Hindu, it was made clear that Roshan Vajifdar most loved Bharatanatyam, which became her true specialty.) I should add here that the music for this dance is beautiful, too, since it was composed by a certain music director who also happened to be named Roshan.
Through scattered readings about the Vajifdar Sisters, I learned that while they were all wonderfully talented, both Roshan and Khurshid owed much of their initial success to Shirin. It was Shirin who had first started learning the traditions of Indian classical dance and who in turn trained the others to do the same. Thus, it makes perfect sense that Roshan and Khurshid depended on Shirin for their costume designs and choreography.
A little while after I had started writing this post, I decided to look for more information about Shirin, and that’s when I found some of her obituaries. Sadly, Shirin died on September 29, 2017. (Strangely enough, it was just a coincidence that I had started writing this post on her third death anniversary.) Among the obituaries that I saw in my searches, the most memorable one was the tribute that I found at Narthaki, written by a well-known dance critic and scholar, Dr. Sunil Kothari. Right near the beginning of his article, Dr. Kothari makes clear not only that Shirin was the Vajifdar who led all of the sisters on the journey into classical Indian dance, but that she also did so against a good amount of adversity. It was very amusing to read this paragraph summarizing how difficult that mission was at the beginning:
Facing opposition from the Parsi community for taking to classical dancing, Shirin continued to dance and trained her younger sisters. They used to perform together in Mumbai on many occasions. Shirin used to tell me that they were often threatened by her Parsi community that they would disturb their performances by throwing eggs and stones! But she was not afraid and did not care. There were others who supported her.
Later in the article, Dr. Kothari mentions some of the successes of Shirin and the other Vajifdar Sisters as well as saying a lot of glowing things about how Shirin conducted herself as a person. But Jeroo Chavda actually was the one who, in her first comment to me, gave me the best idea about the heights to which these sisters managed to climb (a while after their somewhat rough beginnings):
They were invited to perform before many heads of states for e.g. Shah of Iran with his first wife Soraiya and Jawaharlal Nehru. Also gave many shows on the ship Battori on which they sailed to London. They performed extensively in India and Mumbai in the Sea Greens hotel, Taj Mahal Hotel, Eros and Regal theatres. Shirin also gave many lectures/demonstrations in Haryana and Punjab universities.
I would like to think that the Vajifdar Sisters remain sufficiently well-known and appreciated in the present day. It seems that they still are significant to people who know the history of Indian classical dance, but I wish the Sisters had been more willing to withstand the unpleasantness of film production in order to make more appearances in that medium. I also wish the dance they did in Mayurpankh could be more available in videos – that is, in other versions and in different places. (Beautiful though their dance in Mayurpankh is, that clip could be better technically. Since the other clip in this post comes from Tom Daniel aka Tommydan, it doesn’t have those technical problems.) Nonetheless, the little bit that I saw did make me a fan of theirs, and the things that I read made me admire them even more. I hope that at least a few people out there agree with me. I would love to find more blog posts that mention the Vajifdar Sisters and more people who are interested in preserving their legacy.
On August 25, I happened to discover that it was the 110th birth anniversary of one of my favorite dancers in old Hollywood films, Ruby Keeler. Admittedly, Ruby Keeler never dazzled me with her dancing the way Eleanor Powell or Ann Miller did, but she has always ranked among the dancers whom I most enjoyed watching. She had something special about her that I never could quite put into words – until I found a good description of what that thing was in a blog post by Trav S.D. at Travalanche:
Movie fans love her tap dancing; most of the dance experts I know tend to be less generous with respect to her abilities in that area. One quality all agree on though is her appeal. She possessed an extremely rare mix of innocence and sensuality that is like cat nip to a male audience.
Thinking about that combination of innocence and sensuality, I realized that it could fit the description of a few of the dancers whom we know from Hindi films, too. But there was one dancer in particular whom I had seen described with those same words, and a very famous one at that. Those were the exact words that Jerry Pinto used to describe Helen in his book Helen: The life and Times of an H-Bomb. Quoting the line as it appears among other excerpts in the blog Blissful Nirvana:
She had the mix of innocence and sensuality that separates the girls from the women.
