Two legends

Print edition : November 15, 2013

Naushaud Ali. He used Western musical instruments such as the piano accordian, the violin and the cello in the orchestration of his songs. Photo: T.A. HAFEEZ

Meena Kumari in "Bahu Begum". The book sticks exclusively to her performance in tragic roles with only a passing mention of her light-hearted roles in "Azad" and "Kohinoor". Photo: The HINDU ARCHIVES

Two recent books on Naushad Ali and Meena Kumari, stalwarts of Hindi cinema, are interesting and informative.

TWO books have come out recently on stalwarts of Hindi cinema in its best years, between 1945 and 1970: Naushadnama, by Raju Bharatan, on the brilliant composer Naushad Ali (1919-2006), and Meena Kumari, by Vinod Mehta, on the gifted actor(1932-1972) . The latter is a reprint of a book Mehta wrote when he was a young copywriter in the world of advertising in Bombay (now Mumbai) and published six months after Meena Kumari’s death. He went on to become one of the most courageous editors of the English language press in India. Both books are interesting and informative though Mehta’s is more readable.

Mine of information

Naushadnama is a mine of information not only on the great Naushad but also on his professional colleagues and their respective attitudes towards him and each other in an environment as susceptible to gossip as it was conducive to the making of memorable film songs. Naushad was known as a meticulous craftsman who took great pains to polish a song. It was this quality that made him the butt of his peers’ jokes. While being aware of the “verbal-sniping”, he always went about his business with his customary serenity.

Naushad came to Bombay from Lucknow in late 1937 to become a part of the burgeoning Hindustani film industry. He had some training in music, having learnt from the noted Thumri exponent Babban Mian, whose ancestors had been musicians in the court of the musically gifted Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Awadh, who was deposed by the British after the uprising of 1857. Naushad became assistant to Ustad Jhande Khan, a learned Hindustani classical musician from Punjab, who, in the face of dwindling patronage, was composing raga-based songs for films in Bombay. When Jhande Khan engaged Naushad for a feature film produced by a Russian in exile, he had learnt to play the pedal harmonium and piano. His stint with Jhande Khan was short-lived although he did get paid Rs.40 a month. The music director Khemchand Prakash engaged him next at Rs.60 a month, a gesture that earned him the young assistant’s gratitude.

Naushad’s star rose quickly. In a period of seven years from 1942, he composed 14 films for the producer-director A.R. Kardar, starting with Sharada and finishing with Dillagi. His salary, to begin with, was Rs.500 a month; it had risen to Rs.1,000 at the end of seven years. Naushad felt grossly underpaid since most of Kardar’s films with his music were silver-jubilee hits and Kardar Productions was raking in profits. It rankled all the more because he had already composed the songs for the 1944 diamond-jubilee hit Rattan, produced by Jaimini Dewan and directed by M. Sadiq, and been paid Rs.8,000. He felt cheated and decided to renegotiate his contract with Kardar. Acutely aware of the fact that his songs were to a very large extent responsible for the success of Kardar’s films, he asked for a 50-50 share in the profits of any film. The producer, taken aback by Naushad’s demand, refused. But his financiers knew better and prevailed upon him to accept Naushad’s proposal. Dastan and Jadoo proved to be hugely successful. He became the first music director in Hindi films to work on a profit-sharing basis. No producer ever short-changed him again. He remained the highest paid composer in Hindi films for the next 20 years.

He used Western musical instruments such as the piano accordion, the violin and the cello in the orchestration of his songs. The piano was a great favourite of his; he had one at home and played it fairly well. He was, however, heavily dependent on the temperamental Anthony Gonsalves, an excellent violinist and arranger trained in the Western classical mode.

To quote Bharatan: “Naushad too opted to bring back our violinist turned arranger Anthony Gonsalves for Dulari, Dastan, Jadoo and Baiju Bawra in the most crucial phase of his career. In fact, it was as Naushad began toying with the idea of breaking with Kardar that he resurrected Anthony Gonsalves (in that 1949-52 purple patch) for the lad’s multiple gifts that included a rare grip on chords” (page 254). The gifted Goan had once before fallen out with Ghulam Mohammad, a master tabla and dholak player and Naushad’s chief assistant.

Naushad’s melodies were invariably based on Hindustani ragas or the folk idioms of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh and occasionally Rajasthan. They were finely chiselled compositions. His colleagues in the business were jealous of him and made cutting remarks about his painstaking methods. Some even said that he could not sing —a prerequisite for a composer. Naushad told Bharatan: “Watch these harmonium keys doing a tap dance as I play and sing. Your Filmfare had the gall to write, in the early 1950s, that Naushad could tune but not sing! ...it came to be blithely written that Naushad could compose but not sing. Really? If a composer could not sing, how would he be explaining the finer facets of the tune to the singer? ...Could you ask your Filmfare people to carry the right news, at least now, in the new year of 1981?”

Bharatan’s book is valuable because it is an insider’s view of a phenomenon that has come to be known as the golden age of the Hindi film songs and Naushad, one of the most important composers of that happy period of creativity that faded away before the beginning of the 1970s, though the occasional melody of artistic and emotional depth continued to be created over the next decade. Although Bharatan’s intentions are entirely honourable, he cannot resist being a gossip. A lot of valuable information about Naushad, his music and the world that shaped it, is tinged with gossip. The writing style is convoluted and detracts from the pleasure of reading. These criticisms aside, it is an important book on the subject; patient readers will be rewarded.

