Divas of Bollywood & Politics of Remembrance by Ashish Dwivedi

Perhaps, you may have heard of Bollywood?

That glorious industry of Hindi cinema: an industry that never sleeps, and one that stands in sharp affinity to Hollywood in terms of the admirable women it has produced: Seeta Devi, Mehtab, Durga Khote, Meena Kumari, Madhubala, Waheeda Rahman, Mala Sinha, Asha Parekh, Nanda, Sadhana, Rekha, Zeenat Aman, Parveen Babi[1], to name a few. 

As veterans, these women- along with many others- were responsible for the creation of a clan that marked the heights of the golden-age of mainstream Hindi cinema: a society of characters who were extolled for their assaulting eyes, enthralling styles, and a subtlety that was not acquired, but gifted. 

The Bollywood industry is prolific, in almost every sense of the term, including the sheer number of women actors that are encapsulated within a strip of time. Some become household names; some reach a flux; some walk back, while some pass to the dirty hands of oblivion… and I take the latter-most as the grim child of destiny. This becomes the subject of my discourse here: remembering the forgotten dancing queens. 

It would be unfair if I do not acknowledge the videos that came out from Tabassum Talkies, a YouTube channel run by Tabassum (b.1944), who is chiefly remembered today, firstly, as a child artist in box-office hits like Sangram (1950), Deedar (1951), and Baiju Bawra (1952), and, secondly, for her talk show, Phool Khile Hain Gulshan-Gulshan (1972-93). Her videos sing of both immortal and forgotten veterans of Bollywood, and it is admirable to witness how she, with the help of those videos, attempts to give voice to the more unknown artists, whose names are now snuggled-up in the pages of archives. Therefore, this reflection seeks inspiration those videos, and, more closely, from my mid-night conversations with my mother about the ambivalence that is often perceptible in many Hindi songs, one solid example being “Parde Mein Rehne Do” (closely translated: “Let there be a Veil”[2].

I’m often charmed by the songs of the classical age of Hindi cinema (late 1940s to later 1980s), because they are not presented as items of zero substance, but as extensions of a story: a song employed as a dramatic device to move the story forward, as was the case with the Chorus in Greek and Elizabethan tragedies. Here, in Bollywood’s renditions, it makes sense and helps the audience understand the narrative in absolution. Such was the gravity in those songs- not tending to poppy paraphernalia of contemporary meaningless lyrics- pushing the narrative ahead/ to become more explicit, supporting the audiences’ interpretation and aesthetic pleasures. Surprisngly, some of them were graced by spectacular performances by by-gone artists as Cuckoo (1928-81), Madhumati (b.1938), and Laxmi Chhaya (1948-2004). 

It is quite a possibility that everybody in the Hindi-speaking world might be familiar with the immortal tunes of a classic song called “Patli Kamar Hai” (translated: “A Thin Waist”)[3], but hardly anybody would remember the gracious lady who graced the song, Cuckoo. This is exactly where the tragedy lies, and is exactly where the industry has failed:

“बिछड़ गयी मैं घायल हिरनी,
तूफान ढूँढूँ, वन वन घूमूँ।”

translated as:

“I was drifted apart, a wounded doe,
seeking tempests, around the woods.”

This couplet haunts me and cajoles me into thinking about the frustration that comes when an artist’s labor is not rewarded. Undoubtedly, Cuckoo led a very financially luxurious life due to the money she made from her on-screen sensuous personas, but the issue that bothers me concerns things that never could come her way: the deserved recognition that was curbed by the politics of remembrance, that only glorifies the work of superstars liberated by fame, and comfortably disregards the other, bigger, but lesser-known, range of artists whose on-screen personas and acting abilities have been equally path-breaking, mesmerizing, competent, and versatile.

This politics is, inversely, invoked in a 1951-song by Shamshad Begum (1919-2013), a versatile artist- hardly remembered!- once-positioned under the ranks of Lata Mangeshkar (b.1929), Geeta Dutt (1930-72), and Asha Bhosle (b.1933). The song was titled “Ek Do Teen” (translated: “One, Two, Three”)[4], and it featured Cuckoo, yet again:

“ये मदमस्त जवानी है,
तेरे लिए ये दीवानी है
डूब के इस गहराई में
डूब के इस गहराई में
देख की कितना पानी है।”

translated as:

“this carefree youth,
it’s in love with you
plunge to its limits
plunge to its limits
and see how much
depth is there.”

