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‘Fun and froth do not equal facile’: Nasir Husain’s biographer on the filmmaker’s legacy

In ‘Music, Masti, Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain’, Akshay Manwani makes a strong case for giving the writer, director and producer his due.

In Music, Masti, Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain (HarperCollins India), Akshay Manwani reveals facets of the filmmaker that might have escaped the notice of fans who were too busy frolicking along with the characters on the screen or bopping their heads to the catchy soundtracks. Manwani’s second biography after Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet is an exhaustively researched and comprehensive examination of Husain’s craft. Manwani weaves together archival interviews and conversations with filmmakers, film scholars and Husain’s family members (including his children Mansoor and Nuzhat Khan and nephew Aamir Khan) with analyses of Husain’s key films, including the ones he wrote before he became a director and later producer. Apart from going some way towards dispelling the perception of Husain as the creator of frothy fare, the biography also makes a case for studying popular entertainment with the same rigour that is usually accorded to directors of so-called meaningful cinema. In an interview with Scroll.in, Manwani emphasises the need to re-examine Nasir Husain’s legacy and pinpoints Dil Deke Dekho as Yaadon Ki Baraat as his most important films.

Why does Nasir Husain deserve a biography? And once you decided to write one, was it easier said than done?
Nasir Husain is branded as a frothy, fun filmmaker. This leads to his cinema being spoken of in a kind of non-serious way, perhaps even deprecatingly.

Fun and froth, however, do not equate to facile. Husain was one of the directors who ushered in the cinema of the 1960s. He along with a handful of other directors took Hindi cinema away from the Nehruvian socialistic, nation-building narratives of the 1950s. This did not mean that Husain wasn’t capable of making a political film. Baharon Ke Sapne, which he made in 1967, made explicit a certain ideology that he had nursed over the years. Even in these so-called lighter, romantic stories that he got known for, he broke away from stereotypes and pushed the envelope without being preachy.

Husain’s song sequences whether it be Piya Tu (Caravan) or when he had Dev Anand singing atop a jeep while moving parallel to a train in Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai certainly make for very interesting visual cinema, something that requires great thought, effort and command over craft.

Writing this book was not easy. In fact, when I went to my publisher with the idea of doing a book on Husain’s cinema, I wasn’t even fully sure of how I would structure the book. This was entirely different from my first book, about the poet-songwriter Sahir Ludhianvi, where I was sure from the very beginning that I would tell a linear, biographical story. This book on Husain’s cinema isn’t a biography and therefore getting the structure of the book correct was what I grappled with for the longest time.

Nasir Husain, Shammi Kapoor, Rajendra Nath (seated) and Tahir Husain. Courtesy Rauf Ahmed.
Nasir Husain, Shammi Kapoor, Rajendra Nath (seated) and Tahir Husain. Courtesy Rauf Ahmed.

You speak of a new idiom that Nasir Husain introduced – what is it? And how has it held over the years?
Husain’s cinema began with the films that he wrote – Munimji (1955), Paying Guest (1957). His directorial debut, Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957), had a remarkable lightness of touch that was missing in the mainstream Hindi films of the 1950s. Husain introduced a hero, who had a distinct Western, urban, flamboyant style. Consider the classics of the 1950s, films such as Devdas, Mother India, House No. 44, Do Bigha Zamin, Awara – the heroes in these films are brooding. They are shackled by the weight of the world on their shoulders. Husain’s hero, on the other hand, was carefree and buoyant. He could be out of a job or just about managing to make ends meet (like Jeetendra in Caravan) or facing a serious crisis (like Rishi Kapoor’s character in a later film like Hum Kisise Kum Naheen) but he laughs and sings his way through his difficult circumstances. And it is this hero that dominates Hindi cinema right through the 1960s whether it is through actors like Shammi Kapoor, Joy Mukerji or Biswajeet and the kinds of roles they played.