Might we say that Ruby Keeler was a sort of tap-dancing Hollywood equivalent to Helen (though she had her peak a couple of decades earlier)? I am not sure, but that idea would at least be a fun way to explain how they ended up dancing in these similar scenes . . .
One of Ruby Keeler’s greatest dances occurred in Ready, Willing and Able (1937). The song “Too Marvelous for Words” goes on for over seven minutes, but fortunately, a couple of people on YouTube excerpted the typewriter dance, which is the most impressive part of the number by far. Ruby Keeler’s dance partner in this scene is Hal Dixon, and they both do wonderfully tapping on the keys of a typewriter. (And by the way, no, the brilliant choreography is not by Busby Berkeley, though one would think so; the choreographer is Bobby Connolly.)
Now, I am sure that most good Helen fans are instantly going to know which dance I want to compare it to. That would be Helen’s “Typewriter Tip Tip Tip” dance in the Merchant Ivory film Bombay Talkie (1970).
I guess that this Helen scene (with dance partner Shashi Kapoor) might seem awfully short after such a buildup (and by the way, this is pretty much the entire scene – nothing cut here), but it is long enough to show that the director James Ivory had to have seen the Ruby Keeler dance and taken directly from it. (Or else, some choreographer or other kind of designer/director must have seen the Ruby Keeler dance. But since I can’t find separate listings that might give me a hint regarding who else could have come up with this, I will assume that it was James Ivory.) Of course, this film is not a real classic Bollywood movie but an English-language film sardonically about people involved in Bollywood movies, but that little difference does not discount the fact that Helen was just perfect for this dance!
The next Ruby Keeler dance that I had in mind is from Footlight Parade (1933), and the choreographer in this case was, indeed, Busby Berkeley (for director Lloyd Bacon). Here, Ruby Keeler dances with none other than James Cagney. It is the scene revolving around Shanghai Lil.
Now, the director Shakti Samanta and/or choreographer Surya Kumar and/or other people involved in the film Howrah Bridge (1958) must have known about Ruby Keeler as Shanghai Lil when they created the following scene. Although this breakthrough dance for Helen might have been a spoof on a whole group of American films or dance scenes, the reference to Shanghai Lil is unmistakable. (There is even a reference to Shanghai in the song!)
It would be fun to find out if there were any other dances that Ruby Keeler and Helen both did that were similar in some way. I don’t know if I have supplied enough evidence to show that they really did have similar qualities, but I like to think so, especially since I am fond of both.
RIP, Kumkum. Kumkum is one of my favorite actresses among those who did not typically get the role of heroine, and she is one my favorite dancers of any who appeared in films. She appeared in quite a number of films (probably many more than I will ever even hear about) and she was well-liked, but it seems to me that she was underrated as an actress and a dancer – especially as a dancer. And that is not because there aren’t a lot of people who’ve said she was a good dancer, but because she was great. She should have gotten many famous roles as a starring actress-dancer, on the same plane as Vyjayanthimala.
Kumkum has done wonderfully in everything from classical to cabaret, and she has been fantastic in both solo dances and duets. So, for this post (which, by the way, also marks the eve of this blog’s 13th anniversary), I have decided to undertake the highly enjoyable (if sad) task of posting seven favorite dances by Kumkum. Most of these dances are going to be classical or semi-classical, because, even though she covered such a diverse range, that is the area of dancing where I have been most impressed by her, as well as the kind that I like the most.
I’ll start with the first solo Kumkum dance that I saw, which was also one of the first Kathak dances that I ever saw in Hindi films. (By the way, I am specifying this as the first solo Kumkum dance because I might have seen a Kumkum duet dance before I saw this. To find out what that is, go to the end of this list.) In Kohinoor, Kumkum’s classical dancing skills were unmistakably excellent – which is a great part of the reason that she was the one who most impressed me when I watched that film. As a few people might remember, in the review that I wrote more than eleven years ago, I even said that if I were Dilip Kumar’s character in that film and were given the choice between the adoring attentions of Meena Kumari’s character and those of Kumkum”s, I would definitely have chosen Kumkum (or Rajlakshmi, as her character is named in the film). Beautiful though Meena Kumari might have been – and even though she also was one of the greatest actresses (and is certainly one of my favorites) – Kumkum became far more appealing to me in this movie, especially once she started dancing. In addition to that dancing, I think her character was much more interesting, and even in her acting, she outshone Meena here.
