15 April 2014

Cheers to the Drunken Song

My Mumbai Mirror column from last Sunday.


Hema Malini offers a faux-apology for (faux-)drunkenness to an outraged Sanjeev Kumar. Seeta Aur Geeta, 1972.
There was the pretend-drunk heroine, usually meant to drive the hero away for some complicated reason, but also every so often, to trick the villain. Of the second kind, I give you Mumtaz singing 'Do ghoont mujhe bhi pila de sharaabi, dekh phir hota hai kya' as she keeps the sharabi hanging on. My favourite of the first variety is probably Hema again, in Seeta aur Geeta, swaying unreasonably to 'Haan ji haan, maine sharaab pi hai'. 
The drunken song is one of the oldest and most popular leitmotifs of Hindi cinema. Despite this venerable status, our fondness for the genre remains somewhat under-acknowledged. 

Like the substance whose effects it documents, perhaps it's something of a guilty secret. Compared to the Holi song, or the rain song, say, situational song genres that are regularly commemorated in the compilations of music companies and internet websites, there seem to be no instantly playable lists of drunken songs. 

And yet, at least from Devdas onwards, the unhappy-in-love drunken hero has been such a staple of our films that the 'liquor bottle' was a permanently available prop in the photo studios of Indian small towns, where countless young men sought to have themselves enshrined in a pose they recognised and admired from countless films. 

A classic image of this sort from the 1970s and 1980s archive of Studio Suhag in Nagda, Madhya Pradesh, appeared in visual anthropologist Christopher Pinney's recent book Artisan Camera. The young man in question leans his head on his arm, his abstracted gaze turned away both from the half-full tumbler in his hand and the bottle full of coloured water. What Pinney somewhat quaintly describes as the "daru-wala" image is instantly recognisable to us - we see in our mind's eye the maudlin Dilip Kumar in 'Shaam-e-gham ki kasam', or perhaps the Dev Anand in the Tere Ghar ke Saamne classic where Nutan twinkles at our hero out of his whiskey glass. 

Whether it's melancholy or musing, the drunken Hindi film song comes out of an older tradition of Persian and Urdu poetry about drinking. Sometimes you can see a direct lyrical connection. The gentle protestations of the ghazal made famous by Ghulam Ali, 'Hungama hai kyon barpa, thodi so toh pi li hai' seem to lead to the more boisterously comic Namak Halaal song forever associated with Amitabh Bachchan: 'Thodi si jo pi li hai, chori toh nahi ki hai'. 

From Ghalib and Mir right down to Amitabh's father Harivansh Rai Bachchan, the subcontinent's poets sang unapologetic paeans to alcohol, whether as an enhancer of experience or a unifier of men: "Bair badhate mandir-masjid, mel karaati madhushala". Hindi films have always been more unforgiving. Casual drunkenness is allowed only to villains -- and Christians. 

From Keshto Mukherjee's immortal sozzled chauffeur in Chupke Chupke and Prem Nath as the Goan Catholic Braganza in Bobby to Om Prakash as the Anglo-Indian railway driver in Julie, the stereotype continues to appear till as recently as Abhay Deol's Christian fiance's dad in Socha Na Tha. But I can't think of many songs in this category, barring Pran in the memorable 'Phir na kehna Michael daru pi kay danga karta hai'. The mainstream Hindi film (Hindu) man, though, has usually needed an excuse to drink - and more often than not, that excuse is a woman. 

But what of the women themselves? The vamp could drink freely, and some of the loveliest drunken ladies' numbers we've had have been picturised on the woman singing in the bar: O Nigahe-mastana; Dil jale toh jale, gham pale toh pale (Taxi Driver, 1954); Piya tu ab tu aaja (Caravan, 1972). Few respectable Hindi film heroines, until very recently, could be seen to imbibe of their own free will. So you had any number of devices that helped achieve the frisson of the drunken heroine. 

There was mistaken imbibing, that could make the heroine happily flirtatious - think of Asha Bhonsle's 'Maine toh paani piya thha' in Keemat (1973), sung for an unrecognisably young Rekha, who drank Rajendar Nath's gin instead of water, or Lata's 'Jane kya pilaya tune' for Hema Malini in Jugnu, who consumed a drink spiked by Prem Chopra for Dharmendra. 


In an age when there were strict codes for heroines and vamps, one might suggest that the female double role was a way in which the heroine could lay partial claim to both terrains. So Hema in Seeta aur Geeta, and later Sridevi in Chaalbaaz ('Kisi ke haath na aayegi yeh ladki'), could take a walk on the wild side, while keeping one foot in the sundar, susheel, domestic camp. 

To extend that speculation about the double role even further, I give you Raat Aur Din (1957), Nargis's last film, in which she played a respectable sari-clad housewife who leads a schizophrenic double life. The same Baruna Varma who is revolted by cigarette smoke and the smell of brandy on her breath transforms by night into a glamorous, clingy-dress-wearing woman called - wait for it -- Peggy. It is as Peggy that Nargis gives us two lovely drunken songs: 'Dil ki girah khol do' and 'Na chhedo kal ke afsaane'. 

With a film history like that, it seems truly celebration-worthy that Queen has raised what was a terrific vamp song in Anhonee (1973) to the status of an Everywoman anthem. May the hungama never end.

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