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How Nasir Husain saw the nightclub as a fun spot rather than a vice den

The filmmaker was ‘a champion of modernity’, which is evident in his productions ‘Dil Deke Dekho’, ‘Caravan’ and ‘Teesri Manzil’, says his biographer.

Teesri Manzil’s setting is predominantly Park Hotel, Mussoorie. It is from this place that Roopa has allegedly jumped and committed suicide. It is here that Rocky performs. Roopa’s death, and the subsequent suggestion of murder, reinforces Hindi cinema’s stereotyping of hotels and clubs as places from where vice, evil and sleaze emanate. As Jerry Pinto noted, ‘Almost everyone in the hotel business, according to Hindi cinema, is a murderer or a smuggler at worst; an obsequious and smarmy hanger-on at best … Villains own hotels as a cover for their activities. Lesser fry check into hotel rooms with their suitcases full of gold, diamonds, drugs or cash. The comedians arrive disguised as room service and the maids are thieves or fair game.’ A number of Hindi films like Baazi, Footpath, Taxi Driver, Shree 420, Howrah Bridge, China Town, Phool Aur Patthar (1966), An Evening in Paris and The Train (1970) show the hotel or the club as a place from where the villain operates, or as a space that belongs to the vamp, or as a place where the morality of simple Indian folk will be compromised. Directors like Shakti Samanta and N.A. Ansari exploited this notion to the hilt. Even a Manmohan Desai film like Naseeb (1981) shows the hotel to be owned by the villains, which is why it has to burn down, a bit like Ravana’s Lanka, before righteous men can take it over.

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‘O Haseena Zulfonwali’ from ‘Teesri Manzil’.

Yaadon Ki Baaraat is the clincher in this argument. In this film, ‘Park Hotel’ is a front for Shaakaal’s illicit activities, but that is more a Salim–Javed influence. In a number of Salim–Javed films, most prominent amongst which are Deewaar (1975), Don (1978) and Shakti (1982), the hotel is a world inhabited by the likes of ‘Daawar’, ‘Saamant’, ‘JK’ and ‘Don’ himself. But even in Yaadon Ki Baaraat, Husain established the hotel as a place for the youth to come and enjoy and swing and groove to the longish song sequence beginning with ‘Aap ke kamrey mein koi’. This sequence takes place in Hotel Blue Heaven where Monto (Tariq Khan) is introduced. This is separate from Shaakaal’s world, which is Park Hotel. In Hotel Blue Heaven, Monto, the musician figure, so central to Husain’s narratives, is the ringmaster in that it is he who directs proceedings. Music is at the centre of this universe. In ‘Lekar hum deewaana dil’, which takes place at Park Hotel, Shaakaal’s intermittent appearances in the song clearly establish this space as distinct from Hotel Blue Heaven.

Teesri Manzil too builds up Park Hotel as a place of intrigue, with people constantly spying on each other. This is nothing but a decoy because the actual villain in the piece, Kunwar Mahinder Singh (Prem Nath), isn’t running some kind of crime syndicate from the hotel. He kills Roopa because she has discovered that he killed his own wife. In the process of eliminating Roopa, Kunwar sa’ab chases her down to Park Hotel, where he throws her off from the hotel’s teesri manzil. Besides this, there is nothing else to suggest that Park Hotel is a world inhabited by the morally corrupt. Before this, two of the film’s best songs, ‘O haseena zulfon waali’ and ‘Tumne mujhe dekha’, have been performed in this very place, the latter on the occasion of ‘Yaum-e-Azaadi’. Husain also (by writing it into the script) has Anil and Sunita dance the hysterical ‘Aaja aaja’ at the Rock-’n’-Roll Club, a space mentioned in the film purely for this song sequence. In fact, the biggest testimony to Husain’s unabashed love for the club/hotel space is Dil Deke Dekho, where the film’s narrative shuttles between Deonar Club and Everest Club and Radio Club, with Royal Hotel in Ranikhet also shown as a place which doesn’t offer anything other than song and dance.

This celebration of the club culture, a distinct legacy of the British, and the hotel space, a modern Western phenomenon (as opposed to the serai/musaafirkhaana experience) along with Husain’s comfort with showcasing different languages, their idioms (‘Zameen jumbad, aasmaan jumbad, na jumbad Gul Mohammed’– the earth and the sky may shift, but Gul Mohammed will remain stubborn) and the mobility quotient in his films, established Husain as a champion of modernity.

The presence of clubs and hotels in Husain’s films is significant in another crucial way. While decoding Husain’s formula, it has been mentioned that Husain had an inclination to show only one parental figure for both the hero and the heroine. But as Doraiswamy commented in her paper, ‘…If most Hindi films of the time posited the hotel as a “profane” space, the natural habitat of the villain and the vamp, Nasir Husain, drawing on the hill station milieu, gave us hotels free of all negative valency. Raj Kapoor’s Shree 420 is a typical example of this binary positing of space, where the home of the traditional community, even if it is the street, is opposed to the space of the hotel, the hub of Western values and by implication of a corrupted modernity.

‘Nasir Husain set his films in the hill station precisely because those values of a “westernized” modernity that he wished to represent within the space of the hotel or club, could be done here without creating an equal and opposite space of “tradition” or home. The band, the drummer, the music, the body language and verbal language of young people enveloped in the modernity of the rock-’n’-roll generation, could only be adequately represented in the hill station... Husain’s use of the hotel as a non-domestic space further allowed him to present the hero as a musician figure who could give free rein to his West-inspired tunes and dances. ‘Two birds with one stone,’ Doraiswamy concluded.

Excerpted from permission from Music, Masti, Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain, Akshay Manwani, HarperCollins India.

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