There are a couple of dances from Kohinoor that I’d like to post, and I’ll start with the famous one. I imagine that everyone who knows a little about Golden Age Hindi films knows about this song. Many know “Madhuban Mein Radhika Nache Re” as an excellent Rafi song, but I like to think there are many who also know it as, possibly, Kumkum’s most perfect Kathak dance. And, needless to say, I’ve watched it countless times.
On the other hand, sometimes I like “Dhal Chuki Sham E Gam” even more. This dance strays a bit farther from Kathak, but Kumkum is so incredibly exuberant here, and it’s impressive how much – and how quickly – she can change poses. I particularly like the part where she falls to the floor – which is why I have used a screen cap from that scene as my image header for this blog quite a few times (including now).
Moving beyond Kohinoor – but still very much in a classical and historical setting – I would like to call attention to what I think might be Kumkum’s most adorable dance. I’m not going to say that she outshone Suraiya in Mirza Ghalib (I don’t know if such a feat would have been possible), but I loved the dance that she did to “Ganga Ki Reti Pe Bangla Chhawai De.” I also enjoyed hearing her get playback singing from Sudha Malhorta (someone whom we did not hear enough of in the Golden Age films), and I really enjoyed the transition at the end to Suraiya’s number,”Aah Ko Chahiye Ek Umar Asar Hone Tak.” I think it’s unfortunate that the script required the Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar to look so relatively bored with Kumkum’s performance, but I guess it was necessary because he was not hearing the words of Ghalib during this one (the lyrics in her song were by Shakeel Badayuni), and it was necessary to show a great brightening in his mood when Suraiya came out singing Ghalib. Still, I think he should have appreciated Kumkum for her dance alone!
This next semi-classical dance has been a favorite of mine for a decade. Admittedly, Basant Bahar is one of the two films I am referring to here that I have not actually watched (though I know I really should), but I have been aware of this dance ever since Tommydan posted it ten years ago. (But his post of the dance is on Dailymotion – which is why you get to see another video source here this month. It is difficult to find a quality copy of it, especially on YouTube.) This is a fantastic dance, and it also features some of the best dancing that I have seen by Nimmi, another much-loved Golden Age star who has left us, just a few months ago. But even though Nimmi is very charming here, I think Kumkum clearly shows her greater skill and agility as a dancer. It’s interesting that this dance also draws from Bharatanatyam, which is not usual for Kumkum. And there is a particularly impressive moment in the middle where Kumkum nearly touches the back of her head with the bottom of her foot. At that point, she enters the realm of Sayee-Subbulakshmi and Kamala Lakshman!
In this next song, from Mr. X in Bombay, Kumkum wears some very nice classical attire, though I think the dance is not really very classical but quite recognizably “filmi.” Still, it is a very good dance. I particularly like the part of the number where Kumkum sort of dances with Kishore Kumar, when he gets out of his seat and does a brief quasi-dance, himself. (Of course, Kishore Kumar is singing for himself here, in a very fine duet with Lata Mangeshkar.) I have to say, I am not sure what to think of this film. Mr. X in Bombay is very silly, but it does contain some seriously good song and dance.
For the sixth dance (which is actually the seventh one that I found for this post), I am sort of cheating a little. Let me explain: I had said that Kumkum had done great cabaret dances as well as classical ones, so I wanted to make sure that this list included the perfect Kumkum cabaret dance. I had one in the back of my mind that I had seen before, but it wasn’t from a film that I had watched, and I could not place it. Fortunately, I am not the only one coming out with a Kumkum list this week. (In fact, there are a few.) One day before me, Madhulika of Dustedoff posted her fine Kumkum list, and that’s where I re-found this perfect Kumkum cabaret dance! It’s from the 1960 film Dil Bhi Tera Hum Bhi Tere. There is not much more I can say about this, except that Kumkum is very lively in this one – a lot of fun to watch!
