From Dil Deke Dekho to Yaadon Ki Baaraat, Teesri Manzil, Caravan, and Tumsa Nahin Dekha — Nasir Husain helmed or was part of several landmark films in Hindi cinema. His contributions to Bollywood are now the subject of an extensive new book by award-winning author Akshay Manwani.
Titled Music, Masti, Modernity — The Cinema of Nasir Husain, the book will be launched at the Jio Mami Mumbai Film Festival with Star, accompanied by a screening of Husain's cult musical hit Teesri Manzil and a panel discussion moderated by Nasreen Munni Kabir.
In an interview with Firstpost, Akshay Manwani spoke of why he felt compelled to write about the cinema of Nasir Husain, the filmmaker's legendary collaborations with Shammi Kapoor, Asha Parekh and RD Burman, and what his lasting contribution to Hindi films has been.
From Sahir Ludhianvi, who was the subject of your previous book, to Nasir Husain in this new one... What prompted you to examine the cinematic work of Husain so deeply?
Well, it’s almost schizophrenic in a manner of speaking. Sahir’s work is about progressive poetry, which envisages a certain egalitarian society and evangelizes socialistic thought. Husain, on the other hand, was a frothy filmmaker, whose films have song and dance and are about a certain youth culture. His cinema is very different from Sahir’s songwriting. But while I got acquainted with Sahir’s poetry and songwriting much later in life, Husain’s films, particularly Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973) and Hum Kisise Kum Naheen (1977) were an integral part of my childhood since they played on loop on Doordarshan. And then when Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992) released for which Husain wrote the dialogues, I was completely enamoured by the multiple facets to his cinematic craft.
Even then, the idea of doing a book on Husain’s cinema didn’t come to me immediately. After my Sahir book was published, I sifted through a couple of ideas before settling down on a book on Husain and his films.
Do you have a favourite Nasir Husain film? Which do you count as his landmark film — there were so many!
Well, Yaadon Ki Baaraat is certainly my favourite Nasir Husain film. I mean the meeting of the three brothers through the film’s title song is so emotional. And you can see how well Husain balances the world of Salim-Javed, in the form of the dour Dharmendra character, with his own cinematic sensibility through the two younger brothers, for whom romance and music are their only real interests.
But Husain has some other important films. Dil Deke Dekho ranks among his most important works. It is in this 1959 film that we see the early archetype of what Husain would go on show in his work over the next 25 years. I mean the celebration of a modern, cosmopolitan club culture, the Western musician figure, an outgoing heroine who isn’t shackled by the constraints of the home and a distinct western sensibility to the soundtrack — are all themes that are omnipresent in Husain’s films.
Could you tell us a little of the source material that you accessed or relied on in writing this book? How did you decide on the aspects of the filmmaker's life you wanted to include in the final draft?
This book has been put together after painstaking research, which went on for well over a year even as I started writing the first draft of this book. I met Husain’s family members, interviewed people like Asha Parekh, Jeetendra, Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar who worked with him, reached out to film scholars for their perspective on Husain’s cinema, spoke to people who blog about yesteryear Hindi cinema, made multiple trips to the National Film Archive of India, saw every one of Husain’s films at least half-a-dozen times and watched at least 50 other films from the 1950s and 1960s to get a proper sense of Husain’s cinema and the prevailing trends and themes in Hindi cinema in his time.
One thing that I was very clear from the very beginning was that this would be a book that discusses Husain’s craft and contextualises his legacy as an important filmmaker. Therefore, I didn’t get too caught up with his personal life. The book only gives very basic information in that regard, in terms of where he came from and what happened when he stopped making or writing films. The emphasis all through is on Husain’s cinematic craft.
Why is the cinema of Nasir Husain important for new viewers to get to know as well?
Well because Husain is one of the most important rom-com, musical filmmakers of Hindi cinema. He is to us what Busby Berkeley and Vincente Minnelli were to American cinema. But the American musical filmmakers have been given pride of place in their film history. In India, there is a certain embarrassment about ‘fun’. People enjoyed Husain’s films but refuse to talk or analyse it with any seriousness.
Also, the emphasis on song and dance, the celebration of song sequences are Husain’s greatest and the modern, Western hero are Husain’s most important contributions to modern Hindi cinema. It is Husain’s films that defines the quintessential ‘Bollywood’ experience whether it is through the meeting of family members or estranged sweethearts (Hum Kisise Kum Naheen) through song or that Dev Anand can mount a jeep and sing the title track of Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai (1961) while moving parallel to a train.
Could you tell us about Husain's time at Filmistan and Filmalaya and how these studio stints impacted his career?
Husain’s initial career in Hindi cinema (was) at Filmistan, which was then helmed by Shashadhar Mukerji or S Mukerji as he was more popularly known. Husain himself told author and film historian Nasreen Munni Kabir, that his years at Filmistan was like going to film school for him. He was initially employed there as a writer and he is credited with films like Anarkali (1953), Munimji and Paying Guest (1957) in that capacity. But besides writing these films, he went from set to set to learn what the other directors like Bibhuti Mitra, PL Santoshi, Subodh Mukerji and IS Johar were doing on their films while working at Filmistan. It is in this way that he learnt the craft of editing and shot-taking. This is why he referred to S Mukerji as his ‘guru’ since Mukerji also insisted that he rewrite scripts from various perspectives before settling on the best script.
