Updated: October 3, 2021 8:54:21 am
In this weekly column, we revisit gems from the golden years of Hindi cinema. This week, we revisit the 1955 release Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje.
The song and dance routine has been an essential element of Hindi films from the early days but in watching films from the 1950s and early 1960s, one comes to realise that song and dance don’t just play a supportive role. In fact, it provides the film with an identity and eventually, its success. And though the commercialised form of music and dance has always found takers, the audience of the 1950s was keen on accepting the classical form. What the 1952 film Baiju Bawra did for classical music, the 1955 film Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje did for Kathak, and revisiting this V Shantaram classic is an ethereal experience.
Starring Sandhya and Gopi Krishna in lead roles, this V Shantaram film amongst the first few to be shot in technicolour and one can see how the sets and costumes must have provided an overwhelming sensory experience to the viewers who, at that point, were only used to seeing black-and-white visuals.
Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje centers around the love story of Neela (Sandhya) and Giridhar (Gopi Krishna) who are both learning dance under the same guru, Mangal Maharaj (Keshavrao Date). Their life is dedicated to their art but when they fall in love, it is considered a sin against their sacred art form as they have now compromised their dedication. The film’s plot revolves around Neela’s guilt of falling in love with Girdhar, who is destined to be a great dancer, and Girdhar, who can’t really make up his mind about her.
Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje examines the debate of art in its pure form v/s when it is simplified for commercial purposes. In the beginning of the film, when Neela is told that what she practices day and night is nothing but “bazaari naach”, she is heartbroken. When she questions her teacher, he gives her a rational excuse, “I was asked to teach you in six months, alongside preparing a troupe. What else was I supposed to do?” At this point, the film makes it clear that in this universe, art is not to be sold for money but to be practiced for respect, dignity. Yet, as the film progresses, you learn that Mangal Maharaj, who condemns commercial dance, is preparing Girdhar for another dance competition, which he considers worthy. His art also seeks validation, but from a crowd whom he considers his peers.
Through various dance and music montages, you see the hard work that Neela and Girdhar put in to become the best dancers as Mangal makes it clear that greatness can only be achieved by sacrifice. The two fall in love, but in this world, it is forbidden. Watching it in 2021, it is interesting to watch a scene where a character points out that Neela and Girdhar might fall in love as they are spending too much time together. To this, Mangal snaps back and says, “The men in our gharana don’t think about marriage until they have achieved the highest rank in dancing, and when they get married after that, it is only so they can continue the familial line. Not for love.” This particular dialogue sticks with you as it speaks about the perception of love in this society. For a character like Mangal who is into creative arts and understands the nuances of emotions more than an average layperson, romantic love is a sin but loving their art form is the biggest blessing.
Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje is full of dance sequences that leave your mouth agape, all choreographed by Gopi Krishna. As his Girdhar leaps from one corner of the screen to another, you are left awestruck by his delicate dancing style. His movements, his exemplary expressions, and his attention to detail make it impossible for you to look elsewhere. And Sandhya’s Neela matches him step by step. Gopi Krishna was a renowned dancer at the time who eventually became a popular choreographer in Bollywood but Sandhya was still a newbie to dance at the time. As far as their acting is concerned, it does look like a stage play performance at times which makes this make-believe world even more artificial.
As Neela and Girdhar dance their way into each other’s hearts, the conflict of Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje kicks in, and so does the sexism. The film’s conflict is wholly blamed on Neela as the film cleverly makes her the Meneka to Girdhar’s Vishwamitra (there’s even a dance sequence where she plays Meneka). Mangal accuses Neela of destroying Girdhar’s focus. Neela blames herself and tries to commit suicide. At this point, the film paints Neela as the one who is wholly responsible for creating havoc in Mangal and Girdhar’s life. To absolve herself of the guilt, she pretends to have never loved her dance partner which irks him, and he insults her with the harshest words. At one point, he even tries to bash her head with a big rock but is stopped by Mangal just so he wouldn’t end up in jail. By this time in Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, you wonder if Girdhar ever loved Neela as he is ready to give up on her at the drop of a hat.
Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje delivers, and then more, on its promise of creating a stunning visual masterpiece as it presents one breathtaking dance performance after another. The climax has a silly match-fixing angle which can be forgiven only because director V Shantaram presents a dance number worthy of the finale. Filmmaker Sanjay Leela Bhansali has often credited V Shantaram as one of his inspirations and after watching Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje, one can see the germ of Bhansali’s expansive ideas.
Shantaram couldn’t have made a dance film without some classical music, and composer Vasant Desai with lyric writer Hasrat Jaipuri aced on that front. If you have ever attended beginners Kathak classes, you know that songs like “Murli Manohar”, “Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje” are still practiced. “Jo Tum Todo Piya”, “Kaisi Yeh Mohabbat” are some of the other popular songs from the album.
Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje is a classic in the sense that it represents a certain era of Indian filmmaking. While it has not aged so well in terms of its acting and storytelling, the film still impresses with its dance numbers that are certainly timeless.
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Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje is streaming on ZEE5 and YouTube.
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