And since Husain put music at the heart of his films, it is that song and dance that we see in Hindi cinema even today. The meeting of the three brothers in Yaadon Ki Baaraat is that quintessential Bollywood moment that has emotion and melodrama that is conveyed so beautifully through song. And this is one of Husain’s biggest legacies – how he integrated music so organically into his scripts, rather than make episodic appearances as is the case with a lot of Hindi films. This buoyant hero and song and dance continue in mainstream Hindi cinema even today.

You also say that “His films place on record a cosmopolitanism and modernity in Indian society at a certain point in time – a largely untold story.”
If you look at any of Husain’s films be it Dil Deke Dekho, Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai, Teesri Manzil (which he wrote and produced) or Hum Kisise Kum Naheen, all these films celebrate a certain club-hotel culture that was very much a part of Indian society in the hill station areas in the early 20th century and right through the 1950s and 1960s. Husain’s heroes spoke Hindustani but he also interspersed their dialogues with Urdu couplets and phrases or sentences in English. There was a remarkable, omnipresent linguistic switching happening in Husain’s cinema that brought out the cosmopolitan nature of India where a new youth was emerging with the beginning of the 1960s. This youth was comfortable with the world of Urdu shaayri but also wanted to partake in the Elvis Presley rock-’n’-roll generation. And outside of Nasir Husain’s films, or the ones made by Vijay Anand and a few others, there is very little material on this modern, cosmopolitan society that existed back then.

How did the involvement of Nasir Husain’s extended family help the book? Did they have anything to do with the final draft?
This book has been possible because of the involvement of several people – film personalities, bloggers on cinema, film scholars and Husain’s own family members. Both of Husain’s children, Mansoor Khan and Nuzhat Khan, and Husain’s nephew, Aamir Khan, were very generous with their time.

There was no interference on their part. In fact, when I first met Nuzhat in March 2014 about doing a book on her father’s cinema, one of the things she told me is the book shouldn’t come across as being sycophantic in nature, but should be an objective assessment of Husain’s films.

The foreword makes it clear that that the book concentrates on Husain’s craft than his personal life. Film biographies refer to gossip in the belief that it is not always possible to separate speculations on a creator’s personal life from his or her work.
I suppose this depends on the personality you are writing about. For instance, and I refer back to my book on Sahir, I was very clear that I had to give details of his personal life in that book. This is because Sahir himself said in a number of his poems/couplets that his poetry was a reflection of his personal life. If a film personality has had an eventful life, I don’t think it’s unfair for readers to expect a certain kind of book that will give them an insight into their favourite star’s life. This perhaps comes back to a certain voyeuristic relationship that audiences have with stars. We want to know these stars and their stories intimately. Now whether the writer panders to this demand in a certain tabloidish, gossipy way or with restraint depends on the individual sensibility of the writer.

In Nasir Husain’s case, and because I do feel he hasn’t been given his due, my focus from the very beginning was on his cinema and his cinema alone. Any other approach would have diluted my objective of marking him out as one of the important filmmakers in the history of Hindi cinema.

Dharmendra, Tariq Khan and Nasir Husain. Courtesy Tariq Khan.
Dharmendra, Tariq Khan and Nasir Husain. Courtesy Tariq Khan.

There is an interesting observation made about Husain: ‘He was the black sheep of the family…he was not the good boy.’ Did this streak emerge in his films too?
Certainly. The Husain hero was carefree, flamboyant, but also very impish. He didn’t play by the rules and neither did he mind indulging in a little bit of deceit to get ahead. In many of Husain’s films, the hero turns up as an impostor or masquerades to attain upward social mobility to charm the heroine. Whether it is Dil Deke Dekho or Teesri Manzil, the hero indulges in all kinds of shenanigans not only to woo the heroine but also because that is his character. I suppose a lot of this went back to Husain’s early years. In a magazine article once, he referred to himself as a “paidaeeshee badmaash” [a born scoundrel].

You have deconstructed Husain’s language at great length and also spoke of the youthfulness of his dialogue for ‘Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak’ and ‘Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar’.
Husain’s work in these films, in what was the autumn of his film career, is a very important part of his legacy. QSQT, which is perhaps the best Romeo and Juliet adaptation in Hindi cinema, had a very genteel, sophisticated idiom. The exchanges between the lead characters Raj (Aamir Khan) and Rashmi (Juhi Chawla) have a definitive tehzeeb about them, particularly with Rashmi often referring to herself as “hum”. This was in stark contrast to the language in the vendetta-oriented films that dotted the Hindi film landscape in the 1980s.

