classic movies

Films that are 50: ‘Teesri Manzil’

We kick off a series about iconic Indian films that are celebrating half a century with Vijay Anand’s celebrated whodunit.

A speeding car with blinding headlights tears through the dark night along a deserted road. The car stops, a woman gets out and rushes into a building. The camera tilts up the building face. We see her run past the lit window of the first and the second floor. When she reaches the third floor, the title “Teesri Manzil” zooms out of the frame. The next shot shows the woman thrown from the third floor, her limp body landing on the street below – a terrific pulp fiction beginning that set the bar high for the crime thriller in the Hindi cinema of the 1960s.

From the opening scene, Teesri Manzil showed how deftly Vijay Anand could handle all kinds of stories. He had, in part, proven this with his first four movies for his family banner, Navketan. In 1965, a year following Guide, the celebrated filmmaker Nasir Hussain, who clearly recognised the young director’s talents, asked Goldie (as Vijay Anand was known to all) to direct the crime thriller that Husain would produce and write. He agreed and their collaboration resulted in a fresh take on the whodunit. Many clones have followed since.

Photo courtesy Upperstall.com
Photo courtesy Upperstall.com

The film’s cast had Hussain’s favourites, including Shammi Kapoor (who is brilliant here), Asha Parekh, Prem Chopra and Helen. Even Salim Khan (of Salim-Javed fame) appears in a small role. Teesri Manzil was a resounding success on its release in 1966. But today it is the songs that have really extended the life and reputation of the film far beyond the thrills and plot intrigue, because these are formidable lessons in the picturising of musical numbers. Vijay Anand is flawless. He moves seamlessly from one song line to the next, knowing exactly when to edit, how to use RD Burman’s music to great and flowing advantage, how to make the sets and the costumes come alive and how to inspire Shammi Kapoor and Helen to give their most in a number like O Haseena Zulfonwaali.

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Considering all the Teesri Manzil songs continue to provide moments of pure cinematic joy, a wonderful anecdote by Vijay Anand about working with lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri is worth sharing. It is an interesting insight into creative differences coupled with a sense of humility that puts the film, and what works for the film, above all. These two great artists, who were at the top of their game, had previously worked with each other. Sultanpuri had written the songs for Anand’s first film Nau Do Gyarah in 1957. When working on Teesri Manzil, the director was 32 and Majrooh Saab was 47.

When I interviewed Anand at length in 2001, he recalled: “When Majrooh Sultanpuri was honoured with the Dada Saheb Phalke Award, the film industry and some literary people had organised a gathering in Bombay where Ali Jafri Saab said they regretted that they had lost a great poet to cinema, because Majrooh Sultanpuri, the great ghazal writer, had given his life to films. Many people were making speeches and someone said Goldie Saab has worked with Majrooh Saab, so he should say a few words...

“So I said: ‘Majrooh Saab, you could not be a Ghalib or a Mir. But neither could Mir or Ghalib be a Majrooh. I don’t agree with what people say here because the film lyric is an art in itself. And no ordinary man is good at writing songs. If you have ever written a bad lyric, it was because you wanted to write a poem. That was the conflict you had. I do not agree with Jafri Saab…’

“But I also added: “Majrooh Saab, I would like to remind you of a situation in Teesri Manzil when you disagreed with me. You fought with me and you got very annoyed. You wrote: ‘O lekar ye haseen jalwe, tum bhi na kahaan pahunche, akhir ko mere dil tak qadamonke nishaan pahunche… tumne mujhe dekha ho kar meherbaan…’

“I did not like this antara and said it would not sound good coming from Shammi’s mouth. It’s Shammi singing and not Kundanlal Saigal. The audience has to understand the lyrics at once. They cannot go home and wonder about the meaning of the words. In a poem one can refer back to the text, or you can ask someone to explain the meaning. You said: ‘Goldie Saab, let me write one line that is to my liking.’ I was not happy, but I took that song and filmed it.

“I would like to say this, even though thirty years have passed, your greatness was not in that song, but in songs like ‘Hum hain raahi pyaar ke hum ko kuchh na boliye’ or ‘Ankhon mein kya ji, there is so much meaning in those lines. These are the songs that will last forever. When they count four or five lyricists at the end of the century, you will be among them. Your name will remain immortal as a lyric-writer.”

“The audience clapped like crazy. I went home and at eleven that night, Majrooh Saab rang me up at home and said: ‘I hope you’re not sleeping. I want to apologise to you for not listening to you when I was writing that song in Teesri Manzil. If you make another film, take me to write the songs.‘ I replied: ‘Majrooh Saab, I am not making films any more. But if I spoke out of turn, please forgive me.‘”

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