From the surface, it sounds flirtatious, which is, indeed, the flavor of the song; however, if you consider the lyrics from the perspective(s) of artists as Cuckoo, and, hypothetically, position the glamour of Bollywood as the “carefree youth” in the depths of which they wish to go to, the nature of the song might begin to dwindle which awakens ‘the naive artist’ to feelings of despondency and selfishness. 

Despite being attributed with introducing the immortal Helen (b.1938) to big-screens, Cuckoo could never achieve what she had, presumably, dreamt of, and now it’s just the songs (or the singer, or the movie) that are remembered, but not the lady in black:

“हम तुम्हारे हैं
ज़रा घर से निकल कर के देखो,
ना यक़ीन आए तो
दिलसे दिल बदल कर देखो…”

translated as:

“We are yours
come out of your house
and see for yourself,
if you could not believe
then exchange your heart
with ours”[5].

It is here that this excerpt briefly communicates the lamentable position of many of our splendid artists, who were never honoured by Filmfare or the Bollywood-community and were pushed to the periphery for strictly invisible appearances either as a sidekick or eye-candies.

As a writer of stigma and broken-or-lost identities, I wish to bring such artists to the surface, so that they may also enjoy an audience that has now restricted itself to the jocund paranoia of mainstream leaders of cinema. Not to forget, the veterans were a fantastic breed, and all of them are worthy enough to be addressed as artists in their own rights. There is no room for prejudice in my heart, but rather the greatest admiration for each and every person who helped mould Bollywood and cast it as an industry worth remembering. The task of the writer is to tell ‘the untold, the unheard’, and I think this is the least I could have done for the actors I wish to have achieved stardom. 

One of the artists I’ve grown quite fascinated is Madhumati (b.1938), the queen that surpassed Helen in terms of elegance and a calm poise (completed by a charming smile) in the 1966-song, “Huzoorewala, Jo Ho Ijaazat”[6]. Beautiful as the lyrics are, I was petrified on seeing Madhumati (paired with Helen), mostly because of her striking resemblance with Helen and her indo-westernised moves. No doubts, the indo-western twists in dancing are Helen’s forté, but Madhumati’s are no less spell-bounding. It is a shame YouTube and Wikipedia does not often feature Madhumati’s name on their description of the song- as far as I know, joint ventures are not solo acts. Yet again, media impingements on describing Madhumati as the “Poor Man’s Helen” is an insensitive, vitriolic attack not only against her identity, but also against a few sections of the Indian society that call for special needs and a balm of sensitivity when being addressed/called into debate.

I wonder how stupid Indian media is:
half-decayed by creamy gossips;
half-eaten by fabricated truths.

Now, to the artist who cultivated my interest in vintage cinema: Laxmi Chhaya (1948-2004), the lady to whom I could dedicate these lines from Christopher Marlowe’s morality play, Doctor Faustus (1592-93):

“Oh, thou art fairer than the evening air
Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;
Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter
. . .
More lovely than the monarch of the sky”

When I had first seen Chhaya perform in the 1971-song, “Maar Diya Jaaye ki Chor Diya Jaaye” (translated: “To be Killed or To be Released?”), there was so many emotions she evoked in me, all bubbling together to be spoken at the same time. Her femme-fatale features sparked her personality, and she sought them for her advantage in this song (particularly her eye-movements that characterized most of her expressions, and the single strand of hair over the right eye that helped intensify her murderous demeanour). “Maar Diya Jaaye ki Chor Diya Jaaye” is one of the most memorable songs the Hindi cinema has ever produced, and the 1971-film it is a part of- Mera Gaon, Mera Desh (translated: My Village, My Country!)- was a box-office success not only in terms of capital profits, but also for Chhaya’s career. It seemed as if the tables turned for her:

“आ रही है हसी तेरी कहानी पे
आ रहा है तरस तेरी जवानी पे,
आज तु है मेरी, तु है तु है मेरी
आज तु है मेरी मेहरबानी पे…”

translated as:

“Your stories are laughable,
sympathies for your youth,
today you are, yes you are,
today you are under my mercy…”[7]

Mera Gaon, Mera Desh featured five songs, three of which were based on Laxmi Chhaya. I don’t think, in this lifetime, I will come across any artist who will be able to outshine Chhaya. Not a single artist! and even if there would be any, I would still like to be delusional about her artistic attributes. Well, here, I’m a bit prejudiced:

“हाए, शरमाऊँ
किस-किस को बताऊँ
ऐसे कैसे मैं सुनाऊँ सब को
अपनी प्रेम कहानियाँ
अपनी प्रेम कहानियाँ?”

translated as:

“Oh, I’m so shy
who all to tell?
how can I sing to
everyone my
love stories,
my love stories?”[8]

If you’ve followed me this far, then I’m happy. See, my only point of jotting down these pages was to acquaint you with a few names that you might have danced to, without the least knowledge of the artists who have helped in the immortalization of those songs. There could be no doubts that the playback singers are equally (and should be) venerated, and they are: after all, who doesn’t know Lata Mangeshkar? 

The question here is: but how many know Shamshad Begum? This is the question which we need answers of, and, once-answered, I’m sure acknowledgment would be bestowed upon the deserved. Bollywood is a wondrous industry, and things could change here a little, only if we begin to notice the details. Only if we drive outside luxuries and begin seeing beyond.

By the way, I’m happy about something: now you know where to find Cuckoo, Madhumati, and Laxmi Chhaya, and it has started. . . the bird called recognition is ready to nest herself.

[1] Seeta Devi (1912-83), Mehtab (1913-97), Durga Khote (1905-1991), Meena Kumari (1933-72), Madhubala (1933-69), Waheeda Rahman (b.1938), Mala Sinha (b.1936), Asha Parekh (b.1942), Nanda (1939-2014), Sadhana (1941-2015), Rekha (b.1954), Zeenat Aman (b.1951), Parveen Babi (1954-2005).

[2] (from a 1968 film, Shikar, known overseas as Prey). 

[3] (from a 1949 film, Barsaat, also known as Rain),

[4] (from Awaara (1951), known overseas The Vagabond)

[5] (from “Hum Tumhare Hain” (translated: “We are Yours”) in the 1958-film, titled Chalti ka Naam Gaadi– translated: That Which Moves is Called a Car)

[6] (from the 1966-movie Ye Raat Phir Na Aayegi– translated: This Night Won’t Come Again)

[7] (from “Maar Diya Jaaye ki Chor Diya Jaaye”)

[8] (from “Apni Prem Kahaniyaan” or “Our Love Stories”- taken from Mera Gaon, Mera Desh)

About The Author

Ashish Dwivedi is an Indian student at Swansea University, now reaching the submission of his M.Phil. dissertation about the lines of intersectionality between Animations and Children’s Socialization. His research interests include Utopian & Media Studies, Postcolonial & Gender Philosophy, and Indian Aesthetics; he aspires to pursue a Ph.D. soon in the future. He often indulges in ‘traversed’ writing- where he takes up subjects as per his interest(s). He calls himself a herpetology and mythology aficionado, a lax swimmer, a theatre-enthusiast, and a traveller who travels for food. His work has appeared on literary platforms like Literary Heist, Oddball Magazine, Grand Little Things, and the Waterfront Newspaper (a student-led production at Swansea University). He is also one of Waterfront‘s current section editors, handling their “Literature & Nonfiction” section. Currently, he dreams of finishing the M.Phil., and travel to Mussoorie with his mother.

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One response

  1. firemandk

    Ah, Laxmi Chhaya, my older woman crush, the one my beautiful Filipino “Laxmi” lookalike wife tolerates. So little about her in print, not even her obituary remains, yet there are actors and actresses, even the stunt woman who worked with her yet alive. There seems to be a “Cult of Laxmi”, and I certainly understand why .


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