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Prem Dhawan: Dilip Kumar's unknown choreographer

The Padma Shri winning lyricist juggled multiple hats through his cinematic career, including that of a choreographer. 

Shriram Iyengar

Prem Dhawan was just 19 years old when he walked through the gates of the prestigious Bombay Talkies for an interview. A graduate of Ludhiana College, he was a classmate of Sahir Ludhianvi. In 1946, like many other hopeful young men, he arrived in the city of Bombay looking for employment. Managing to get an interview at the studio for the post of assistant director, Dhawan found himself facing two of the most popular faces of Indian cinema during that age - Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar. Not much is known of the interview, but Dhawan found employment as lyricist. It was with Ziddi (1946) that his journey in cinema began. 

A multi-talented artist, Dhawan belonged to the elite group of individuals who enriched Hindi cinema during its golden age. What separated Dhawan from his contemporaries was his ability to juggle between multiple facets of his personality. A writer, he was involved with the Progressive Theatre movement that was sweeping through Hindi cinema. It was at IPTA that he came in contact with personalities like Shanti Roy Bardhan, a former member of Uday Shankar's legendary dance troupe. He also learnt classical music under the tutelage of Pandit Ravi Shankar himself. These skills would prove handy during his journey in Hindi cinema. 

It is the latter skill that remains an odd one out on his career graph. For a lyricist who has song credits for Andaz (1949), Tarana (1951), Shaheed (1965) and Kabuliwala (1969), Prem Dhawan had a fairly successful career as a choreographer. It was in KA Abbas' Munna (1954) that Dhawan found his first credit as a dance master. Abbas, another IPTA alumnus, found an able ally in Dhawan, whose natural movements were pitch perfect with his natural filmmaking style. Vijay Bhatt's Goonj Uthi Shehnai (1959) found him directing the dance steps for Rajendra Kumar. 

Yet, the one song which stands out for its composition, style, and importance to Hindi cinema is 'Ude Jab Jab Zulfein Teri' from Naya Daur (1957). BR Chopra was inspired to make the film based on the rising industrialisation in an independent India. The struggle between the past and the present was also visible in the music by OP Nayyar. Prem Dhawan's dance choreography slotted with ease into this style. 

Naya Daur also had two of the most iconic leading pairs in Hindi cinema - Dilip Kumar and Vyjayanthimala. The film marked a new era for Dilip Kumar, who emerged more as a romantic hero, instead of the 'Tragedy King' that he was typecast as. 'Ude Jab Jab Zulfein Teri' was a fast paced number that saw both the lead pair charm their way to the audience's hearts. Dhawan allowed both actors to use natural movements to express their joy and celebrations. Considering the fact that Vyjayanthimala was a trained dancer, this would not have been difficult. The magic lies in evoking the best out of Dilip Kumar. The actor comes out as the handsome, charming villager in the song. 

A lyricist by choice, Prem Dhawan was a man who was attuned to the musicality of words. This quality enabled him to be part of some of the most legendary songs of Hindi cinema. Be it 'Aye mere pyare watan' from Kabuliwala (1961) or 'Aye watan aye watan' from Shaheed (1965), the singer earned the praise of his contemporaries. But it was his subtle, but equally skillful, work as a dancer that has gone unnoticed.