On the other hand, Husain’s dialogues in JJWS are far more youthful, articulating the voice of a newer ’90s generation. His dialogues here also bring out the class divide that exists between the Model College boys and the boys from Rajput College. In contrast to QSQT’s dialogues, the idiom in JJWS has a lot more sharaarat ingrained in it. We must appreciate that Husain was about 65 years old when he wrote the dialogue for JJWS. The fact that he got the syntax, the vocabulary so correct really shows that he was a man who kept track of the changing times.

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‘Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar’.

Do you see any influence of Nasir Husain on the current lot of filmmakers?
This is a complicated question because there is no clear answer to this. The current day mainstream commercial filmmakers like Karan Johar and Imtiaz Ali have a lot of Husain’s elements in their films – in how they integrate music into their narratives, in how music is such a big part of their film experience for their audiences.

But songs aren’t celebrated in Hindi cinema today like they were in Husain’s films or for that matter in Shakti Samanta’s films. Today’s filmmakers are more concerned about logic and rationale and whether the character speaks the same vocabulary that might form part of the song. The space for abandon and the suspension of disbelief have shrunk dramatically in our cinema because of some warped notion of reality. It’s hard to imagine a filmmaker placing a Kaajal Kiran in the sky as she is in Yeh lLdka Haaye Allah because “How is that possible?”

As Jerry Pinto tells me for my book, filmmakers like Husain weren’t looking for logic. They were looking for impact.

Which is the one Nasir Husain film that one must watch to understand him best?
Yaadon Ki Baaraat is certainly Husain’s best film. How he manages to straddle the Salim-Javed universe while also incorporating elements from his own cinema (as seen in the romantic, musical characters of the two younger brothers) makes this film his most accomplished work. He also puts his own stamp on the film with an awesome soundtrack by working with RD Burman. This is something that cannot be said of other Salim-Javed films where RD has been the composer. The soundtracks in those films (Deewaar, Sholay, Shakti) aren’t anywhere near Yaadon Ki Baaraat’s evergreen musical score.

However, Dil Deke Dekho is Husain’s most important work. It is in Dil Deke Dekho that Husain introduces the Western musical hero. The earlier musical heroes in Hindi cinema were rooted in Indian tradition as they played Urdu shaayars, ghazal singers or some historical musician character like Tansen (1943) or Baiju Bawra (1952). But by casting Shammi Kapoor as a drummer, who is part of a Western band, Husain created a new Western musician archetype that is seen in several later films like China Town (1962), Kismat (1968), Karz (1980) and Rockstar (2011).

Dil Deke Dekho also celebrates the club-hotel space as the film’s narrative moves from one club to another without suggesting anything amoral about such spaces. On this front too, Husain was breaking away from the norm since the club-hotel space has always been regarded as a place of vice in Hindi cinema whether it is in films like Baazi (1951) or in the Salim-Javed films through the 1970s.

In Dil Deke Dekho, Husain introduces Asha Parekh in a leading role for the first time. At one point in the film Parekh’s character and her friends partake in a rock-’n’-roll dance sequence. In the song Do Ekum Do, the heroine sings and dances in Western attire in her home in front of a parent figure with great abandon. Such situations were exceptions in Hindi cinema at that time. But by allowing Parekh’s character to do so, Husain helped unshackle the Hindi film heroine, too.

A lot of the strands from Dil Deke Dekho then find their way into Teesri Manzil, which although directed by Vijay Anand, reflects Husain’s universe since it is based on the character of a drummer, has a prolonged courtship play out between the hero-heroine (yet another Husain staple) and has the song Aaja Aaja taking place at the Rock-’n’-Roll club.

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‘Meri Soni Meri Tamanna’ from ‘Yaadon Ki Baarat’.
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