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Nasir Husain’s contribution to Hindi cinema undervalued: Akshay Manwani

Author Manwani’s book on the writer-director-producer will be launched at the Jio MAMI18th Mumbai Film Festival with Star on 22 October. Manwani spoke to Cinestaan.com about why Husain deserves to be in the conversation as one of Hindi cinema’s great filmmkers.

Courtesy: NH Films/Nuzhat Khan

Sonal Pandya

Music Masti Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain by author Akshay Manwani closely examines the career of Nasir Husain who began his career as a writer and moved on to become a successful filmmaker as well. Honing his talents at Filmistan and later, Filmalaya, before launching his own banner, Husain came into his own as writer-director. His films from Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957) to Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977) had distinctive traits that defined them as the works of Husain. Manwani believes, and we strongly agree, that Husain remains undervalued in the history of Hindi films. In this comprehensive book on Nasir Husain’s films, he explains Husain’s many inputs to Hindi cinema which still remain till today.

This is your second biography after your book on Sahir Ludhianvi. Why did you choose Nasir Husain as your subject?
I grew up on Nasir Husain’s films. Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973) and Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977) used to play on loop on Doordarshan when I was growing up. I also saw Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), a film which made a huge impression on me in this period, and for which Husain wrote the dialogues. So I was aware of his body of work. And then while sifting through ideas once Sahir Ludhianvi: The People’s Poet had been published, I narrowed in on Husain because I felt here was a filmmaker who has contributed immensely to our cinema but has not been given his due. I wanted to correct that.

You've said that Nasir Husain didn't get his due as a filmmaker. Is that what you hoped to get across in your book?
Yes. I have made a strong case for Husain to be regarded as one of the great filmmakers of Hindi cinema even if his films didn’t put out moral sermons. The problem is that we have never taken fun seriously. We enjoy it but we cannot sit and have a mature discussion about why a certain kind of breezy, carefree film connects with the audience. For Husain to have perfected this kind of cinema for over two decades between 1957 and 1977 certainly means that he knew the pulse of the film-going audience. I have tried to analyse these themes and tropes that are present in his films and explain the rationale behind them.  

Are music and modernity Husain's legacy to Hindi cinema?
Music and modernity are certainly two of the biggest components of Husain’s films and a big part of his legacy. A lot of Hindi filmmakers took a dim view of Western values or Western attitudes in their films. The club or hotel space for these filmmakers was a place of vice and sleaze. Husain never had any such problems. His films celebrate the club as a place where people come to enjoy and sing and dance. You can see this all through Dil Deke Dekho as the film moves from one club space to another.

A number of Husain’s song sequences such as ‘Megha re bole’ (Dil Deke Dekho) or the title track of Hum Kisise Kum Naheen show Husain’s cosmopolitanism as these songs serve as a bridge between cultures. In the Dil Deke Dekho song, the folk women dancing alongside Shammi Kapoor also dance with Asha Parekh’s friends who are dressed in Western clothes. There are no binaries here. Similarly, ‘Hai Agar Dushmann Dushmann’ is a most ‘modern’ qawwali. Here the qawwal (Rishi Kapoor’s character) is not dressed traditionally like Kapoor’s character in ‘Purdah Hai Purdah’ from Amar Akbar Anthony. Instead, he wears a ruffle front tuxedo shirt and a red waistcoat and performs the song. Such modern aesthetics were essential to Husain’s films.


And the music in Husain’s films is definitely the biggest part of his legacy. I mean it’s hard to think of a filmmaker who gave hit soundtrack after hit soundtrack from Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957) to Zamaane Ko Dikhana Hai (1981). Even in his lesser successful films like Baharon Ke Sapne (1967) and Pyar Ka Mausam (1969), the songs like ‘Chunari Sambhaal Gori’ or ‘Tum Binn Jaaoon Kahaan’ are top notch. Nobody championed the rom-com, musical genre better than Husain.

That said, Husain contributed to present day Hindi cinema in many more ways. His elaborate courtship that played out between the hero and the heroine, his emphasis on music as the centerpiece of his films, his hill-station romances and his flamboyant, carefree, impish hero can all be seen in Hindi films of today.   

You've mentioned earlier that Husain tried to do something different when he made Baharon Ke Sapne. It didn't do well and he went on to make his usual brand of films? Why do you think the film didn't work?
Well, there are a couple of reasons for this. The first and perhaps the biggest factor is that Husain was associated as the maker of frothy, breezy, romantic films. For him to turn to something that was about the Gandhian idea of non-violence versus militant trade-unionism was a brave decision. Unfortunately, the audiences couldn’t relate to this sudden change of tracks on part of the filmmaker. It’s like Manmohan Desai deciding to make Ijaazat (1988) after being associated with zany films like Amar Akbar Anthony (1977) and Naseeb (1981).

Secondly, Husain should have never changed the film’s ending. The film’s original ending had its protagonists (Rajesh Khanna and Asha Parekh) dying but Husain changed this to a happier ending after an underwhelming response to the film in its initial week. As Husain’s son, Mansoor Khan, told me that had Husain stuck to the original ending, perhaps, it may have been viewed far more favourably in later years since the original premise of the film itself was about a better tomorrow.

What will the reader discover about Husain that they didn't know before?
Hopefully, a lot. I have tried to suggest that Husain even in these candy floss films pushed the envelope in terms of cinematic craft and was essentially a progressive filmmaker. The women in his films even while playing second fiddle to the hero were all outgoing. They drove cars, went to clubs and on holidays with friends. They were never tied to the home. Or that it is in Husain’s films that we see the genesis of a modern hero who sings and dances with abandon, something that was anathema to the heroes of the 1950s given that they were essentially concerned about the abject state of society.

To anybody starting out to discover the Husain oeuvre, what three films should they begin with?
Well, Husain’s most important film is Dil Deke Dekho (1959). It is in this film that we see the modern, western-style musician figure in Hindi cinema. Before Dil Deke Dekho, heroes in Hindi cinema played Urdu poets, ghazal singers or historical characters like Tansen and Baiju Bawra. But the Shammi Kapoor drummer character in Dil Deke Dekho goes on to inspire many such characters in films like China Town (1962), Teesri Manzil (1966), Kismat (1968), Karz (1980) and Rockstar (2011) all of whose heroes are modern, western-styled musician figures.

Then there is Baharon Ke Sapne, which I have mentioned briefly earlier. One of the biggest takeaways from this film is that it teaches us that because a filmmaker makes a certain kind of frothy cinema, it doesn’t mean that he or she doesn’t have a political disposition. The reason filmmakers make the films they do is a deliberate, carefully thought-out decision where economics plays a big part. And Husain’s decision to make Baharon Ke Sapne tells us very clearly that he had a political side to him, but which he largely kept away from his films.

Finally, Husain’s best film and my favourite Husain film is Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973). And I say this because despite being written by Salim-Javed, Husain puts his stamp on the film by beautifully weaving together the tale of the ‘angry young man’ thirsting for revenge (Dharmendra’s character), which is quintessential Salim-Javed territory, with his own world in terms of the romantic-musical characters played by the two younger siblings in the film. And Husain’s shows his craft in several sequences in the film such as when the young Dharmendra character grows up to be the adult Dharmendra character in one single 360 pan camera shot. And then there is the film’s music which has the Husain stamp. It’s hard to think of another Salim-Javed film even with RD Burman composing — be it Deewaar, Sholay or Shakti — whose music is anywhere close to Yaadon Ki Baaraat’s soundtrack. And then the reunion of the brothers through the title track is what you call the quintessential ‘Bollywood’.