Child artist

Meena Kumari’s life was the stuff of legend. She entered the industry as a child artist at four in Vijay Bhatt’s Leatherface, in 1936; she was paid Rs.25. Her father, Master Ali Bux, an unlucky composer in films, realised very soon that it was little Mahjabeen Bano who could be the breadwinner of the Bux family of five. (Bux, when he fell ill, was diddled out of his credits as composer in the 1944 Noorjahan starrer Dost by his brilliant assistant Sajjad, who talked the producer into giving him a break.) Little Meena made a successful transition as an actor into adolescence. She played the second lead alongside the droll comedian Gope Kamlani in the Suraiyya-Dev Anand romance Sanam(1949). Her timing in comedy was a joy. She made her mark, ironically, as a tragedienne in Hindi cinema. Guru Dutt’s Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam in 1962 saw her at the peak of her powers in a tragic role. She played the role of Choti Bahu, the neglected wife of the debauched younger son of a dissolute Bengali zamindar family in the late 19th century, with such verve and sensitivity that it stayed in the memories of viewers for 50 or more years later.

In Meena Kumari, Vinod Mehta sticks exclusively to her performance in tragic roles though he does mention in passing her light-hearted roles in Azad and Kohinoor opposite Dilip Kumar, the tragedy king, who could also do comedy rather well.

Mehta’s handling of his subject, taking into account his youth in 1972, is duly worshipful but tempered with attempts at objectivity, sometimes successful, at others not. He, a Western-educated, upper-class man, was after all an outsider to the world of Hindi cinema. In the final paragraph of the opening chapter, simply titled “Lies”, he declares: “I hope I am not being chauvinistic when I claim that the most telling reaction to my heroine’s death came from my sister —a passionate and long-standing admirer. On hearing the news, she closed her eyes for a few seconds and sighed, ‘Bechari’.”

In the last six years of her life, Meena Kumari drank brandy as if there was no tomorrow; it damaged her liver badly enough to kill her. She ceased to care about anything except her film roles. Alcohol had ravaged her face and body, but when she was in front of the camera, she was an old, reliable professional. She had made the transition to character parts effortlessly in Gulzar’s first film, Mere Apne. This was followed by fine performances in Dushman and Gomti Ke Kinare (whose director Sawan Kumar Tak reportedly tried to grab a flat she owned scarcely before her corpse had turned cold).

Aware of his limitations, more so perhaps because of his youth, Mehta plunged into his assignment with almost manic zeal. He left no stone unturned in trying to unravel the mystery that was Meena Kumari. The actor in her won his gushing admiration; the bruised woman, exploited by all, broke his heart. His attempt at objectivity is forced. Time and again in the narrative, he addresses her as “my heroine”. He did an enormous amount of research, meeting a wide variety of people who knew Meena Kumari.

Writing in the acknowledgements to the original edition, he said: “He would be a brave, possibly foolish man who would write a book on Meena Kumari without the necessary escape clause. For myself, at every stage in the writing I found that it was impossible to collect even one ‘undisputed’ fact about this woman.” He was let down by Dharmendra, who owed his stardom to Meena Kumari; she took him under her wing, promoted his fledgling career and had a tumultuous affair with him. Promising to talk to Mehta, Dharmendra, time and again, failed to turn up for interviews. The film-maker Gulzar, then a poet and aspiring director, and her most gallant suitor to whom she left her diaries, which supposedly nailed all the people who had exploited her throughout her life, was almost coyly evasive about talking to the young biographer.

One does not know whether Mehta had seen Akira Kurosawa’s masterly film Rashomon, in which a single incident is reported by different observers, each giving contradictory views. Mehta talked to many people about Meena Kumari, the actor and the woman. While there was unanimity of opinion on her exceptional abilities as an actor, no two people were able to give the same explanation as to why she was the sad, moody, exploited, loving, giving, headstrong woman that she was. By sifting through accepted facts about Meena Kumari’s childhood, adolescence and early womanhood, Mehta did make several serious attempts to understand the psychology of the woman who had become the greatest star-actress of her time, yet could not shake off the males who dominated her: first her father Ali Bux, who saw her as a ticket to the good life, and then the director Kamal Amrohi, her much older husband who wanted her money but not her with her highly combustible emotional baggage that included twice-thwarted motherhood.

Amrohi had tasted monetary success only twice in his long, intermittent career after Mahal, his directorial debut starring Ashok Kumar, who was also the producer, and Madhubala. The first time was as producer of Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayi, directed by Kishore Sahu, with whom else but Meena Kumari in the lead along with Raj Kumar, and then with Pakeezah, a super hit for Meena Kumari and literally a life-saver for him. The presence of chronically indigent sisters, cousins and other hangers-on must also be considered. According to Mehta, she had slipped into her “martyr” role quite easily, accepting it as her fate because of her humble birth.

Meena Kumari’s life was both complex and complicated. It will need a director of Billy Wilder’s talent and perception to make a memorable film on her. Mehta’s book has suggested a possibility of how it might be done.

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