Tony Askew, my super boss at BetzDearborn had an acerbic wit. Although he was British, he lived most of his life in America, and I guess, this was the reason, his humour was not the understated kind one normally sees with British people. He spent few years in India and we were fortunate to learn a few things from him.
As I walked into his office one day in the nineties, he asked me, “Ramesh, I think all the Bollywood actresses would die of pneumonia. You know why?” I was taken aback a bit with his hilarious diagnosis and told him I could not hazard a guess. He said, “With all the singing and dancing behind the trees, in their wet sarees, getting drenched in rains, what do you expect?”
I am not sure if the actresses even had a bout of flu – forget pneumonia – with all the wet dancing. But you can get the drift.
Indians grow up with music from the movie industry which then becomes part of everyday life. We don’t have The Beatles or the ABBA or for that matter MJ and Britney Spears. On the other hand our singers who sing those songs for the actors are equally famous. Lata Mangeshkar has sung more than 30,000 songs over a period of six decades.
When the satellite TV came to India, most of the channels brought all the millions songs from the movies to your home. You could see stars of yesteryears singing and dancing in wet sarees (well the wet saree thing is bit exaggerated).
Why would I pick two from the millions of songs available in twenty odd languages? Both of them are kind of trend setters. One is for the dance by Vyjayanthimala and the other one for brilliant emoting by the legendary Tamil/Telugu actress Savitri.
Hindi movie Sangam was released in 1964, directed by Raj Kapoor, one of the best known showman of Indian Cinema. Vyjayanthimala had already established herself as the top heroine in Hindi Cinema (the first one who migrated successfully from the Tamil movie industry to Bollywood). In those days, the item number as the raunchy songs are called, was reserved for the actresses who played the vamp roles and this was the first time a leading actress played an item number. Heroines were always portrayed as pure and divine descendant of an angel. Even Lata Mangeshkar had doubts singing the song which she thought was too sexy. Raj Kapoor convinced them both and the song, ‘Main Kya Karoon Ram, Muje Buddha Mil Gaya‘ (what should I do my God? I got an Old Man) was pictured which went on to become a huge hit.
She (Vyjayanthimala) taunts Raj Kapoor when he refuses to take her to a cabaret. Her acting is spontaneous and dancing brilliant. She taunts him that he is an old man, when people go to park they bring flowers but he husband brings her a cauliflower. His hair is grey and looks like her grandfather.
What I like most about the song is Raj Kapoor’s expression when seeing his beautiful wife belting out a raunchy number and prancing around him. He just sits on a chair as if he had drunk a bottle of Milk of Magnesia.
The last line where Vyjayanthimala jumps on to a stool to complete her dance is simply breathtaking. Watch it here and you will understand why is this song such a trendsetter.
Mein Kya Karoon Ram – Mujhe Buddha Mil Gaya.
The Second song has none of this. It’s watchable for two reasons, the melodiousness of the song and the superb acting by Savitri. You would wonder how much can you emote on a song which was on Lord Muruga, basically a Bhakthi song.
The song ‘Singara Velane Deva – சிங்கார வேலனே தேவா’ (Come Lord Muruga), was picturised for the film ‘Konjum Salangai – enticing anklets.’ It was released in 1962 and the playback singer S. Janaki who sung this song became widely popular. This was the song which gave her identity in the movie industry. She was not trained in classical Carnatic music. But this song, set in Raga Abheri (akin to Bhimpalasi in Hindustani Music) was rendered beautifully by her and with Savitri’s acting and excellent composition by SM Subbiah Naidu still remains a favourite song of millions.
Savitri is humming a song while making sandalwood paste. She hears Nadaswaram (a popular wind instrument of the South) repeating her lines and runs away from the scene. Gemini Ganesan who plays the Nadaswaram finds her and asks her why has she stopped singing. She replies shyly that her song is nothing in front of his melodious instrument. He encourages her to continue, saying it would be a mixture of honey and nectar.
She hesitates at first, then picks up courage and starts slowly. She sings a line and the Hero plays the same line on his Nadaswaram. After a couple of lines, she gets immersed in the song while watching him repeat her lines.
First she thinks she is not good enough for him, but slowly understands she is not doing bad either. A stanza later, she acknowledges that he is able to match her when she sings long lines. A little later, she applauds him when he repeats a difficult line. All this is just done just with eyes and not a word is spoken by either of them. She then challenges him with a tougher line and when he completes it, her eyebrows lift in appreciation. Her eyes don’t leave him throughout the song, even when she gets up to adjust the wick of the lamp in the temple. Amazing acting! You would never think that she is just lip-syncing for the song, but actually singing it. The song which is actually a devotional song has a tinge of romance which is played subtly throughout.
The song was recorded in Bombay, well, the vocal part of it. The Nadaswaram which was played by Karaikurichi Arunachalam (a mastero of Nadaswaram) was recorded separately in Madras as he was not able to travel to Bombay due to ill health. It was mixed to perfection in those days when such technology was at a very primitive stage. Mr. DBS Jeyaraj has written an excellent article about the song and you can read it here: Singara Velane Deva.
Singara Velane Deva – சிங்கார வேலனே தேவா
It would not be possible to watch these three and half hours tearjerker movies even in the comfort of your living room and even if your finger is on the fast forward button on your remote all the time. But the mesmerising songs in these films will teleport you to the golden age of Indian Cinema.