Book Name – Music Masti Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain
Author – Akshay Manwani
Publisher – Harper Collins
Pages – 402
Price – 599
In 1957 came a film called Tumsa Nahin Dekha. It featured a heroine called Ameeta. The hero was a fellow named Shammi Kapoor. According to the grapevine, the film was made as a showcase for the leading lady; the hero was a struggler, and was meant to play second fiddle.
Up until then, the director, Nasir Husain, had written the screenplay and dialogues for a bunch of films which included Paying Guest and Munimji. Both had Dev Anand as hero, lilting music and terrific lines. Dev was supposed to be the hero in Husain’s debut feature, but fate decreed otherwise.
What happened next is Hindi cinema lore. Tumsa Nahin Dekha turned out to be a smash hit. Truly, Shammi sa na dekha. He became a raging sensation overnight. The coy, lip-biting heroine was forgotten, because when Shammi was switched on, eyes all sleepy-sexy, looking sideways at the heroine, throwing himself around and yodelling, you couldn’t look at anyone else.
Shammi Kapoor became a star. And a jubilant Nasir Husain became the man with the golden touch.
What the combine did was to craft a “modern” Hindi film hero, for whom the serious task of nation-building and cementing “Indian values” wasn’t an imperative, as it had been for the heroes of the earlier era. The nation was already in place. It was time for the siren call of young love, light-hearted romance, and non-stop music that we still hum today.
Akshay Manwani’s biography of Husain fills a crucial gap, as it goes about painstakingly documenting the life and times and work of a man who isn’t as celebrated as he should be, given the lasting impact he’s had on the filmmakers who followed in his wake, which includes nephew Aamir Khan, son Mansoor Khan, as well as romance kings Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar.
There are interesting nuggets about Husain’s early years and friendships, and how he gravitated towards cinema. The author dissects his films, sharing anecdotes which shed light on Husain’s working style, and casting choices, and most importantly, his passion for music (in his foreword, Aamir talks of how there used be a turntable in his car, a big attraction for his children, and his nephews and nieces, who would all hop in with him on his rides) and his progression from writer to producer-director.
But to me, what stands out is Husain’s keen awareness of what he did best: create a musical universe which was in sync with the times, and which was what audiences in the ’60s were looking for — charismatic heroes and perky heroines engaging in flirtatious, free-spirited banter, comedians who made them laugh in halki-phulki films that didn’t strain the brain.
He repeated plots. He repeated tropes. Why, he even lifted entire scenes from previous movies. Son Mansoor talks of how he and his sister Nuzhat made fun of those familiar plot points (“phir wohi coincidence, phir wohi uska baap nikla”). His detractors pointed out that he made, essentially, the same film. But like all genre filmmakers, he knew what he knew and he stuck to it: there was no one quite like him when it came to creating unadulterated, unabashed, full-on fun.
That insistence on entertainment-at-all-cost-and-logic-was-for-silly nitpickers, was carried over into his work in the ’70s: his Yaadon Ki Baraat was the film which set a template for “multi-star” movies. It gave us Zeenat Aman holding a guitar (and spawned a zillion young hopefuls singing ‘Chura liya hai tumne jo dil ko’ in music competitions). It gave us a villain with those memorable un-matching shoes. And a song which united teen bichchde bhai. It was all supremely slushy, and supremely entertaining.
Creating fun on screen is not easy. It can turn laboured if the filmmaker doesn’t know his ropes. Husain not only knew exactly how much and how little to reveal, he knew that life was a journey, and the hero had to sing, and make us all fall in love.
Other madcap entertainers like Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra are still remembered today: could it be because they worked with Amitabh Bachchan who strode through the ’70s and owned the decade? Could it be that Husain, who created huge stars with his films, fashioning them in his own bon vivant, man-of-the-world image, doesn’t have instant recall because he did not? Could it be that he himself didn’t make as much of his gifts and downplayed them?
The point is moot. What is inarguable is that the abiding image of the singing dancing back-chatting hero was polished and buffed to a shine that was all Husain’s own. This book is a testament and testimony to his lasting Bollywood legacy.
I challenge you to watch a Nasir Husain film and not burst into song.