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Of bashful beauties and spellbound lovers

In the sea of pearls that is vintage Hindi film music, there’s a particular romantic sub-genre that at one time held sway in Bollywood – the love song sung in praise of the beloved’s beauty. I have no clue about its antecedents (perhaps it came from Urdu poetry and its aashiq-maashooq tradition); what I do know is that it was very popular back in the day, particularly the 1960s, and survived even into the less romantic era of cinema in a stray song or two. But after the millennium, it vanished without a trace.

On the face of it, the disappearance is not surprising. Romance, by and large, has gone to an early grave in both cinema and society – in a changing world of emotionless hook-ups and lust-focused relationships or friendship-driven ones, no one has the time for such oddities any more. It’s hard enough to find romantic sentiment in present-day songs – odes to beauty would be the ultimate anachronism.

There was a time though when films resounded with elegantly penned paeans to pretty women on the screen. Think Raaj Kumar wooing a bashful Mala Sinha with Chand aahein bharega, phool dil thaam lenge, husn ki baat chali to sab tera naam lenge; Shashi Kapoor singing Zikr hota hai jab qayamat ka, tere jalwon ki baat hoti hai; or Dharmendra crooning Aap ke haseen rukh pe aaj naya noor hai. Recall Dilip Kumar teasing Vyjayantimala with Tere husn ki kya tareef karoon; or Rishi Kapoor flirtatiously telling Neetu Singh Tere chehre se nazar nahin hat-ti, nazaare hum kya dekhein. And who can forget the iconic Chaudhvin ka chand ho, in which a lovestruck Guru Dutt was so visibly entranced by Waheeda Rehman’s delicate beauty?

It wasn’t just generic beauty; there were entire songs devoted solely to the eyes, tresses or smile of the hero’s object of affection: Javed Anwar’s Haay tabbassum tera, Majrooh Sultanpuri’s Teri aankhon ke siva duniya mein rakha kya hai, Anand Bakshi’s Yeh reshmi zulfein and so many others. Even lyrics that weren’t odes to female pulchritude would inevitably give a nod or two in this direction with a stray lovely line like Teri zulf se uthi hai yeh ghataaon ki jawaani (Shakeel Badayuni) or Khulti zulfon ne sikhayi mausamon ko shayri (Nida Fazli as late as the nondescript nineties). Yes, there was the occasional tribute to male attractiveness too in songs like Udein jab jab zulfein teri and Rangat teri surat si or in lines like Tum husn ki khud ek duniya ho (I have always wondered if Sahir Ludhianvi actually wrote that one for a male singer); but naturally the lion’s share of eulogies was written for women.

The olden-day shayars celebrated intangibles as well. Delicacy, innocence, simplicity, shyness, even quietude (Har taraf yeh shor hai, gir padega aasmaan/Par teri khamoshi, allama allama). Every third romantic song lauded qualities that were considered the ultimate in less strident times – which film music lover can forget Yeh teri saadgi, yeh tera baankpan from the little-known film Shabnam or ethereal lines like Ada ashiqi ki, nazar shayarana from Ek Musafir Ek Haseena’s Mujhe dekh kar aap ka muskurana? Perhaps these are all patriarchal concepts from a time when women were expected to be no more than alluring and submissive showpieces, but then this piece is about lyricism, not sociology.

Some of my personal favourites in this sub-genre are those that veer slightly off the beaten track. There’s a Kaifi Azmi song in Hindustan Ki Kasam that begins with an almost clichéd sentiment, Har taraf ab yehi afsaane hain/Hum teri aankhon ke deewane hain; but then the first antara dwells on, no, not bewitchment or bashfulness but the honesty in the eyes (Kitni sacchai hai in aanhkon mein/Khote sikke bhi khare ho jaayen/Tu kabhi pyar se dekhe jo udhar/Sookhe jungle bhi hare ho jaayen). Equally unusual is a stanza from Majrooh Sultanpuri’s Raat kali ek khwab mein aayi that takes down a tad the hyperbole around physical attractiveness and its connection to falling in love. Yun to haseenon ke, mahajabeenon ke, hote hain roz nazaare/Par unhe dekh ke, dekha hai jab tumhe, tum lage aur bhi pyaare, it goes, articulating a truly endearing sentiment.

As with all good things, the love eulogy slowly faded out though it’s alive and timeless on radio stations that play vintage songs. A young friend who listens to old Hindi film music was wistfully rueing the fact that present-day movies have no space for it. Well, much as some of us might like to hear fresh compositions of this variety, I have to admit they’d be hopelessly incongruous with both today’s notion of beauty (more about body than face) and the no-nonsense or overtly sexual nature of contemporary relationships. A grotesque case in point is Tera deedar hua, a song from Jannat 2: it’s written in total old-style shayrana andaz but the camera is leering at Esha Gupta’s barely covered bosom and come-hither pout even as Emran Hashmi and a gang of male dancers get down to some seriously crude moves.

So yes, Bollywood is better off not rehashing paeans to reshmi zulfein and sharbati aanhken. Those were best articulated in another era – a gentler, dreamier one that has assured them their immortality.

The columnist is a freelance writer and editor

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Printable version | Apr 8, 2020 11:48:31 AM |

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