An important anecdote from his days at Filmistan is that when Husain decide to direct his debut film Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957), he wanted Dev Anand to play the leading role. But since Dev sa’ab turned the role down, S Mukerji wanted him to take Shammi Kapoor. Husain was skeptical about this suggestion since Shammi Kapoor only had a spate of flops behind him at that time. Shammi himself was considering quitting films when Tumsa Nahin Dekha was offered to him. But as luck turned out, Tumsa Nahin Dekha clicked in a big way at the box office and there was no looking back for both Husain and Shammi Kapoor.
Asha Parekh was a great favourite of Husain's, as was Shammi Kapoor. Could you tell us a little about how he brought out these stars' personas on screen and what their working relationship was like?
Husain had a good working relationship with both actors. It’s true that Parekh was his leading heroine in seven films but Husain also had a prolific working relationship with composer RD Burman, with whom he did nine films. Then there was the lyricist Majrooh Sultanpuri with whom he worked in 12 films.
Both Asha Parekh and Shammi Kapoor embodied that verve, that manic energy that was so very omnipresent in Husain’s cinema. And he paid great compliments to both. Husain said of Shammi that he “felt he [Shammi] was an all-rounder. He could do comedy, he could play emotions, he could be physical and tremendously musical.” He called Asha Parekh “very disciplined” and that he felt like he was working with a “close friend rather than a top star”.
The RD Burman and Nasir Husain combination was one that gave Hindi cinema some of its evergreen hits. Please tell us how they creatively responded to each other.
I must consider Teesri Manzil’s (1966) significance here. This was RD’s fifth film and even though it was Vijay Anand who directed it, Husain certainly had a big role to play in the film’s soundtrack as many sources have stated. Husain was also the producer and writer of the film so he had to have worked just as much as anyone else with RD on the soundtrack for that film. There is a passing of the baton that happens in Teesri Manzil, in the sense that the same manic energy which was on display through Shammi Kapoor’s persona in Husain’s earlier films was then conveyed through RD’s music in Husain’s subsequent films. Both Husain and RD seemed to have that sixth gear, which reflected in their work together. There is a certain dynamism, a certain spunk to the music that is produced through their collaboration. I mean just think of ‘Piya tu’ or the opening arrangement of ‘Lekar hum deewaana dil’ or the frenetic finish that comes at the end of ‘Bachna ae haseeno’ and there is a distinct hyper-excitable element in each of these songs.
Their shared love for music is perhaps also what make the collaboration work. Husain, as nearly everyone I spoke to told me, had a ear for good, popular music. And he was a big fan of Western music — be it the Beatles, Jose Feliciano, Abba, the Elvis Presley songs and these are all referenced in his films. I think this too contributed to their excellent working relationship.
Did Mansoor Khan, Aamir Khan or Imran Khan contribute to this book? What were their thoughts about your wanting to chronicle the cinema of Nasir Husain?
I didn’t interview Imran. This is because the book, like I have mentioned earlier, focuses largely on Husain’s craft and Imran didn’t get the opportunity to work with his grandfather. On the other hand, I interviewed Imran’s mum, and Husain’s daughter, Nuzhat Khan extensively. She is perhaps the person that I disturbed most in terms of gathering information whether it was in terms of interviews or just clarifying some factual information or getting access to the terrific collection of film stills that she has preserved from her dad’s films.
Equally, both Mansoor and Aamir were wonderful. I interviewed both gentlemen multiple times, often at short notice (as was the case with Nuzhat). They responded to my messages, emails or any other sundry request that I made of them. Both Mansoor and Aamir (and Nuzhat) were very open to the idea of me doing a book on Husain’s films. Really, interacting with each of them was a joy and a humbling experience.
What would Nasir Husain have thought of Hindi cinema today? Are there elements in our films today that owe their presence to trends set by him?
I’m sure Husain would have had his reservations about the shrinking space for songs in Hindi cinema. Today’s filmmakers are too caught up with wanting to make their film look ‘real’ for them to put out a colourful song sequence like ‘Banda parvar’ (Phir Wohi Dil Laya Hoon) where the girls climb trees and wave their scarves or have a longish song sequence that consists of separate musical compositions like the medley in Hum Kisise Kum Naheen. The absence of songs in a film by itself is not a bad thing if the script requires it to be that way, but to deliberately keep away from it with the hope of making a ‘hat ke’ film is an absurd notion. Yet, some filmmakers like Karan Johar, for whom music is very important, and is organically woven into the story, have taken forward Husain’s legacy.
How does it feel to have your book launched at MAMI and what are your thoughts on the festival going beyond films?
I feel humbled. Also, the fact that the launch will follow after the Teesri Manzil screening (on the occasion of the film completing 50 years since it was released) is something that makes the occasion all the more special. And to have Aamir, Mansoor and Nuzhat launch the book is indeed a great joy for me.
I love the fact that MAMI is giving cinema books also a space. This is not just in terms of giving writers a platform to launch their book but also rewarding people who decide to write on cinema. Writing on Hindi cinema is not sustainable if one decides to put in a certain number of years of effort to put together a book. MAMI’s decision to financially reward such efforts is a big boost in that sense.
Music, Masti, Modernity: The Cinema of Nasir Husain by Akshay Manwani will be released at MAMI on 22 October. You can follow Akshay on Twitter: @AkshayManwani