And now for the final dance, here is one that many of us know and love. This might actually be the first dance I saw that included Kumkumn, before I saw her dances in Kohinoor. For a dozen years, at least, I have positively loved watching this duet dance that Kumkum does with Minoo Mumtaz in Naya Daur. Part of the reason is that I am a big Minoo Mumtaz fan, too. (And by the way, Minoo is alive and well and living in Canada now. But there is a slightly superstitious part of me that says, maybe I should not have just typed that. Stay well, Minoo!) Anyway, there’s also a great dynamic between Minoo and Kumkum here, making this one of the best female “drag”-related dances that I have ever seen. And both these dancers are captivating as well as amusing with what I take to be somewhat exaggerated Punjabi folk dance movements. It’s certainly the funniest out of the dances that I am posting here, but the humorous aspect does not hide the fact that we are looking at a couple of great dancers, with a marvelous sense of timing and rhythm and the best expressions. But did they really wear such blinding colors in this dance? I kind of doubt it – the colorization in this version turned out to be a bit garish. On the other hand, I prefer the colorized version to the black-and-white ones that have been available. The images look clearer, and I find the English subtitles to be very helpful. (When I first watched Naya Daur on DVD about a dozen years ago, it was a black-and-white version with English subtitles. But who knows if one could even find that now?)
As I have mentioned before, the list that I have put together is only one of multiple tributes that I know are being posted this week in honor of Kumkum. And I am glad that so many people have decided to pay tribute to her. She may not have gotten the consistently top billing and appreciation that she should have during her time, but clearly, she is far from forgotten now.
As readers of this blog might guess, my knowledge of contemporary singers in the Bollywood industry is relatively limited. Once we get into the periods when the Golden Age greats no longer dominate (and very much beyond the time of my Vintage favorites), my knowledge is probably more limited than that of most Bollywood/film fans (especially those who actually live somewhere in India, rather than in New York). But once in a while, I do stumble upon someone who does contemporary work in Bollywood whom I really like – thanks mostly to YouTube – and then I make it my mission to learn more about what that person has done.
One contemporary singer whom I was really taken with this month is Neha Bhasin. But I did not get drawn to her because of her film work (though I do certainly like a couple of her film songs that I have checked out) nor for her more pop-oriented music from several years ago. Instead, I was drawn in by her performances of old classics, including a few Punjabi folk songs. And I usually like the performances that are “unplugged” or at least done in a basic way, without elaborate production. So, maybe it is cheating to say that I have found a favorite new singer of contemporary Bollywood music since I like her most when she performs old, classic songs (most of which I have seen and heard before in very old renditions by other singers).
In any event, getting to the point now, here are a few examples of the kinds of performances by Neha Bhasin that I like most:
This first video is actually pretty nicely produced and well directed, and per the description on YouTube, a short part of it did appear in a film, Veer Zaara (which a little research tells me would have to be the 2018 remake of the 2004 film). The director of the Video is Sameer Uddin, who also did the musical arrangements; he also would become her husband about a year after this video came out. And Sameer Uddin is obviously her main music guy in most of the videos that I’m including here (a very convenient arrangement!).
This rendition, like all the ones she does, is maybe a little westernized and modernized compared to the classic originals, but it is distinctly recognizable as a classic Punjabi song. (Her voice may also seem more contemporary than the classic Punjabi/Indian voices, but it still suits the old folk songs well; it is both full and sweet.)
In this particular song, I hear more of a jazzy quality than in her other covers, too, so the arrangement might be slightly more complicated than most, but it is still easy for the ears to follow. (Incidentally, the instrumentation becomes very interesting – I really like that dulcimer, which is credited to Chandrakanth Lakshpati.) The video is also quite fascinating – I love the pigeon scenes! And on YouTube, within the comments, you can find a translation of the Punjabi lyrics. (They are vivid and sometimes sweet, but sad and a bit troubling, starting with the lines: “A cob of millet, quite effortlessly, oh yes, I can twist and grind it between my palms/ My lover, angry and out in the street, oh yes, I made him return by using my charms!”)
This next song is a pretty familiar Punjabi folk song. I did not find a translation, but I did not look that much, because it hardly matters when the music is so charming.
Incidentally, I tried sharing this the other day with a fellow New Yorker who is not familiar with Punjabi music (or any Indian folk music) and he said it sounded good but he had “obstacles” to enjoying it fully because of his unfamiliarity with the language. That seems so strange to me! I mean, certainly, sometimes you can enjoy the song more when you can understand the poetry, but I cannot imagine lack in understanding of the language as being an obstacle to enjoying a vocal performance and music!
Anyway, once again, all musical arrangements here were done by Sameer Uddin, who I imagine does at least some of the playing of string instruments (we’ll see his nice guitar work more clearly in the next video). I believe this was made a few months earlier than the other one, so it would be over a year before their marriage, but they are already so musically well matched! By the way, I have heard the much older version of this song by Surinder Kaur, and this is obviously more modern, a bit more Western, too, etc., but the arrangement is pretty basic, and I imagine most will find that the integrity of the folk music is very much left intact. Once again, I appreciate the visuals in the video, too. It is very pleasant how the camera follows Neha on her bike ride through this neighborhood. (And if anyone could identify the neighborhood, please tell me, because I am curious. I am guessing that it is in Neha’s hometown, Delhi.) Almost needless to say, Neha is also quite nice to watch here as well as to hear!
My next favorite Neha Bhasin video is one of a couple of “unplugged” videos that I watched, from 2018. This video is very simple, with Sameer accompanying Neha with his guitar alone. It is literally filmed in their living room, and it could have fit in very well with some “lockdown” set, but, of course, it’s not that recent. Still, when they did this, Neha and Sameer were already a couple of years into their marriage, and the two seem very charming and happy together. (Though off screen, one never knows! I hope there isn’t any “Bajre Da Sita” kind of stuff going on between them – just kidding there.)
The song that Neha and Sameer cover in this video is a pretty familiar Punjabi folk number, too. I know that this song was performed very nicely decades ago by the Pakistani singer Musarrat Nazir. It’s one of those wedding folk songs that I just cannot imagine anyone not liking!
When I watched Neha and Sameer in these “living room” performances, it reminded me a bit of seeing another couple performing together, the New York couple that consists of the the Indian-Canadian-American singer Kiran Ahluwalia and her Pakistani-American guitarist husband Rez Abbasi. I am thinking, particularly, of their livestream from just a month ago, which actually was a lockdown performance. Kiran Ahluwalia sings some Punjabi folk, too (among other things), since that’s where her roots are. But Rez Abbasi’s guitar playing is very jazzy and he is known for delving into African rhythms, etc., so the Neha/Sameer performance is much closer to the traditional Punjabi folk (Western/modern aspects notwithstanding). And I admit, I can get into the mood for Neha and Sameer more easily, much as I like the other couple, too (and even though I have listened to Kiran Ahluwalia for quite a few years).
Also, from those Neha/Sameer “living room” sessions, here is the song where I first noticed Neha. It is not a Punjabi folk song but, rather, an Urdu film song. (Though the woman who originally made this song famous certainly knew Punjabi too!) Maybe I would not have gotten so curious about Neha if I had not seen her do a cover of an old Noor Jehan film song! Needless to say, I was very pleased to see her rendition of “Chandni Raatein.” It is quite charming, and it is always a major pleasure for me to see someone perform this song well.
And now, to close my post on Neha, maybe it would be fair to include an actual film scene, since I imagine she is best known for her film songs (or at the very least, best paid). I’ll provide this scene from the 2016 Hindi film Sultan, because I really did enjoy her singing performance here, and, obviously, I’m not the only one, considering that this film earned her a Filmfare award. She sings for Anushka Sharma, and it’s a nice combination, though strangely enough, when I watched this, I missed seeing Neha Bhasin.
P.S. While I have posted those five clips of Neha Bhasin because they caught my attention and I am happy to share them above others, this doesn’t mean that they are necessarily her best songs or that this is a definitive sample. Everybody who is curious about her music should explore more, starting with her YouTube channel (where most of the videos above come from, of course). In addition to seeing more Hindi and Punjabi songs, you can check out the ones that she did in Tamil and Telugu. (She has won awards for a few South Indian film songs.)
One reason that I picked the particular songs that I did is, exactly, because they were recognizable old classics, and I had fun linking to some very old versions too. I still do love the very old stuff that I have been blogging about for so many years!
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